05.05.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is There Hope for Relaunching Six Party Talks?

5553334The nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula prompted the People’s Republic of China to amplify its efforts to reboot the Six Party Talks. Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Hong Lei pointed out that UNSC resolution cannot resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and urged the parties to come back to the negotiation table. To revitalize the process and resolve the crisis on the Peninsula once and forever, China proposed to simultaneously pursue two goals of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and achievement of truce between the two Koreas.

This proposal was first uttered on April 7, 2016, in Tokyo, during the meeting of Wu Dawei, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and special representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs, and the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida reacted to the proposal to relaunch the Six Party Talks by saying that it could happen only if Pyongyang proved its commitment to abandoning its nuclear program. Fumio Kishida’s response compelled his Chinese vis-a-vis to agree that despite the fact that it was desirable to continue negotiations, but their immediate resumption was hardly possible.

The latest developments should probably prompt us to deliberate the issue of whether revitalization of the Six Part Talks would be feasible. Apparently, the format of the talks devoted to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will have to change. And the reason for that is a dramatic change that the global political landscape has undergone: the time when it was still possible to resolve the Korean nuclear crisis through denuclearization has long gone. Besides, since North Korea has proclaimed itself a nuclear power and set this fact out in its Constitution, ultimately, it could abandon its nuclear program only as a prelude to the surrender of the regime itself. A parallel can be drawn between the North Korean and the South African nuclear programs, with the latter having been launched as a deterrent after the country had become a rogue state. However, the South African nuclear program had to be withdrawn due to the changes in the political situation, when it had become clear that the country’s white minority would lose its power. It was done both to resolve the foreign policy crisis and to ensure nuclear weapons would not end up in the hands of successors. The situation with North Korea, however, is much different: take, for example, the country’s quite real hostile surrounding.

Nevertheless, the current status of North Korea can still be analyzed from these perspectives. In case with North Korea, however, we will not be talking about abandoning the nuclear program altogether, rather about integration into the existing structures. For example, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and nuclear technologies as well as the development of the North Korean nuclear missiles defense program can be kept under control through the imposition of certain restrictions. If the global community choses this option, it would, at the same time, help clarify vague UN resolutions. However, those who perceived the Six Party Talks to be a tool for coordinated pressuring of “unpredictable and dangerous” North Korea might be extremely disappointed with the change of the Talk’s format.

Let us recall the nature of the Six Party Talks (while this series of negotiations was still making progress). There was North Korea on the one side of the negotiation table, and there was the United States of America on the other. There was also Japan that sided with the US. However, the US and Japan were in opposition to each other: the US was demanding the unconditional and fully controlled denuclearization in the format “get disarmed with no guarantees.” In other words, the US treated the Talks as a tool for pressuring North Korea. However, a group of countries rejected the very idea of the Talks turning into a means of manipulation. They insisted that negotiations should remain a meaningful process where the parties seek consensus and are prepared to make mutual concessions, whenever necessary. They were the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the then South Korea, which was ruled by moderate pragmatics and not classical left-wingers till 2007.

First rounds of the Talks yielded no results. At that time, influential China managed to fuel the process by reminding that “there was never a good war, or a bad peace.” Meanwhile, North Koreans stepped up their nuclear program and even pronounced themselves a nuclear power. The negotiation process received a substantial impetus, however, only after the North conducted its first nuclear test: it came as a revelation to the global community that North Korea had not been bluffing all this time, but actually “had had something in store.”

The situation compelled the parties to develop a potentially viable scheme for dealing with the situation. It was reflected in the joint statement, the structure of which resembled the structure of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Apparently, neither North Korea nor the US were ready to take decisive measures. However, North Korea should be credited for taking more steps to resolve the situation than its opponent, whose actions can be classified as attempts to torpedo the agreement. As for Japan, it immediately announced its unwillingness to comply with the provisions of the agreement having referred to the issue of abductees. Consequently, no real solution to the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula had been worked out in the last years of Bush’s presidency. That (de facto) ruined the career of the then US representative Christopher Hill.

Later, there was a change of power in the US and South Korea. Obama took office in the US and conservatives came to power in South Korea. What’s more, by the end of 2008, being pressed by economic problems and consequences of the financial crisis, President Lee Myung-bak altered his policy, becoming less of a president–economist and more of a classical conservative, pro-American politician. These changes had triggered a shift in the Six Party Talks’ balance of powers in 2009 bringing the negotiations to a deadlock after South Korea had switched camps and joined the US and Japan, weakening the block of Russia and China. Then, North Korea launched a satellite and later conducted the second nuclear test, driving the Talks to a stalemate. This topic was covered in one of the NEO articles published at the beginning of 2013.

Since then, mostly Beijing and Moscow have been intermittently voicing the idea of rebooting the Six Party Talks. Washington and its allies, on the other hand, continue promoting a new five-party format, insisting that “since the senseless and bloody regime refuses to cooperate, we can work out decisions on our own and bring the regime to its knees.” However, this strategy proved nonviable back at the beginning of the crisis.

But it is too early to “pronounce the project dead.” And there are several reasons for that. For example, the US isolationist lobby might strengthen, and although it seems that Donald Trump’s chances to win the presidential election are low, the concept he voiced might reinforce the position of those, who focus on the continuation of the non-proliferation treaty (perhaps in an expanded format), rather then on the destruction of the North Korean regime. In addition, the results of the recent South Korean parliamentary election suggest that the probability of the country’s opposition winning the forthcoming presidential election has increased. Which means that the deadlock might still be unlocked.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.