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The Peninsula

Flexibility Needed for Six Party Success

Published October 19, 2011

By Chad 0Carroll

After nearly three years of interruption, a flurry of recent diplomatic activity has suggested that significant efforts are being made to restart the Six Party Talks.   In July, officials from Pyongyang and Seoul met in Bali for the first time in months, with a second meeting taking place in Beijing just a few weeks ago.   Washington had direct contact in July through Ambassador Stephen Bosworth in New York – and now looks set to hold a second meeting with North Korean negotiators in Geneva later this month.   But do these four meetings, coupled with recent State visits by Kim Jong-il to Russia and China, give cause for optimism on a swift resumption of Six Party Talks?  A closer look at the key parties’ current positions suggests otherwise.

North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks in April 2009, unilaterally declaring that it would “never again take part in such talks” and would “not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks”.  Never say never though, because when Ambassador Bosworth met his counterpart Kim Kye-gwan in September 2009, he was told that Pyongyang was actually interested in resuming talks, but on condition that the U.S. first discussed a peace treaty and lifted sanctions.  Fast forward to August this year, and these preconditions were dropped all-together after a two hour meeting between Kim Jong-il and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, bringing North Korea full circle.

Following the second nuclear test, the sinking of the Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong, it was easy to understand why South Korea was originally so insistent on North Korea apologizing for its belligerence as a precondition to resuming any disarmament talks.  However, in January leaks from the government made clear  a change in position – that Pyongyang would no longer have to apologize first.  According to a senior ROK government official the current position is now that “The six-party talks will come back to life only if North Korea shows its sincerity by taking the required pre-steps, including a monitored shutdown of its uranium enrichment program”.

As a result of strong ties between Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-Bak, the U.S. position has closely mirrored that of Seoul since the nuclear and missile tests of 2009.  Most recently, this position was articulated in three steps that North Korea would have to take to reinitiate dialogue – on issues related to nuclear weapons, missiles, and its relations with the South.  Predictably, North Korea rejected these, saying that they too should be entitled preconditions if such an approach were to be considered.

In contrast to the major differences between the DPRK, ROK and U.S. positions, Russia and China appear to be on the same page.  Recent initiatives such as the Medvedev – Kim Jong-il summit in Ulan Ude and Beijing’s September hosting of North and South Korean nuclear negotiators underscores a shared Sino-Russian desire to see the Six Party Talks resumed as quickly as possible.  And while little is known about Japan’s current position due to recent political turbulence, some scholars have suggested that Tokyo might be following the lead from the U.S. and South Korea.

As the current narrative would suggest, if next week’s U.S. – DPRK bilateral meeting is to achieve anything, flexibility is going to be critical.  But where will we see the motivation to show flexibility?

From the North Korean perspective, it appears unlikely that Pyongyang will be motivated to dilute its current position.   Making the type of credible gestures required to prove “sincerity” to South Korea and the U.S. would entail at least some foreign inspection presence on DPRK soil to work.   This was something previously achievable only after copious injections of cash or aid through protracted negotiations.  Without material payoff in return, it is hard to understand why Pyongyang would acquiesce to such a demand.  Having been the country to so vocally quit the Six Party Talks in 2009, it’s hard to see why North Korea might feel any burden to prove “sincerity”– after all, it is the one who can take or leave these nuclear negotiations.

The U.S. and South Korea are both in a difficult position regarding the resumption of talks.  With the North Koreans having declared a uranium program, tested a nuclear device and killed South Korean nationals, it is easy to understand why there is so little appetite in Seoul or Washington to water-down current positions.

But at the same time, there is a growing fear that if negotiations remain frozen, North Korea may be motivated to carry out a third nuclear test or attempt to cause further regional agitation.  In addition, left unchecked North Korea is now enriching uranium, improving the accuracy of its long-range missiles, and post-Fukushima, endangering the region through its aging nuclear infrastructure.   As a result, it would appear South Korea and the U.S. have the most to lose should negotiations remain stalled.  The major difficulty lies in facilitating this from a political perspective.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

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