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Stick to the Six Party Talks on North Korea

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In Brief

The DPRK has now tested a second nuclear device, launched more missiles, and even nullified all of its agreements from previous negotiations, including the truce that ended the Korean War (1950-1953).  After the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1874,  more provocations followed. Clearly Kim Jong-Il’s first priority is to keep his regime in power, and it is very likely that Pyongyang sees nuclear weapons adventurism as the best way to do that. If so, what can be done to dissuade the DPRK and move to a new course?

None of North Korea’s neighbours want to see the regime collapse for fear of thousands of refugees and a fundamental destabilization of the region. But to permit North Korea to emerge as a nuclear-weapons power would probably produce a nuclear arms race in the region with serious implications for non-proliferation elsewhere in the world, including Iran and with respect to non-state actors. Compounding the difficulty in dealing with this situation, there are doubts about whether Kim Jong-Il is in complete control after apparently suffering a stroke last August – it is reported that he has chosen his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as his successor.


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Why is the Six Party Talks still the best venue for working out a joint response to North Korea’s provocation when Pyongyang insists that the Talks are dead and that it would not participate? Resolutions from the United Nations Security Council can be helpful, but its deliberations to date have been characterized more by demonstrating serious differences among the major powers rather than providing a context for reaching agreement about how to proceed.

Let me suggest three main reasons for choosing the SPT as the best venue to build a viable policy response to North Korea.

  1. The United States cannot resolve this problem by itself.  President Obama will need the core countries in the region to put together a successful strategy to deal with North Korea. As Henry Kissinger has argued, ‘No long-term solution of the Korean nuclear problem is sustainable without the key players of Northeast Asia, and that means China, South Korea, the United States and Japan, with an important role for Russia as well.’ The SPT includes all of these core countries; the UN Security Council does not. Moreover, the Security Council includes two members with veto power, the UK and France, which are not directly involved in the confrontation, and ten more members elected for a two-year terms — all countries that have their own separate interests to be served when debating about how to deal with the Korean problem. President Obama needs to bring together only the key players to build a consensus about how to deal with the DPRK.
  2. A fundamental principle in North Korean strategy, as we have seen time and again in previous negotiations, is to attempt to play countries against one another. To defend against this approach, it is best to address the DPRK in a negotiation in which all of the most affected countries, but no others, directly participate. The objective should be to address Pyongyang with one voice and a shared commitment to sustain the positions being put forward.  Whether the decision is to impose additional sanctions or to provide further positive inducements, or some combination of the two, all parties should be firmly supportive of the initiative so that Pyongyang cannot play them against each other.
  3. South Korea and Japan are the two countries most directly threatened by the DPRK provocations. Both countries are members of the SPT but not permanent members of the UNSC.  Their interests must be taken into account in order to produce a sustainable resolution of the current crisis.  In the past, North Korea has attempted to exclude both countries and to play the US, South Korea, and Japan all against each other. The SPT in which South Korea and Japan are all full participants is the best context for designing and implementing policies to deal with North Korea. If the core security concerns of South Korea and Japan are not adequately addressed in the negotiations with the DPRK, it is likely that a serious arms race in the region will occur, increasing the possibility that Japan, and perhaps South Korea, might decide to build nuclear weapons.

When the Six Party Talks are reconvened, the DPRK should be invited to participate in all meetings. Since Pyongyang has said that they would not participate, the five other countries presumably would at first meet without them. Repeated meetings among the five could provide an ideal opportunity to decide and to implement a concerted policy toward the DPRK. This appears to be the intention of Presidents Lee and Obama in their meeting in Washington last week.

The  objective would be to convince North Korea at some point to re-join the talks in order to work out a solution, but whether or not the DPRK participates, the Six Party Talks format is the best venue for addressing the problem because the core countries in the region will have to work effectively together in order to resolve the crisis and preliminary meetings of the Five are a good first step.

Peter Van Ness is a visiting fellow in the Contemporary China Centre and the Department of International Relations at the ANU, and coordinator of the project on peace building in Northeast Asia.

4 responses to “Stick to the Six Party Talks on North Korea”

  1. Peter Van Ness’s article is excellent. The six party approach, supported by the UNSC, is the only practical way to deal with the challenges posed by the North Korea reckless regime.

    The five party members must act together as a united front with a common aim: the denuclearisation of the Korea peninsular, peace, security and stability of the Northeast Asia region.

    There are no other more effective and practical ways than the six party approach. It is in every member’s interest to work to achieve the common objectives.

  2. […] to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet BoxPeter Van Ness talks about a having Six Party Talks with or without DPRK. When the Six Party Talks are reconvened, the DPRK should be invited to participate in all […]

  3. It would be always good to use a soft approach, if it could resolve the missiles and nuclear issues. However, it does not seem that there is any guarantee that the soft approach will work. That approach had been tried and tested before, and the results were further escalation of missile launches and increased nuclearisation by the North Korea.
    That presents a dilemma to dealing with the North Korea regime. The international community seems to have been left with no effective soft approaches towards that regime in terms of persuading or influencing it to abandon nuclear. What else the international community can do to achieve its objectives remains to be seen. But the past experiences suggests that the past soft approaches have failed and are unlikely to work if they are to be tried again.

  4. The Obama administration’s stance reflects a belief that activity at the Yongbyon complex primarily provides North Korea with something valuable to trade away for sanctions relief, a peace treaty, and other desiderata. It is no longer the beating heart of the nuclear-weapons programme. Thus Washington’s insistence that North Korea foreclose the option of covert uranium enrichment for the duration of negotiations is entirely understandable.

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