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The Six-Party Talks and building a nuclear-free Northeast Asia

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In Brief

The controversy over North Korea’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) program, despite intense diplomatic efforts, shows no immediate signs of reaching a peaceful settlement.

Rays of hope from the 15 September Joint Statement in 2005 and the 13 February 2007 Agreement on ‘Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement’ at the Six Party Talks (SPTs) have been fading.


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The sinking of a South Korean navy corvette in March 2010, allegedly by North Korea’s submarine torpedo, and North Korea’s shelling of the Yeonpyong island in November 2011, which killed two civilians, heightened military tension on the Korean peninsula and profoundly undermined prospects for a negotiated settlement through the SPTs.

More recently, North Korea’s rocket launch in April 2012 has presented a further setback. But the lengths to which North Korea went to fully comply with international regulations and procedures when it launched the rocket was altogether remarkable. North Korea notified the International Maritime Organization of the expected launch time and flight trajectory almost one month before. It explicitly declared that the projectile was a research satellite for science and telecommunications purposes and voluntarily signed six international treaties and agreements related to the peaceful use of outer space. Additionally, North Korea identified and exploited an unfortunate but nevertheless legitimate loophole in UN Security Council Resolution 1718 insofar as there were no concrete regulations concerning satellite activity. This point is especially worth noting because by using the launch as proof of its normal behavior by complying with international rules and procedures, North Korea structured a calculated test to determine how willing the Obama administration was to recognize the North in the context of a normal international state.

International reaction to the rocket launch was negative. North Korea’s claim that it launched a satellite as part of its commitment to the peaceful use of space was flatly rejected and the act was interpreted as a provocation which threatened the US and neighboring allies. The US argued that North Korea’s rocket launch was a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718. In pursuing punitive efforts, the US cooperated closely with South Korea and Japan, not to mention the UN, and aggressively solicited the participation of China and Russia. The Obama administration also announced that it would not make any concessions in order to bring North Korea back to the SPTs, as had been done in the past, effectively conveying to the North that the US would no longer concede to habitual North Korean threats and blackmail.

It is easy to shift all the blame onto North Korea. But in addition to North Korea’s uncompromising and even incomprehensible attitude, passive diplomacy by the Obama administration, the politics of spoilership by Japan and South Korea, and a lukewarm leadership in China have all contributed to complicating the current stalemate.

Failure to handle North Korea’s nuclear quagmire through peaceful and diplomatic means could bear serious negative security implications for the Korean peninsula, the Northeast Asian region and the world. Continued failure risks breaking the inter-Korean military balance and heightens chances for conflict escalation. A nuclear North Korea can also threaten regional strategic stability by precipitating a nuclear domino effect in Northeast Asia. More importantly, nuclear proliferation through North Korea’s transfer of nuclear materials to rogue states and terrorists presents a formidable threat to global security. Thus, the North Korean nuclear problem touches on the common security of the region and the world.

In order to end the stalemate the SPTs should be resuscitated, and progress in the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue through the SPTs should be used as a stepping stone toward constructing a Northeast Asia nuclear weapons free zone (NEA NWFZ). The February 13 agreement points to this issue: ‘once the initial actions are implemented, the six parties will promptly hold a (foreign) ministerial meeting to confirm implementation of the Joint Statement and explore ways and means for promoting security cooperation in Northeast Asia.’ Regularisation of six party foreign ministers’ talks or summit talks could also be institutionalised as an ideal niche to address issues pertaining to the NEA NWFZ.

As it stands now, this route seems troublesome. Pessimism looms over whether the SPTs can resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. This is because the US and other members of the SPTs are not likely to accommodate North Korea’s pending demands: the provision of two light-water nuclear reactors for the abolition of nuclear facilities, programs, and materials including the uranium enrichment program; and the removal of the nuclear umbrella for South Korea in return for the verifiable dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons. In other words, the North Korean nuclear problem cannot be resolved without addressing the issues of building a permanent peace regime on the Korea Peninsula and shaping new security architecture in Northeast Asia that can transcend the logic of extended deterrence deeply embedded in the region. China’s rise and American efforts to balance it have further complicated the security dilemma, undercutting the possibility of forming common, comprehensive, and cooperative security in Northeast Asia.

The idea of a NEA NWFZ must be deliberated in this broad regional context. The SPTs mechanism is designed to deal with the North Korean nuclear problem, but it cannot address other nuclear-related challenges which the Northeast Asia region is currently facing. South Korea is pushing for access to the full fuel cycle and reprocessing by amending the ROK–US Atomic Energy Cooperation Agreement, and some conservatives are advocating for the outright possession of nuclear weapons. Although following the Fukushima tragedy Japan has shown a steady decline in its nuclear energy strategy, it is not clear which direction it will be heading regarding the nuclear path. China and Taiwan are increasingly relying on nuclear energy. It is in this context that nuclear fuel cycle safety and security collaboration have become of paramount importance. There is an array of issues that need regional-level cooperation and coordination: enrichment, spent fuel management, waste disposal, reactor safety and emergency management. A regional consortium to deal with these issues could be a desirable step toward the creation of a NEA NWFZ. Although the creation of such a zone would not be easy given the structure of mutual suspicion and rivalry in the region, mutual confidence-building resulting from consortium activities will certainly facilitate such a move.

The SPTs mechanism and the idea of NEA NWFZ are mutually complementary and should be pursued in parallel. Both can produce mutually re-enforcing effects. The critical issue is who would initiate a NEA NWFZ proposal and how could it be implemented in a politically meaningful way.

Without first realising a nuclear free Northeast Asia, Obama’s ‘nuclear free world’ is inconceivable. We must act to identify leaders from around the region who are willing to raise the NEA NWFZ idea and mobilise domestic and trans-regional political support for them.

Chung-in Moon is professor of political science at Yonsei University and former Ambassador for International Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Republic of Korea.

This is a digest of a longer article first published here by the Nautilus Institute.

One response to “The Six-Party Talks and building a nuclear-free Northeast Asia”

  1. Prof. Chung-in Moon makes a series of cogent points underscoring the complexity of the North Korean nuclear challenge. Implicit in his commentary is the question of the DPRK’s status as a state-actor.

    Will North Korea, created in conflict as was its southern cousin, be treated with the same official regard as that accorded to South Korea, or be consigned forever to the margins beyond the pale? Will its legitimacy be acknowledged internationally, especially by those powers with a capacity and will to visit devastation upon it? Will its ruling regime face the perennial pressure of possible ouster by the combined forces of its many adversaries while its few friends stand silently by? These questions are often absent from the DPRK discourse.

    Pyongyang, under successive scions of the Kim dynasty, has shown no signs of giving in to the pressures it faces from an openly hostile milieu. In fact, its conduct, both at home and across the region, suggests it is willing to act viciously to secure itself in power irrespective of the costs inflicted on itself and on others. Such a regime cannot be changed with rhetoric or muscular displays of force. The past six decades should have provided enough evidence for this inference.

    If violent regime change, potentially triggering massive upheavals across East Asia and beyond, is not a realistic option, then alternatives to the status quo need to be devised. One possible approach is to identify and then address the roots of DPRK’s hitherto unaddressed insecurities at the elite level.

    That would demand complex, costly and time-consuming diplomacy by those most affected by the DPRK’s behaviour.

    The alternative is the perpetuation of a status quo which could, if current trends persist, result in catastrophic, but likely avoidable, eruptions.

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