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Six-Party Talks, anyone?

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In Brief

The DPRK presents itself as a security tangle that needs to be made a top priority, particularly by the states of the Asia Pacific.


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The mechanism developed to address this issue — the Six-Party Talks — functioned intermittently for five years (2003–08) but has now been in abeyance for four years. No one, it seems, can see how to engineer a circuit-breaker, or else countries see the political risks as too great. But the stakes remain high. The DPRK’s drive for a deliverable nuclear arsenal can still tip elite and/or public opinion in the ROK and Japan in the same direction, a small but enormously consequential risk.

Moreover, by dint simply of its surprising durability, the DPRK question has transitioned from a secondary flashpoint in the Cold War to a pivotal dimension of the power transition underway in East Asia, currently centred on China. Particularly over the past two years, as the debate over the modalities of strategic management in greater East Asia has intensified, the DPRK question has hardened into a key test of the real appetite and capacity of the major powers to share responsibility and leadership.

The six-party process may seem to have run its course. An alternative perspective, however, is that the negotiations are mature in the sense that all the elements of a resolution have been clearly identified: security assurances, establishment of diplomatic relations, a verification regime, substantial economic assistance focused on energy and agriculture, and replacing the present Korean armistice with a peace agreement. Furthermore, all the parties have developed a good understanding of how these elements need to be sequenced to maintain a balance of obligations and rewards during the transition that works for everyone.

Conspicuously absent from the six-party process, however, has been a proposal both owned and jointly advanced by all five of the DPRK’s six-party interlocutors. The DPRK has never had to consider a proposal that signals unambiguously to Pyongyang that all these states are prepared to insist it changes course. At least in part, this probably reflects the fact that not all of the other players have been prepared to acknowledge or accept equivalent responsibility for what the Korean Peninsula looks like today.

A second issue worth reviewing is whether the six-party forum has the qualities needed to drive the issue all the way to a durable solution. Two qualities stand out as candidates for re-consideration. First, as the ‘host’ for these talks, China has been subtly located as above the fray, a state with the closest ties to the DPRK but still a facilitator rather than an actor with primary responsibilities to secure a favourable outcome. The other actors have probably known for some time that reversing the DPRK’s nuclear program was not China’s exclusive or even primary interest but could live with this fact because it was not advertised and because China’s good offices seemed often to be indispensable to the talks being convened at all.

This bubble was burst in 2010 when China stoutly insulated Pyongyang from the repercussions of events that arguably constituted acts of war. This changed the calculus in all participating capitals. China seems to be tacitly betting, first, that its capacity to shape the Korean Peninsula to its liking will only grow over time and, second, that US imperatives to maintain robust deterrence on the peninsula and to preclude any pro-nuclear instincts emerging in the ROK and Japan will remain dependably strong. But this is likely to make the DPRK question an increasingly consequential wild card in the crucial endeavour by Washington and Beijing to forge a dependable compact for ‘peaceful coexistence’ in East Asia.

A second, and related, quality of the six-party process has been tacit acceptance and encouragement, especially by Pyongyang and Beijing, of the US–DPRK as the as the primary axis of negotiation. How might we nudge the six-party process toward a new and more rewarding dynamic? One possibility is to cut through the deadlock to arrive at the common-sense, and indispensable, option of making Pyongyang–Seoul the primary axis of negotiation. This would involve both China and the US stepping back to an equivalent status as the large security guarantors for their respective Koreas.

Nudging the six-party negotiations toward a Pyongyang–Seoul-led process, however, will be a good deal more challenging. The DPRK’s national story is grounded in an act of predatory aggression by the US in 1950 followed by an enduring posture of hostility, and probing for a second chance in the decades since. This narrative has sustained a uniquely authoritarian regime that has transformed the DPRK into the most highly militarised state in the world. In fact, as China and Russia have always known, the truth about 1950 lies toward the other end of the spectrum. The opening of Russian and East European archives since the end of the Cold War has made much of the real story part of the public record, something that could become a challenge for Pyongyang.

The DPRK has clung tenaciously to its narrative, which involves characterising the ROK as an illegitimate puppet regime that was not even a signatory to the 1953 Armistice. Pyongyang can hardly be expected to overtly walk away from its narrative but it can be vigorously encouraged to follow the lead of its erstwhile communist benefactors and signal a willingness to consider early recognition of the ROK. Similarly, the six-party agenda could be reviewed from the standpoint of framing issues to suit a Pyongyang–Seoul lead in the negotiations.

All the players have signalled a preference to be negotiating toward an enduring normalisation of the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK recently amended its constitution to record the fact that it is a state with nuclear weapons and insists that any future talks explicitly recognise this status. The US has resisted doing so but has kept open a channel of communication to gauge the prospects for renewed negotiations. The negotiating record from 2003 to 2008 offers a good foundation if the players can create a process with a new balance of pressures, risks and opportunities. There are new leadership teams in both Pyongyang and Beijing, and some scope to revisualise and refresh the process, possibly, but not necessarily, along the lines suggested here. Whether these considerations might prove sufficient to both re-start the process and give it positive momentum is unknowable, but we have to hope that each of the countries involved are resolved to try.

Ron Huisken is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University.

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