[VIEWPOINT]Defining success in the talksWASHINGTON ― U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice observed during her trip to Asia last month prior to the resumption of the six-party talks that “It is not the goal of the talks to have talks. It is the goal of the talks to make progress.” While most participants have typically downplayed expectations for dramatic breakthroughs in Beijing, Dr. Rice raises a critical question: how do we measure the progress of ongoing diplomatic efforts in Beijing?
The fact that heads of delegations are discussing details of their respective positions in private is necessary, but not sufficient. Despite significant differences between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), the shared concept of “words for words, and actions for actions” shows convergence and seriousness of purpose on all sides that was absent from previous rounds.
Reports are that the delegations seek a consensus on the core principles to be followed in achieving North Korea’s comprehensive denuclearization. These might include a multilateral reaffirmation of the contents of the 1992 inter-Korean Joint Denuclearization declaration, and the principle that all parties should formally recognize each other in some form. Such principles would provide the foundation for specific follow-up negotiations, just as the foundation and frame of a house might provide the basic structure for construction of a building. However, the frame by itself doesn’t determine the specific uses of such a building without the considerable detail work that comes later in the construction process.
One clear way of showing concrete progress in Beijing would be for all the parties to accept a joint statement to replace the chairman’s statement that the Chinese hosts have released following past meetings. That would set the stage for the resumption of negotiations on the specifics that might be held in Beijing within weeks, not months or years.
An attraction of negotiating shared principles of agreement before negotiating specific details is that such an approach would provide leaders with political cover to agree on principles that might not be possible to accept when discussing specifics. Many in Washington hold out great hope for Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, while remaining pessimistic about the likelihood that President Bush, in the end, could take “yes” for an answer from North Korea ― if, indeed, North Korea knows how to say “yes.” In fact, the “selling” of any political deal in the United States that looks like a second Agreed Framework might be considerably more difficult than negotiating an agreement on North Korea’s denuclearization.
The Agreed Framework itself was never fully accepted in Washington, since it was seen by many to reward North Korea for bad behavior. One fundamental political consideration on the American side is that the Bush administration must be able to claim some tangible achievement that goes beyond the Clinton-era Agreed Framework. Only then would it be possible for the North to expect to achieve its objective of a better relationship with Washington. This might mean an exchange of truly bold actions toward comprehensive denuclearization, and more normal relations between the United States and North Korea, or it could mean further stalemate.
Now that the North Koreans are back at the table in Beijing, all parties need to remain steadfast in pursuing North Korea’s comprehensive denuclearization. The Roh administration’s “important proposal,” offering to provide North Korea with 2 million kilowatts of electricity if the North can set aside its nuclear pursuits, is a quite generous benefit that should go a long way to assuage North Korean fears about regime survival. The effectiveness of American dual coordination with South Korea and China ― which have taken overlapping positions on the nuclear issue ― to promote the right mix of firmness and generosity will be critical to making progress. North Korea must realize not that it has to make a strategic decision, but that it has no choice but to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program in line with the consensus that exists among all the parties to the negotiation process. As often as unnamed officials in Washington might refer to “Plan B” in the press, there remains no currently available feasible alternative to the six-party talks to peacefully resolve the second North Korean nuclear crisis.
* Scott Snyder is Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed here are personal ones. He can be reached at
by Scott Snyder