[OUTLOOK]Redouble efforts on six-party talksOnly two months after the six-party Joint Statement announced on September 19, the negotiation process designed to lead to the denuclearization of North Korea is facing serious deadlock. North Korea has linked U.S. Treasury sanctions taken since September 15 against the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia ― alleged to have facilitated North Korean counterfeiting and drug smuggling activities ― to the six-party negotiations. The North accuses the United States of bad faith for pursuing sanctions while negotiating at the six-party talks.
The September 19 Joint Statement was intended to set the stage for the negotiation of a specific process through which North Korea would abandon a nuclear weapons program in return for economic and political steps by the other parties (in particular the United States), to promote mutual trust, stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia. This process would be conducted through the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action.”
But the Joint Statement now looks like a hollow achievement for a stalemated six-party process. Attempts by the North to link financial sanctions, a bilateral U.S.-North Korea issue, to the six-party talks designed to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization are viewed skeptically by many Americans as a North Korean pretext for delay.
Most Americans view the Banco Delta Asia sanctions as a law enforcement measure (under the U.S. Patriot Act, a counter terrorist-financing measure passed following 9/11) designed to halt illicit activities, including manifestations of North Korea’s “hostile policy” toward the United States of counterfeiting U.S. currency.
The Bush administration is allergic to bilateral contacts with North Korea outside of the six-party talks. However, it is not in the U.S. interest to allow the issue of penalties for illicit activities to be linked to the six-party talks. It is also not in the U.S. interest to be viewed as the stumbling block to resumption of six-party talks, especially on an issue where the other parties ― as fellow victims of other illegal activities by the North ― may understand well the reasons for U.S. sanctions. It is reasonable for the United States to give a bilateral briefing to North Korea on the Banco Delta Asia sanctions.
Meanwhile, unilateral strategies other than negotiation have emerged at the forefront among most of the six parties following the announcement of the Joint Statement. All these measures outside of six-party talks will influence prospects for the success or failure of the six-party negotiations.
Aside from the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, U.S. officials continue to use undiplomatic language in describing the North’s leadership, North Korea has continued to produce plutonium and the Chinese and South Koreans are stepping up economic engagement with the North with little evidence that such efforts are likely to catalyze significant North Korean structural reforms.
Given the evident frustration of negotiating with North Korea, why waste the time doing so? This question is particularly salient for American policy observers who note that North Korea has broken all of its nonproliferation agreements and can not be trusted as a negotiating partner.
Some would-be mediators make the argument that the six-party negotiating process is about building trust, but for the vast majority of American policy observers, the foremost objective of negotiations with North Korea is not to build trust, but to build verification by creating agreed upon mechanisms that bind the scope of action of the other party to act contrary to one’s own interest.
A multi-party negotiation process, if utilized properly in dealing with a state such as North Korea, has the following advantages:
* The existence of the six-party mechanism itself may be effective in containing crisis escalation tactics by imposing the cost of alienating other parties through unilateral actions.
* Third-party “witnesses” are able to hold parties to their commitments more effectively than in a bilateral negotiation.
* A multilateral process may yield a broader mix of diplomatic tools than might be employed through bilateral negotiations, where the tools of influence available to any single party may be limited.
* Multilateral negotiations do not prevent bilateral or unilateral measures from being taken outside the negotiation process, but it is desirable that such measures assist in achieving the mutually agreed objective.
The joint statement illustrates that the shared objectives of participants in the six-party talks are North Korea’s denuclearization and peace-building through a normalization of relations in Northeast Asia, but there is not yet sufficient consensus among all the parties on the means by which to pursue those objectives. The lowest common denominator (or consensus) among the other parties becomes the maximum outcome that North Korea can be expected to accept. The six-party negotiation process requires redoubled efforts from all parties if they are to succeed in achieving North Korea’s denuclearization.
* The writer, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). The views expressed here are the writers own. He can be reached at
by Scott Snyder