[OVERSEAS VIEW]This is not the time for complacencyThe announcement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill on Oct. 24 that North Korea had agreed to return to the Six Party Talks was a significant and welcome development in the unfolding of the North Korea nuclear crisis. However, this development does not mean the nuclear crisis has been defused. It puts the other parties in a position to attempt to revive the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks, but the stakes are now much higher. This is not the time to pretend the nuclear issue is behind us or become complacent. That would be the most dangerous development of all.
First the good news: the North Koreans agreed to come back to the talks after dropping their demands for the United States to end the financial sanctions against the highly corrupt Macao-based Banco Delta Asia. Pyongyang also dropped its demand for direct U.S. negotiations outside of the Six Party Talks and, it appears, this time China did not provide Pyongyang with a bribe to show up. Instead, China applied pressure. There are rumors that China cut off oil to the North for several months, which may or may not be true, but there is no doubt Beijing imposed a heavy penalty on Pyongyang in the Security Council and in freezing suspicious North Korean financial transactions. Moreover, the sanctions under Security Council Resolution 1718 remain in force. The context for the fifth round of the Six Party Talks is therefore very different from the previous rounds. For the first time there are real coercive tools ― real “sticks” ― that put pressure on North Korea to take concrete steps to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, we appear to have broken North Korea of the pattern in which it is paid to show up to talks and then walks out and demands a higher price to return. This time, if North Korea walks out of the Security Council, sanctions will possibly be strengthened.
The other parties can use this new dynamic to demand concrete early steps by North Korea to demonstrate its intention to return to the process of denuclearization captured in the September 2005 joint statement. In my view, the proper first step would be a moratorium on further testing of missiles or nuclear devices, reintroduction of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon, the freezing of all reprocessing and a declaration of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons and programs (including details on the uranium enrichment program). Washington would probably support direct U.S.-North Korea negotiations on sanctions lifting and other issues if North Korea committed to and took those early steps in the next round. All six parties could enter into concrete discussions on a permanent peace mechanism. This would begin the long and difficult process of trying to incrementally denuclearize North Korea and support a framework for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
However, that is the best-case scenario. Senior Chinese officials are telling their American counterparts that after State Councilor Tang’s visit to Pyongyang, they realize North Korea “will cling tenaciously to their nuclear weapons.” Most senior U.S. officials agree. If North Korea uses the next round of the Six Party Talks to once again declare a “hostile” U.S. policy and use avoid any concrete commitments, there is a danger the process will slip back into endless delays. Pyongyang will use that “fake” diplomacy as cover to continue developing its capabilities to prepare for further tests of nuclear devices and missiles.
For that reason, the other parties must not reward North Korea or return to business as usual simply because North returns to the talks. Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718 must continue, and this has clear implications for the projects at Kumgang and Kaesong. Both projects probably violate the Security Council resolution because cash is transferred directly to the regime and therefore to entities involved in North Korean nuclear weapons development and weapons trade. At a minimum, the South Korean government should review and renegotiate the projects and demand greater transparency to ensure wages go to workers and not the regime. This would bring the engagement policy into line with international law and make the policy more effective by empowering and educating the North Korean people without enriching the regime.
Large international investors are watching how Seoul handles this next round. These investors watch long-term trends to determine political risk and potential return on investment. They talk about the “Korea discount” that results from the higher political risk associated with investing in large equity projects in South Korea because of the North Korea angle. These investors are not yet convinced by the resumption of the Six Party Talks that the uncertainty of the North’s nuclear program is in any way resolved. They do not see Kumgang or Kaesong as evidence that the North is serious about reconciliation. They are looking for evidence that Seoul has a hard-headed realist approach to preventing further North Korean escalations. They ― and the North Korean leadership ― will know if Seoul has adopted that new realism as the Six Party Talks resume.
*The writer is former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael J. Green