Six nations in search of a peace treatyWhat are the six-party talks?
The term refers to a forum in which six participating states negotiate. Their objective, through a series of meetings, is to find a way to peacefully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons and programs capable of producing them. The talks began in 2003 and are hosted by China, the North’s closest ally. In addition to China, the other countries involved in the nuclear negotiations are the United States, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and Japan.
The six-party talks have convened on several occasions, the last one being last November. In September 2005, the talks resulted in an agreement under which North Korea agreed to scrap its nuclear weapons and programs to produce them in exchange for security arrangements ― that it will not be attacked by the U.S. ― guaranteed by the participating states, as well as economic cooperation and energy aid.
History of the North Korean nuclear crisis and outstanding issues
The current North Korean nuclear crisis is the second of its kind. It has its roots in a similar crisis that was ended in 1994 through a bilateral accord reached between the United States and North Korea, called the Agreed Framework. Under the framework, Pyongyang agreed to mothball its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors and related facilities and eventually dismantle them in return for being provided two light water nuclear power reactors. These reactors were scheduled to be built by an international consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, with a target date for completion of 2003. It was agreed that the United States would provide the North with oil shipments to offset the energy foregone due to the freeze on the North’s graphite reactors.
However, on a visit to Pyongyang in November 2002, before the deal was completed, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North. Mr. Kelly said that the U.S believed the North was continuing to develop nuclear weapons through a secret uranium-enrichment program ― a violation of the Agreed Framework. As a result of this confrontation, in December of that year, Pyongyang expelled inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the use of nuclear energy. Then, in January 2003, the North officially withdrew the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That decision started the second crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. That same year, the North reactivated the nuclear facilities that had been mothballed under the Agreed Framework, arguing that broken promises and a hostile U.S. policy had forced it to continue the development of nuclear weapons.
Diplomatic efforts to defuse tension on the Korean Peninsula and seek an end to the nuclear crisis finally resulted in the initiation of the six-party talks. The first session of the talks was held in August 2003 in Beijing. The talks have been difficult as Pyongyang and Washington continued to have disputes over a number of outstanding issues. The September 2005 accord, called the Joint Declaration, was finally signed. It commits the North to abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for various incentives.
Nevertheless, despite reaching an agreement, several factors have delayed the resumption of the talks, which were expected to focus on the implementation of the accord. For example, immediately after reaching the September accord, the North said that without being provided up-front with light water reactors, the process of implementing the agreement could not go forward. The agreement only stated that nations involved in the talks would address the issue of providing such reactors at an appropriate time to be discussed later. Shortly after the agreement, Washington imposed financial sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, a bank based in Chinese-administered Macao. The bank has reportedly acted as a money launderer for North Korean entities suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and weapons proliferation. An investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department is still going on.
For more than a year, the issue of financial sanctions imposed by Washington has remained the biggest obstacle to the resumption of the talks; Pyongyang demands the lifting of these sanctions, otherwise it will not return to the negotiating table. The United States has said that the issue was separate from the nuclear talks as the financial sanctions are measures taken under U.S. law, intended to protect the U.S. financial sector. These sanctions are thought to have put a financial strain on the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, who is said to have used money in his overseas accounts to buy expensive gifts for the North’s elite and his personal use. Money from these accounts may also have been used in the North’s nuclear quest.
Increasing tensions and international response
Tensions increased in the region when North Korea test-fired several missiles in early July. On Oct. 9, North Korea tested a nuclear device. International reaction to the nuclear test was swift and firm. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1718, condemning the test and calling on North Korea to return to the negotiating table. The resolution imposed weapons and financial sanctions against the North. It requires UN member-nations to prevent the sale or transfer of materials for nuclear weapons and technology; similarly, sanctions were imposed on the transfer of missiles and related technology for weapons of mass destruction, and high-tech military equipment.
Apart from the resolution, countries have also started to enforce their own sanctions to put pressure on the North’s regime. Japan, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the United States have each enforced their own measures, such as banning luxury items like German cars or Swiss watches from export to the North. Even China has voted in favor of the UN resolution and began inspecting cargo coming in and out of North Korea at its border with the North.
At the end of October, China announced that North Korea would return to the six-party talks. North Korea confirmed that announcement shortly after. While the decision has been welcomed by the other countries involved in the talks, suspicion on each side still remains high. A flurry of diplomatic efforts in the past month has raised hopes that the talks will succeed in reducing tension stemming from North Korea’s nuclear program and achieving the final goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that both Koreas agreed on in 1992. Washington has made a proposal to Pyongyang and is now awaiting a response from the North. Above all, Pyongyang wants normalization of ties with the United States to secure economic aid.
by Brian Lee