Breakthrough in six-party talks unlikely

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Breakthrough in six-party talks unlikely

The six-party talks on the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are to resume Monday, after being stalled for more than a year. It is both good news and bad news that talks are resuming so soon after North Korea’s Oct. 9 underground test of a nuclear device.
There are three pieces of good news. First, the resumption of the talks may reduce the chance of an escalation of the crisis, such as an inspection-related incident at sea. Second, China’s efforts to bring North Korea back to the table appear to have involved more pressure than inducements, an indication of Beijing’s increasingly responsible role. Third, the U.S. and North Korea have both demonstrated flexibility ahead of the talks.
U.S. officials met bilaterally with North Korean counterparts during organizational meetings in Beijing. Washington has reportedly been more specific about what benefits North Korea can receive by giving up its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has agreed to return to the talks without seeing its demand met about the lifting of financial restrictions placed on North Korean funds with suspected connections to illicit activities.
Unfortunately, the resumption of the six-party talks also carries bad news. It is unlikely that enough time has passed for Pyongyang to make a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons. Despite a strong UN Security Council Resolution, sanctions have not yet been sufficiently coordinated or sustained to alter North Korea’s nuclear calculus.
Thus, no comprehensive solution can be expected in the present round of talks.
So why are the talks on? Some governments appear to believe that just having meetings can represent successful diplomacy. The theory is that while the talks are ongoing, the odds go down for such costly contingencies as North Korean military provocations, a regime collapse or regime change from the outside.
While this may be true, it is clear the resumption of talks is a time-buying mechanism for North Korea, and perhaps a forum for it to demand recognition as a nuclear power. Pyongyang may plan to extract economic benefits in exchange for small diplomatic concessions and easily reversible tokens of disarmament.
Knowing this, why did the U.S. push for the resumption? Midterm Congressional elections and staff changes in the Bush administration will have implications on the U.S. policy toward North Korea, but plans for this round of talks were underway beforehand. The likely explanation is Washington fears the international consensus forged after North Korea’s nuclear test is losing steam, allowing Pyongyang space and time to further develop its nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.
Consistent with its original design for the six-party framework, the Bush administration is probably hoping that talks can either achieve a rollback of these programs or demonstrate that Pyongyang has no intention of parting with its nuclear weapons, thus putting the onus on Seoul and Beijing to do more to help change the North Koreans’ minds.
Given the six parties’ different motivations, what can be expected from the present round of talks? It is unlikely Pyongyang will agree to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, report all of its nuclear programs and facilities or submit to international inspections. The most that can be expected is as follows: The U.S. finesses the release of some frozen North Korean assets by identifying certain funds as legitimate. North Korea agrees to freeze plutonium production, self-imposes a nuclear and ballistic missile test moratorium and closes its Oct. 9 test site. All parties agree to draw up a timeline for the dismantlement of North Korea’s weapons programs in stages, corresponding to economic incentives and security assurances.
More likely than this best-case scenario is that talks will simply produce some form of recommitment to the September 2005 joint statement and establish working groups to implement parts of the agreement. This would represent progress, but would leave most of the difficult questions (and the producing of actual results) to future negotiations.
Of course, there is always the chance of a breakthrough. Some reports have suggested there could be steps toward a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula or U.S. diplomatic relations with North Korea. Either would be premature until Pyongyang clearly commits to nuclear disarmament.
If North Korea is unwilling to make such a commitment, or if the present round of talks collapses, then the five parties must unite in convincing Pyongyang its further pursuit of nuclear weapons will earn it less and less attractive deals. If the six-party talks are ever to succeed, North Korea must be persuaded its strategic interests will be best served by denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Such persuasion involves talking and incentives, but also requires the imposition of real costs on North Korea.

*The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in government and international relations at Harvard University and a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders Program.


by Leif-Eric Easley

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