[Viewpoint] A template for six-party resumption

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[Viewpoint] A template for six-party resumption

At the April 28 JoongAng Ilbo-CSIS Seminar on the U.S.-ROK Alliance in Seoul, many of the panelists debated the relative merits and demerits of resuming the six-party talks. All the panelists agreed that some level of engagement with North Korea would be useful but nobody was able to define exactly what parameters should guide our decision on whether or when to resume the talks. As I flew home to Washington, D.C., on Korean Air, I contemplated this dilemma and came up with a rough template to guide our thinking about the talks.

The first thing that should be said is that Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Dawei’s recent proposal for a three step approach to resuming the talks is not such a template. As the JoongAng Ilbo reported last month, Wu proposed in Seoul that there should be North-South dialogue, followed by contact between the United States and North Korea and then a return to the six-party talks.

This proposal is hardly new. In fact, this is the sequence of dialogue that the South Korean government has been insisting on for some time. Nor is Ambassador Wu’s proposal significant in terms of the contents or objectives of the talks. He was simply proposing, as Beijing does these days, the process for dialogue - acting like the convener of an event rather than one of the principal performers.

It was useful that Beijing came around to Seoul’s position on process. It would be more useful if Beijing came around to Seoul’s position on the need for Pyongyang to take credible steps towards denuclearization and the prevention of further attacks like those on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island.

It is also important not to over-invest the six-party talks with more hope or risk than the forum actually entails for the United States and South Korea right now. After two nuclear tests, the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, bravado about its uranium enrichment program (UEP) and pledges to be a full nuclear weapons state by 2012, only the most optimistic and naive observers think that the Kim Jong-il regime might be coaxed into denuclearization if the talks resume.

Could the North sign language be calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula? Of course, they have done so before in order to gain concessions while simultaneously continuing work on nuclear weapons. Such sweeping gestures are largely meaningless at this point. Could the North agree to narrower steps, such as allowing inspectors to examine select UEP sites? Perhaps, but only in exchange for aid or the lifting of sanctions and only in a way designed to showcase their capability rather than lead to its verifiable dismantlement. In other words, it is highly unlikely that the six-party talks will lead to a new “breakthrough” at this point.

The balance sheet of pros and cons for resuming the six-party talks therefore probably looks like this: On the pro-side, we might gain useful intelligence about North Korean intentions and internal dynamics; we might keep open a dialogue channel that could be useful in the future if leadership changes in the North eventually lead to new flexibility from Pyongyang (unlikely though that seems now); we might help to limit escalation of provocations (though there is no compelling evidence that dialogue dissuades Pyongyang from such escalations when it deems them useful); we could enhance confidence among the major powers surrounding North Korea in anticipation of change in the North; and we might help reinforce the message that we have not and will not accept a nuclear North Korea.

On the con side, we might risk rewarding North Korean provocations by continuing a dialogue as if Pyongyang never violated all the previous agreements; we might risk taking pressure off of China to reign in the North by focusing on process rather than results; we could risk signaling that we now accept a nuclear North Korea if we move too quickly to peace mechanisms and the diplomacy of “peaceful coexistence”; and we could distract our governments from remaining vigilant about human rights and threats like North Korean outward proliferation.

So how do we maximize the modest gains to be had from the six-party talks and minimize risks? I would recommend a simple five-part set of guidelines - a kind of Hippocratic oath for diplomats contemplating a return to the talks.

1. Do nothing that risks the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This is one of the most important tools to manage the growing challenge from the North.

2. Do nothing to weaken the defensive measures we must take to constrain, interdict and deter North Korean inward and outward proliferation or to prepare for instability in the North (this was the mistake made in 2007 when the U.S. chose not to implement Security Council sanctions in a misguided effort to lure Pyongyang back to talks).

3. Provide no material inducements to the North, such as sanctions-lifting or heavy fuel oil, without verifiable steps at denuclearization.

4. Provide no inducements to North Korea for the reversal of capabilities or actions taken by Pyongyang in violation of the September 2005 six-party joint statement (in other words, do not encourage Pyongyang to think it can avoid prior commitments and win new concessions simply by escalating).

5. Take no actions that suggest the U.S. and other parties are prepared to enter into peaceful coexistence with a nuclear North Korea (and thus remain careful about peace mechanisms or grand bargains that are not preceded by verifiable denuclearization).

Above all, it will be critical to recall that the six-party talks are a tool and not an end in themselves. And frankly, the tool is probably of only limited utility at this point - if it is even to be used at all.

*The writer is a senior advisor and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

By Michael Green
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