Time to try something new
Over a decade ago, the structure for engaging North Korea was established. The key pillars were the Kaesong Industrial Complex for North-South trust and building confidence, and six-party talks for regional diplomacy on the nuclear problem. There was a broad bipartisan assumption in both Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang might yet choose a better path and move away from military provocations and nuclear weapons development toward economically motivated interactions with the outside world. Those assumptions are now full of holes. It is time to rethink the structure of engagement with the North.
President Park Geun-hye took one important step in that direction by shutting down the Kaesong project this week. In announcing the shutdown, the Ministry of Unification stated what most experts suspected - that Pyongyang was using some of the $560 million in untraceable cash it has earned from the project since 2004 for nuclear and missile development. The earlier rationale for continuing to funnel cash to the North through Kaesong in the face of repeated North Korean provocations has now lost credibility. Perhaps some North Koreans at Kaesong were learning “market economics” and becoming friendlier toward the South, but that has had little impact on Pyongyang’s belligerent behavior.
Faced with a nuclear test in January and a missile test last week, Park concluded that the Republic of Korea must show its determination to resist North Korean threats. This was important not only as a deterrent message to the North, but also as an indication to Beijing that China should not take Seoul for granted or assume that the Korean government passively depends on China to solve the North Korea problem.
The other structure of engagement with North Korea that must change is the six-party talks format. None of the six parties have been prepared to say the process is broken or dead, yet privately, all six parties know that. A diplomatic process intended to move six equal parties toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can no longer have any credibility when the most problematic party - North Korea - has declared in its constitution that it is now a nuclear weapons state and has conducted four nuclear tests to reinforce the point. The Barack Obama administration’s mantra of “strategic patience” was little more than verbal cover for an unwillingness to say the six-party talks were effectively done.
I do not say this with any relish. In early 2003, I was instructed along with two other colleagues at the National Security Council (NSC) to write a memo for President George W. Bush that would lay out the strategy for establishing a multilateral forum in Northeast Asia to press North Korea for denuclearization. We sincerely hoped that the process might work. It did not.
One structural problem was evident from the beginning. We designed the strategy to enmesh China in the diplomacy of North Korea, but the NSC concept was to emulate the “contact group” that backstopped negotiations with Serbia in the early 1990s as violence engulfed the former Yugoslavia. That group - which included the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Russia - would coordinate diplomacy and actions toward Slobodan Milosevic and Serbia without the Serbs in the room. The problem with the six-party talks came when China insisted that North Korea be invited as a fully empowered member of the talks. The other parties agreed too quickly to that formula, which allowed Pyongyang to veto any meeting date. No surprise, then, that the talks limped along.
The United States, often backed by Korea and Japan and sometimes Russia, has occasionally pushed for a return to the original five-plus-one formula envisioned in early 2003. However, there has been only one such meeting. That meeting came on the margins of the first six-party talks in August 2003 when the Chinese hosts at the Diaoyutai Guest House convened a meeting of senior representatives from all the parties to begin working on a draft press statement. I represented the United States, and Korea was very ably represented by Ambassador Wi Sung-lac.
In that session, North Korea quickly became isolated and suddenly boycotted the follow-on meeting the next morning. The Chinese host agreed that the five parties present - the United States, Korea, Japan, Russia and China - should nevertheless commence the meeting in case the North’s representative turned up. He never did, and for two hours, the other five parties had very productive exchanges on how to manage North Korea as the six-party talks continued.
Every effort to revive five-party talks since has been blocked by China. Now is the right time to try again. Five-party talks would be no substitute for effective sanctions through the UN Security Council. But the Chinese leadership is clearly unhappy with Pyongyang and less afraid to cause their erstwhile ally diplomatic embarrassment. The United States, Korea and Japan would all be on board, and my own private discussions with Russian officials indicate a possible readiness in Moscow as well. If U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral coordination, deployment of Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in Korea and other measures continue building beyond China’s control, then Beijing may be more incentivized to agree to a “contact group” on North Korea.
Five-party talks could achieve four goals. First, the process would take control of the diplomatic rhythm away from Pyongyang. Second, talks would ensure regional and major power attention to the North Korea problem even after the UN Security Council has moved on to other issues. Third, the talks would smooth implementation of sanctions (assuming the UN Security Council gets around to them). Fourth, the talks would allow regional powers to align diplomatic messages to Pyongyang. Finally, a five-party process would ease dialogue and possible coordination in the event of instability in the North or movement toward unification.
This is precisely the time for finding a new mechanism for enhanced regional coordination and diplomacy that is not captive to North Korea’s whims.
*The author is senior vice president for the Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green