Time for five-party talksAfter North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and in light of Pyongyang’s prolonged abandonment of the six-party talks (6PT), President Park Geun-hye has called instead for the start of five-party talks (5PT). The goal of the 5PT is to enhance the ability of the United States, China, Japan, Republic of Korea and Russia to cooperate on pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization even without the DPRK at the table.
China and Russia initially balked at the idea over concerns it would isolate North Korea further, but have since agreed to much stricter UN sanctions, and China has now expressed openness to the 5PT idea.
The goal of the 5PT should be to lead to a resumption of the 6PT where Pyongyang agrees to discuss its nuclear weapons and ultimately abandon them. The talks should act as a platform for DPRK policy coordination and demonstrate concerted resolve to exert extraordinary pressure on Pyongyang should the Kim regime continue to pursue isolation. But in tandem with the 5PT, the U.S., South Korea and China should also create a trilateral platform for “shadow peace treaty talks” to recommit to the goal of concluding a Korean peace regime. Pursuing both policies may appear contradictory, but they actually go hand in hand.
North Korea has a history of deftly playing its allies off of its enemies, its enemies off of its enemies and its allies off of its allies. The 5PT arrangement will cut Pyongyang’s ability to do this. The mere act of the 5PT countries overtly strategizing about North Korea will not go unnoticed in Pyongyang. Among the topics to immediately be discussed include developing ex-ante commitments from the 5PT countries to enact stringent punitive measures against North Korea should it continue its provocative behavior. This policy will shift the locus of multilateral DPRK strategy from merely reactionary to deterrent. The five parties should draw a line together and stick to it.
The 5PT should also serve as a venue for the relevant parties to clarify intentions for dealing with North Korea if there were to be major changes of any sort in the DPRK. This will be particularly helpful in building trust between the U.S. and China, but also in developing a broader multilateral dialogue that links nuclear weapons and the Kim regime’s stability. Engaging in these discussions will send an important signal from Beijing to Pyongyang that business is not “as usual” and China is preparing for a post-DPRK Korean Peninsula if the Kim regime does not change its behavior.
But the 5PT arrangement should be undertaken in conjunction with efforts to positively induce North Korean cooperation as well. In the last year, North Korean demands for a U.S.-DPRK peace treaty have become more vociferous — even though a process for such talks was part of the 6PT September 2005 agreement that North Korea abandoned. The regime made a choice that nuclear weapons would offer greater security than peace talks.
Despite its rhetoric, the regime is well aware that any U.S.-DPRK peace treaty will never happen if North Korea’s nuclear weapons are off the table. Instead of marginalizing these voices now calling for a peace regime, the United States should strengthen them and send overtures that they have not abandoned the idea either.
The clearest way to strengthen elements in Pyongyang that desire a peace treaty over nuclear weapons is to indulge Pyongyang by engaging in shadow peace talks amongst the United States, South Korea and China — the key actors besides North Korea behind an eventual peace treaty. The U.S., ROK and China should conclude a document outlining a peace treaty’s sequencing that demonstrates what each country would be willing to commit to. The deal would necessarily entail North Korea’s commitment to full denuclearization in exchange for a variety of benefits and security guarantees. Both the full implementation of a peace deal and North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons would have to occur in stages
The concept of a “shadow” hypothetical peace treaty could be politically tenable in the U.S. because it requires a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and does not directly reward bad behavior. Discussing a peace treaty in detail without the DPRK initially at the table could help circumvent the “chicken or the egg” sequencing problem. It would also show that, contrary to North Korean rhetoric, the U.S. is not fundamentally opposed to a peace deal and maintains no “regime change” policy.
A shadow peace treaty would force Pyongyang to confront the costs of its nuclear weapons program and the laundry list of benefits it forgoes. This could embolden moderate positions within the Kim regime that seek long-term peace and prosperity over nuclear weapons.
Blazing the trail to stability on the Korean Peninsula requires strengthening resolve against Pyongyang’s aggression while simultaneously signaling a commitment to engage North Korea’s insecurities. The DPRK currently has little incentive to rejoin the 6PT, but to change Pyongyang’s calculus, it is worth pursuing a new 5PT arrangement in tandem with a U.S.-China-ROK peace regime subgroup that wields a big stick and offers big carrots.
*The author is a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and non-resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.