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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 14, 2003)

Consensus Yet to Emerge on Six-Party Talks

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

Pyongyang's recent decision to enter into six-party talks over its nuclear program is considered something of a diplomatic coup for the United States. The Bush administration has repeatedly argued that the nuclear crisis must be dealt with in a multilateral framework, whereas Pyongyang has until now insisted that the issue is solely between the United States and North Korea.

Yet the expanded talks—which include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia—adds a more complex dimension to handling the North Korean crisis. Having persistently called for multilateral meetings, the burden is now largely on Washington to make sure that its five partners in the talks have a unified message and avoid Pyongyang's knack for divisive diplomacy. Whether the United States can shape a united front in the few weeks ahead is anything but certain.

At this stage, many of the details of the planned meetings are in the process of being worked out. According to some reports, the talks are likely to be held in Beijing in late August and will probably include deputy foreign minister-level officials.

Meanwhile, all sides are engaged in consultative meetings in preparation of the formal talks, with South Korea announcing this week that it would come up with a proposal at the meeting that is "slightly different" from the U.S. position.

Barring any unforeseen incidents, the talks will provide perhaps the best opportunity yet for the international community to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. In fact, Pyongyang's previous resistance to multilateral meetings was based on concerns that other nations might gang up on North Korean negotiators at the talks and put them on the defensive.

The six-party talks nevertheless present potential dangers to the international community, particularly since Pyongyang will likely see the meetings as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the United States and the other five nations. Until now, the international community has been able to overlook significant differences over North Korea largely because it has not directly faced Pyongyang as a multilateral body since the crisis began last October.

The primary difficulty is the disparity in how the nations involved in the six-party talks view North Korea and its self-advertised efforts to reprocess plutonium and produce highly enriched uranium.

At one extreme, the current South Korean administration tends to view the North as a good state trapped in a bad state's body—that is, a weak and isolated nation pursuing nuclear weapons as a hedge against possible U.S. aggression. At the other extreme, the United States and Japan see North Korea as an extortionist attempting to gain a stronger hand through the production of nuclear weapons.

Falling somewhere in between these positions are China and Russia. Policymakers in Beijing have in the past dismissed North Korea as an oddball state, but Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons has prompted China to change its view of North Korea and recognize the regime as a more serious detriment to China's national interests.

Russia's view of North Korea, on the other hand, is ambiguous. Many experts believe that Moscow does not view the North Korea crisis as an immediate security threat but as an opportunity to remain engaged in a critical regional development. Russia has joined calls for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program but, along with China, has resisted efforts to bring up the issue in the UN Security Council.

Given the disparate views, the five nations that will sit down with North Korea are likely to approach the upcoming talks with vastly different expectations. Some circles, particularly in Beijing and Seoul, have high hopes that the meetings will lead to a major breakthrough with Pyongyang. In Washington and Tokyo, however, officials are prepared for the worst—additional announcements of North Korean advancements in nuclear production.

Pyongyang's best chance of dividing the five other nations is to offer concessions that play on these varying expectations. Already, North Korea has tried to soften Tokyo's resolve by offering some movement on the issue of abducted Japanese nationals.

So far, Tokyo has not taken the bait but Beijing and Seoul may see similar gestures as a sign that Pyongyang is making a good faith effort to negotiate. The Bush administration, of course, does not envision a negotiated deal as the solution to the North Korean crisis, but rather what it calls the immediate, verifiable and irreversible termination of the regime's nuclear program.

The Bush administration's all or nothing approach is a hard sell to other nations, which matters more now that the United States is involved in a multilateral format. It is likely that Washington will eventually have to compromise on some aspects of its hard-line approach if it is to have any semblance of a united front with its five partners.

The United States should instead try to convince its partners in the talks to lower their expectations and resist searching for a dramatic breakthrough with Pyongyang—at least at this stage.

Indeed, the talks are more likely to be effective if they rest on the common ground that all five nations for the most part share: that a nuclear armed North Korea cannot be tolerated. The upcoming meetings should therefore be viewed as an opportunity for the group of nations to articulate explicit red lines that North Korea must not cross, such as testing a nuclear device or selling nuclear material to foreign entities.

Furthermore, the five nations should use the meetings to test North Korea's intentions. Is a grand bargain with Pyongyang possible and, if so, at what price? Will the North give up its entire weapons of mass destruction program or just cease the development of future programs? Will Pyongyang allow a new inspection regime to monitor its nuclear facilities?

Clarification of these questions will help shed light on where North Korea stands at this point and whether it fully understands the ominous implications of its nuclear ambitions. Perhaps more importantly, the six-party talks may narrow some of the perception gaps that have kept the international community from reaching a consensus on the North Korean crisis. If a general consensus is reached, the United States and its partners will be in a stronger position to bargain with Pyongyang in future talks.

(This commentary first appeared in the Washington JapanWatch section of The Daily Yomiuri, August 14, 2003)

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