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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 24, 2006)

Six Party Talks: It Cuts Both Ways

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

China, host of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, is trying to get all the parties to sit down together. However, as President Hu Jintao said after his summit with US President George W. Bush: "The six-party talks have run into some difficulties at the moment. I hope the parties will be able to further display flexibility, work together and create necessary conditions for the early resumption of the talks."

The US representative to the talks, Christopher Hill, is also trying to achieve a consensus. This week, he is visiting China and South Korea in an effort to inject new life into the talks.

According to The New York Times, Mr Bush is considering a new approach that would include negotiations on a peace treaty. The Bush administration subsequently denied there was a new approach, but confirmed it was open to discussions on a peace treaty. Since Pyongyang had asked for such a treaty with Washington, willingness to discuss it may entice North Korea back to the table.

However, there are formidable obstacles. North Korea has demanded the US lift sanctions before the talks can resume. These sanctions were imposed after Washington accused Pyongyang of counterfeiting US currency and of using financial institutions in Macau for money laundering.

The US does seem to have a new sense of urgency. While Washington wants North Korea to emulate Libya and voluntarily abandon all weapons of mass destruction, it does not want North Korea to be a model for Iran in successfully defying the US.

Actually, considerable progress was registered last September when the six parties - the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China - issued a joint statement indicating their first real breakthrough since the talks began in 2003.

In that statement, North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in return for aid and diplomatic recognition.

China was only able to get all sides to accept the statement by keeping it vague. The US immediately issued a statement to remove the vagueness, saying: "All elements of [North Korea's] past and present nuclear programmes - plutonium and uranium - and all nuclear weapons will be comprehensively declared and completely, verifiably and irreversibly eliminated."

Moreover, Mr Hill announced the termination of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, the international group set up under a 1994 agreement to construct light-water reactors for North Korea. The following day, Pyongyang issued its own statement. The US, it said, "should not even dream" that North Korea would dismantle its "nuclear deterrent" before being provided with light-water reactors for peaceful energy generation. And so a new deadlock emerged.

China plays a pivotal role. As the major supplier of energy to North Korea, it has considerable leverage in Pyongyang. But it also wants Washington to be more accommodating. For example, even though the US declared in the joint statement that it had no intention of attacking North Korea, it has since reverted to its position of saying that "all options remain on the table".

For China, the North Korean nuclear issue is a double-edged sword: it has provided a strategic rationale for its bilateral relationship with the US, but because Washington favours the use of sticks and Beijing carrots, it is also a source of tension.

While the US has been appreciative of China's role, it also wants Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang. Beijing, on the other hand, believes Washington should be more willing to offer aid and diplomatic recognition to North Korea in return for concessions.

If the talks fail, the two may end up blaming each other for the failure.

(Originally appeared in the May 24, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications