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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:35 03/09/2007
Commentary (February 19, 2007)

Six Party Talks: Progress or Breakdown?

Chadwick I. Smith (Consultant based in Japan)


In the shadow of the continued insurgency in Iraq, a possible looming crisis with Iran and domestic squabbles within the US, it is often easy to forget that the North Korea issue has yet to be resolved. Another session of the Six Party Talks concluded on February 13 with an agreement known as the "Denuclearization Action Plan" in which North Korea will shut down the Yongbyon reactor and eventually allow inspectors to return in exchange for "emergency" energy aid. It further stipulates that during the follow-on phase, North Korea will disable all of its existing nuclear facilities. Although the "Action Plan" is a necessary first step, the future implementation of the agreement will be the real test of Pyongyang's willingness to disarm.

The fact that North Korea is not immediately required to account for its nuclear weapons is a cause for concern and the lack of any binding agreements present numerous opportunities for Pyongyang to exploit. The most dangerous potential scenario is that disagreements during implementation will delay any forward momentum and the lengthy negotiations that follow allow Pyongyang the time needed to insist that it is recognized as an official nuclear power.

After all, if we look back, the entire basis for the initiation of the Six Party Talks was Pyongyang's alleged Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program, yet this gradually shifted to its plutonium program that North Korea claimed it was forced to restart as a deterrent to the US. Prior to the talks, there was only a fledgling program that was speculative at best, but upon conclusion of the recent session, it is generally agreed that there are nuclear weapons, a possible delivery vehicle and no longer any mention of the HEU program. Can this agreement be considered a diplomatic victory or simply a breakdown in the negotiation process?

North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 and recent threats of a second test, give the impression that Pyongyang's bellicose behavior is the reason negotiators have taken a more flexible stance. More importantly, it sends a dangerous message to rogue states and terrorist organizations that a nuclear weapon is all that is required to elicit concessions from the US. Moreover, the most dangerous aspect is that the policy shift from hard-line isolation to Clinton-era engagement is the necessary evidence for North Korea to justify their negotiation tactics and regard the deal as a total victory for their side.

The primary obstacle that has inhibited any real multilateral progress is the diverging long-term strategic objectives. True, all states wish North Korea would abandon its weapons program but that is where the similarity ends. Washington's underlying interest is non-proliferation while Pyongyang's goal is mere survival. China and Russia hope for the status quo while South Korea is reluctant to exert strong pressure that would conflict with its own agenda involving the resumption of talks to settle long-standing bilateral issues.

Japan is most concerned with the abduction issue and the existence of nuclear weapons. It has even stated that it is unwilling to provide aid unless there is progress on this issue. Furthermore, the nuclear weapons represent a direct threat to Japan and will most likely smooth the way for any future Article 9 revision, which may negatively resonate throughout East Asia. These wide ranging interests are exactly what Pyongyang desires as it allows for continued conflict escalation that is then placated with concessions.

In addition, there are divisions within the US and especially in the Bush administration. Even staunch conservatives have been critical of the policy shift, former UN Ambassador John Bolton referred to the plan as "fundamentally flawed." Yet the White House has shrugged off critics by stating that North Korea has "got to perform" in order to receive more benefits. Many would agree that this is certainly more productive, but North Korea may interpret it differently.

This policy shift may prove to be risky, previously, the Bush administration insisted on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament (CVID) as a precondition to any concessions, yet its recent offers of energy aid may denote that the administration is easily swayed by nuclear blackmail. Of course, a diplomatic resolution is always preferable, but it must be diplomatic in every respect. A tough hard-line stance that immediately shifts to a more conciliatory approach seems weak and indecisive. This only arouses nationalism within North Korea, strengthens the regime and provides states like Iran with an excellent case study to follow.

This recent Action Plan is an important step but it will not be successful unless there is united pressure on Pyongyang to ensure dismantlement of the reactors and nuclear weapons verification. Therefore, carrots such as the discussions involving normalizing diplomatic relations and releasing its frozen assets in the follow-on phase will be critical in cajoling Pyongyang out of its isolation. Eventually, the opening of markets as a means to increase the population to outside influences should be encouraged if not required as part of any future agreement. Future meetings with high-level officials will also be important in conveying the correct message and ensuring that the agreement does not falter.

If there is no considerable progress during the follow-on phase and the Six Party Talks start over again, it will send clear signals to Pyongyang that it has won this round and this perceived victory will make any future negotiation much more difficult. Although many may interpret the recent agreement as a diplomatic breakthrough, high level North Korean officials like Kim Yong Nam perhaps see it otherwise, he recently stated (in the case of a US attack) "we will mercilessly repel the aggressors and achieve reunificationů" reminding us all that Pyongyang has not yet begun to fight.

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