Six-party soap opera set to restart
By Andrei Lankov
Recent talks between China's President Xi Jinping and Vice Marshall Ch'oe Ryong-hae, North Korea's special envoy to China, produced a rather unexpected result: North Korea agreed to resume the six-party nuclear talks.
This is a remarkable about face on the part of the North Koreans, since the last round of the six-party talks took place in 2007, and in 2009 the talks were officially pronounced dead (well, discontinued). From the Chinese point of view, the decision to restart this diplomatic soap opera might appear to be a minor victory because China has always expressed much desire to keep the six-party talks alive (even when this meant keeping them on life support).
In recent months, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have
deteriorated considerably - to the point where the Chinese government ordered some Chinese banks to limit transactions involving North Korea and allowed government media to run material critical of Pyongyang. Vice Marshall Ch'oe was dispatched to Beijing to alleviate these tensions, which may become highly problematic for North Korea in the long-run. China is by far the North's most important trading partner and sponsor.
The principle cause of China's dissatisfaction was the recent reckless behavior of North Korea. In March and April, Pyongyang undertook a remarkably intense tension-building campaign, at one point it went so far as to threaten "retaliatory nuclear strikes" against South Korea and the United States, as well as demanding the immediate evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Pyongyang (as war was allegedly imminent).
Such bellicosity is a step up, but is nonetheless part of a pattern of behavior designed to induce outside parties - that is, the United States and South Korea - to pay in the form of aid to make North Korea to calm down.
In this particular case, North Korea's saber-rattling led to a significant increase in the US military activities in the region and also made some people wonder whether North Koreans were indeed going to start major confrontation. Since tensions in North East Asia clearly do not serve China's long-term interests, Beijing felt annoyed about Pyongyang's behavior.
When Vice Marshall Ch'oe was sent to meet the angry and uneasy Chinese, he said that this time the North was willing to take Chinese advice seriously. We can therefore surmise that Chinese diplomats and political leaders have regained their peace of mind vis-a-vis Pyongyang - and the decision to revive Beijing's pet project, no doubt, helped.
The six-party talks were initiated in 2003. The "six parties" are North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. Ostensibly, the aim of the talks was to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea through some kind of diplomatic magic. In 2005, the talks resulted in the Joint Declaration of the six parties' intention to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. In exchange for its supposed willingness to surrender its nuclear program, North Korea expected that other participants would reward Pyongyang with monetary payments and political concessions.
Taking into account that the 2005 declaration was signed exactly when North Korean scientists and engineers were preparing their country's first nuclear test, it remains uncertain whether the North Korean side ever took it seriously. It is more likely that from the very beginning the declaration was seen merely as a way to win time.
Whatever the reason, in October 2006 North Korea tested its first nuclear device. Two more tests followed, in 2009 and 2013, each more powerful than the previous one. In December 2012, North Korea also successfully tested a prototype long-range missile. In the meantime, the North Korean government declared that their country would remain a nuclear country in perpetuity, thus making the 2005 Joint declaration null and void. In 2012, the North Korean Constitution was revised to include the clause that officially declared North Korea to be a nuclear-armed nation.
What, then, does the revival of the six-party talks mean in practical terms? How can North Korea's unequivocal self-declared status as a nuclear power be reconciled with its participation in talks whose sole purpose is its denuclearization?
It is quite likely that such thorny issues will be glossed over by the talk's participants - that is of course assuming that the talks will indeed resume.
The North Koreans have changed their stance regarding the six-party talks, above all, to placate China. This is understandable, given that Chinese diplomats have gone to great lengths to stress the talk's importance. From the very beginning, the six-party talks have been hosted in Beijing, and the Chinese government has expressed satisfaction that Beijing has taken the lead in such an important diplomatic event. Therefore, the Chinese government has been rather offended by North Korea's leaving of the talks.
What of the other parties? There is little doubt that Russia will seek to take an active role because otherwise it has few opportunities to have an impact on the North Korean situation. The same can also be said about Japan, which shares the back seat in this vehicle with Russia.
And what about the attitudes of Washington and Seoul? It seems that the new administration in the South is not in a confrontational mood with the North, and is therefore likely to soften up the hardline policy followed by its predecessor.
Washington's reaction is somewhat more difficult to predict. On the one hand, the United States has said that it would not reenter any serious negotiations with North Korea, let alone provide it with any kind of assistance, until North Korea accepts denuclearization as a final goal of negotiations and also takes some "significant" steps towards this goal. On the other hand, the majority of people within the political establishment in Washington understand perfectly well that the said demands are essentially a non-starter because North Korea clearly has not the slightest intention to consider such options.
Indeed, for North Korea, its nuclear program - however imperfect - plays a major strategic role.
First, the North Korean elite see nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent, perfect insurance against foreign attack, the best means by which to ensure that the Kim family regime does not suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.
Second, nuclear weapons are a vital diplomatic tool whose presence makes a weak and impoverished North Korean state a relatively international player. Third, like it or not, the existence of the nuclear program is seen by many average North Koreans as a source of pride and therefore helps to legitimize the government. It is inconceivable that North Korea will surrender its nuclear weapons given the aforementioned benefits.
If so, how can North Korea justify its return to the six-party talks? Perhaps some deliberately nebulous statement will suffice - such as, say, a professed commitment to denuclearization at some point in the distant and unspecified future. After all, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) theoretically commits all its participants - including the nuclear great powers - to the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, but who in Washington, Moscow and Beijing has ever taken such a commitment seriously?
There is virtually no reason to hope that the six-party talks are going to deliver what they are ostensibly meant to deliver. However, they are nonetheless useful insofar as such interactions help to defuse tensions. Talks will also provide all interested parties with a convenient forum for interested parties to discuss security issues related to the Korean peninsula. Such a forum may prove useful when another crisis arises.
So, as a hippy might say, "let's make talk not war!" When making talks, though, let us also remember that negotiations can only get you so far.
Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)