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The North Korean Nuclear Problem: Hopes and Realities of Five-Party Talks
File : North_Korean_Problem_Five_Party_Talks.doc
2009.07.01   6425 
The North Korean Nuclear Problem: Hopes and Realities of Five-Party Talks
Dong-A Ilbo 2009-06-30

Han Sung-Joo, Professor Emeritus, Korea University; Former Minister of Foreign Affairs


At the height of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2004, the Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry engaged in a fierce debate over the Six-Party Talks. Senator Kerry argued that U.S.-North Korea bilateral negotiations should be held within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, whereas Bush’s position was that the U.S. should not hold bilateral talks with North Korea. The reason why the Bush administration refused to deal bilaterally with North Korea at that time was because North Korea, having admitted during one-on-one talks with the United States in 2002 that it had a highly enriched uranium program, later denied having such a program. The U.S. insisted on including Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China in the Six-Party Talks not only to prevent North Korea from reneging on its promises, but also to ensure that these countries would share the burden of implementation and help guarantee an agreement if the parties were to reach one.

China became an active supporter of the Six-Party Talks even more so than the United States, not only by participating in the negotiations but also by taking a leadership role in them. Russia, Japan, and Korea’s participation in the Six-Party Talks also helped them gain a stronger foothold for engaging in the North Korean nuclear problem. In the beginning North Korea was not very keen on the Six-Party Talks, but seeing that the negotiations could serve as a pretext for engaging in bilateral talks with the United States, it joined them reluctantly. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the primary reason why South Korea was able to play a mediating role between the U.S. and North Korea, was because South Korea had adopted an engagement policy towards the North.

The United States embarked on serious negotiations with North Korea after its first nuclear weapons test in October 2006. The Bush administration realized that while it had insisted on CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement), the U.S. wound up giving North Korea more opportunity and time to operate its nuclear facilities and produce more nuclear weapons. Thus, the U.S. began engaging in one-on-one talks with North Korea and on February 13, 2007 they eventually arrived at a three-stage agreement to freeze, disable, and dismantle the North Korean nuclear program.

Means to Restart the Six-Party Talks

After the February 13 agreement, North Korea kept its nuclear facilities frozen for two years and continued to participate in discussions on disablement until 2008. For North Korea, its nuclear program had entered a period of dormancy. At some point, however, North Korea decided to start producing nuclear materials and building nuclear facilities again. The decision seems to have been made so that North Korea could bring about the reality of both its nuclear and missile programs. The decision took more concrete form beginning with its rejection of the verification protocol in December of last year and continued to take shape with the subsequent missile launch and second nuclear test carried out this year. These sets of actions have lead to the conclusion that North Korea already has a pre-set schedule with the objective of perfecting its nuclear and missile technology. While recently resuming its nuclear activities, North Korea also declared that it would not return to the Six-Party Talks. Moreover, it announced that it would pursue development of a uranium enrichment program. It appears that since it has come out in the open with the existence of a uranium enrichment program, North Korea plans to embark on a scheme for mass producing nuclear weapons. While directly challenging the UN Security Council’s decision to apply sanctions, North Korea intends to accelerate its nuclear weapons production.

Under the circumstances, it is unclear whether North Korea will respond positively to the urging of the five parties for North Korea to return to the Six-Party Talks. Even if North Korea were to come back to the multilateral talks in return for rewards from China as it has done in the past, one cannot expect that the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem will be necessarily linked to its participation. Thus, as long as North Korea refuses to return to the Six-Party Talks, a separate set of diplomatic efforts will need to be made in conjunction with the UN Security Council’s resolution that imposes sanctions on North Korea. For the time being, the only diplomatic option available appears to be the renewal of active consultations and talks, minus North Korea, among the five parties to the Six-Party Talks. However, some serious precautions need to be taken.

First, the five-party talks should not be conducted in the same manner as the Six-Party Talks. It would not be necessary for the delegations of the five-party talks to meet at the same venue and have meetings on a regular basis. There could be a meeting with as few as two parties or anywhere from three to five parties. Second, it might be possible to hold the talks at the ministerial level or at the summit level. The meeting could take place at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) where all the foreign ministers of the five parties will be present or at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) where all the heads of state are expected to attend. Third, the five-party talks should not be pursued as a replacement for the Six-Party Talks; rather, they should be pursued as a means to resume the Six-Party Talks. As the Six-Party Talks helped facilitate the bilateral meetings between the United States and North Korea in the past, so too must the five-party talks contribute to restarting the Six-Party Talks.

Pressure • Diplomacy • Inducement

Finally, the five-party talks itself cannot become a diplomatic objective. In other words, even if the five-party talks are successfully implemented we should not be satisfied that a diplomatic goal has been achieved. Just because there is a meeting among the foreign ministers or the leaders of the five parties, this does not mean that it will lead to a resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem. One should avoid having too many expectations or engaging in too much elaborate packaging. China, being extremely wary of North Korea’s reaction, has adopted a reserved stance [toward the five-party negotiations proposal]. As long as South Korea and the United States consider taking precautions with regard to the three aforementioned items, there is no reason for China to reject such talks. Measures for resolving the North Korean nuclear problem should be pursued by utilizing the following three pillars: sanctions as a way of applying “pressure,” reactivating talks among the five parties as a way to engage “diplomacy,” and offering rewards for cooperation as a method for “inducing.”


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