North Korea: Time to resume the Six-Party Talks
The New Year has seen the Korean Peninsula back in the news again. This time, the issue discussed is not the latest nuclear test nor the firing of ballistic missiles but the inter-Korean talks which occurred in the border village of Panmunjom.
At long last, the neglected voice of South Korea can finally be heard with the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean peninsula. The result of the talks sound promising as North Korea is expected to send a delegation of between 400-500 people to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics later this year. Starting off with the renewal of sports diplomacy, the resumption of the dialogue on the nuclear issue between the two Koreas and other interested parties might, and should be, continued well beyond the Olympics.
In the background of the inter-Korean talks, regional players are carefully observing how these initial negotiations are going and what may come next, no more so than the partners of the Six-Party Talks. Since 2009, the Six-Party Talks have made little to no progress in resolving the North Korea crisis. The lack of effectiveness highlights the failure of the mantra of unilateral denuclearization, a policy that North Korea will never accept. Thus, the multilateral talks remain moribund.
Circumstances being what they are, it is logical that if one way doesn’t work, another way should be tried.
There are alternatives to the Six-Party Talks. The most obvious is the United Nations Security Council and their incumbent resolutions. The UN nominally puts increasing pressure on North Korea via sanctions with each and every missile and nuclear test. It can be argued that the pressure of economic sanctions, designed to negatively impact North Korea, are in fact one of the factors fueling the development of its nuclear program.
Another alternative to the Six-Party talks has presented itself in recent days. This is the Vancouver based meeting of the Korean War allies initiated by the US and Canada and planned for January 16th. This meeting, led by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freelandaims, is intended to find a peaceful resolution to the North Korea crisis. However, this ‘Coalition of the Willing’ might make the situation with Pyongyang even worse.
Placing present crises in their historical context, the Korean War in this case, demonstrates how history can be used to understand a problem’s roots. The meeting in Vancouver however has invited states based on their belonging to the military alliance of the Cold War circa 1950. With neither Russia or China in attendance, the signals coming from the Trump Administration do not seem promising. The Cold War narrative is outdated. Questions here may be raised:
1. How exactly is dividing countries along the principles of military alliance of the Cold War helpful in resolving current problems?
2. How exactly can the Vancouver meeting lead to a peaceful resolution in the Korean peninsula when Russia, China, and North Korea, the key partners of the Six-Party Talks, are not represented there?
Russia, China, and North Korea have all shown irritation at the US-Canada initiative. Such ‘mediation’ will more likely push the international community further away from resolving the Korean crisis. In the worst case scenario, the meeting may be seen by Pyongyang as the first steps towards reuniting the participant states of the Korean War for a future conflict.
The main concern however underlying the Vancouver meeting is that this new ad-hoc grouping of states will diminish and even obscure the stagnant Six-Party Talks. Criticising the Six-Party Talks for their ineffectiveness has proven to be far easier than suggesting alternative solutions.
The format of the Six-Party Talks, for all its faults, represented a balance between the United States, Russia and China that North Korea felt comfortable with. Resuming the Six-Party Talks should be the priority for the international community rather than future sanctions or distantly related meetings as those of Vancouver. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for further improvement in the Six-Party Talks. To start off, it’s necessarily to change the rhetoric from ‘denuclearization of North Korea’ to recognizing North Korea’s right as a sovereign country to develop its nuclear capability.
It is now increasingly accepted by analysts that the motivating basis for developing nuclear weapons is the regime survival of the Kim dynasty. The fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi weighs heavily on the mind of Kim Jong Un. The decommissioning of its nuclear program eventually led a NATO-led intervention that saw Gaddafi’s capture and death in 2011. For the United States, Libya was an example of a model for future military operations. North Korea however has a different interpretation of events in North Africa and the international community must acknowledge that.
The nuclear club is managed by the regulations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation. North Korea is by de-facto a nuclear power and should be accepted as such, much as is the case now with India and Pakistan. For its part, the nuclear club should, via the Six Party Talks, begin laying out the conditions whereby a balance of power can be established on the Korean Peninsula between the United States, its allies in Tokyo and Seoul and with Pyonghang. Neither China not Russia are comfortable to have an unpredictable and dangerous neighbour with nuclear weapons. Recognizing nuclear North Korea as a full-fledged fellow will eventually secure the peace and stability on the peninsula.
As published at the Asia Dialogue of the University of Nottingham on January 16, 2018.