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OVERCOMING MISTRUST

Whither the six-party talks?

by Brad Glosserman

HONOLULU — It has been nine months since the fourth round of six-party talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula concluded with a joint statement of principles. That statement now appears to be the high-water mark of the process rather than a baseline for future negotiations.

Some analysts have already declared the process dead, a judgment that implies tacit acceptance by all parties of a de facto nuclear North Korea.

A private meeting of negotiators from all six parties (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States) in Tokyo in April appeared to confirm suspicions that the talks had stalemated as a result of North Korean objections to U.S. “economic sanctions.”

As the United States steps up economic pressure on North Korea and heightens vigilance in the international banking sector, the North Koreans continue to produce plutonium with their 5 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon.

The Japanese have had one round of bilateral negotiations with North Korea, with no apparent success. South Korean efforts to promote the Kaesong Industrial Zone are ongoing. The top leaders of China and North Korea have exchanged visits and redoubled aid, trade and investment initiatives designed to stabilize and reform the North Korean economy.

In the context of an apparent stalemate in the talks, it is natural to conclude that there is a need for a “Plan B.” One option would involve the formal abandonment of the talks and the pursuit of U.N. Security Council coercive instruments to punish North Korea until it gives up its nuclear-weapons program.

Other measures could include stepped-up sanctions against North Korean illegal activities; strict application of export-control measures and other national laws designed to curtail North Korean counterfeiting, money laundering and other economic activities; enhanced application of the Proliferation Security Initiative to more actively interdict transfers of drugs, arms, missiles or fissile materials.

Some critics have argued that the six-party process never had a chance to succeed in the absence of demonstrated political will at the highest levels to overcome mutual mistrust in both the U.S. and North Korea. China has made this argument, and seems to define its mission as hosts of the six-party process as creating opportunities for the U.S. and North Korea to work out their differences bilaterally.

These critics argue that serious diplomatic efforts to build on the progress represented by the joint statement have not yet begun. According to this view, the U.S. might eliminate doubts about its intention to negotiate a solution, alleviate North Korean security concerns and overcome North Korea’s bureaucratic rigidity by negotiating directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, perhaps through dispatch of a presidential envoy to meet Kim at a neutral site in China or Russia.

Some endorse extended back-channel diplomacy, like that quietly embraced by Britain as a precursor to the decision by Moammar Gadhafi to give up Libya’s nuclear program, might be pursued with North Korea.

Another option might be to seek a negotiating format that enlarges the agenda to address the ongoing causes of confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea by addressing the issue of a permanent peace settlement on the Peninsula. Such an approach would likely win support from other members of the six-party process, many of which have been critical of America’s failure to negotiate seriously with North Korea.

It is likely that, given the harsh rhetoric the Bush administration has used against North Korea, only a high-level diplomatic approach is likely at this stage to convince Kim Jong Il that the U.S. does not seek to overthrow his regime. Such an approach is highly unlikely given that the Bush administration appears to have judged that there is little likelihood that North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear-weapons capability, no matter what the incentives might be.

To date, the six-party process has been seen primarily as a vehicle for enhanced negotiation or, alternatively, for enhanced coercion (in those rare instances when the U.S. has been able to put together a 5-1 stand on a particular issue, such as the warning to Pyongyang not to conduct a nuclear test).

There is little concern that “failed diplomacy” or even extended periods of inactivity will result in the demise of the six-party process; as long as the framework continues to exist, the North Korean nuclear crisis remains “under control.”

The current framework for the six-party mechanism binds the parties together in the shared objective of “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.” This objective has two components: “denuclearization” and in a “peaceful manner.”

The failure of diplomacy would remove a fundamental constraint on the use of military means to resolve peninsular issues.

China’s fundamental interest — the need to maintain the conditions necessary to ensure regional stability — require enforcement of constraints on North Korean crisis-escalation tactics, including the possibility of a nuclear test.

North Korea’s attempts to test or transfer fissile materials would invite U.S. consideration of coercive means to eliminate North Korea’s presumed nuclear capacity. While China is unlikely to intervene with North Korea on behalf of American nonproliferation objectives, further crisis escalation would entail great costs for China and/or South Korea. Therefore, it is in Beijing’s (and Seoul’s, if not Pyongyang’s) interest to ensure that there is no erosion in the fundamental conditions necessary to perpetuate the six-party process.

This logic presumes that while North Korea can continue to produce fissile material at a relatively slow rate, the accumulation of such material will not buy North Korea any additional leverage as long as the six-party mechanism remains intact.

China is the party with the most leverage to determine North Korea’s fate and the critical enforcer of a “red line” beyond which North Korea crosses at peril.

Meanwhile, Washington policymakers deem a mechanism that upholds the status quo to be preferable to a bad compromise or a “second Agreed Framework.” To them the six-party framework’s primary value is as a venue for promoting coordination of coercive measures designed to force North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons programs.

This logic may presume that, eventually, a weakened North Korea that is increasingly penetrated by global economic influences and information flows will have little choice but to negotiate the end of its nuclear program on terms favorable to the U.S. Yet the six-party logic also entails constraints for the U.S., as was illustrated by the outcome of the Sept. 19 Joint Statement, including discussion of the provision of a light-water reactor to North Korea “at an appropriate time.

All parties expect proposals to address the issues of verification, denuclearization, economic and political incentives, and security assurances for North Korea in a positive manner.

It is evident from recent attempts to jump-start the six-party process in Tokyo that the perception that neither the North Koreans nor the Americans are pursuing good-faith negotiations serves only to vitiate the role of the six-party process as a vehicle for negotiations. Perceptions on the part of others that Washington is unwilling to negotiate takes the spotlight off of Pyongyang’s unwillingness to make the “strategic decision” to denuclearize.

Ultimately, serious progress in the six-party negotiation process will require bilateral negotiations with North Korea. A critical prerequisite, however, will be a process to coordinate the application of dialogue and pressure involving both South Korean allies and a China that may not share the same long-term strategic vision for the Korean Peninsula with most Americans (and Japanese).

Until the U.S., South Korea and China concur on a process and outcome for achieving denuclearization, it is unlikely that North Korea will be prepared to make tangible progress toward that objective. The price of Chinese and South Korean cooperation in pursuing coercive measures toward North Korea is likely to be an understanding that the U.S. is also willing to keep North Korea stable and promote gradual reforms.