The next round of six-party talks, the multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs, are scheduled to resume the week of July 25 in Beijing. While it is unclear what motivated North Korea to return to the talks, success will depend on whether the other five parties — Japan, the United States, South Korea, China and Russia — can convince Pyongyang that nuclear weapons do not enhance its security but rather detract from it. To do so, the five governments must work out a strategy that enables them to speak with one voice.

Much has transpired since the last round of talks, which was held over a year ago. At that meeting, the U.S. finally put a detailed proposal on the table: It reportedly provided the long awaited road map that spelled out what Pyongyang could expect in return for agreeing to the dismantlement of its nuclear-weapons programs. Instead of responding, though, the North suspended participation in the talks, citing hostile comments by the government in Washington. Pyongyang was most likely waiting for the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections, hoping for a “regime change” in Washington that would soften the U.S. position. Those hopes were frustrated by the re-election of President George W. Bush, but North Korea continued to hold out, awaiting clarification of U.S. policy.

When things were clarified, Pyongyang remained unhappy with the results. The North demanded that Washington end its “hostile policies” and retract statements calling North Korea “an outpost of tyranny” and referring to supreme leader Kim Jong Il as “a tyrant.” In an attempt to up the ante, North Korea on Feb. 10 declared itself a nuclear-weapons state, a move aimed at transforming relations among the six parties and shifting negotiations from the focus on the North to disarmament throughout the region.

The statement was a tactical mistake. It was ignored, and it helped convince Seoul and Beijing, North Korea’s two most important supporters, that Pyongyang was the cause of this crisis, rather than Washington. As a result, both governments have become less tolerant of the North’s tactics and demanded that it return to the talks. Seoul, in particular, has taken a harder line and conditioned assistance to the impoverished country on a resumption of negotiations. The U.S. has helped by repeating earlier statements that it respects North Korean sovereignty and has no intention of invading or attacking. Mr. Bush has gone out of his way to offer the respect that North Korea’s leader craves by referring to him as “Mr. Kim.”

That may have given North Korea the “victory” it needed to return to the negotiations. South Korea’s promise to provide fertilizer and rice sweetened the pot. Finally, the prospect of 2 million kilowatts of electricity — Seoul’s latest offer to the North, conditioned on the dismantling of its nuclear program — gives Pyongyang an incentive to discuss the U.S. proposal.

Getting the North back to the table is a step forward, but it is only that; talks for the mere sake of talking is not progress. There must be genuine movement toward eliminating North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs and dismantling the stockpiles of plutonium and whatever weapons the North now claims to have. Getting Pyongyang to do that requires that the other five parties speak with one voice and insist on denuclearization. Those other five parties must also be ready to meet North Korea’s legitimate security needs. Some form of security assurances are needed, as is economic assistance.

Resumption of the talks poses particular problems for Japan. It, perhaps more than any other country, is threatened by the North’s nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang is unlikely to target China, Russia or South Korea, and does not yet have the capability to threaten the U.S. with its missiles. Disarmament is therefore a key security concern for Japan. But questions about the fate of Japanese abductees still top the public’s agenda with the North. This issue, although emotional, pales beside the nuclear one.

Japan must be ready to compromise. It can and should demand security assurances from North Korea, just as Pyongyang makes demands from its interlocutors. But it is unlikely to get more than rhetorical support for resolution of the abductee issue within the six-party framework. The other governments will focus on nuclear-related questions and large-scale economic assistance, as well as on a broader conceptual framework for normalizing relations among all six parties.

That is the setting in which Tokyo and Pyongyang will be able to settle the abductee issue. It is not going to be a very satisfactory situation, but it is important that Tokyo focus on priorities. Only a unified position will get North Korea to deal, and only then will Japan be able to settle its grievances with Pyongyang. It will be a long and frustrating process.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.