The six-party talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis have resumed in Beijing. With a month of consultations at hand, negotiators should be ready to agree on a joint statement that outlines the basic principles of any deal. A failure to release that statement will suggest that there is no basic consensus on the purpose of these talks and that this stage of multilateral diplomacy has run its course.
A deal is possible, but only if North Korea accepts that it must provide a full accounting of its nuclear programs, return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, and accept the norms of international society. Of course, other nations must give in return, but the fundamental responsibility rests on Pyongyang: It will only shoulder those burdens if the other five parties speak with one voice in the negotiations.
The key questions that swirl around North Korea’s nuclear program remain unanswered. Pyongyang has declared that it has nuclear weapons, but other governments are not prepared to accept that assertion. They believe that the reclusive regime continues to be a threat to regional peace and security, however, and demand that it negotiate with them over the fate of its nuclear ambitions.
Four rounds of talks have been held to reach a diplomatic settlement to the thorny problems surrounding Pyongyang’s relations with its neighbors. All parties to the talks — China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States — agree that the end goal is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula achieved through negotiation, not by the threat or use of force. The six governments agree on little more than that meager framework.
The fourth round of talks commenced in July, amid high hopes that the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations had changed and that a deal, or at least the outline of a deal, was possible. The two main protagonists, North Korea and the U.S., seemed to have changed their approaches and appeared more ready to talk to and negotiate with each other. The talks broke up after 13 days, however, as the parties were unable to agree on a joint declaration. After a 37-day recess, the negotiators have reconvened this week to see if that joint declaration is now possible.
A joint statement is a key step, but it is only a first step. Any deal will require a complete accounting for and dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs, its stockpiled uranium and plutonium, and whatever weapons that Pyongyang has claimed to produce. The country must rejoin the NPT and accept International Atomic Energy Agency supervision of its nuclear facilities. In exchange, its neighbors will have to provide security guarantees, energy supplies, economic assistance and diplomatic recognition.
There are other issues — the North’s missile programs, its human-rights record, and its abductions of Japanese citizens, as well as the fate of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of South Korean prisoners of war — but they will be subordinated to a nuclear deal. That is painful for those who champion the cause of the Japanese abductees, but it is a fact nonetheless.
The main sticking point now appears to be North Korea’s right to a peaceful nuclear-energy program. As a sovereign state, Pyongyang argues that it has that right if it agrees to a settlement and returns to the NPT. Tokyo and Washington, fearing that the North would cheat, as it has in the past, are reluctant to agree. It is unclear how important this issue really is. North Korean pride would demand that it not be singled out; if the NPT provides this right, Pyongyang should enjoy it like every other state. On the other hand, this could be a bargaining tactic that the North is using to stall for time, up the ante of any eventual deal, or to try to split the other five parties to the talks. Pyongyang is no doubt closely watching the negotiations between Iran and the European Union, which is dealing with many of these issues. The June Indo-U.S. agreement on nuclear cooperation is also sure to influence North Korean thinking.
The six parties can solve the questions about North Korea’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, which is merely the first of many difficult, and sometimes seemingly intractable, issues that will have to be dealt with during the negotiation and implementation of any eventual deal. This process will be long and cumbersome, punctuated by threats and brinkmanship. A solution can be reached, however, if Pyongyang’s negotiating partners speak with one voice to it about North Korea’s options. There can be no alternative to the abandonment of the North’s nuclear aspirations. Pyongyang must be convinced that it will have no allies if it holds out. If it is ready to deal, and rejoin the international community, then the other five parties — and other governments — should be prepared to help.
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