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A Matter of Respect on Korean Peninsula

Oct 09, 2020

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the release of the Sept.19, 2005, Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks on the Korea nuclear issue. Despite all the changes on and surrounding the Korean Peninsula over the past 15 years, the goal, principles and ideas the Joint Statement established still remain a profound source of inspiration. 

It remains clear in my memory that in February 2003 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of the George W. Bush administration visited China to lobby the Chinese side to mediate the Korea nuclear issue. It was a brand new proposal at the time — the Bush government was in an all-out war on terror and needed China’s collaboration and assistance in security affairs in the Asia-Pacific. The Korea nuclear issue presented a new opportunity for China and the United States to engage in cooperation over a significant international concern.

Two months after Powell’s visit, representatives of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the U.S. carried out three-party talks, and officially initiated the six-party talks by China, the DPRK, U.S., Republic of Korea, Russia and Japan. The process of negotiation was very difficult: What was the purpose of the DPRK’s nuclear program? Why does it want to develop nuclear capacities? What’s the U.S. purpose regarding the DPRK? Can security guarantees be made to Pyongyang? The U.S. and DPRK, as direct stakeholders, found themselves bogged down in endless wrangling over these key topics. Trust was in extremely short supply.   

Yet only two years later, the Sept. 19 Joint Statement was issued at the second-phase meeting of the fourth round of the six-party talks, the core content of which was the DPRK pledging to forsake all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, to return to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as soon as possible and to come back under IAEA oversight — with the U.S. making sure no nuclear weapon exists on the Korean Peninsula and that it had no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons, as well as both countries promising to take steps toward normalizing relations. The third-phase meeting of the sixth round of the six-party talks reached the Feb. 13, 2007, Six-Party Agreement on starting moves in implementing the Joint Statement. 

Looking back, these accomplishments were the fruits of the stakeholders reaching consensus on two matters of principle: First, awareness of the need to prevent war from repeating itself on the peninsula. On such a precondition, the parties built minimum trust, and were willing to remain at the negotiating table. Second, to sustain the negotiations the parties realized while sticking to their own bottom lines that they must also consider other countries’ interests and concerns and find ways for compromise.

In order to facilitate consensus, China, as the chair-country, maneuvered tirelessly day and night. Negotiators for the U.S. and DPRK — both interested parties — made earnest efforts, on one hand exploring the path for “denuclearization for security,” and on the other trying to find a balance between nonproliferation and national security goals. 

In the beginning, the U.S. State Department prohibited its own negotiators from direct contact with those of the DPRK. In order to facilitate progress, all other participating parties tried hard to create opportunities and conditions for the two parties’ de facto bilateral communication. The ROK, Russia and Japan also had their interests and concerns, but everyone was preoccupied with the big picture of peninsula denuclearization, peace and stability.  

The Sept. 19 Joint Statement was important because it not only set the clear common goal of peninsula denuclearization and the corresponding obligations participating parties should shoulder individually and collectively but also established the basic principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action” — which was a precious diplomatic legacy, as well as the crystallization of collective wisdom that has since been the fundamental logic, even after the six-party talks came to a halt.

Unfortunately, the consensus hasn’t been fully implemented in real life: Pyongyang found that Washington neither honored its promise of providing energy aid nor forsook hostile policies against it; Washington believed Pyongyang was continuing to secretly develop nuclear weapons, and U.S. intelligence agencies invoked sanctions against the latter on such allegations as “overseas money-laundering,” and “smuggling missile parts.” The foundation of mutual confidence that took the parties great pains to build collapsed thereafter. The DPRK finally resumed and pushed ahead with its nuclear program, and the U.S. imposed harsher sanctions in response. The six-party talks mechanism was frozen in 2010 as tensions between the two Koreas escalated. 

Reflecting on the cause of the stagnation of the six-party talks, one in-depth reason was that the U.S. was unwilling to recognize the DPRK’s reasonable security concerns nor ready to abandon its obsession with regime change in the DPRK.

I experienced personally the launch and early stage of the six-party talks, and have paid continuous attention to the Korea nuclear issue. Through contacts with American scholars and negotiators at different stages, I have the impression that the U.S. side tends to judge the DPRK based on its own assumptions — for instance, the assumption that Pyongyang’s security concerns were mere excuses, the fundamental purpose of which was to support nuclear blackmail. Such speculative voices resulted in U.S. hesitation to deal with the DPRK, taking two steps back after three forward. Hence a stable rhythm in negotiations could not be maintained. Throughout the evolution of the Korea nuclear issue, every time talks were started, an atmosphere of peace would prevail; each time negotiations hit a snag, nuclear risks surged.

The U.S. side completely abandoned serious negotiation with the DPRK in the Obama era.  Disappointed, the DPRK became bent on the research, development and testing of nuclear weapons and the missiles that carry them. And it made continuous progress. When the U.S. side once again showed clear willingness for negotiation and improving ties, and when Rex Tillerson, the first secretary of state in the Trump administration, offered “Four Nos” (not seek regime change, collapse of the DPRK regime, accelerated unification of the Korean Peninsula or excuses for crossing the 38th Parallel), the DPRK quickly responded very positively.

There should be no denying that the ROK played an essential role in facilitating the new round of U.S.-DPRK engagement. The two meetings of U.S. and DPRK heads of state and the exchanges of multiple letters in a short period of time was unimaginable when the six-party talks were initiated. The Chinese side is happy with the progress. The fundamental reason for this round of U.S.-DPRK engagement again ending in miscarriage was the fact that the U.S. side did not change its condescending approach, was too rigorous and anxious about denuclearization and was still unable to take substantial steps toward addressing DPRK concerns.   

Circumstances have changed a lot with the passage of time. It’s even more difficult to create a basis for new negotiations in the future. One important change taking place is that the overall atmosphere and nature of China-U.S. relations are undergoing changes, as Washington is pushing bilateral ties toward a pattern of strategic rivalry. The end result may be pending, but their willingness for cooperation on major international and regional affairs will inevitably be affected.  

Still I believe two things remain unchanged. One is that the will of all parties to accomplish denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and to preserve peace and stability in Northeast Asia is clear; no party is willing, or dares, to stir up a war on the peninsula. Reportedly the U.S. side indeed once considered resolving the issue militarily in the early days of the Trump administration, but the option was abandoned after an evaluation of the risks and consequences. The other is that the DPRK needs a peaceful, safe external environment to guarantee it can concentrate on developing its economy and improving people’s livelihoods at home.

Nuclear weapons won’t meet a nation’s need for food. Everyone knows it. Why should the DPRK not give up nuclear weapons, which have severely worsened its external environment, if it can receive a real and effective security guarantee? 

When I contacted DPRK officials in early 2000, most of the questions they asked me were about China’s reform and opening-up, and especially its experience with economic development. The DPRK once claimed it would follow a policy of pursuing parallel progress in economic and nuclear development. I had the feeling that the focus of the policy was on the economy, rather than on nuclear development, and the most important subject was finding a way out via developing the economy.

Pyongyang was actually trying to make a choice between two options: being accepted and finding opportunities for development, or closing its doors to the rest of the world and developing nuclear capacity for self-protection. The DPRK has suffered repeated frustrations while trying to pursue the first option, and once it opts for the second it will forsake communication with the outside world, and strive to guarantee its own security through possession of nuclear arms. Is this what we are after? So we should not give up, and instead strive to welcome the DPRK back into the international community.

I’ve visited the DPRK many times, and have profound respect for the people there. The DPRK is a country that cherishes dignity and independence. Though living conditions are harsh for many families, I saw the tenacity in the character of the Korean nation, and everyone was working hard. I still remember the Korean home I visited in 2003. Although it was shabby, it was very clean and tidy. I also saw children singing and playing games in kindergarten. Today those children should have become parents, but to them history seems to have come to a standstill.  

The Korea nuclear issue has long bogged down in the downward spiral of “nuclear test, sanctions, dialogue, new nuclear test, new sanctions.” But it also reveals that no matter how dramatically divergent the parties are, dialogue is always the key to resolving complex international issues. Diplomacy can always find a way to “unknot” impasses.

As a result of more than six decades of vicissitudes, the peninsula issues are a lot more complicated than they look. Their resolution will take benevolence, patience and perseverance, and all stakeholders should avoid making requests that can’t be met at present. They should leave some room in order for every party to feel comfortable. It would be a considerable feat to just keep the process alive. Hopefully each party will make efforts, simultaneously promote peninsula denuclearization and peace mechanisms and finally set up a more inclusive security regime in the region so that all countries’ security needs get a reasonable guarantee.  

For China, the process of the six-party talks — a significant achievement of which was the Sept. 19 Joint Statement — is an important practice of playing its role as a responsible major country. It is of groundbreaking significance for China to try to mediate regional hot spot issues, conduct multilateral diplomacy, shape the peripheral security environment and expand China-U.S. cooperation. It provides rich lessons to be learned.

The six-party talks haven’t resumed yet; and the potential risks of fresh back-and-forth surrounding the Korea nuclear issue still exist. As a direct stakeholder in peninsula issues, China won’t allow war and chaos to come back to the peninsula, nor should it forsake the initiative to participate in coordinating peninsula affairs.   

(The article marks the 15th anniversary of the Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005, released by participants in the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue.)

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