After almost a three year suspension of the Six Party Talks, there appears to be some new hope of a resumption. All six countries, particularly China, the US and North Korea, are stepping up diplomatic efforts to explore the possibility of a new round of discussions.
Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited North Korea (October 23 to 25) and South Korea (October 26 to 27) for the first consecutive meetings by a Chinese leader with the two Koreas. Li’s visits, of course, were part of annual high-level leaders’ strategic talks between the three nations. Their purpose is to promote the traditional friendship between Beijing and Pyongyang, and the strategic partnership between Beijing and Seoul.
However, in addition to consolidating economic cooperation with the Koreas, Li’s visits were also to facilitate talks between US special representative Stephen Bosworth and North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan in Geneva. In Pyongyang, Li certainly spelled out to North Korea leader Kim Jong-il the importance of showing flexibility in his response to US conditions for resumption of the Six Party Talks. And Li also asked North Korea to resist provocation to keep the peninsula stable and create a better atmosphere for the next stage of the talks. Li emphasized that without further crisis or escalation of confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea would have less reason to block resumption of the talks.
China’s role as a go-between for the two Koreas is largely hampered because of the deep mistrust and division between the two peninsula nations over last years’ sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea has no intention of talking with lame-duck President Lee Myong-bo who it regards as a hard-liner and an enemy.
In order to get the two Koreas to reconcile and resume direct talks, Li Keqiang spent a lot of time persuading Kim Jong-il and Lee Myong-bo to tone down their confrontational stances. His message was don’t create any new crisis and don’t take any new action that would deepen distrust and acrimony. During the Li-Kim Jong-il meeting, the later favored holding direct talks with the South on denuclearization and to relax tension on the peninsula. Li conveyed this message to Lee Myong-bo when he visited Seoul. This, in a way, echoed China’s expectation that South Korea should not block the process of US-North Korea talks.
Almost at the same time, US special representative Stephen Bosworth and North Korea First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan held two days of talks in Geneva from October 24-25. Though they didn’t produce any new breakthroughs, both sides said the results were productive. Bosworth said the two sides narrowed some differences and the talks were useful and candid. His North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, had more positive views, citing “big improvements” in some areas and saying remaining differences will be solved when the sides meet again.
It was the second round of talks within two months. In a previous meeting in New York, the US proposed a detailed roadmap to North Korea for resumption of the Six Party Talks. This included several conditions: stop the uranium enrichment program (UEP); re-invite IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon to monitor all nuclear sites; declare a moratorium on nuclear facilities and missile tests; and, adhere to a 2005 agreement of verifiable denuclearization.
Now, North Korea must make a response to the US but the main obstacle for talks is the UEP. North Korea insists that it has the right to peaceful use of uranium, and this program should not have been part of the denuclearization deal in the Joint Statement issued on September 19, 2005. But the US and South Korea hold that the UEP definitely violated the denuclearization accord and it constituted a nuclear weapons program. The US and North Korea might reach a tentative compromise – North Korea agrees to shut down the UEP for the time being, but reserves the right for peaceful use in the future when denuclearization is completed. It will also ask for an agreement to build light water reactors and get food assistance. North Korea would also agree to let IAEA staff return to Yongbyon to monitor plutonium facilities and stop all tests of nuclear weapons and missiles. However, according to intelligence reports, North Korea probably has 2-3 more secret UEP sites in addition to the Yongbyon facility. This concession, therefore, would not seriously affect North Korea interests.
Generally speaking, both sides now have a feeling of some urgency about the Six Party Talks. Pyongyang wants to mitigate pressure from the international community and avoid being further isolated and punished. It needs grain assistance from America and other countries; it seeks a stable and peaceful period for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung in 2012, a celebration which also is designated as the new start of a powerful and prosperous state. As for the Obama administration, its “strategic patience” hasn’t brought any substantive results other than two grave crises last year on the peninsula. Therefore, it needs to change its strategy to one of “constructive engagement” to manage North Korea’s behavior and avert any future crisis, particularly in the year of an American presidential election.
Therefore, the US and North Korea probably will reach an agreement by the end of this year and decide to start the Six Party Talks early in the new year.
Washington knows quite well that a resumption of talks will not be effective in delivering its goal of denuclearization. Nevertheless, they could be effective in restraining North Korea’s behavior. But this kind of uncertain stability is not reliable in the long term and the US should try its best to maintain peace as long as possible. This new American policy is consistent with China’s tactics and satisfies Beijing’s interests. So the two countries will work together to promote the dialogue.
Liu Ming is Director of International Relations Theory Studies and Center for Korea Studies at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS).