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Is It Really Possible To Get Back To Six Party Talks?

by Scott A. Snyder
May 15, 2014

6PT 2006 Top envoys from six countries join hands on the eve of the resumption of Six Party Talks in Beijing on December 17, 2006. Pictured, from left, are South Korea's Chung Yung-Woo, Japan's Kenichiro Sasae, the United States' Christopher Hill, China's Wu Dawei, North Korea's Kim Kye-Gwan and Russia's Sergey Razov (Frederic J. Brown/Courtesy: Reuters).

At her joint press conference with President Barack Obama last month in Seoul, South Korean president Park Geun-hye stated against the backdrop of apparent preparations by North Korea to conduct a fourth nuclear test that such a test could trigger a nuclear arms race and would spell the end of efforts to resume Six Party Talks. South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se subsequently said that a fourth North Korean nuclear test would be a “gamechanger.” North Korea appears to have delayed plans for a test that many had expected might be timed to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Asia, but all indications are that North Korea is poised to go ahead with a fourth test at any time.

Park’s negative assessment of prospects for renewed Six Party Talks surely must have raised the eyebrows of Ambassador Wu Dawei and his colleagues in the Chinese foreign ministry who have shuttled back and forth between Pyongyang and Washington for months in an effort to close the gap between Washington and Pyongyang over conditions for a return to Six Party Talks. The momentum for China’s diplomatic push resulted in part from an understanding between Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping at last June’s Sunnylands summit that North Korean denuclearization would be a priority area of cooperation as part of establishing a “new type of great power relationship.” Park herself was warmly welcomed in Bejing only weeks following the summit in a visit that sent a clear message regarding China’s pique at Kim Jong-un’s reckless endangerment of Chinese interests through North Korea’s continued provocations.

But despite its efforts, Beijing has found itself unable to close the gap between a North Korea whose chief representative for nuclear matters stated his country’s willingness to return to Six Party Talks “without preconditions” and an Obama administration that, in the wake of the failure of the February 2012 Leap Day Understanding, needs to see North Korea back up its verbal commitments to denuclearization with concrete actions. Ambassador Cui Tiankai described U.S. expectations for the commitments China should extract from North Korea as a “mission impossible,” and there has been speculation that the administration may “lower the bar” for a return to Six Party Talks at the request of Beijing by resuming the talks before requiring North Korea to take any actions toward denuclearization.

Park’s statements have consistently observed that North Korea must abandon its simultaneous pursuit of both nuclear and economic development, much to North Korea’s dismay. But North Korea’s byungjin policy, which casts nuclear development firmly within the national goals, means Pyongyang’s pledge to international audiences that denuclearization is the “behest” of two deceased former leaders is not credible. However, rather than focusing on which concrete actions from North Korea are necessary to resume Six Party negotiations, the United States should be telling Beijing that its minimum necessary requirement is for Beijing to secure an authoritative commitment from North Korea’s top leadership to denuclearization, preferably through an unambiguous public statement to that effect by Kim Jong-un.

Given North Korea’s apparent objective of obtaining recognition as a nuclear weapons state, gaining an explicit commitment from North Korea’s top leader to denuclearize truly may be a “mission impossible.” But in the absence of such a statement, Park is right that it simply makes no sense to resume Six Party Talks unless there is a real chance that they can achieve their originally designated main purpose of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Park will have the opportunity to make precisely that case directly to Xi during his visit to Seoul in June this year. An even harder challenge will be the task of convincing Xi that China’s long-term interests are best served by finally cutting its losses in Pyongyang.

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