The Six-Party Talks have had their day: time for an expanded dialogue

Author: Leszek Buszynski, ANU

The Six-Party Talks have had their day and reviving them would only bring about more disappointment and recrimination. A better option would be to add more parties to the negotiations to balance out China’s influence as the dominant regional power.

The talks made sense when they were first convened in August 2003 to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. The Hu Jintao government was concerned that the Bush administration would resort to force as it had done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beijing also feared that the North’s nuclear program would push Japan and South Korea closer to forming an anti-China grouping with the US, and release the constraints preventing Japan from rearming and developing nuclear weapons of its own. This considerations meant that China was willing to work with other parties and assume the pivotal role of a mediator in the talks, while being constrained by its special relationship with the North.

As the key player in the talks China ensured the participation of a reluctant North and made it possible for parties to reach the September 2005 agreement (which is still regarded as the basis of a possible solution). But Beijing’s actions also gave North Korea ample opportunity to play upon rivalries and tensions between the US and China, and to string out negotiations indefinitely. During the negotiations, China, Russia and South Korea’s shared concerns about the Bush administration’s forceful approach saw them form an alignment bloc that thwarted America’s insistence on dismantling the North’s nuclear program up front under the Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement approach.

North Korea used this time to develop its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, testing its first nuclear device on 9 October 2006, its second on 25 May 2009 and its third on 12 February 2013. The US lost faith in the Six-Party Talks and doubted China’s willingness to press the North over the issue. The Americans were eventually obliged to move to bilateral talks with North Korea in the Berlin Talks of January 2007. But by that time the North had already tested its first nuclear device and demanded to be treated as a nuclear power. The US would not recognise the North’s nuclear status so Pyongyang finally withdrew from the talks in April 2009.

During this process, China’s and Russia’s actions encouraged the North in its provocations. When Beijing and Moscow watered down UN Security Council resolutions which were intended to condemn the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, the North understood that it could resort to ballistic missile and nuclear tests without losing China’s support. As China began to take a harder line against the US and its territorial disputes with Japan in the South China Sea North Korea became more important to it as an ally. Beijing lost its position as mediator in the talks as it reassessed the North’s importance as an ally against America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea and its military deployments in Northeast Asia.

China has often called for a revival of the Six-Party Talks and regularly pressed the North into agreement. But little progress can be expected if the Six-Party Talks are re-convened. China would line up again with North Korea and Russia, creating an alignment against the US, South Korea and Japan. China would feign anger against North Korea for the purpose of persuading the Americans that it would Isupport it in the negotiations but it would still attempt to obtain their tolerance of North Korea’s nuclear status, if only to promote a long-term solution to the issue. A Chinese solution would demand long term economic support to encourage the regime to reform and open up, a risky approach to nuclear non-proliferation because it would also suspend pressure upon the North to surrender its nuclear weapons program.

Rather than revive the failed Six-Party Talks the US, South Korea and Japan should move to a wider dialogue which would bring in other players. This has been proposed before. As early as 1994, the Russian Foreign Ministry proposed an international conference which would be directed at devising a comprehensive solution to the Korean peninsula. In 2003, American Secretary of State Colin Powell also called for a ‘multilateral approach’ and mentioned Six-Party Talks plus ‘other countries’ which were not identified.

The US should revive Powell’s proposal which would add other parties to the negotiations to balance the China–North Korea–Russia alignment and include international agencies concerned with nuclear proliferation. It could be an eight-party format which would involve the six parties, plus ASEAN, the International Atomic Energy Association, Australia and India; alternatively it could be expanded to ten parties by including the UN Secretary General and the EU. The important feature of the expanded grouping would be to shift the negotiations regarding the Korean peninsula from the regional level, where China would be dominant, to the global level with the involvement of a wider group of concerned actors. This would add balance to the negotiations, and would prevent any departure from nuclear non proliferation policy. It would also avert a situation where the price of agreement is recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

Dr Leszek Buszynski is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.