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North Korea and the 'six-party talks': a road to nowhere

About the author
David Wall is an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House.
The six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions have stalled. There has been no meeting of the negotiating partners – the United States, Japan, Russia, South Korea, China, and North Korea itself – since the fifth session in mid-November 2005, and no plans have been announced for a sixth session.

The most recent informal series of meetings in Tokyo between representatives of the parties – on the margins of a two-day international gathering of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue – ended on 12 April without agreement, which most delegates blamed on an unbridgeable gulf between Washington and Pyongyang.

The North Koreans have made their attendance at a sixth session conditional – they have said that they will not rejoin the talks while the US is imposing sanctions against them, on grounds of their alleged counterfeiting of US currency and involvement in the international drug trade.

Does it matter that the talks have stalled? Should the international community be worried? These questions can be answered by clarifying the very different objectives and preferred strategies of the six participants.

David Wall is an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House

Also by David Wall in openDemocracy:

"China: the plan and the party" (April 2006)

A kaleidoscope of views

It is worth recalling that the origins of the six-party talks are charges made by the United States that North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons. Washington produced no evidence for this, but in any case the talks came to be justified when the North Koreans stated that they had more than a nuclear-weapon research programme: they already possessed some nuclear bombs. Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is the stated objective of the talks, which (there being no nuclear weapons in South Korea, it is said) requires the North Koreans to give up their weapons and close down their nuclear-research programme.

The aim seems simple, but it is complicated by other – probably mutually inconsistent – objectives being sought by the six parties.

The US wants the North Koreans to give up not just their weapons-orientated nuclear programme but the possibility in perpetuity of using nuclear power to generate electricity. The North Koreans have demanded a light-water reactor to produce electricity as a reward for giving up nuclear weapons, a demand that the US has rejected. The US also wants to include in the talks discussions on their allegations that North Korea is engaging in counterfeiting US currency and the illegal weapons trade, and perpetrating human-rights abuses. Many people in Washington would also like regime change in Pyongyang. Moreover, the framers of these demands want all this (well, maybe not the regime change) before any aid or development support is provided to North Korea.

China definitely does not want any regime change. It supports denuclearisation, but otherwise wants to maintain the status quo, and certainly does not want any solution that involves any US military presence in North Korea. To this end it continues to support the Pyongyang regime by supplying food, oil, other essentials and greater investment in industry and commerce. Beijing is also providing very visible diplomatic support. Trade between the two countries is growing, as is the number of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea. No conditions are attached to this economic cooperation. China has specifically refused to bring any pressure on North Korea to force it to meet the US's objectives.

The South Koreans want reunification – at least formally, though the feelings of many (especially the young who are aware of the German precedent and worry about the costs) are mixed. They are, however, going ahead with a programme of engagement aimed at economic reintegration with the north, without any conditions attached – very little monitoring is applied to the use of the food aid and fertiliser they supply. The number of South Koreans visiting the north is increasing rapidly, and investment by South Korean firms – particularly at the Kaesong industrial complex – is expanding rapidly, as fast as the infrastructure can be developed. There is no talk of human-rights issues and certainly not about regime change – this is the country that provided $500 million for a photo-opportunity of its president drinking champagne with North Korea's "dear leader" Kim Jong Il.

Russia, apart from supporting denuclearisation, has not really said much. When I was in Moscow recently and asked a senior official what were Russia's views on developments in North Korea he just said "passive". Vladimir Putin may have visited Pyongyang in July 2000, early in his presidency, but there is still a lot of nervousness in Moscow about strengthening links between independently-minded depopulating southeast Russia and northwest North Korea. Local political leaders in Russia's maritime province have been told to go easy on developing links – other than bringing in Korean labourers to make up for the declining Russian workforce.

There is scepticism about rebuilding the railroad through North Korea that would allow the Trans-Siberian railway from Europe to be extended to Pusan in South Korea. Russia does, however, share China's opposition to anything that would bring about a stronger US presence on its border; it might even invite North Korea to join the anti-American Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Japan is not really taking part in the talks anymore. Tokyo is fixated on the estimated seventy Japanese citizens who were abducted from its shores (and sometimes from abroad) by the North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan is not interested in North Korea's internal human-rights situation, nor in interrogating its own complicity in past human-rights abuse when it ruled the Korean peninsula (a mining firm linked to the family of foreign minister Taro Aso is alleged by the South Koreans to have been among the many Japanese companies that forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans into slave-labour during the colonial period). The Japanese insist that the issue of abduction of their citizens is addressed in the six-party talks; the North Koreans refuse this. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find anything constructive in Japan's position on North Korea.

The picture is plain. The Chinese, South Koreans and Russians refuse to pressurise the North Koreans, and even support them economically and diplomatically; the North Koreans refuse to talk to the Americans and Japanese; so the North Koreans can get on with developing their nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them. The Japanese and the Americans recognise this and respond by putting more effort into strengthening their increasingly expensive military alliance in order to "contain" an ever-more frustrated and hostile North Korea.

In these circumstances, the stalling of the six-party talks may be the least of the world's worries in northeast Asia.

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