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A return to the Six-Party Talks?

In diplomacy, as in comedy, timing is everything. Recent diplomatic signals suggest that the time for a return to the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program has arrived—even if the incentives of the participating countries do not match.

The Six-Party Talks, involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States, seek a negotiated end to the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The talks started in August 2003 and have been effectively stalled since 2008. Since that time, relations between the two Koreas have deteriorated, culminating in the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the November 2010 North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

North Korean incentives

At this stage, there appears to be no clear long-term strategic incentive for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The program has to date maintained international focus on North Korea, and allowed it to obtain substantial concessions, which have strengthened the regime. The examples of Iraq and Libya demonstrate that abandoning the threat of a nuclear weapons program weakens a regime's ability to resist external pressure for reform.

Further, the domestic narrative on the issue in North Korea runs contrary to current diplomatic signals seeking a return to the talks. The domestic narrative demonstrates no intent to abandon the nuclear program, but rather continues to demonstrate a conviction to its further development.

However, at this stage, there appear to be several clear short-term incentives for North Korea to recommence negotiations with South Korea and the US. The Six-Party Talks could provide North Korea with:
  • aid and relaxation of sanctions to alleviate its deteriorating economic situation;
  • concessions to demonstrate strength as planning for political succession continues; and
  • increased negotiating leverage as it balances major power interests.
 Accordingly, North Korean aims are focused on short-term goals. It appears highly likely that negotiations would proceed until North Korea has obtained maximum concessions without impact on its long-term strategic aim of developing a nuclear weapons program. Several commentators have convincingly argued that considerably stronger disincentives should be communicated to North Korea on a return to the Six Party Talks.

South Korean incentives

The history of negotiation with North Korea on nuclear issues does not provide for much optimism. This suggests that there are other incentives pushing the resumption of the Six-Party Talks in South Korea. These could include:
  • presidential legacy—the desire to secure a 'legacy' in inter-Korean affairs is apparent in the administration's current efforts. With one year left in the five-year presidential term, there remains time for a summit meeting and an agreement on North-South cooperation.
  • electoral pressure—the Lee administration is making moves to play down its hard line North Korea policy. Conservatives fear a voter backlash if North Korea becomes a major issue in the National Assembly and Presidential elections in April 2012 and December 2012, respectively.
  • political pressure—in emotional terms, the prolific images of malnutrition and hungry children emanating from North Korea outweighs the equally prolific images of military parades and overweight leaders. Accordingly, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in South Korea are pushing politicians to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea. Indirect pressure is also applied through diplomatic channels, with US and EU NGOs also putting pressure on politicians to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea.
It could be argued that very few people in South Korea believe that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons program. At the same time, it is accepted that dialogue, and ultimately concessions, will suspend further provocative behaviour by North Korea. This reduces the potential for negative effects on the South Korean economy and the subsequent effects on the average citizen's socio-economic well-being.

Timing is everything

While the current indications are that the Six-Party Talks may soon once again recommence, few hold much hope for them ever reaching their objective. In 2012, elections will be held in South Korea, the United States and Russia, while China and Japan are also going through important changes in domestic leadership.

Accordingly, attention on the Six-Party Talks will be secondary at best. This provides the best opportunity for North Korea to obtain its objectives of a relaxation of sanctions; the securing of further economic incentives; and the bolstering of its negotiating position vis-à-vis major powers. In diplomacy, as in comedy, timing is everything.

Post authored by Jeffrey Robertson, Senoir Researcher, Foreign Affairs, Defence & Security Section