Back to Talks?

July 29, 2011 6:30 AM

There has been a lot of excitement about recent developments with respect to the Six Party Talks: a quick review of events is in order.

The source of the changed mood is a two-hour meeting between South Korean chief nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac and his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali. At the subsequent press opportunity, Ri said that North Korea was willing to implement the September 2005 Joint Statement and to make joint efforts to resume the stalled 6PT (Yonhap). According to the South Koreans, the meeting between Wi and Ri was preliminary to a meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and his North Korean counterpart Pak Ui-chun.

Hillary Clinton subsequently issued a press release taking note of the invitation of Kim Gae-gwan to New York; the so called New York channel combines semi-official contacts through the DPRK’s UN mission with a  network of track II exercises.

The Clinton press release reiterates the Obama administration position that bilateral talks are “exploratory” only and that a resumption of the 6PT will depend on whether North Korea “is prepared to affirm its obligations under international and Six Party Talk commitments, as well as take concrete and irreversible steps toward denuclearization.”

This language remains ambiguous. Some questions for the administration:

  • The administration is unwilling to engage in talks “that will only lead us right back to where we have already been.” Fine. But do the North Koreans have to do something in advance of the talks or only publicly commit—as they appear to have done—to negotiate? What are US preconditions for talks to resume?
  • Do the North Koreans have to do something vis-à-vis the South and if so, what exactly?
  • The statement reiterated the US position that no new inducements are on offer. Fine. But what about quid-pro-quos that are already built into the September 2005 Joint Statement, which run from normalization of relations to “economic cooperation,” a euphemism for aid?
  • What role does food aid play in this dance?

Pyonyang’s position was also clarified on Thursday in a “KCNA Commentary,” a less authoritative statement than one emanating from the Foreign Ministry but a credible source nonetheless. The core point of the commentary is to reiterate the idea of negotiations on a “peace regime” to replace the Armistice Agreement. This demand is completely warranted under the September 2005 Joint Statement, which specifically commits the “directly related parties” to “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum.”

But as we have noted before, the sequence of the negotiations is critical. The commentary states clearly at two points that the negotiations to replace the armistice must not only be started but fully concluded before any steps can be taken with respect to the nuclear issue. These passages are worth citing:

“Concluding a peace agreement may be the first step for settling the Korean issue including the denuclearization.”

“Being a curtain-raiser to confidence-building, the conclusion of a peace agreement will provide an institutional guarantee for wiping out the bilateral distrust and opening the relations of mutual respect and equality.”

Questions for the North Koreans:

  • The San Francisco Peace Treaty that finalized the war between the Allies and Japan was signed in September 1951, six years after the conflict ended. On the Korean Peninsula, it took the three parties almost exactly two years--and hundreds of thousands of additional deaths--to negotiate an armistice that did little more than restore the status quo ante. Clearly, negotiating a peace regime is not going to be a piece of cake. Take one, “small” issue: the Northern Limit Line. Imagine how difficult it is going to be to reconcile the demands of North and South on the question of drawing a maritime boundary, and you get a sense of the complexities involved.
  • Do we have drafts of such a treaty? What is going to happen with respect to the Six Party Talks—and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities--while this complex negotiation is moving forward?
  • Can a US President or Secretary of State undertake “peace regime” negotiations with North Korea without substantial progress on the nuclear issue? Forget substance: think divided government—as in debt talks—and looming elections.

Clearly, these are opening gambits. The positive spin is that movement is better than no movement. But the negative spin is that both sides seem to have advanced positions that have horse-size poison pills, and which are—more importantly—politically difficult to fudge. For the US, the Obama administration would have to engage—or promise to engage—in a negotiation to end the armistice without getting any satisfaction on the nuclear issue. The North Koreans have been called on to send unambiguous signals of their intent to give up nuclear weapons. But as we have argued repeatedly, they seem increasingly comfortable for both domestic political reasons as well as security ones to maintain these weapons.

We have a long, long way to go; in a second post, we will revisit the terrain of 2007-8 and what it would mean to “reset” the negotiations.

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