Six Party Talks: Glimmers of Life or Desperation?

March 22, 2011 9:00 AM

The US, South and North Korea have spent the last year in a complicated dance over the Six Party talks. Seoul seems set on establishing preconditions for the talks that are unlikely to be met. The US has stuck with its strategy of “strategic patience” and following Seoul’s lead.  Pyongyang has experimented with a succession of non-starter proposals (bilateral talks first, peace regime talks first, peace regime talks alongside of the Six Party talks, and so on).

But Yonhap reports on a visit to Pyongyang by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin that sounds subtly different to us: that North Korea was ready to rejoin the talks "without any precondition.”

The bad news is that “without any precondition” means that they would not apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do shelling. In addition, there appears to be a pattern of North Korea making more forthcoming noises about the talks when negotiating with its patrons; the KCNA coverage leads its coverage of the Russian visit with a discussion of “boosting friendly relations,” a standard euphemism for “more aid, please.”

But the elaboration of what North Korea is willing to discuss seems new to us and is worth quoting:

“The Russian side expressed its stand that the six-party talks should be resumed at an early date to settle the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula in a political and diplomatic manner. It pointed out that it is important to take constructive measures such as DPRK's moratorium on nuclear test and ballistic missile launch, access of IAEA experts to uranium enrichment facilities in the Nyongbyon area and discussion of the issue of uranium enrichment at the six-party talks.

The DPRK side expressed its stand that it can go out to the six-party talks without any precondition, it is not opposed to the discussion of the above-said issue at the six-party talks and if the talks are resumed, other issues raised by the Russian side can be also discussed and settled in the course of implementing the September 19 Joint Statement calling for the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula on the principle of simultaneous action.”

No mention of bilaterals or a peace regime, HEU is on the table (no doubt at a price) and the most direct and explicit reference to the 2005 Joint Statement we have seen for some time.

South Korea quickly rejected the overture saying that the North Koreans had to take concrete steps showing their sincerity. But this stance does not mean lack of activity: Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan will embark on a three-day trip to Beijing next week. The US for its part continues to follow the South Korean lead. As Kurt Campbell pointed out in his remarks in Seoul ten days ago, the administration wants to see the talks resumed but “believes that it is appropriate that there be a re-engagement between the North and the South before other steps can take place.”

Even if the talks are revived, we are skeptical that the political stars are aligned on to make them work. But North Korea’s statement can be read as a sign that things are not looking that great from Pyongyang’s perspective at the moment.

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