What future – in the short term – for the Six-Party Talks?

30 juillet 2015
In June 2015, will the Six-Party Talks process be only nominally alive? Initiated in 2003 following the North Korean regime’s sudden withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), this collective forum comprised of representatives from China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and the United States has languished in a semi-vegetative state for the past six years. Yet again, the fault for this lies with Pyongyang, with its abrupt decision to quit the Six-Party Talks (SPT) in April 2009 in the aftermath of a United Nations resolution sanctioning the country for carrying out a new (illegal) ballistics testing. So far, the sixth round of this ambitious collective initiative aimed at finding a peaceful and balanced solution regarding the North Korean nuclear weapons program was the last. But a seventh could quite possibly be called for in the coming months…
The permanent unpredictability of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime, its renewed propensity to explore the limits of (verbal) provocation (towards both the South Korean and American administrations), and the understandable reservations of several participants to the process (Washington, Seoul) regarding the seriousness and « sincerity » of the DPRK to comply with past agreements, might prolong the current paralysis, at least until the end of this year. And this despite Beijing’s constant and worthy efforts over the last few years to revive this complicated initiative.
So, in summer 2015, should we consider this collective mechanism as dormant or simply dead in the water? Or, to the contrary, as a still-relevant initiative ready to be revived?

Trying to answer this tricky question requires adopting a three-point methodology, as much to hedge our bets as to adapt to the genuine unpredictability of the North Korean stance on this specific matter. Hence, three working hypotheses have been selected to approach the « truth, » a highly volatile concept in the context of the DPRK regime.

Working hypothesis n°1 deliberately adopts a pessimistic approach with the following premise: Pyongyang has no serious intention of complying with the rules of the SPT, to honor its past commitments, or to adopt the appropriate behavior requested to restart the process. Here, the DPRK regime mainly sees the SPT framework as a tool, a leverage, or a delaying tactic in an attempt to appear “engaged” – more or less – on the international community’s radar without compromising any of its assets. In this hypothesis the North Korean regime does not want to take any steps forward to create the appropriate environment necessary for productive talks or fulfill the preconditions demanded by the other SPT participants.

Working hypothesis n°2 is more optimistic, based on the premise that for specific reasons known only to the North Korean leadership, Pyongyang is committed to readjusting its position and policies and to create a favorable environment with the five other members of the SPT. This would allow for a seventh round to take place in the short term, with Seoul and Washington responding favorably to this more constructive – and relatively unexpected – approach, with the backing of Beijing and Moscow.

Positioned somewhere in between the two above options, working hypothesis n°3 adopts a more realistic and pragmatic perspective. According to its premise, the North Korean government would eventually be interested in resurrecting – step by step – the dormant SPT process; not for the sake of pleasing Seoul, Washington, Moscow, Tokyo, or Beijing, or to present a more favorable face to the international community, but rather to keep alive a channel of communication with Washington. In this scenario, Pyongyang is attempting to portray itself – for as long and as shrewdly as possible – as the « good guy » wishing to repent. This allows the regime to extract benefits (security guaranties; humanitarian, financial, and economic assistance; energy; etc.) while buying its time to achieve a larger goal (e.g. to complete its ballistic and nuclear programs) by reducing external pressure. With this pragmatic approach, neither Washington (with presidential elections looming in November 2016) nor Seoul would feel compelled to fall into the trap by allowing the resurrection of the collective mechanism.
With Pyongyang’s habit of favoring hard-to-defend defiant posturing, one can certainly not take for granted the veracity any of these three possible premises; the DPRK may currently be working on a set of different options, be it a more radical approach (e.g. a more aggressive posture to put pressure on Washington and Seoul) or a less expectable by welcome conciliatory approach (e.g. set of confidence-building measures with Seoul, Washington, and Beijing). Time will tell.

Let us come back to our three-tier methodology and dedicate some more time to each of them to assess the merit of our approach in view of recent events in and around North Korea.

Working hypothesis N°1, the pessimistic assessment: the DPRK is not serious about creating the necessary conditions for a rebirth of the Six-Party talks and is not motivated to do so.
Looking back over information coming out of North Korea over the past few months, even if an open-minded approach is adopted, it is difficult to distinguish any significant decisions, postures, or declarations indicating a desire by Pyongyang to prepare the field for serious participation in dialogue or the negotiation process.

– The North Korean leadership remains as provocative as ever: North Korean Diplomats disrupted a UN human rights panel in New York in early May; Pyongyang threatened the United States with a nuclear attack on April 26; the North Korean regime slammed South Korean President Park’s speech on the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in late March; North Korean media called the attack on the American ambassador in Seoul a « deserved punishment » in early March; Pyongyang said there would no longer be any chance for inter-Korean dialogue in early March; « North Korea threaten missile attack on anti-Pyongyang leaflets » (Yonhap news agency, March 2); « N. Korea says it won’t talk with ‘gangster-like’ U.S » (Yonhap, February 4); « N. Korea ridicules former S. Korean president over memoir » (Yonhap, February 4); « North Korea Tests Five Missiles » (New York Times, February 8); etc. This list – telling, but not exhaustive (!) – speaks for itself.

– Invitations and suggestions to adopt a more constructive policy remain largely if not totally unheard: « U.S. urges N. Korea to show denuclearization commitment » (Yonhap, April 17); « DPRK rules out dialogue with Japan » (Xinhua, April 2); « UN presses North Korea to Account for Abductions » (New York Times, March 9); « North Korea negative about six-way nuclear talks » (Yonhap, March 2); « U.S. urges N. Korea to cease threats after missile launches » (Yonhap, February 2). Here again, there are no obvious signs of any desire by Pyongyang to extract itself from diplomatic isolation.

– Recent positive examples in international diplomacy (e.g. West-Iran and Southeast Asia-Burma talks) seem to be disregarded: « N.K. fails to learn lesson from Iran nuclear deal » (Yonhap, April 22). In June 2012, Robert King, then-US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, suggested to Pyongyang to take similar steps (political and economic reforms) to those recently taken by Burma, arguing that the benefits for the Burmese regime (e.g. sanctions eased then lifted; investors flocking the country; return to the global stage) were self-evident. Three (long and agitated) years later, this sage advice has manifestly not been espoused by Pyongyang.

Working hypothesis N°2, the optimistic projection: Pyongyang is committed to readjusting its policy to create a favorable environment with the five other members of the SPT, allowing for a seventh round to take place before the end of 2015.
Consider here that despite Kim Jong-un’s rather poor, if not terrible, record since coming into power in December 2011 (and now that the three-year long period of mourning is over), Pyongyang and its current leadership feel more compelled – under parallel pressure from Beijing and Moscow – to partly give up its brinkmanship policy and try to reintegrate (after a long absence) into the club of responsible nations. In this scenario, going forward would start by convincing Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo of a genuine political will to leave the current deadlock and embark upon a more cooperative chapter.
That said, we have so far not witnessed any tangible signs from Pyongyang giving credit to this bold thesis, to say the least. We cannot not interpret the polite refusal of Kim Jong-un to attend World War II celebrations in Moscow on May 9 – despite the personal invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin – as supportive of this theory. Nor can we consider that the recent civilian inter-Korean representatives meeting in Shenyang (China, May 5) – dedicated to preparatory talks on plans to jointly celebrate the 15th anniversary of the historic inter-Korean Summit (June 13-15, 2000, in Pyongyang) – necessarily indicates a change of strategy by the North Korean regime.
However, after eight years of permanent defiance, of verbal/frontal opposition with both the Blue House and the White House, the North Korean leadership under young Kim Jong-un may finally recognize that its hard-line posturing has not achieved as much as expected (despite two nuclear tests and a long series of ballistic missile tests, not to mention the torpedoing of the South Korean Cheonan corvette in the Yellow Sea) and that it may be time to reassess the benefits of this strategy.
This reassessment comes during a period of uncertainty regarding the identity of the next US president, his/her political party, and stance on non-proliferation issues. In the meantime, the North Korean regime could finally consider that the current Blue House policy vis-à-vis Pyongyang – no more free gifts [1] to the North but the door always open for discussion, negotiation, and reconciliation – may be worth giving a try; a position that probably finds some supporters in Beijing still working hard to keep the idea of a possible and desirable resurrection of the talks alive.

Working hypothesis N°3, the pragmatic vision: the « talks only to talk, » to buy some time until…
Based on past experience, numerous disappointments, and various unpleasant surprises when dealing with Pyongyang and its highly sophisticated nuclear policy, one cannot escape the need to consider the likelihood of a less glamorous and more realistic assessment of its probable short-term commitment vis-à-vis the sleepy SPT. The assumption here is that the least open and least democratic regime in Asia may pretend to be interested in the rebirth of this dormant, and may even go as far as to start responding favorably to the demands of the five other participants, but remains fundamentally much more motivated by the project of buying time (while extracting assistance and various benefits from the international community, a tactic Pyongyang has proven itself comfortable with) for a ‘higher’ purpose…

Excluding this scenario may present some risks. True, many governments (including major ones like Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and possibly Tokyo) may be eager to reopen a « dialogue » with Pyongyang after such a long deadlock and its many highly tense phases. But there is a significant difference between (misguided?) eagerness and reality on the ground. Keeping the door open for genuine negotiations while excluding any step towards this action in absence of tangible commitments from Pyongyang – a policy consistently observed by the Obama administration since 2008 and President Park Geun-hye since 2012 – does not at all imply gullibly reading into any conciliations from the DPRK as a radical shift of policy or the promise of happier, easier, and rosier tomorrows.
Having achieved an Asian foreign policy (partial) success in Burma – with President Thein Sein adopting a reformist agenda – the White House under its current tenant is not willing, a year and a half before the end of his final term (-January 2017), to take the politically suicidal risk of being fooled by a regime more willing to nominally engage the powerful nation than to heed its words; a dictatorial regime that, incidentally, regularly threatens to use nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles to strike targets on US soil. Along with the relative « Burmese success, » President Obama’s foreign policy achievements include the significant betterment of bilateral relations with Tehran and Havana, an undeniably remarkable legacy that the 44th president of the United States will not want to sacrifice on the altar of the unpredictable Pyongyang.
At the same time, several members of the SPT, including Seoul and Beijing, were remarkably active in the early days of May 2015. On May 5, the South Korean Special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs (Hwang Joon-kook), shortly after a meeting in Washington with his American counterpart (Ambassador Sung Kim, special representative for North Korea policy), declared: « As a result of close consultations among the five parties, there is a degree of consensus formed on conditions for the resumption of six-party talks. Based on this, we are pushing for unconditional exploratory talks [2]. » A bold and encouraging statement that did not go unnoticed in East Asia and beyond; the following day (May 6) this headline appeared in the Indian press: « S. Korea Seeks ‘New Momentum’ with China to revive N. Korea Nuclear Talks [3]. »
And if, against all odds, the SPT were in fact on the verge of an unexpected resurrection?

In light of the latest information to trickle out of the secretive corridors of power in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, or Moscow, these three opposing scenarios – and the many others not included here for reasons of brevity – lead us now to envisage a series of four short questions/answers to extend the thinking on the sometimes elusive Six-Party Talks matter. A set of provocative interrogations to get us started:

Is the resumption of the talks truly desirable?
First of all, in the event the North Korean regime follows up on the idea to join the recently much-discussed « exploratory talks » (without any preconditions), reviving this sleepy forum would entail: meeting and talking to Pyongyang, being ready to listen to (some of) its demands, and – eventually, after some (positive) steps, time, and (eventual) progress – to consider the possibility of delivering something to this reclusive state. This could be anything that could be celebrated as a great victory by the regime, and its hyperactive propaganda apparatus, to bolster domestic legitimacy; nothing that would in fine pressure the North Korean leadership to modify its policies or consider even low-level reforms.
The « exploratory talks, » if confirmed and meaningful enough to survive the year, will in any case not count on the indispensable strong American engagement. At the moment, the current US administration has not the time, the authority, nor any desire to assume the entailed risks (even with the likely prospect of another Democrat victory in the November 2016 elections) to engage in a serious deal with the North Korean regime.

Seoul: beneficiary or hostage of the SPT?
Obviously, and even if Pyongyang keeps on thinking that its first and foremost interlocutor on the nuclear and disarmament issues remains Washington, there is no state more concerned by any move – positive or dramatic – engaged by the defiant North Korean regime than Seoul. This premise remains valid under the current administration of President Park Geun-hye, whose consistently bold, balanced, and open-minded policy vis-à-vis her difficult and often abrasive northern neighbor should be commended.
Since her very first day in office in February 2013, the first female head of state in the Korean Peninsula has consistently repeated that the end of this exhausting and costly state of crisis with the North lies in dialogue, reconciliation, and a common future. In January of this year she confirmed again that she was willing to hold a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without any pre-conditions. « My position is that to ease the pain of division and to accomplish peaceful unification, I am willing to meet with anyone, » President Park said. « If it is helpful, I am up for a summit meeting with the North. There is no pre-condition [4]. » A month later, she instructed her staff to prepare a « roadmap for Korean unification »; such a reunification could bring an « economic bonanza [5] » to neighboring countries as well as the two Koreas. Politically speaking, this policy is indisputably courageous, considering the very low return on investment so far and the total absence of the most elementary respect shown to her [6] by the North since she took office two years ago.

Can the international community (excluding the SPT participants) put some ‘real pressure’ on the eventual revival of the Talks?
The plain truth is that in 2015, the international community at large remains extremely weak when it comes to dealing with North Korea, the most isolated country on the planet in the 21st century. The most powerful international institutions (United Nations, IMF, World Bank) do have a certain capacity – but no real authority – to intervene in the volatile and complicated North Korean equation. Likewise, the inter-Korean dispute remains out of reach for the European Union – an otherwise influential regional institution – due to reasons of distance and geography. The fact that Pyongyang disregards the authority of such supranational entities and is much more interested in dealing face to face with Washington does not facilitate the task.
Incidentally, and to be frank, this situation is not considered a tragedy by influential capitals, in Europe as well as in the Middle East or Asia. Being involved in far-away and quasi-intractable issues usually does not bring much in the way of dividends to bold candidates.

Should we welcome the recent reconciliation between Pyongyang and Moscow?
Despite being personally invited to Moscow by President Putin to attend World War II celebrations (May 9), and after a long silence, Kim Jong-un finally declined the invitation [7]; Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK (the ceremonial North Korean head of state), will travel to Russia to attend the ceremony on behalf of his boss. Whatever the reasons behind this not-so-unexpected volte-face by the North Korean leader, they will probably not harm the diplomatic rapport [8] Moscow and Pyongyang have managed to (re)build over the last few years (during which time relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were suffering a spectacular cooling [9]). However, the attractiveness of Russia on the world stage has been considerably reduced in the wake of its dangerous maneuvering in Crimea and in the context of the current Ukrainian crisis. For the moment, the « benefits » of this new honeymoon between North Korea and Russia – two (relatively) isolated actors – remain to be seen as far as the SPT are concerned, even if some signs suggest possible advantages [10].

Despite a recent surge of track one and track two diplomacy activities mechanically generating some level of hope, no one – even in secretive Pyongyang – can take for granted the eventual resuscitation of the Six-Party Talks in the short-to-medium term. The obvious and respectable goodwill towards this dormant forum displayed by several main players (Seoul, Beijing) will inevitably be confronted by the unpredictable, pathologically-defiant, and risk-prone Pyongyang under the still partly obscure and little documented leadership of the young Kim Jong-un. Political and domestic issues impacting others (presidential elections in the USA in November 2016) will play a major role as well in the still uncertain future of this crucial initiative, while the « rest » of the international community, largely out of the picture in this « small Great game, » will patiently and powerlessly hope for a positive evolution in the strategic and volatile Northeast Asia region.

[1] « Seoul spurns Pyongyang’s call for lifting sanctions, » Yonhap news agency, May 7, 2015.
[2] Yonhap, May 5.
[3] Indiaeveryday, May 6.
[4] Reuters, January 11, 2015.
[5] Korea Times, February 16, 2015.
[6] The Diplomat, April 29, 2014.
[7] New York Times, April 30, 2015.
[8] ‘’DPRK, Russia ink protocol after inter-governmental meeting’’, Xinhua, April 27, 2015. ‘’ Western Relations Frosty, Russia Warms to North Korea’’, New York Times, March 11, 2015.
[9] An easing is however observed between Pyongyang and Beijing in May 2015, as noted in the following article: ’’N. Korean official calls ties with China ‘precious treasure’’, Yonhap, May 7, 2015.
[10] ‘’Xi’s visit to deepen, celebrate China-Russia relations’’, Xinhua, May 6, 2015. One can assume that a closer Moscow-Pyongyang connection associated with a strengthening Moscow-Beijing axis (two partners of the SPT) may be in a position to deliver some positive benefits vis-à-vis North Korea.

Analyze presented by Olivier Guillard during the World Korean Forum organized in Paris in June 2015.
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