Policy Area: Multilateral Talks

Assessing the Six Party Talks: North Pacific Working Group of CSCAP

Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Robert Bedeski, Co-Chairs of North Pacific Working Group, August 2003.

For the last several years, the North Pacific Working Group (NPWG) of the Council of Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific ( CSCAP) has provided multilateral venues for discussing pressing security issues in North Pacific/Northeast Asia. The NPWG has been successful in convening 'full-house' gatherings that included all relevant actors with major stakes in peace and stability in Northeast Asia. As a part of its contribution to facilitating further discussions towards a peaceful and stable security architecture in the region, the NPWG conducted a multilateral exercise of assessing the six party talks recently held in Beijing (August 27-29 2003) . Several CSCAP Member Committees joined this exercise. The following is the Co-Chairs' summary of the questionnaire. Quotation marks indicate they are from the respondents' statements to the questionnaires, and may be slightly edited for clarity.

1. General Assessment

  1. Positive Aspects
    1. First Step. The six party talks provided a starting point for the peaceful resolution of the Korean nuclear issue. That a multilateral gathering was held for the first time among six parties is a notable event in itself, even though 'nothing unexpected happened during the course of the talks' and even though 'neither Washington nor Pyongyang went much beyond reiterating its already clearly stated positions.' 'The talks accomplished little in substance but were an important first step in addressing the deteriorating security situation in Northeast Asia.' 'The talks were not a forum for negotiation, but an opportunity for all sides to lay out their positions.'
    2. Commitments in a multilateral context. Various prior commitments and statements as well as concerns of the relevant countries were expressed for the first time in a multilateral context. This would contribute to some extent to mutual understandings among the parties over the issues. It is to be noted that the parties agreed to continue having dialogues to resolve the current nuclear impasse, and that they agreed that realizing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is of prime importance. 'The talks established a multilateral framework that could be useful in the future not just for the North Korean nuclear weapons issue but to address a wider range of regional security issues.'
    3. Chinese Efforts. Respondents appreciated Chinese diplomatic efforts made to realize the six party talks. '[T]he active initiative [was] taken by China to establish the multilateral framework and the strong Chinese position on a nuclear weapons free Korean Peninsula' '[T]he six-point consensus achieved under the Chairmanship of China illustrates the positive potency of Chinese diplomacy'.
    4. Beyond Nuclear Issue. Some stated that the six party talks should be placed in the long-term context of forging a regional multilateral security framework that goes beyond the current nuclear issue. 'The talks established a multilateral framework that could be useful in the future not just for the North Korean nuclear weapons issue but to address a wider range of regional security issues.' '[T]he issue of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons should be addressed in the multilateral talks'.
    5. Providing bilateral venues. The six party talks provided 'missing' bilateral venues, namely the US-DPRK and Japan-DPRK. 'Another positive aspect of the talks was the opportunity provided for various parties to have informal bilateral or trilateral discussions.'

  2. Problems
    1. Need for More Concrete Agreements. However, some respondents pointed out that 'even though the six party talk is a starting point ([the Korean nuclear issue] will not be settled overnight'), the content of the chairman's summary was not concrete enough and only pointed to future tasks. There was no mention of the need for the freeze of the ongoing DPRK's nuclear program - which is the most important first step in reducing the crisis. There was neither a formal final binding statement, nor a date for the next meeting.
    2. Need for Convergence on Common Interests. This is the first time for the six participants to meet together and thus provided an opportunity for them to put forward particular national interests and perspectives.Some respondents expressed concerns that the participants appeared to act without reference to the common interests necessary to bring about a solution. There was a suggestion that all parties should focus on the nuclear issue, and not raise questions that are more properly bilateral.
    3. Possible Continuation of the DPRK's Nuclear Program. Every respondent agreed that the six party talks will require time and will be a long process to reach the final agreement.Some worry, therefore, that North Korea might continue its nuclear weapons program during this process. Freezing the DPRK's nuclear reprocessing is the most important first step to prevent escalation of the situation.
    4. Worst Case Scenarios. It is impossible to predict how the six party talk process will proceed or a final outcome, and some respondents mentioned possible actions in a worst-case scenarios. '[N]o positive incentives that can reasonably be provided by the other parties can convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program or to accept a credible verification regime. In that case, it is essential that the political, economic and security costs of such a North Korean decision are considered substantial enough to force a reversal of such a decision.'
2. The Major Dimension of the Talks
  1. Dismantlement of Nuclear Facilities and Security Guarantee. All respondents shared the understanding that the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear facilities and security guarantee to North Korea are the crucial factors to solve the current impasse. It seems that the final outcome of the six party talks process is to achieve these two objectives (i.e., a non-nuclear Korean peninsula is assured and North Korean is given some form of security guarantee and feels secure). '[S]uch a [negotiated] settlement will require security assurances for North Korea. Formal assurances should be acceptable as long as North Korea provides not just more paper promises but adequate verification and destruction of nuclear weapons capabilities is assured'.
  2. How to Reach the Final Point. The issue is how to achieve settlement. 'The most outstanding difference seems to be on the question of which side should take the initiative, or which side should take the first step in the denuclearization.' 'The core issue remain the same: convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program with adequate verification. This in turn requires establishing conditions whereby North Korea's security concerns are satisfied without resorting to a nuclear weapons deterrent force…The core issues are clear even if solutions remain difficult and hazy.' Some respondents contend that North Korea should dismantle its nuclear program first, but others argue that the United States must provide 'firm and non-interference guarantees to the DPRK'. Still others call for 'the synchronized and parallel actions' (this is included in the Chairman's summary). '[T]he US should announce a North Korean regime security guarantee simultaneously with Pyongyang declaring the freezing of its nuclear development program.'
3. Need for Roadmap
  1. Need for Roadmap. Even though the six party process may last long (fifty-five talks were held to reach the 1994 Geneva Agreement), it seems important, as several respondents argue, that we have to design a specific , or concrete', roadmap (or a set of possible roadmaps) to reach a final agreement ('there should be a roadmap to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and thus successfully prohibit North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.').
  2. Agreed Framework in 1994. In considering a concrete roadmap, we have to pay attention to how to locate the Geneva Agreed Framework in 1994 as far as its content and arrangement are concerned, although there a common understanding in both the US and DPRK that the agreement was 'nullified.'
  3. Examples of roadmaps. The following are two examples for roadmaps proposed by respondents.
    1. The US should announce a North Korean regime security guarantee simultaneously with Pyongyang declaring a freeze of its nuclear development program. A regime-security guarantee and financial incentives must be clarified. The North Koreans may need a new financial aid package to be put on the table, reaching at least the same level as those promised through the Geneva Agreed Framework in 1994. Only then should an inspection team, made up of representatives from participants of the five talks, be established to monitor and verify North Korea's dismantlement of nuclear facilities.
    2. Three steps are suggested: (a) convince North Korea to continue its participation in the multilateral framework. (b) the four parties other than the US and North Korea must draft a roadmap designed to resolve the core issues. The roadmap should contain clearly stated requirements that are time phased for all parties and spell out the economic, political and security benefits of compliance with the requirements. (c) insure that North Korea fully understands the political and economic impacts that will result from either a failure to negotiate in good faith or the continuation of its nuclear program.
  4. Keep Momentum. While everyone considers that launching the six party talks process was valuable, it is crucial to enhance the momentum of the process ('the most urgent matter at present is to keep the dialogue momentum and make the Beijing talks process to continue'). Some argued that '[I]n order to keep the situation from further deteriorating, at least a minimum agreement among the six parties is essential. As an immediate step, DPRK should promise in the earliest possible occasion to freeze its nuclear development program as long as the six party talks are underway. On the other hand, the US should give a 'tentative security assurance' in response to North Korea's security concerns as long as the talks are going on. These commitments by both US and DPRK should be underwritten by other four parties. This will be of prime importance at the next meeting that will be reportedly held within two months.'
4. Multilateral and Bilateral Talks
  1. Multilateral and Bilateral Nexus. Some respondents argued that while the six party talks were held, important (informal) bilateral talks took place ('especially the informal direct bilateral talks between the U.S. and DPRK must be useful'). Some even suggest that '[t]he six-party talks may embark on conceivable option - that the nuclear issue and the guarantee of the regime's survival are referred to bilateral talks between the US and North Korea, while economic aid is addressed through multilateral talks.'
  2. North Korean Participation in Multilateral Talks. 'For North Korea, a multilateral framework may have been difficult to accept after the experiment of a multilateral consortium in the form of KEDO….. By coming to Beijing North Korea appears to begin to value multilateral talks… Whether this slight change of mind reflects a long-term strategy or simply short term gambit remains to be seen.'
  3. Shared Regional Responsibility. '[T]he multilateral framework establishes a shared regional responsibility to reach a solution and bear the costs of such a solution and is a framework that can facilitate compromises that would not be possible in a bilateral framework.'
5. Individual Countries
In the six party talks, each participant expressed its own position. It is important to know particular interests and even domestic politics of each participant country. The following are some of the remarks made by respondents regarding six participants.
  1. The United States. Some respondents view the American domestic politics as a factor in influencing the six party process and its outcomes. 'within Washington itself, hawks and doves continue to tussle over how robust the US approach towards the DPRK should be. There can be little doubt that the presently dismal prospects for the US in Iraq, and the enduring uncertainties of Afghanistan, must be inhibiting the hawks at this time.'
  2. Japan. 'Japan wants to address the kidnapping of its citizens during the Cold War.' 'Japan seemed to concentrate more on narrow issues that played well at home such as the kidnappings, etc.' 'Apart from South Korea, Japan had the highest security stakes in the outcome of the talks: a neighbor which constantly expresses hostility to Japan says it is arming itself with nuclear weapons…..Japan was purposeful in asking the DPRK to give up its nuclear arms and was thus, while independent of the US, closest to the US position.'
  3. South Korea. 'South Korea wants to continue with its policy of reconciliation with its northern neighbor.' Some argued that South Korea's reconciliation with North should be in tandem with the progresses of the six party talks.
  4. China. 'China hopes to avoid being dragged into a conflict between North Korea, its longtime ally, and the US, a vital trading partner.' China's active diplomacy is critical for party talks to produce concrete agreed measures to ameliorate the current tensions, given its influence on DPRK's attitudes and policies.
  5. Russia. 'Russia appeared to equivocate and did not seem to take a very candid approach.' 'Although they were not considered central players in the talks, Russia and Japan had critical interests at stake and the roles they play were significant. Russia was balancing the role of China, ensuring that Russia is regarded as an Asian power and ensuring that the Korean Peninsula is not nuclearized…Russia took the view that both North Korea and the US had legitimate security demands. This brought it into line with South Korea and China. Thus three of the five non-North Korean (Russia, China and South Korea) players were in agreement.'
  6. North Korea. 'North Korea does not appear ready to continue the dialogue and negotiations within the multilateral framework hoping to enhance its position by insisting on bilateral negotiations.' In this regard, some argued that DPRK should more closely and carefully read ''nuances'' that might indicate the changes of the US policy toward DPRK. ''It is counterproductive for DPRK to stick to its conventional and stereotyped views of the Bush Administration. DPRK should take positive actions so that the people advocating peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the present crisis would be able to maintain its political clout. DPRK's confrontational attitudes will result in further strengthening the hard-line options in the US.''
6. Roles of CSCAP North Pacific Working Group
  1. Facilitate Dialogue and Exchange. In order to facilitate dialogue at the official level, Track Two dialogue processes such as CSCAP NPWG can play a constructive role in developing new ideas and approaches. 'CSCAP should continue to promote dialogue and the exchange of views on that matter, and perhaps hold a meeting on how the above challenges can be properly met.'
  2. NPWG Must propose a Roadmap. North Korea's nuclear issue is complicated to solve, and is closely linked with other pressing issues such as the transformation of the armistice regime to a peace regime, the development of ballistic missiles and its transfer to the third countries, the deployment of conventional arms, bilateral issues (abduction and establishing diplomatic relations etc.), economic rehabilitation of DPRK's economy, and others. This requires a comprehensive policy package that deals with the issues above mentioned and a roadmap. 'NPWG could develop a time phased roadmap proposal for consideration by each of the six parties.' The issue may be taken at the next NPWG meeting to be held in mid-November in Seoul.

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