The third six-party talks held in Beijing last month concluded without much substantive progress being made. This was no surprise. Indeed, prior to the meeting, the Chinese hosts warned against any unrealistic expectations and advised patience.
The outcome of the meeting was eerily similar to that of the second meeting in February. No breakthrough. No joint statement. Only the chair's statement that promises a fourth meeting scheduled for September. If anything, a North Korean threat to test nuclear devices during bilateral talks with the US on the sidelines created much anxiety if not heightened tension -- though Washington seems to have grown used to such ploys -- and prompted unscheduled consultations between China and North Korea before the meeting soft-landed to its inclusive conclusion.
These downs and dramas notwithstanding, one could argue that this round of the six-party talks did make some minor progress which may bridge the previously procedural talks to more substantive discussions in September. While
all the parties again pledged their commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, the proposals put on the table were more specific this time.
The US for the first time
indicated a willingness to consider a phased negotiation timetable toward complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Washington would not object to other countries providing economic assistance, including
-- and perhaps in particular --
fuel supplies in exchange for Pyongyang's nuclear dismantlement, beginning with a freeze on current programs. The US would also guarantee not to attack North Korea.
What accounts for the modification of the US' position? There may be several factors. One is that Washington's inflexibility threatened to derail the six-party process as pressure from allies and other parties mounted. China began to show its fatigue and annoyance by questioning the very evidence behind the US' accusations. After months of what appeared to be thankless attempts to coax Pyongyang to stay in the process, Beijing was not happy with continued US inflexibility and insistence on CVID, turning it from an ultimate objective that all could agree on to an impediment to the very process of diplomacy.
The Bush administration's debacle over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Democratic Party's charges thereto also necessitated adjustments in tactics to fend off domestic opposition and appease allies, South Korea in particular.
A third factor might be the
recognition that principle alone would not arrest continued progress in North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, let alone facilitate their reversal and dismantlement. Hence a more flexible, albeit modest tactical adjustment.
North Korea's reaction to the US proposal was that it would study it in due time. Pyongyang reiterated its previous proposal of trading an initial freeze of the plutonium reprocessing programs at Yongbyon for immediate economic assistance and ceasing hostile US policy toward North Korea. This appeared to the US as a mere return to the 1994 Agreed Framework, something that Pyongyang signed and therefore was obligated to implement in the first place. For Washington, nuclear dismantlement includes both the plutonium reprocessing and the uranium enrichment programs.
Whether the six-party talks can make substantive progress in the coming months will to a significant extent depend on the calculations of the stakes involved and acceptable bargaining by North Korea and the US. There could be a number of scenarios.
One scenario would be a phased nuclear dismantlement in which Pyongyang begins to freeze its plutonium reprocessing and return to its commitment to the 1994 Agreed Framework. This would be paralleled by international economic assistance provided mainly by South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, the EU
and other interested countries. Meanwhile, a multilateral or regional security guarantee would
be provided for North Korea. Pyongyang would then be
required to return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reinstate International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, followed by a full accounting of all nuclear programs for verification. This path of development would eventually entail direct US-North Korean negotiations on normalization and full integration of North Korea into the international community.
Another scenario would be a continued impasse in the nuclear dispute and the collapse of the six-party talks. North Korea would move forward with its nuclear weapons programs, culminating in a possible nuclear test, threatened or actual transfer of nuclear materials to third parties and a resumption of ballistic missile tests. The US would turn to the UN Security Council for sanctions and other tougher measures, including expanded use of the Proliferation Security
Initiative interdiction of North Korean-flagged cargo ships. US military operations would also be a distinct possibility. This would play havoc with East Asia's peace, stability and prosperity. A potential nuclear domino effect of Japan and South Korea "going nuclear" would be a death sentence for the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.
A third scenario may involve
a protracted negotiation process under the six-party talks framework. Proposals and then counter-proposals would be tabled by Pyongyang and Washington to test both the will and the bottom line of the other, with the other parties making auxiliary contributions. With US presidential elections on the way, this may well be the scenario that we are likely to witness, because the uncertainty of the November outcome makes the current US administration hesitant to cut any quick deal without there being full confidence in CVID. At the same time, the possibility of a better deal under a Democratic administration could entice Pyongyang to table unacceptable proposals without unduly provoking the US. In the end, it would also have to make sure it gets
security and economic benefits
before surrendering its ace card.
It's going to be a long and hot summer.
Yuan Jing-dong (
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