Getting Back to the Talks: Plus ça change…



We have reported briefly on the recent Senate and House hearings, but thought we should do a brief roundup on what other members of the chattering class are saying about the prospects for the Six Party Talks. Excuse our world-weariness, but the debates have a depressing sameness with the exception of some interesting wrinkles by Peter Hayes and Bruce Scott and Victor Cha.

We now have the benefit of a little hindsight on Track II talks that took place in Germany in March. One set of talks was headed by long-time followers of all things North Korean Joel Wit and Lee Sigal and apparently addressed a number of technical nuclear issues, on which the North Koreans seemed forthcoming. The other group, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, included former Amb. Tom Pickering, former Korea Society President Evans Revere, CSIS's Tony Cordesman, and President Reagan's National Security Advisor, Richard Allen.

To our knowledge, Nick Eberstadt is the first participant in print on these exercises. An inveterate critic of the 6PT talks, Eberstadt drew the conclusion that any return to the 6PT was little more than a North Korean effort to get recognition as a nuclear power. We hope to hear from other participants, as such exercises inevitably have a Rashoman-like quality; we somehow doubt that Sigal and Wit reached similar conclusions.

On the engagement side of the aisle, our friends Chung-in Moon and John DeLury have posted a long and thoughtful reprise of the “its our fault” arguments. We agree with a number of their conclusions about the necessity of engagement, but were disappointed in the effort to pin the blame for the Yeonpyeong episode on the South Korean military exercises.  What those exercises proved to us is precisely the importance of the alliance: if the US had been a participant, the incident would probably not have happened.  Aidan Foster-Carter offers up a number of his own criticisms of Moon-DeLury at the Asia Times. Nonetheless, I suppose it is good to know that at least someone thinks a deal can still be cut; we’re dubious.

Also at the engagement end of the spectrum is an interesting new contribution by Peter Hayes and Bruce Scott of the Nautilus Institute. They argue that despite the overwhelming military superiority enjoyed by the US and South Korea, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is not motivated by deterrence. Rather, it was a political and symbolic aimed at getting the US to talk. But in a surprisingly pessimistic twist on the argument, Hayes and Scott argue that the North Koreans abandoned this rationale, perhaps as early as 2006. The sinking of the Cheonan—which they rightly attribute without qualification to a pre-planned North Korean attack—was part of a new effort to make sure the Chinese are engaged, a classic alliance entrapment story.

Fine up until this point. But they then conclude that the only way forward is to reduce any possible nuclear threat to North Korea, in part through a ROK-Japan nuclear free zone to which the North Koreans would be invited to participate. But as the North Koreans themselves have increasingly said, the “nuclear threat” ultimately emanates from the US, which means that denuclearization would require progress on a global reduction of forces. Set aside the fact that nuclear free zone negotiations are a political non-starter: waiting for global reductions that will credibly reduce the perceived nuclear threat in Pyongyang is waiting for Godot.

Holding up the middle is a new study group report led by Michael Mazaar for KEI. Mazaar has produced a searing, must-read critique of the Bush administration, so we were particularly interested in the report’s skepticism about the willingness of the North Koreans to give up their weapons program. The report is not exciting (“This leaves us with hard questions on which we should have difficult discussions” Oi vey!). But it probably comes closest to our views: protect ourselves but combine efforts at dialogue with various forms of engagement at all levels, including provision of information in whatever ways possible.

Now for something a little different. In his House testimony, Victor Cha made an interesting point about the history of neogtiations: that the North Koreans were less likely to engage in provocative behavior when talks were ongoing. Given our support for actual research on North Korea—rather than endless opining—we were intrigued and asked Cha if he could supply the details. In the unpublished study, Cha does a month-by-month analysis of North Korean behavior from March 1984 to the present, and finds that the North Koreans have never provoked on a major scale (defined as nuclear and missile tests or other major military provocations) when they were involved in substantive negotiations of a bilateral or multilateral nature.

Cha is appropriately cautious, however, on the inferences to be drawn. It is possible that ongoing negotiations do in fact reduce such provocations. But he also notes several disadvantages of negotiations, beyond the debate about whether they actually achieve anything. If you start negotiations with the North Koreans and break them off, the DPRK is more likely to provoke. And when the North Koreans undertake major provocations, they have in the past been rewarded with a return to negotiations. Ironcially, this pattern does not seem to have persisted into the Obama administration.

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