Slave to the Blog: The Waiting Game II



A few weeks ago, I pulled together information on the economic constraints—both large and small—under which North Korea is currently laboring: declining trade with a slowing China, the loss of Kaesong income, crackdowns on illicit activities, and the looming effects of US financial sanctions. And this is quite apart from the possibility that Beijing will get more serious about enforcing UNSC Resolution 2270. At least one possibility is that these constraints will induce new diplomatic activity on the part of North Korea, even if while also pursuing its standard strategy of using tests and other provocations to signal resolve. The recent meeting of the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in Beijing revealed a surprising amount of information on the current state of play. (In the name of full disclosure, the NEACD is convened by my colleague Susan Shirk. I was invited to attend but couldn’t; everything written here is based on public sources, including information on the agenda and participants posted by the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation.)

The main headline of the conference was the purported North Korean statement that “the Six Party Talks are dead.” But the larger story was that a six-person North Korean delegation came at all. As always, the actual positions taken by the North Koreans were much more nuanced than the headlines suggest. At a hastily-convened press conference in Beijing following all-day meetings with China’s lead negotiator Wu Dawei, head of delegation Madame Choe Son-hui, deputy director-general of the American affairs bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hinted at the North Korean line. She said that North Korea was confident and pleased with recent missile developments. Discussions on denuclearization were not possible “under the current circumstances with the US’s policies of antagonism,” a statement similar to one made by the Foreign Ministry in April (although another statement from April did say that the 2005 Joint Statement had “finally perished.”)

But if they were not possible under current circumstances, the inference was that they were possible under some other circumstances. At NKNews, Georgy Toloraya—an attendant at the NEACD with immense experience in North Korea—fills in the details of North Korea’s opening bid. The basic line is that the existing arsenal is non-negotiable, written into both the constitution and statements by Kim Jong Un. North Korea believes it has now achieved the status of a Pakistan, a de facto if not de jure nuclear power. But the nuclear program is negotiable in return for appropriate security concessions from the United States. North Korea repeatedly makes reference to the exercises as the quid pro quo—most notably in an offer from January 2015 that was quickly rebuffed by the US. But in the coming economic climate, North Korea will almost certainly want sanctions relief on the table.

Given these hints at a willingness to negotiate, the question is how such talks might be structured. The simple answer is that no one really knows. From the perspective of the United States and South Korea, it is pretty hard to imagine negotiations over a peace regime in return for a freeze unless there was some hint—however faint—that the door was open to complete denuclearization and a return of North Korea to its obligations under the NPT; a good summary of the US position is contained in Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel’s recitation of the tortured history of negotiations back in April. Recall that shutting down Yongbyon was Christopher Hill’s interim objective over the course of 2007-8; at that time, we also had little more than a freeze and a flawed declaration on weapons and the stocks of fissile material. But that negotiation was possible because of the positive shadow cast by the 2005 Joint Statement, which held out hope that—in Russel’s words—negotiations would “result in freezing, rolling back, and permanently ending its nuclear program.”

Despite North Korean stubbornness, neither Russia nor China came out of the meeting saying that the Six Party Talks are dead. But while nominally calling for their resumption, China has simultaneously signaled that they will have to be restructured. Beijing has floated—but not filled out—a process that would in some way combine peace regime and nuclear negotiations. Toloraya, in the piece cited above, outlines one possible formula, including further Track II talks, some statement of principles between the US and North Korea, and a restructured Six Party Talks that would lead to a four-party peace regime negotiation.

At the current conjuncture—and with North Korea in potential distress—the US does not seem in any particular hurry to move, signaling flexibility but not much more. If anything, South Korea is even more adamant on trying to force nuclear negotiations, believing that there is a small window in which sanctions might work; following President Park’s National Assembly speech earlier in the year, Seoul is certainly showing no interest in relieving pressure through separate North-South talks. But China’s full cooperation in helping bring North Korea to the table may ultimately hinge on more detailed conversations about what an exit ramp would look like. Given China’s ability to keep North Korea afloat indefinitely—and perhaps even improve diplomatic relations with North Korea—sanctions enforcement is China’s trump card. 

More From

Related Topics