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Commentary

Negotiating with North Korea: Bridging the Differences Among the Key Parties

in Program

By Alan D. Romberg – Recent agreement at the Six Party Talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is widely acknowledged as a stopgap, first step. It was made possible by a combination of factors, crucial among them a change of heart by President Bush in favor of serious negotiations. But next steps will be even harder, as the negotiators aim for total denuclearization of the Peninsula. Among the many challenges in the path of achieving that goal are the differing priorities of the “other five” (i.e., non-DPRK) negotiating partners. If the effort is to have even a modest chance of success in ultimately denuclearizing the Peninsula, it will be necessary to meet what each party sees as its vital needs, rather than seeking to dissuade them from pursuing they see as their fundamental interests. Success may prove impossible in the end, but, if so, it shouldn’t be because the “other five” failed to coordinate properly or to take sufficiently seriously each other’s requirements.

Introduction and Summary

The recent agreement at the Six Party Talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is widely acknowledged as a stopgap, first step. Following over five years of failure to address the problem seriously, the Bush Administration made a tentative step forward by agreeing to the Joint Statement of Principles in September 2005. But it was only in late 2006, and only after Pyongyang tested its first nuclear device, that the Administration bit the bullet on exploring what it would actually take to test the proposition that North Korea might be willing to abandon its entire nuclear program. In the past, it was the North that was always too late to reach necessary decisions—for example, waiting until the very end of the Clinton Administration to try to come to terms on a missile agreement. An agreement at that time might have advanced U.S.-DPRK relations and solidified the 1994 Agreed Framework, with its promise of stabilizing the security situation in Korea around the core of a denuclearized Peninsula.

But President Bush explicitly rejected the advice of his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to pick up where Clinton left off. And he has been unwilling since then to overcome his own distaste for the Pyongyang regime and his determination not to follow whatever path Bill Clinton had followed, in order to beat back the ideologues in his Administration and strive for an agreement that could serve the American national interest. Now, for whatever reason—many ascribe it to the search for a positive legacy—Mr. Bush has changed his mind. And however tempting it is to dwell on the irresponsible policy of the past, we need to welcome the change and to focus on how to build on the President’s epiphany to fashion a workable approach to implementing the principles agreed in 2005.

 
Conventional wisdom is that the North will never give up its entire nuclear program, that it will always hold in reserve some weapons capacity as the ultimate deterrent, the trump card against what Pyongyang sees as the predictable perfidy of the United States and others who would just as soon see the Kim regime toppled as reformed. That may be right; it certainly will be a harder slog now that the North has tested a weapon. Although it has reaffirmed its pledge to eventually abandon its entire program, including fissile material and weapons, the North has succeeded in the Six Party Talks in setting those aspects of its program aside for now, proceeding only to trade what it terms the “temporary” closing of its facilities (the existing 5MW research reactor and reprocessing facilities and the shutdown of construction activities of other facilities) in exchange for various political, security and economic benefits.

 
The fissile material and weapons must eventually be included, or else the instability the North’s program has created in the region and in the global nonproliferation regime will persist, even if temporarily bounded. Some of the non-American negotiating partners fear that Washington will eventually settle for half a loaf, making clear it would forcefully respond to any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or materials, but otherwise satisfied to hem Pyongyang in rather than insisting on the entire dismantlement of the program as currently demanded. Japan and, interestingly, China seem most concerned about that (though China emphasizes we must approach the problem with patience rather than doing so with unproductive haste). South Korea and Russia also take “principled” positions against such halfway measures, but both seem prepared to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea for the indefinite future. (In Seoul’s case this could change with the change in government a year from now.)

 
If the Six Party talks are to have even a modest chance of success in ultimately denuclearizing the Peninsula, it will be necessary to meet what each party to the negotiation sees as its vital needs. Although not unique to China and South Korea, it is especially important to them to maintain peace and stability even as we pursue denuclearization.

 
Japan and the United States also want to maintain peace and stability, but prevention of proliferation is especially high on their priority list, and, for Japan, to this goal must be added the satisfactory handling of the politically sensitive issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the past.

 
As before, it is predictable that various states will continue to have little patience for demands of others that seem to threaten achievements of their own priority goals. Thus, while it has recently expressed support for ultimate resolution of the abduction issue, China has demonstrated considerable unhappiness with Japan’s insistence on bringing that topic to the Six Party plenary table or addressing it head-on in intergovernmental documents rather than handling it bilaterally and employing more rounded euphemisms. The ROK’s overall desire to diminish Japan’s role in the future of the Peninsula has gone beyond this to the raising of various proposals that would simply cut Japan out of the process of future planning.

 
How to balance the benefits of the Six Party process with the essentiality of a bilateral dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang is not simply an issue for the United States to consider. Much as the other negotiating partners see bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks as a key to success, there is a certain chafing at the outcome when such talks actually do take place. For different reasons, both Tokyo and Seoul were discomfited by the mid-January Berlin talks between American and North Korean negotiators that paved the way for the agreement in Beijing.

 
While we focus on how to induce the North to follow through on its initial commitments, we also need to think about how to manage the much more difficult and complex problem of how to optimize chances of achieving total denuclearization. It may prove impossible in the end, but, if so, it shouldn’t be because the “other five” failed to coordinate properly or to take sufficiently seriously each other’s needs.

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