Commentary

Six-Party Agreement and the North-South Summit: An Opening for Korea?

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This week’s Six-Party “Second Phase” agreement and North-South Eight-Point Agreement create considerable hope for the future of the Korean Peninsula.  Faithful implementation, of course, will be the key to actual progress, and nothing is guaranteed. But the chances for consolidating peace and stability may be better than ever before.

By Alan D. Romberg – The October 3 Six-Party agreement on “Second-Phase Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement” represents a potentially important step forward toward denuclearization of North Korea. Critics point to its lack of specificity in some key areas and to the fact that, like its predecessor “Initial Steps” agreement of February 13, 2007, it is not comprehensive. Both points are correct, but these are not fatal flaws. Neither of those agreements was designed to be comprehensive, but both are explicitly in support of the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, which was. Moreover, in terms of specificity, one needs to consider the entire package of arrangements connected with these steps, not all of which are laid out in the “Second Phase” document. As that document, itself, says, the Six-Party process will push forward “in accordance with the consensus reached at the meetings of the Working Groups.” True, the details of the most important working groupconsensus, between the United States and North Korea, have not been made public. But the key thing is that, if the North intends to play games with its specific commitments on declaring all of its nuclear programs and disabling all of its nuclear facilities, it doesn’t matter whether those commitments were  made in the formal Six-Party document or bilaterally with the United States; in either case it would set things back substantially, not just on denuclearization, but on normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations—a principal North Korean goal.

If things move forward quickly on the October 3 agreement, this could prove difficult for Japan—and for U.S.-Japan relations. Rumors are rife that, if North Korea follows through on its obligations in this phase, the United States will fully remove the DPRK from the terrorist list and lift penalties against the North under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Former Prime Minister Abe had strongly hoped for U.S. restraint in taking such steps until the abduction issue was fully settled. Prime Minister Fukuda, though obviously committed to ultimate resolution, seems more amenable to something less than the absolutist-and unattainable-goal of short-term, “complete resolution” before engaging actively in the Six-Party negotiation.
 
On the other hand, if things fall apart, this could prove a significant time of testing for U.S.-South Korean ties, especially in the wake of the October 2 -4 Pyongyang Summit. DPRK leader Kim Jong Il and ROK President Roh Moo Hyun committed to substantial progress on everything from regularizing high-level contacts to deepening economic cooperation, expanding family reunions, and creating cooperative arrangements in an area where fishing activities have generated past military clashes. They affirmed their commitments to carry out the various Six-Party denuclearization accords and to move toward negotiation of a permanent peace regime to replace the 1953 Armistice. Failure in Six-Party Talks could put much, if not all, of this at risk.

One of the more interesting aspects of the North-South agreement was the call to have “the three, or four,  directly concerned supreme leaders meet on the Korean Peninsula and declare an end to the war.” “Three, or four”? It isn’t likely that either of the Koreas or the United States was the party that could be left out; one has to wonder how this is being received in Beijing.

This is not a moment for dewy-eyed optimism. It is a moment for hope backed up by hard work and creativity on all sides. It is also a time for “thinking big,” not trying to nickel-and-dime the negotiations to squeeze out tiny advantages, which could risk the entire enterprise.

Some people worry that the ROK has given up so much to the North that Pyongyang will have no incentive to follow through in Six-Party Talks now or in the next, extremely difficult stage involving the DPRK’s nuclear weapons. I disagree. The name of the game for North Korea is the transformation of relations with the United States. While the North-South agreement is important in its own right and can help create a positive atmosphere for the Six-Party Talks, it did not—it could not—resolve that core issue for the North.

Both Pyongyang and Washington need to be faithful to all their agreements, in Six-Party Talks and in direct negotiations. If they are, they can build some mutual confidence that will help substantially in the next stage. Conversely, to act in bad faith would not only destroy any nascent sense of trust, but would generate a substantial setback.

With Kim Jong Il seemingly still very much in charge, and with President Bush apparently committed to a successful negotiation if the North follows through, this is a moment to build on the momentum that has been created, not, in Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase, to go wobbly.

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