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Georgy Bulychev

Researcher for the Russian National Committee of Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP)

Fifteen years have passed since the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue involving North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan that started in 2003 and resulted in the signing of the Joint Statement on the principles of denuclearization in Beijing. What has this document achieved? And what can we expect from it in the future?

No matter what comes next, it is important that the North Korean side learns first-hand about what the negotiation process on such a sensitive subject actually involves, how the parameters of declaration, verification and guarantees work, and what other stumbling blocks may appear. The idea of discussing the possible framework of a collective security system under the guidance of a specially created working group led by Russia has also been brought up on a number of occasions. Such developments could help revive the six-party diplomatic process.

A Gloomy Anniversary

The September 19, 2005 statement proposed measures to phase out the nuclear potential of the Korean peninsula in exchange for establishing a peace and security mechanism that takes the interests of all sides into account.

North Korea, whose missile programme was the focus of the talks, was primarily interested in eliminating threats to its national security and obtaining “irrevocable” guarantees of non-interference as an alternative to nuclear deterrence. These agreements effectively spelt out in detail the idea of “peace in exchange for nuclear weapons,” which the United States and North Korea, with the help of other interested states, have been trying to achieve since the 1990s.

The Joint Statement also enshrined the principle of “action for action”: Pyongyang pledged to dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for certain concessions. The issue of the groundwork that had already been laid for the production of nuclear weapons (still in its infancy in North Korea at the time) remained up in the air. The parties recognized North Korea’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and they agreed to discuss the possibility of supplying the country with a light-water reactor. The United States, Japan and South Korea also undertook to normalize their relations with North Korea, provided that the latter returns to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and agrees to operate under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It would seem that we have before us an example of a constructive diplomatic settlement, a compromise that takes the basic interests of all participants into account and puts forward a plan for moving towards the goals that have been set. And all this despite the fact that many controversial aspects have been put off until a later date. Still, the sides have been in no hurry to fulfil their obligations.

The United States was clearly expecting North Korea to collapse and be absorbed into South Korea, which would have conveniently put an end to the nuclear problem. There was no way that the United States was going to recognize the right of the North Korean “dictatorship” to exist.

North Korea realized that abandoning its nuclear programme would be nothing short of suicide and thus set about building up it is nuclear missile potential (its first nuclear device was tested a little over a year later).

Any attempts since then to continue negotiations, both in multilateral and bilateral formats, have stuttered and gone nowhere. The United States continues to insist that North Korea is “obliged” to disarm, and uses sanctions and isolation tactics to form an international coalition against the country. Meanwhile, North Korea’s response has been to make significant advances in its nuclear weapons (it currently possesses intercontinental missiles, although they are rather poorly developed, as well as thermonuclear warheads).

Unsurprisingly, the sides have been unable (or, rather, unwilling) to agree on concessions that would suit them. This fact was on display once again during the unprecedented period of high-level diplomacy in 2018–2019. This is because there is no way the sides can come to an agreement in the current circumstances – the United States and its allies cannot accept that North Korea has the right to self-defence and an international legal personality, and Pyongyang sees no reason to give up its only bargaining chip.

Time to Choose

Is it possible to pick up where we left off in terms of implementing the principles set out in the six-party statement? Given the serious missile potential that North Korea has built up over the years, is there any hope that the country will abandon it in exchange for vague promises of a “better life” from the United States and its allies, including South Korea?

The only thing that remains from the original plan for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula drawn up during the six-party talks is its outward appearance. It is, of course, a good thing that the non-proliferation regime – the cornerstone of global strategic stability – exists today, but it would be overly optimistic to expect the roadmap to be implemented in its original form.

It seems that North Korea has already passed the point of no return and now considers itself a nuclear power, with all the rights and responsibilities that that entails, including in terms of international law, kind of like Pakistan. Pyongyang insists that it withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty legally, in accordance with Article X, which states that parties have the right to withdraw from the Treaty “if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” The promises of denuclearization should probably be considered within the context of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” In other words, North Korea has apparently made eliminating the nuclear threat around the world as a condition of its denuclearization.

The international community does not have the means to force North Korea to change its position. As we have already demonstrated, a negotiated solution is not in the offing. And a hybrid war, including economic sanctions, cannot sway the leadership of a closed country on an issue that is existential for it. The only way to get the North Korean side to change its mind is to wage a war of annihilation, although the consequences would be so terrible that it is not even worth thinking about. Any lingering doubts about the impossibility of war were quelled in 2017, when, despite Donald Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea, Kim Jong-un refused to back down and no one dared take more radical measures.

It is important to note that, while the Korean peninsula is generally seen as a hot spot, it has been years since anything catastrophic has happened there. Unlike other crisis regions, the situation has been relatively quiet for 67 years since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, and any armed clashes between the sides have been limited to shows of force, with only a few dozen casualties on both sides. A kind of confrontational stability has settled on the peninsula, and no one has any plans to break it.

North Korea does not have any reason to be an aggressor, nor does it have the means to engage in an armed conflict. And the United States, having come to the realization that the North Korean regime will not collapse as a result of its isolation, has shelved its plans to eradicate North Korea as a state and have it swallowed up by its neighbour to the south. Meanwhile, the people of South Korea, for whom reunification has long been part of the national mentality, have started to come to the realization that annexing the North will bring enormous problems. This is especially true for the younger generation. In this respect, a civil (partisan) war cannot be ruled out, perhaps involving weapons of mass destruction, and the economic and social problems will be so great that they may jeopardize the country’s status and economic position. Moving on to China and Russia, they do not want to see a conflict breaking out on the Korean peninsula and call for stability, in the hope that it may eventually lead to the peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas. As for Japan, the country has an irrational fear of North Korea, but has not developed an official position on the issue, and in any case does not have the military might to change the situation on its own.

Thus, a calm, albeit somewhat forced, has fallen on the Korean peninsula – there has been a distinct lack of dramatic twists and turns in the North Korean nuclear programme, which has effectively been frozen against the background of the sluggish negotiations and the fact that neither side has taken any provocative actions of late. And this will suit all parties involved to one degree or other – all the more so because given the far more serious global and regional challenges they all face today. It turned out that the balance of interests in Korea fell into place all by itself. So, why destroy it now?

The Diplomatic Process

A practical question thus arises: How can this balance be formalized in such a way as to avoid misunderstandings and have a mechanism for discussing and harmonizing the interests of everyone involved? This is where the six-party format comes in, although many believe that that particular venture has outlived any usefulness it may have had. The Six-Party talks may not have brought about any tangible results at the beginning of the 20th century, but that was because no one was working towards a negotiated solution. The United States wanted to maintain a state of “controlled chaos,” hoping it could thus control and weaken North Korea (bearing in mind the importance of keeping a tight military presence on the borders with China), while Pyongyang was putting the feelers out to see what concessions it may be able to obtain in the future.

The Six-Party talks were too successful for their results to be translated into reality. That said, the Joint Statement is not only a monument to the era, but it is also a kind of instruction manual on how to look for common ground in negotiations.

But the situation has changed. And, tellingly, even the United States has started to recognize this. U.S. researchers see five possible scenarios for solving the North Korean nuclear problem, from unilateral denuclearization to what effectively amounts to the creation of an arms control system. The appearance of such a concept within the scientific community is particularly important here, as it shows tacit recognition of the fact that there is no need to try and force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons – controlling such weapons and prevent the growth of the nuclear threat are far more manageable tasks.

However, none of this means that the United States will change its official position on North Korea. But the new conditions demand that the negotiations pursue a completely different goal. That is, the new negotiations (like the many years of U.S.–Soviet negotiations on arms reduction) should aim to clarify the status of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons and what will happen to them. Guarantees need to be obtained from the North Korean side that the further development of these weapons will cease and the production programme downsized. In return, North Korea would receive asymmetrical political, economic and social benefits that would allow it to become a “conventional” country that is more “acceptable” to its partners.

In the longer term, this could kick-start positive processes in North Korea’s domestic and foreign policies, making the “nuclear deterrent” less necessary. But this depends on how the global situation develops. At some stage, North Korea may even acquire “Israeli status” – meaning declaring the absence of nuclear weapons without actually having to give up the residual potential of its defence capabilities.

This can be one of the main topics of discussion at the new round of six-party talks (especially given the fact that, as we have shown, the United States and North Korea are unlikely ever to reach a compromise). To what extent would such an agreement meet the interests of all the parties concerned?

First, the United States insists that the main goal of the diplomatic process is the denuclearization of North Korea, and everyone agrees. Six-party talks will make it possible to discuss the modality, stages and timeframes of such denuclearization (becoming, as we mentioned earlier, a channel for the creation of a regional arms control system). Decisions can be made on a multilateral basis and through a verification mechanism. Most importantly, North Korea will have to abandon or significantly curtail its WMD programmes during the negotiations.

Second, the priority of all participants (albeit to varying degrees) is the preservation of peace and security in the region. The negotiation process would avert the threat of a military conflict and allow the dialogue on security cooperation, including with regard to conventional weapons, to be resumed. It would also make it possible to develop confidence-building measures and other mechanisms that have stood the test of time in regions that are of concern to Northeast Asia.

Third, all of the sides pursue economic and social development goals. As part of the six-party process, the sides could agree on the phased lifting of the sanctions against North Korea in exchange for significant steps on the part of the latter, and facilitate its return to the global financial system (thus making the grey and outright criminal trade and financial schemes that North Korea currently uses unnecessary). Given Kim Jong-un’s obvious desire for socioeconomic process in recent years, this would help marketize the economy and thus lead to a certain liberalization and evolution of society towards the norms accepted in most countries. In addition, the six-party process may help shine a light on regional economic cooperation. Multilateral projects started in the past (in the railway, gas and electricity sectors) could be revived and new projects explored.

It is also worth noting that each of the sides in the six-party talks has its own national interests and strategies, which are becoming increasingly antagonistic (in connection with the U.S.–China and U.S.–Russia confrontations in particular). The “Six-Party” format offers a convenient platform for assessing regional processes in greater detail and “coordinating” the positions of all the sides without dwelling on points of contention. It stands to reason that regional affairs experts will find it easier to come to a common understanding than “non-specialized” international institutions such as the United Nations.

Finally, it is important that this mechanism is far from the “Concert of Powers,” yet it is already operating at the level of bilateral diplomatic consultations and is capable of harmonizing the interests of all the parties. It is even possible that in the (distant) future the need for a permanent diplomatic process (including in the internet era) could lead to the establishment of a permanent secretariat. Or, even better, an international organization. But this is truly a dream, as there is simply too much that needs to be changed in the world order for this to become a reality. What the six-party format in Northeast Asia (where there has never been any kind of regional organization) can do, though, is serve as a testing ground for the creation of a new type of relations between centres of power.

There are thus a number of advantages, and only one very big disadvantage, to the tacit recognition of the de facto nuclear status of North Korea. That said, North Korea does not need anyone’s recognition to maintain such a status, and the lack of a dialogue on the issue means it has a free hand to continue to strengthen its nuclear potential. Will its opponents be able to overcome these idiosyncrasies in order to achieve the desired result – to reduce the military threat and prevent North Korea from growing its nuclear arsenal?

Russian Initiatives?

Russia has always advocated for a multilateral approach to the Korean nuclear problem (it was Moscow that put forward the idea of “six-party” talks back in 1994), which is unsurprising, given the fact that this is the only format that would allow the country to take part in the process. And it is clear that Moscow must continue this line in order to satisfy its most deeply held interests. Following his meeting with Kim Jong-un in April 2019, Vladimir Putin noted, "I do not know whether this [six-party] format should be resumed right now, but I am deeply convinced that if we reach a situation when we need to work out certain guarantees for one of the parties, in this case, security guarantees for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, then international guarantees will have to come into the picture. It is unlikely that agreements between the two countries will be enough."

However, the format that the process takes and its specific content are two different things. The phased solution that was put forward 25 years ago has repeatedly stumbled and fallen at the execution stage (with the most recent attempts coming in 2018–2019) because the declared goals differ so glaringly from the real ones. The roadmap put forward by Russian and China in July 2017 (and elaborated in the 2019 plan of action) is no different. The documents that have been agreed all suggest that if the actions taken do not lead to the complete denuclearization of North Korea, then there is no need to move in this direction. The futility of this approach is obvious today.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s new-fangled nuclear status has ushered in a change in its basic position. According to experts, this means the following: “In the past, Pyongyang was prepared to work towards some kind of deal involving mutual concessions, where every step towards denuclearization would be accompanied by relevant actions on the part of Washington, for example, a partial lifting of the sanctions against the country. But after Hanoi, this option was categorically rejected by the North Korean leadership." Like they said, ‘there will no more bargaining’ […] which effectively turned out to be an ultimatum on completely reformatting the fundamental approaches to the regulation of the North Korean nuclear issue.”

Russian experts would do well to scrutinize the current situation in order to bring the strategy in line with reality, at least at the doctrinal level. This, of course, does not mean that the goal of denuclearization, which is so important for the non-proliferation regime, should be abandoned. And the phased approach must remain in place as well – diplomacy is still an important feature of politics.

However, as history has demonstrated, this problem cannot be tackled “head-on.” It is time to recognize, at least in the internal concepts of the parties concerned, that the best result at the present juncture would be to establish a system of arms control and reduction, rather than complete denuclearization.

At first, this could be conveyed to the Russian side through Track II diplomacy. Depending on the state of U.S.–Russia and U.S.–China relations, time will tell whether this position can be made official, and in what form (in line with the Russia–China roadmap, for example).

If the United States and North Korea resume negotiations, say, after the U.S. presidential elections, then Moscow should be waiting in the wings to clarify the position it has been developing. Russia has the advantage of having good channels of communication with North Korea, as well as a wealth of experience in negotiating strategic arms reduction. Russia could share this experience with the North Korean side. A trilateral format is also a possibility, where those who took part in the U.S.–Soviet negotiations are experts from both sides could share such experience at the unofficial level.

No matter what comes next, it is important that the North Korean side learns first-hand about what the negotiation process on such a sensitive subject actually involves, how the parameters of declaration, verification and guarantees work, and what other stumbling blocks may appear. The idea of discussing the possible framework of a collective security system under the guidance of a specially created working group led by Russia has also been brought up on a number of occasions. Such developments could help revive the six-party diplomatic process.

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