By: Debalina Ghoshal
The North Korean nuclear crisis is going from worse to worse. Despite United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions imposed on the rogue state, it has continued to conduct nuclear and ballistic missile tests. While sanctions have failed to stall Pyonyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, the Chinese have time and again called for the revival of the Six Party Talks (SPT).
The Six Party Talks, were a series of talks held in Beijing between China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and the United States, aiming to find a peaceful resolution to security concerns resulting from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Despite North Korean recalcitrance regarding its nuclear program, it seems that China has not given up hope on the SPT. Amid all the rhetoric and posturing and the imminent nuclear threat from Pyongyang, can the SPT find a solution?
Progress of the SPT
One reason for the launching of the Six Party Talks (SPT) was North Korean withdrawal from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the urgency for the world order to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. Another was the 2002 failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework due to US suspicions that North Korea was continuing with enrichment activities. There was also the Pyongyang’s refusal to permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections into its nuclear facilities from 2002. Despite all efforts, in 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
Since North Korea withdrew from the SPT, not much progress has been made. Continuing nuclear tests by the North, in addition to the testing of nuclear capable long range ballistic missiles, led China to urge the international community to revive the SPT in order to restore peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula, as well as in the Northeast Asian region at large.
However, none of the other parties expressed any willingness to return to the table. The US believes that nuclear disarmament by North Korea is the key to ensuring peace and stability in the region. Pyongyang, on the other hand, believes that peace and stability in the region is the only key to nuclear disarmament. This was evident when in 2016 the North demanded a bilateral meeting with the US to discuss peace and stability - the US demand for denuclearization before resuming talks perturbed the North Koreans and they rejected the US response.
Moreover, North Korea has always demanded a peace treaty with the US in return for halting its nuclear program, as post the Korean War only an armistice exists between the two countries. In 2013, Pyongyang nullified the armistice. Normalization of North Korea-US relations is a major agenda for the North.
Another problem hindering the success of the SPT is the verification issue. North Korea’s nuclear program would have to be verified in a way that would leave no scope for doubt in the minds of the US and other SPT parties. The US would need to ensure that the nuclear program was completely irreversibly and verifiably dismantled (CVID).
Throughout the hiccups in the progress of the SPT, China has actively supported it. Even as sanctions were being imposed on North Korea, China repeatedly requested countries to rethink the scope of the SPT. The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 2371 in August 2017 that imposed sanctions on North Korea and prohibited the Hermit Kingdom from conducting further nuclear and missile tests.
While the easiest solution is to resort to coercion, the best option would be that the US conducts a bilateral meeting with North Korea, discussing the nuclear issue, followed by bilateral meetings between South Korea and Pyongyang and also between Japan and North Korea.
This could be followed by a quadrilateral meeting between the US, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. Thereafter, the SPT could resume once confidence is restored.
Debalina Ghoshal is an independent consultant specializing in nuclear issues and missile and missile defense issues.