Amid a flurry of efforts to resume the long-stalled multilateral talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, questions are being raised over whether the six-party framework is still viable and if there are any better alternatives.
The chief nuclear envoys of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan held talks bilaterally in Seoul Tuesday before their trilateral meeting on Wednesday. Also on Tuesday, senior Chinese and Japanese diplomats met in Beijing to discuss the restart of the talks among the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia, which have been stalled since late 2008.
The series of talks underscored the pressing need to resume dialogue over the escalating nuclear threats from Pyongyang, which has recently claimed to have already entered a “technical phase to miniaturize and diversify” its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Despite the need for dialogue, skepticism is lingering over the six-way talks with critics arguing that within the multilateral formula, building consensus is an arduous undertaking due to the participants’ different calculations of interests and the North’s recalcitrance.
“First of all, it is very difficult to bring the North back to the table as it is now refusing to denuclearize,” said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“And even if the talks should be resumed, it is difficult to forge an agreement that would please all the participants as they have different thoughts over how to pressure the North to renounce its nuclear ambitions.”
Park, however, said that there are no other viable options than the six-party talks that have fairly been institutionalized over the course of time and produced a set of landmark agreements based on which the participants could move their talks forward.
Given that the North now identifies itself as a nuclear-armed state in its constitution and sticks to its policy of simultaneously pursuing the development of its economy and nuclear weapons, the six-party talks would face even tougher challenges even if they should be resumed, analysts said.
“The North may not come out for denuclearization talks now. It may seek to bolster its leverage by further sophisticating its nuclear capabilities ― perhaps reaching the technological level to put nuclear warheads on long-range missiles,” said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies under Seoul National University.
Analysts say that though the prospects of the resumption of the six-party talks remain dim, the parties to the six-way formula can use their creative ideas to expedite the negotiation process. Regarding the multilateral forum as an umbrella process, the parties can hold bilateral and trilateral talks to activate the overall denuclearization process, they noted.
Some also pointed out that the six-party dialogue could go beyond the North’s nuclear issue to play a role as a multilateral security cooperation forum, which has been absent in Asia beset by nationalism and historical and territorial disputes.
“It is difficult (in international politics) to create another mechanism for negotiations,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.
“Thus, if need be, the participants in the six-party talks could organize separate forums within the six-party framework to help achieve the forum’s goals.”
Seoul has recently pushed for what it calls the “Korean Formula,” a still-veiled process aimed at promoting dialogue among the five parties excluding the North and finding ways to persuade the North to return to the negotiations and denuclearize.
It has also pushed for what it terms “exploratory dialogue” with Pyongyang in a move to lower the bar for the resumption of the six-party talks. But there has not been any progress on the efforts as the North sticks to its nuclear adventurism.
First held in August 2003, the six-party talks had produced a set of achievements such as the “Sept. 19 joint declaration” in 2005, which guarantees the security of the North Korean regime and provision of economic assistance to it in return for the dismantlement of its nuclear program.
But the talks got bogged down with the North and other parties accusing one another of failing to fulfill their parts of the denuclearization deal. In April 2009, the North declared that it would drop out of the talks.
After the North’s withdrawal from the talks, it conducted a second nuclear test in May 2009. In February 2013, the North carried out its third nuclear test, speeding up its efforts to develop strategic nuclear weapons.
The North has recently claimed that it successfully conducted an underwater test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile ― capable of conducting a nuclear retaliatory strike ― in an apparent move to elevate the level of its nuclear threat.