Can North Korea’s Nuclear Problem Be Solved?

Can North Korea’s Nuclear Problem Be Solved?

Is there a hope for restarting the stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program? This question is more frequently asked by experts at international conferences, including the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism event held this May in northwestern city of Yanji, the seat of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin province, People's Republic of China. 

The majority of participants, especially the representatives of China, spoke in favor of restarting the negotiation process. The event showed it is widely believed that the policy of sanctions and pressure adopted by Washington and its allies against North Korea does not bring expected results. For instance, Japanese scholars emphasized that North Korea is not isolated and is free to do what it pleases, including the continuation of nuclear program.

The participants from the US, Japan and South Korea wanted China to use its leverage over Pyongyang and make it refuse the nuclear program and launch far-reaching reforms instead. According to their rather extravagant vision, China, not the United States, is the main target for North Korean nuclear potential. They believe it is used as a counterbalance against Beijing. Western participants expressed concern over rapidly progressing rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing which was given an impetus during the May 9 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Chinese participants had no illusions about the United States. They openly expressed their opinion that that the United States strengthened alliances to encircle and contain China. According to them, the current US-dominated security system could not guarantee security to all the states of North Eastern Asia. They spoke in favor of creating a regional organization with broad representation based on the principle of equality. Beijing has come up recently with the One Belt, One Road (also known as the Belt and Road Initiative; abbreviated OBOR), a development strategy and framework, proposed by People’s Republic of China that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily in Eurasia, which consists of two main components, the land-based «Silk Road Economic Belt» (SREB) and oceangoing «Maritime Silk Road» (MSR).

They made no secret of the fact that the project is an alternative to US «Asia pivot». China wants to counterbalance the United States (including in the Korean Peninsula) avoiding military provocation. The main thing – the participants agreed that the six-party talks idea was still very much alive. The gist of the problem is that the United States and other parties involved try to shift the blame for the process being stalled on others and wait for somebody else to come up with an initiative to restart it. That’s what’s spoils the things.

Looking back at the conference and other events one comes to conclusion that Washington is prone to double thinking. With six party talks stalled the Obama’s policy of strategic patience has made nuclear weapons an element of North Korean national identity. The US keeps harping on like mantra that only sanctions, not engagement, could make Pyongyang refuse the nuclear capability. Some experts believe that the sanctions regime must be strengthened to produce tangible results. Of course, China and Russia are to blame for preventing the tightening of screws to suffocate North Korea economically. As a palliative measure, «senior allies» of South Korea want Seoul to launch separate talks used for providing explanations on the true intent of the West and making precise the preliminary conditions to be met for starting the six party talks. The initiative is to be implemented as an element of second track diplomacy.

The advocates of this approach in Washington understand that the chances that Pyongyang will agree to participate in such talks are slim. There is little hope for the talks to succeed, even if they take place against all the odds. The gap dividing the parties is too wide. Pyongyang will not accept any preliminary conditions. It is ready to discuss anything except its unilateral disarmament. The West faces a mission that is a tall order – to make North Korea get back to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement (perhaps, only the conditions to be carried out by North Korea) where Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits. In a draft accord in which the North promised to abandon efforts to produce nuclear weapons and re-admit international inspectors to its nuclear facilities. Those who stand for taking a tough stance seem to remember more frequently the formula »CVID» (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Disarmament) refused by North Korea a long time ago. 

The West wants to prevent the recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state and avoid transforming the six party talks into a forum where the nuclear disarmament would not top the agenda. North Korea, (to large extent supported by Russia and China) wants a comprehensive system of security established in the Peninsula, which would include as initial steps a treaty with the United States instead of archaic armistice agreement of 1953, full normalization of relations with Washington and Tokyo etc. 

The gap between the starting positions is too wide. No wonder the explanatory talks have not started as yet. Some US analysts think that the reason for Washington’s double thinking is growing concern over the ability to upstage North Korea at the talks and make it unilaterally disarm and capitulate like it happened with Milosevic, Gaddafi etc.

Barack Obama, like any other US president, would be very sensitive to criticism of American political elite and public opinion in case of another failure on the North Korean track.

That’s why in the near future the US will stick to the policy of containment which is doomed to fail, though some elements of engagement policy are permissible as the second track efforts aimed at undermining the regime from inside.

As history shows, these approaches are nothing new. This policy has proven useless in case of North Korea. No doubt it will not help to revive the six party talks process.