In an exclusive interview with the Interfax news agency on July 29, the North Korean ambassador to Moscow, Kim Hyun Joon, stated that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was prepared to shore up its nuclear potential in response to US actions, the purpose of which, the ambassador emphasized, «is to overthrow the existing regime and bring about a change in the current leadership of the DPRK».
Given this context, is there any hope for the revival of the six-party talks (China, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, the US, and Japan) to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula? That problem took on new urgency after the US released the National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015, in which North Korea is identified as one of the three biggest threats that must be firmly contained. It’s clear that in light of these strategic edicts, Washington sees the negotiation processes in a secondary and supportive role at best.
Nevertheless, the question remains on the agenda at many international conferences and continues to be the subject of debate. It was discussed at the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism forum held last May in the city of Yanji (in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in the People’s Republic of China). Most at the forum spoke in favor of resuming the six-party talks. The Chinese representatives were the staunchest advocates for quickly reviving those negotiations, stressing that Beijing is keenly aware of the need to take practical steps toward this goal as soon as possible.
At the same time, many foreign attendees at the forum in Yanji acknowledged that the policy adopted by Washington and its allies to expand the sanctions and pressure on the DPRK is not producing the desired results. For example, the Japanese scholars noted that ultimately, «North Korea has not been isolated, but enjoys complete freedom of action, including in its development of a national nuclear program».
Over the course of the discussions, it could clearly be seen how the representatives from the US, Japan, and South Korea took a unified stance designed to encourage China to use all its levers of influence on Pyongyang, in order to force the North Korean leadership to abandon its nuclear arsenal. It was fascinating to watch a curious argument being enthusiastically propagated to achieve those ends – claiming that the North Korean nuclear program was directed not so much against the United States – which the northerners are not really in a position to threaten anyway – but against China!
The Western representatives were also visibly worried about the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing that was proceeding more quickly than expected, and which was evident during the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on Victory Day, May 9, 2015.
In turn, representatives at the Yanji forum from the People’s Republic of China pointedly alleged that the main goal of US policy in Northeast Asia (NEA) is to contain China’s «peaceful rise» and that the American system of military-political alliances in the region does not guarantee equal security for all states in NEA and requires the addition of a broad regional organization to address issues of peace and stability.
At the same time, the Chinese representatives openly admitted that the New Silk Road project put forward by Beijing, based on the principle of «One Belt, One Road,» is China’s response to the Obama administration’s stated policy of «rebalancing and a focus on Asia». One of the main goals of this Chinese initiative is to obstruct American hegemony in the region, including on the Korean peninsula, but without provoking the US either militarily or politically.
One gets the impression that Washington’s doublethink on the Korean nuclear controversy is becoming entrenched. On one hand, American professionals understand that as a result of the lengthy hiatus in the six-party talks and the continuation of the Obama administration’s so-called «doctrine of strategic patience,» nuclear weapons are now «an integral part of the national identity of North Korea». On the other hand, these same people continue to insist that only sanctions can force Pyongyang to denuclearize. The American argument – to the open astonishment of many experts – is quite simple: «No, the sanctions are not working, but that is because we need more of them». And China and Russia are to blame, because they do not want to «cut off the supply of oxygen» to Pyongyang and continue to cooperate economically with the DPRK.
As a palliative measure, in 2015 the Americans suggested that Seoul try to draw Pyongyang into «exploratory talks,» in order «to gauge North Korea’s seriousness» and to outline what the West wants from them as a precondition for the resumption of the work of the six powers in regard to North Korea’s nuclear program. It is expected that this initiative should be pursued via quiet «track II diplomacy».
However, even the American authors of this initiative understand that should Pyongyang agree to such talks (which is unlikely), there is very little hope for their success, because such a vast gulf exists between the parties’ starting positions and objectives. Pyongyang firmly rejects the idea of any preconditions to resolving the nuclear issue. North Korea is willing to discuss anything except its own unilateral nuclear disarmament.
The West’s highest priority is to force the DPRK to comply with the terms of the six parties’ September 19, 2005 Joint Statement on eliminating not only its nuclear weapons, but North Korea’s entire militarily-oriented nuclear program, in order to thus return the country to the NPT and back under the control of the IAEA. And it seems that die-hard conservatives increasingly look back to the CVID formula («the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement» of all aspects of North Korea’s nuclear programs) that the northerners rejected long ago.
The West is trying to prevent the six-party talks from becoming a forum that ignores the most important goal of denuclearization and de facto recognizes the DPRK as a nuclear state. Pyongyang, for its part and largely supported by Russia and China, sees the initial steps on the long road to denuclearizing the peninsula as being the creation of a broad system to ensure peace and security in Korea, including the replacement of the archaic 1953 Armistice Agreement with a peace treaty with the United States, the full normalization of relations with Washington and Tokyo, and so on. So there is a huge gap between the parties’ positions. Not surprisingly, the «exploratory talks» have still not begun.
Washington’s doublethink in regard to North Korea’s nuclear program could be due to the White House’s heightened fears that the Americans will never be able to best North Korea’s leaders in the negotiations – i.e., to convince them to unilaterally disarm and surrender, as did Slobodan Milošević and Muammar Gaddafi. Therefore, Obama and any subsequent president will always be sensitive to the inevitable, negative public reaction in the US to yet another American diplomatic failure regarding North Korea.
The imperative behind the policy of the US administration toward the DPRK will remain a barren and futile form of «containment,» which is something that is understood by the most far-sighted Americans. Not only is there nothing new in this approach, it has also repeatedly shown itself to be unsuitable for dealing with the DPRK. It is not capable of helping to revive the six-party talks on the nuclear agenda.