North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told Chinese President Xi Jinping during talks in Beijing last week that he agreed to return to six-party talks on his nation’s nuclear program and missile tests, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Thursday quoting multiple sources. On this issue, an official from the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae commented on Friday, “After holding scheduled inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits and a trilateral talk, if possible, we may be able to expand the dialogue to six-party talks if an enhanced assurance from related countries seems to be required.” This implies that the government will focus on the dialogue among the two Koreas and the United States for now, but will not rule out the possibility of resuming the six-party talks in the future.
The six-party talks that grouped the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia started in 2003 to discuss the resolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear development issue, but was last held in 2009 when North Korea walked out of the talk. China, the host country of the talks, has constantly demanded that the long-stalled talks be resumed, and President Xi must have repeated the same demand to Kim during the latest meeting. Having been taken aback by sudden changes in circumstances with the two Koreas and the United States at the center, China will not easily give up on a dialogue channel that it can lead.
However, the six-party talks are an already failed process with its limitations laid bare. The original intention of the talks was to exert the pressure of neighboring countries on Pyongyang, which had only called for the direct dialogue with Washington. Still, the talks often ended up in tedious quarrels, and in the end, turned into a meeting that simply ratifies the result of under-the-table negotiations between North Korea and the United States. Despite its achievements such as the September 19 Joint Statement and the February 13 Agreement, the six-party talks were wrecked due to controversies over the implementation and verification of denuclearization. All the while, North Korea has dragged on by escalating tensions in stages in a so-called salami tactic, and its nuclear capability has been sophisticated as a result.
The inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits are an approach fundamentally different from the six-party talks. It is a top-down process in which the leaders would reach a comprehensive agreement and try to implement the follow-up measures in a swift manner. The resumption of the six-party talks in such circumstances, thus, will only make it difficult to quickly resolve the issue. It is highly likely that China or Japan will intervene to take sides or raise another issue, distracting the discussion.
For sure, it is hard to deny that the six-party talks are a useful channel for dialogue. Yet, the resolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear issue led by the two Koreas and the United States can serve as a change to bring about the fundamental change of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula and even the security order of Northeast Asia. This is why the cooperation of China, Japan and Russia is also necessary. Then the six-party talks will be able to turn into a multi-lateral regional security cooperative body that monitors North Korea’s implementation of denuclearization activities and supports the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. For now, however, we cannot afford to repeat the failures of the past.