Why the Six Party Talks won’t bring peace to the Korean peninsula

Michael Mazza American Enterprise Institute
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Despite having little demonstrable interest in giving up its nuclear weapons, North Korea is once again headed for a negotiating table to do just that. That the North Koreans have been invited at all is a testament to the strange desperation of both the Obama administration and the South Korean Lee Myung-bak administration to return to the Six Party Talks.

Writing recently for a Japanese newspaper, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described a return to the Six Party Talks as the goal of U.S. North Korea policy (not denuclearization, not a halt to murderous behavior). The State Department, in an effort to achieve that end, has returned to bilateral talks with the North — twice since July. Seoul has likewise engaged in two rounds of bilateral talks with Pyongyang this year and recently dispatched its chief nuclear negotiator to Beijing and Moscow to discuss a resumption of Six Party Talks.

The appointment of two new American envoys — Glyn Davies as special representative for North Korea policy and Clifford Hart as special envoy to the Six Party Talks — has also received much attention. But the importance of the negotiators themselves can be overstated; sitting across the table from Kim’s cronies, even Don Corleone would be challenged to present an offer they could not refuse. No amount of cajoling, inveigling or bribing will convince Kim Jong-il to give up his nukes.

And why would he? As things stand, Kim gains substantial value from the weapons: a deterrent (though perhaps more perceived than real), an achievement by which he can buttress his regime’s legitimacy, and a coterie of foreign diplomats eager to buy him off with cash and prizes. Even the increased international pressure the weapons program has at times brought about in some ways benefits Pyongyang, as it has led Beijing to double down on its commitment to North Korea. The influx of Chinese money allows Kim to shore up his regime without selling the farm to Beijing, which has ceded any leverage it may have had over the Dear Leader by demonstrating an essentially unqualified commitment to the perpetuation of his rule.

It is Kim’s patent determination to keep his nuclear option that makes the Six Party Talks so dangerous. The logic of “give and take” negotiations leads envoys to ease up on tactics that might be working — such as sanctions aimed at stemming arms proliferation — in an effort to demonstrate good will and move the ball forward. Such concessions make Kim’s pursuit of weapons easier and grant him more time to build his arsenal. The North Koreans, meanwhile, have shown themselves adept at making minor, and always ultimately insignificant, concessions to keep the process going. It is understandably tempting, though misguided, for negotiators to latch onto any signs of progress, however small.

Nor should Americans be tempted by a greater illusion: the certain folly of a grand bargain. What North Korea wants perhaps more than anything from Washington — and, some argue, might be willing to give up its nukes for — is America’s diplomatic recognition and a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War. Both of these proposals sound innocent enough — reasonable even — but Washington should approach with caution.

In Pyongyang’s ruling ideology, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the sole and rightful government for all of Korea. The Seoul regime is a puppet state — a government put in place by the American military, which continues to “occupy” the southern half of the peninsula.

A recent North Korean commentary, bemoaning the lack of a peace treaty, claimed that the United States has used the 1953 armistice agreement to “interfere” with Korea’s “internal affairs” and to extend “military control over south Korea” (notice the lowercase “S”). Therein lies the difficulty — the United States cannot sign a treaty with North Korea because as part of that peace, Pyongyang would expect the removal of all U.S. troops from the peninsula and the closing of America’s nuclear umbrella. And given that such a treaty would not include Seoul, which the North does not recognize as a sovereign combatant, the treaty would end the war between North Korea and the United States without ending the war on the peninsula, thus subverting America’s alliance with South Korea. Washington would find it difficult to afford diplomatic recognition to Pyongyang in such a scenario. But if the United States, in a flight of fancy, ever did agree to such a deal, South Korea might very well go nuclear itself, thus negating all that was supposed to have been achieved.

If a grand bargain is off the table and if Kim cannot verifiably be bought off (see: 1994 nuclear agreement, 2005 joint statement), then what is one to do? Kim must be shown, rather than told, that his nukes do not provide an effective deterrent and actually make him less secure. This will require South Korea, with U.S. support if need be, to retaliate with force the next time Pyongyang carries out a deadly provocation. And it will require the United States to demonstrate the seriousness of its nuclear umbrella, perhaps by once again stationing nuclear weapons in South Korea or by simply inviting South Korean military officers to co-locate at U.S. Strategic Command Headquarters.

Only by convincing Kim of the futility of his nuclear program can Seoul and Washington expect to make progress on denuclearizing the peninsula. First, however, they’ll need to convince themselves of the futility of the Six Party Talks.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.