Why should we care if the six-party talks are ever restarted? Although North Korea’s nuclear program represents a real threat, returning to the six-party talks as they were previously conducted will never end this threat. In fact, the current breakdown actually serves U.S. interests more than the talks ever did. This is true for a number of reasons.
First, North Korea was not negotiating in good faith. Although they came to the table it was only to make the unreasonable demands that the U.S. give them everything in exchange for them considering stopping their program. This not only flies in the face of reason but also the Reagan trust-but-verify model of arms control, which is particularly important when dealing with Communist régimes. Further evidence of this can been seen in the most recent rejection of an ill-advised U.S. concessions offer. In addition, the recent talks in New York will likely yield only claims of victory by North Korea, which they achieved by their obstructionism.
Second, China, Russia, and North Korea have lost their international bully pulpit from which they could attack the U.S. for being uncooperative while at the negotiations they worked together to ensure that no reasonable solution could be reached. During the negotiations a pattern emerged in which the Chinese would come to the international press to announce that the U.S was to blame for no breakthroughs. Following, the Chinese and the Russians would come and repeat that claim. At times it even appeared in this circus of the absurd that Russia was reading Chinese prepared talking points. Then the final act in this scripted international play: The North Korean side comes out and verifies that it is the (insert your favorite derogatory phrase here) Americans who stand in the way of “peace in our times”. These three cast members then retire back to the negotiating room where they work hard to avoid any progress towards real and verifiable disarmament. Interestingly China in recent weeks once again tried to blame America for the lack of progress, after our offer of concessions.
Third, with the collapse of the talks, North Korea, instead of the U.S., has been exposed internationally as the real bad actor in this little drama. It helps us to have the facts exposed to the world in such a concrete way that it cannot be denied or dismissed.
Fourth, on a more technical note, North Korea never suspended its nuclear program during the negotiations. So regardless of whether the talks are restarted or not, North Korea’s development timeline doesn’t change.
Fifth, the breakdown of these talks exposes China as either a strong military and economic power but impotent and inexperienced in the arena of soft power and global negotiations, or it raises questions about what China’s real goals are vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear program. Most evidence supports the latter rather than the former. This is particularly evident by the fact that perhaps no two nations epitomize a patron-client state relationship better then China and North Korea. For example, China provides an estimated 70 percent of the energy and 40 percent of food consumed in North Korea. With such dependence, China should easily be able to ensure North Korean participation and real progress in the negotiations, however considering events to date, including the most recent rejections, it appears that China is instead seeking an agenda contrary to its publicly announced one.
Two potential examples of goals that the Chinese might be pursuing include:
‐Neutralization to accompany denuclearization of the peninsula. This would be accomplished by some form of internationalizing of the South Korean and North Korean dispute in conjunction with denuclearization. The argument would likely be framed that the U.S. is there, after all, under U.N. authority stemming from Security Council resolutions passed at the beginning of the Korean War, and that it is time for some other nation or group of nations to take over this mission. No matter what the argument, the goal would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea. Among other things, this would provide greater operational freedom for the Chinese Northern fleet.
‐Quid pro quo on Taiwan. In exchange for Chinese-backed concessions by North Korea, the U.S. and Japan would abandon any policies that would provide for real protection from a Chinese attack on the democratic nation of Taiwan. Potential evidence for this case might be seen in the fact that less than two weeks after Japan joined the U.S. in labeling Taiwan an area of “mutual security concern,” North Korea announced its intention to restart testing of its ballistic-missile program, which has always been an area of particular concern for Japan.
In the end, the best realistic solution is a verifiable settlement that denuclearizes North Korea while maintaining the current security status quo. However, the six-party talks as they were being conducted would never have led to that. In order to change the existing conditions the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and potentially even Russia, should place pressure on China to bring a more willing North Korea back to the table with the intent of achieving a real settlement. After all, the road to Pyongyang really does start in Beijing.
–Christopher Brown works at the Hudson Institute for the Program on Transitions to Democracy.