Since hosting a meeting last September to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the start of Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, China has stepped up shuttle diplomacy with the aim of resuming those negotiations. The result so far has been a virtual merry-go-round of periodic consultations among the respective chief delegates to the talks in Pyongyang, Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and Seoul, but there has been no discernible progress toward resumption of the multilateral talks.
On the contrary, rather than forging the consensus necessary to draw North Korea back into substantive multilateral negotiations, the process appears to have allowed North Korea to open up more active bilateral dialogue with Japan and Russia, easing Pyongyang’s sense of diplomatic isolation. This development is more likely to yield fragmentation among the parties than to forge the hoped-for united front.
China’s main aim has been to close the gap between Washington and Pyongyang over conditions for resumption of talks. Last September, China invited North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan to Beijing, where the diplomat publicly avowed that denuclearization had been the goal of North Korea’s former leaders and expressed North Korea’s willingness to return to negotiations without preconditions. China has explored whether Washington might in turn drop its emphasis on “pre-steps” as evidence of North Korea’s seriousness in pursuing denuclearization, and instead resume talks with the expectation that actions would soon follow.
Notably, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed at their June 2013 summit that their common interest in North Korea’s denuclearization made cooperation on the issue a priority of the U.S.-China relationship. But instead of accepting Beijing’s call on all parties to return to talks, Washington has sought to enlist Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to accept its preconditions. In a May speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace, China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, declared that in so doing, Washington had given Beijing a “mission impossible.”
Though China has by no means abandoned North Korea economically, remaining its main trading partner and source of food, fuel and foreign exchange, Beijing has taken some steps to enforce U.N. sanctions on North Korea following Pyongyang’s February 2013 nuclear test. China publicly announced lists of controlled exports to North Korea and a suspension of relations with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank. More significantly, China has shifted its political attention to South Korea, welcoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye for a state visit to Beijing last June that Xi will soon reciprocate, while freezing out high-level talks with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. This marked shift in Beijing’s pattern of diplomatic interaction on the Korean peninsula clearly expresses displeasure with Kim, even while Kim reportedly chafes at North Korea’s overdependence on China.
Meanwhile, Park has expressed openness to dialogue with North Korea under her policy of Trustpolitik and, in a speech laying out her government’s vision for Korean unification
delivered in Dresden in March
, appeared to de-emphasize denuclearization as a precondition for inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian issues. But she has continued to insist that North Korea abandon its nuclear program, and has been adamant in declaring that North Korea’s policy of simultaneously pursuing nuclear and economic development will only lead to failure.
Despite the seeming convergence of interests among the United States, China and South Korea over the necessity of North Korea’s denuclearization, Pyongyang’s clear rejection of denuclearization appears to have foreclosed the possibility of a return to Six-Party Talks. Moreover, reports of North Korean preparations for a fourth nuclear test led South Korea’s foreign minister to state that such a test would be a “game changer.” Park has stated that if North Korea tests again, there would be no point in returning to the multilateral negotiations.
Another factor making resumption of the talks more unlikely lies with new developments in North Korea’s bilateral relations
with Russia and Japan. Since the beginning of 2014, a series of high-level Russian delegations have visited Pyongyang to bolster economic cooperation. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the Russian temptation to be a spoiler in Korea is greater than before. Despite rhetorical support for North Korea’s denuclearization, Moscow has stepped up economic cooperation efforts with Pyongyang, including a growing willingness to host North Korean labor in the Siberian logging industry, and the completion of a railway connection from the Russian Far East to North Korea’s year-round ice-free port at Rajin that might be used to increase Russian coal exports to Asia.
Likewise, a series of Japan-North Korea bilateral talks beginning in late 2013 led to North Korea’s agreement in May to reopen an investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, in return for a lifting of stringent Japanese sanctions on almost all economic transactions with North Korea. Lifting these sanctions will not weaken Japan’s implementation of sanctions under relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, but progress on the abduction issue could conceivably lead to additional side payments to North Korea that might further ease the country’s economic isolation. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reopening of bilateral talks with North Korea takes advantage of current difficulties in Japan’s ties with both South Korea and the United States while exploiting an opening created in part by Beijing’s expressions of frustration with Pyongyang.
The trend among the six parties toward greater fragmentation, rather than coordination of their respective approaches to North Korea, suggests that North Korea will not be pressured to return to Six-Party Talks anytime soon. Denuclearization remains a high priority among North Korea’s immediate neighbors, but it is clearly not the only priority of all the parties. Ironically, additional North Korean nuclear tests are probably the only developments likely to boost cohesion among North Korea’s neighbors, but possibly not in ways that will lead to resumption of Six-Party Talks. In the absence of consensus on alternative pathways for achieving North Korea’s denuclearization, however, one should expect that diplomats involved with efforts to revive the talks will continue to ride their diplomatic merry-go-round.
Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect positions of the organizations with which he is affiliated.