North Korea seems to be adamant to seek further sophistication in its nuclear weaponisation programme, despite international pressure and sanctions to the contrary. Through its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, it wanted to demonstrate to the international community that its nuclear programme was non-negotiable. The UNSC Resolution 2270 and all other previous resolutions and sanctions appear to be ineffective.
On 22-23 June 2016 North Korea’s participation in the Annual Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in Beijing, a platform for nuclear envoys from the six countries of the Six-Party Talks, is indicative of North Korea softening its stand. Although the platform is an informal gathering, since the formal Six-Party Talks have not been held after 2008, it is the only mechanism that brings nuclear envoys from these countries to one table. North Korean participation in the dialogue happened after a two-year gap as it did not send its envoys for the dialogues in 2014 and 2015. In the June 2016 dialogue, Choe Son-hui, Deputy Director for North American Affairs at North Korea's Foreign Ministry and the Deputy Chief Envoy for the Six-Party talks participated in the deliberations.
However, on the very first day of the dialogue, it became clear that none of the parties had any creative plan to move forward. While North Korea refused any compromise on its nuclear programme, the five other countries repeated their commitment to denuclearising North Korea. It was reported that the North Korean envoy very forcefully stated, “The Six-Party talks are dead.” This means that North Korea is quite firm in maintaining that it will not give up its nuclear programme.
The deadlock on the North Korean nuclear issue has been one of the destabilising factors in regional politics. There are, broadly, three positions represented by the six parties involved in the negotiations. First, South Korea, US and Japan stress that North Korea must first give up its nuclear weapons to have any other discussions and exchanges with the outside world. These countries have been, bilaterally and multilaterally, trying to further isolate North Korea and arm-twist it into abandoning its nuclear programme. Second, China and Russia are also in favour of North Korean denuclearisation but they do not support South Korea, US and Japan’s isolationist methods. Third, North Korea itself is stubborn to retain its nuclear programme and further enhance it. According to the subjective perception of North Korea, abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes would mean an end to the North Korean regime.
It is interesting to note that all the other five countries seek a denuclearised North Korea. The US and China, who otherwise contest each other on several issues in the Asia-Pacific, seem to be in agreement on the final goal of a non-nuclear North Korea. Consequently, if these countries take a more accommodative approach it would be easy to reach a common understanding to achieve this objective. Since, arm-twisting and sanctions have not been very effective in stopping North Korean nuclearisation, South Korea, US and Japan may need to go along with China and Russia. This means that they need to have a common engagement policy towards Pyongyang. It must be underlined that this common engagement policy should be based on transparency and mutual trust. More so because after the third nuclear test by North Korea in early 2013, China was cooperating with the international community in putting pressure on North Korea. However, after the fourth nuclear test, in January 2016, the US and South Korea squarely blamed China for being unable to stop it. As per China’s perspective, they were doing enough to discourage North Korea and the test was not because of China but in spite of China. This blame-game has distanced the five countries on the North Korean nuclear issue and it must be avoided for any future common engagement process to be effective.
In recent years, through several pronouncements and diplomatic moves by North Korea, it is clear that Pyongyang is also willing to interact with the international community. It would be better to have a 2.0 version of the Six-Party Talks among these countries in which broader peace and confidence-building measures would be discussed. The North Korean nuclear issue should not be part of its agenda at least in the first few rounds. It is impractical to follow a ‘nuclear issue first and peace and all other issues later’ approach when it is not moving forward. The sequencing should be reversed as ‘peace and other issues first and nuclear issue later’. Rather than blaming North Korea for being adamant on its position, it would be wise for the other five countries to move beyond their diplomatic stubbornness. This change in stance might lead to the positive outcome that is being sought.