Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2010.02.03

Resumption of U.S.-DPRK Talks

Special Envoy to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Stephen Bosworth, visited DPRK from December 8th to 10th and, after his visit, he held a news conference in Seoul. During his visit, he held discussions with Kang Suk Ju, North Korea's first deputy foreign minister, and Kim Kye Gwan, vice foreign minister; he conveyed President Obama's message that "the lack of progress on the denuclearization issue is hindering the advancement of relations between the two countries." Bosworth said he had reached a "common understanding" with North Korea that both sides need the six-party talks and that he had very useful and frank discussions. It was the first talk between the two countries after some hiatus, and his news conference conveyed his enthusiasm.

Bosworth's visit was a welcome development for Japan; however, the DPRK has not promised the resumption of six-party talks and Bosworth said that "it remains to be seen when and how" North Korea will return to the talks. One could say that this is not much different from the usual "We agree in general but disagree in detail."

Since their inception in 2003, the six-party talks have been disrupted many times. More worrying was the fact that, since 2003, the DPRK has moved ahead in its developments of nuclear weapons and missiles. Not only were the talks unable to stop DPRK nuclear development but the situation worsened even while the talks were going on. I am very skeptical about the resumption of the talks, but the U.S. government is attaching such importance on them. I hope that it has some new approaches. Being objective, though, I wonder if there is any basis for such hope.

I am particularly concerned about the U.S. position on the North Korea issue. Recent reports state that the U.S. government does not intend to resolve by itself all issues between the two countries. This is no different than previously. North Korea is surrounded by military or economic powers such as China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, and the U.S. expect those countries to work equally hard in order to make sure that North Korea does not act precipitously and to solve the nuclear problem. That is to say that the U.S. does not want to bear alone the responsibility to solve the North Korean nuclear problem.

For North Korea, the most important priority is its own security, i.e., the maintenance of the regime and the only threat to North Korea is the United States. Due to space limitations, I will not go into details, but the United States maintains the option of using nuclear weapons, if necessary; North Korea claims that this option constitutes a threat to it and has constantly demanded that it needs to be given security assurance. This need never being satisfied, in turn, the North has used this claim to justify its development of nuclear weapons.

In order to denuclearize, the North needs to be assured of its security. Only the U.S. can offer this to the North. The other four countries should, of course, cooperate with the U.S., but with respect to the U.S. nuclear policy, they can do very little. Therefore, the U.S. needs to determine that it will not launch a nuclear attack on denuclearized North Korea and it should engage in negotiations with North Korea based on the commitment that if North Korea abandons nuclear weapons, then the U.S. will give its assurance that it will not attack North Korea with nuclear weapons.

Without the U.S. making such determination or at least making efforts towards this goal, the resumption of six-party talks will only result in the same old charade. Even worse, North Korea may resent the 'pressure' from five countries, as has actually happened before. Some may argue that we should not worry if the North Korea gets upset. That is fine, but there will be no negotiation. Whether such resentment is worrisome depends on what we want to achieve. It is natural for North Korea to wish to ensure its security and if we ignore this desire, we will not be able to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

As of now, we do not know when the six-party talks will resume. The U.S. envoy met with the North Koreans at the urging of China and the U.S. is expecting China to exert its influence over North Korea to compel it to agree to come to the table. China's influence over North Korea is limited, however. North Korea has developed nuclear weapons obviously knowing that China would not approve of it. North Korea will not listen to China on the subject of nuclear weapons. Just remember how China angrily responded to North Korea's nuclear test.

These are my views on North Korea's nuclear weapons. If the main party is not willing to play its role, we cannot expect much from the resumption of the six-party talks. I am concerned about the precious time that will be spent on negotiating the terms and conditions of resumption.