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North Korea & the Formalization of a Regional Security Dialogue in Northeast Asia

April 25, 2007

By Scott Snyder

The second North Korean nuclear crisis initiated a new chapter in efforts to promote security and stability in Northeast Asia. It also marked a new phase in efforts to develop regional multilateral dialogue to address regional security issues. Although the North Korean stand-off has often been cited as the primary obstacle to the promotion of regional security cooperation in Northeast Asia, the North Korean nuclear crisis has also long been the primary catalyst for promoting multilateral cooperation among neighboring stakeholders surrounding the Korean peninsula. The six-party talks represent the latest phase in ongoing efforts to develop multilateral cooperation in response to the greatest source of instability that the parties in Northeast Asia collectively face: the prospect of instability that derives from North Korea’s inability to integrate itself with a broader set of collective interests in the promotion of stability and prosperity.

Early in the second nuclear crisis, President Bush cast it as a “regional problem.” Eventually, the six-party process was established, with China taking the lead role as host and mediator.  While all of the regional stakeholders were represented in the forum, the dialogue itself did not make much progress: the United States was reluctant to engage with North Korea, and North Korea was focused on the U.S.’s reluctance.

By early 2005, following three rounds of sporadic negotiations, many critics thought the six-party talks were dead.  But, in May of 2005, Secretary of State Rice acknowledged that the DPRK is a sovereign country and within weeks, the newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, met in Beijing with his counterpart, DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan, to announce the resumption of six-party talks after a delay of over one year. Following intensive negotiations over the course of two sessions in July-August and September of 2005, all parties agreed to a September 19th Joint Statement of Principles for addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis.

The statement itself was vague and underwhelming.  The document contained few concrete measures, only pledges that the various sides would move forward on the basis of “words for words” and “actions for actions.”  But the Joint Statement did signify that for the first time, the regional stakeholders had identified and articulated the minimum common, rhetorical objectives that, through joint action and implementation, might bind the parties together as a “security community” in the future. The common objectives identified were 1) the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, 2) normalization of relations among all the regional stakeholders, 3) economic development (focused on North Korea), and 4) peace on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia.  In retrospect, the statement marked the inauguration of a commitment to collective action.

The North Korean missile and nuclear tests in July and October of 2006 represented a direct challenge by North Korea to the rhetorical consensus embodied in the Joint Statement and catalyzed joint action among all the parties, utilizing coercion both multilaterally (UN Security Council resolutions 1695 and 1718) and bilaterally (Chinese and South Korea withholding of benefits promised to North Korea) in response to the DPRK challenge.  Washington, Beijing, and Seoul needed to make tactical adjustments to their policies.

For Washington, North Korea’s nuclear test proved that two decades of efforts to deny North Korea a nuclear weapons program had failed.  The test posed a tremendous challenge for the Bush administration, since no state that has tested has ever voluntarily given up its nuclear weapons.  Inaction risked acquiescence to North Korea’s challenge and pursuit of the “Pakistan model” of gaining de facto acceptance as a nuclear weapons state, while a more active approach risked escalation that the administration could ill-afford to pursue unilaterally.  Enhanced promotion of collective actions with other parties in the region was the only option available to the Bush administration.

For Beijing, utilizing United Nations instruments to condemn North Korea in the aftermath of the nuclear tests was unprecedented. North Korea had taken actions that directly impinged on Chinese security interests, primarily in the form of catalyzing further insecurity in Japan (and therefore a more rapid augmentation of Japanese military capabilities in response to the escalation of the threat from North Korea).  To restore its influence with North Korea, the Chinese took their own bilateral financial measures to freeze financial transactions with the country. Simultaneously, the Chinese sought to restore top-level dialogue with Kim Jong Il that had been cut following the missile test.  Chinese Special Envoy Tang Jiaxuan visited Washington, Moscow, and Pyongyang ” and China brought North Korea and the United States back to the table within three weeks of North Korea’s nuclear test.

For Seoul, North Korea’s nuclear test appears to have had a lesser impact on policy than either that of the United States’ or China’s. But, South Korea took clear actions to put the six-party talks above inter-Korean cooperation ” including withholding of assistance to North Korea unless the North adheres to its commitments under the February 13th agreement.  A major test is whether or not South Korea will continue to place the objectives of the six-party talks as its highest priority.

The February 13th agreement came about in the context of North Korea’s isolation and a lack of North Korean alternatives as a result of regional compellance toward North Korea as much as the offering of benefits through the agreement.  For the first time, in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test, all the parties were willing to recognize their common strategic interest in maintaining a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and to subordinate lesser (bilateral) interests to a common shared objective.

However, it remains to be seen whether that unity of purpose among the five parties can be sustained in action in light of their differing priorities.  Unity will require that China and South Korea continue to subordinate their bilateral ties with North Korea to the common objective of North Korea’s denuclearization, while it will require that the United States and Japan subordinate their respective antipathies to North Korea to the common will to improve bilateral relations with Pyongyang ” including through offering of political and economic incentives that are referenced in the Joint Statement.  The effectiveness of a “collective security” mechanism in Northeast Asia, as embodied through actions taken through the six-party talks, will depend on whether or not all the parties are willing to hold to a shared strategic purpose and willingness to subordinate their own strategic objectives to practical steps necessary to achieve the commonly identified objectives of the Joint Statement of principles.  North Korea’s nuclear test has been the only issue in the region thus far that is big enough to achieve such a purpose.  It is unlikely that lesser issues of functional cooperation are likely to have the same kind of transformative impact on regional political relations as cooperation in the context of six-party talks.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate for International Relations at The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: China, Korea
Related topics: North Korea

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