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Six-Party Talks: Geneva meeting shrugs-off “strategic patience” but parsimoniously

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 13, 2011

    The US Administration has initiated a fresh diplomatic effort to explore the possibility of starting a new round of Six-Party Talks (SPT) aimed at negotiating the end of North Korean nuclear programme.1 Several confidence building measures have been undertaken in this regard as is evident from the recent exchange of high level visits and increased interaction among countries that are party to the SPT.

    The possibility of the resumption of the SPT began looking up soon after the meeting of South Korea's nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Bali held on July 22, 2011. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton too extended an invitation to the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan to visit New York, which the latter responded by visiting the US on July 26, 2011.

    The recent announcement by the Obama Administration that former US ambassador to IAEA, Glyn Davies, would soon be taking over as its new full-time envoy for North Korea is suggestive of the priority accorded by the US to the idea of re-engaging Pyongyang. On October 23, 2011, the Chinese Vice Premier Li Kegiang undertook a three-day special goodwill trip to North Korea with the explicit purpose of expediting the convening of the SPT. China, which has hosted the SPT since its inception in 2003, has expressed its intention of playing a “coordinating” or Xietiao role as part of its consistent endeavour to bring the relevant parties together. It is also believed that China has explicitly warned North Korea against disrupting the delicate peace in the Korean Peninsula; and to desist from making any provocative move against South Korea as it would directly impinge on the growing economic and political support provided by China.2

    The Obama Administration has also initiated direct talks with North Korea. A three-day meeting beginning from October 18, 2011 was held in Bangkok.3 The US Department of Defence thereafter announced on October 21, 2011 that the US and North Korea have reached an agreement to resume the recovery of the remains of about 8,100 U.S. troops missing/killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, with about 5,500 of them believed to be buried in North Korea.4 However, in a statement, the Defence Department described it as “a stand-alone humanitarian matter, not tied to any other issue between the two countries.”

    The US and North Korea met for the second time for two-day talks in Geneva from October 26 -27, 2011. The talks between Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, US special envoy for North Korea, who was accompanied by his successor Glyn Davies, and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan along with other senior North Korean negotiators, apparently did not achieve any breakthrough. It ended on a “cautious optimism” necessitating further discussions prior to convening the SPT. Bosworth told reporters that “I am confident that with continued effort on both sides we can reach a reasonable basis of departure for formal negotiations for a return to the six-party process.”5

    Gwan's July visit to the US appeared quite meaningful. The US seems to be moving away from its policy of “strategic patience” earlier enunciated by Hillary Clinton which basically underlined a policy of sanctions and non-dialogue leading to economic crisis situation eventually followed by regime collapse in North Korea. In January 2011, the previous US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had warned that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the US with an intercontinental ballistic missile. His warning was significantly induced by the North Korean revelation about its new uranium enrichment facility in November 2010.

    However, not engaging North Korea is no more seen as an option even as it continue to build its nuclear capabilities. Leon E. Panetta, the US Defense Secretary, was equally aware of this contradiction when he said that “…we have to engage… But I think we always have to be cautious that at the same time, they're going to continue to develop their nuclear capability.” The commander of US Forces Korea, Army Gen. J.D. Thurman, shares the same opinion and suspects that the North Koreans are determined to expand their nuclear capabilities and that the US needs to remain vigilant.

    The situation has come to a point where ‘proceeding down the track of negotiations’ again seems to be the only viable alternative. It may be mentioned here that the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement and February 13, 2007 Action Plan were achieved through negotiations earlier. However, the present diplomatic efforts clearly indicate that the US is finally getting serious about ‘managing’ North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its concomitant problems of proliferation.6 But there is also an opinion in the US that North Korea cannot be simply persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration might have adopted a “management strategy”, but any such strategy would call for an accommodative approach that may not fully complement Obama’s belief in the NPT and his hard line approach towards the Iranian nuclear programme.

    The aim of this “management strategy” is to avoid possible military confrontation by tempering the hardened positions resulting from the exclusion of North Korea from the “negative security assurance” in the US’ April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which implies the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea. Direct talks with North Korea would also probably help in easing off mutual hostility that had surged post-Cheonan in March 2010 and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. The agreement between the US and North Korea to resume the recovery of the remains of the US soldiers killed during the Korean War would ostensibly open a direct channel of communication with the Korean People's Army. This may help in allaying mutual mistrust to some extent. It would be more like giving an indirect assurance that the US will not undertake military action against North Korea which would be hosting the US personnel involved in the recovery of the remains of the US soldiers.

    The “management strategy” is a well-calculated move by the Obama Administration. It is apathetic, parsimonious, palliative to the minimum, just enough to maintain the stasis and yet appear to be engaging in order to re-establish its leadership. The US is not fearful of North Korea’s nuclear capability; its real fear is North Korea’s asymmetrical capabilities and that too in a strictly regional context, to which South Korea has responded by making substantial changes in its military structures.7 North Korea is also being seriously engaged by China and Russia. The US has so far not shown any inclination for revisiting its “principled stand” on North Korea’s Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID). As far as the US unease over North Korea’s demands for concessions is concerned, the US in fact might find itself becoming irrelevant in view of growing Chinese and Russian engagement with North Korea. How far the US would be ready to depart from its “principled stand” of pre-conditionality would reflect the quotient of how serious it considers North Korea’s nuclear capability to be a threat. The fact that the US deems focused and direct talks with North Korea as necessary before resuming the SPT shows that it does not consider the present nuclear predicament in the Korean Peninsula as particularly disturbing, especially when generating fear is critical to strengthening the credibility of its alliances with South Korea and Japan. Nevertheless, the piece-meal approach deserves some appreciation and not outright cynicism.

    • 1. US, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia are members of the SPT. The last round of the SPT was held in December 2008. The talks were suspended when North Korea pulled out of the talks in 2009 after the UNSC imposed new sanctions on North Korea for conducting a long-range missile test/satellite launch.
    • 2. Choe Sang-Hun, 'North Korea profits by a turn to Cold War allies’, International Herald Tribune, October 26, 2011, p. 1, 4.
    • 3. The U.S. negotiating team was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Prisoners of War (POW)/Missing Personnel Affairs Robert Newberry, and included representatives from the Department of Defence, the Department of State, the U.S. Pacific Command and the United Nations Command-Korea.
    • 4. The Pentagon had begun the recovery programme in 1996 and had conducted 33 missions in North Korea recovering the remains of more than 220 U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War which ended with the 1953 ceasefire agreement. The mission was abruptly halted in May 2005 when the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unilaterally decided to withdraw the soldiers.
    • 5. Stephanie Nebehay, “U.S. upbeat after North Korea talks but no breakthroughs”, Reuters, October 25, 2011, at
    • 6. The first issue is of nuclear weapons proliferation; second is ballistic missile proliferation; and third is of proliferation of Theatre Missile Defence (TMD). Collectively, they impinge upon the non-proliferation regime sought to be established through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the overall security and stability in East Asia.
    • 7. The US has already setup an anti-missile unit based at Fort Greely, Alaska, armed with interceptor missiles designed to stop a small attack by North Korea before it hits the US.