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North Korea keeps the SPT members confused

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 06, 2013

    Last month, from May 18-20, North Korea launched six short range missiles over the East Sea causing considerable concerns and resultant tensions in the already volatile Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang claimed that those launches were part of its regular military drills. However, given North Korea’s recent belligerent attitude after its long-range rocket launch in December 2012 and the third nuclear test in February this year, the international community was far from convinced regarding Pyongyang’s non-alarmist intentions.

    Unfortunately, while the member states of the Six Party Talks (SPT) - the only multilateral initiative towards denuclearizing North Korea - condemned the missile launches, they still failed to offer a joint strategy in dealing with Pyongyang’s assertive behaviour. Instead, there seemed to be a lack of consensus among the SPT member states (US, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia) in dealing with the North’s provocations.

    While explaining the motives behind the launches, Korea watchers mostly seem to believe that by doing so, the North might be seeking a turnaround amid deepening isolation with South Korea as well as the US and the deteriorating relationship with its major ally China. Some believe that the North was just trying to enhance its missile capabilities. There is also a view that the recent launches might be just another ploy by the North to acquire political, diplomatic and economic concessions from the international community. All these arguments might be valid. Still one cannot really deny the fact that North Korea might have simply decided to conduct the test just to warn both South Korea and the US, as the two allies have conducted recently a series of joint military maneuvers (which included nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers) despite Pyongyang’s repeated protests. The North might have even hoped to dissuade the US from testing its inter-continental ballistic missile Minuteman III, which the former considers to be a threat.

    Since the launching the SPT in 2003 till its suspension in 2010, the multilateral initiative succeeded in bringing out a number of significant agreements – the September 2005 and February 2007 agreements – under which North Korea pledged to denuclearize itself in exchange of economic and political concessions from the rest of the SPT member states. However, each time North Korea failed to adhere to its commitments, leading to the subsequent collapse of the SPT. The rest of the member states also failed in putting up a unified front due to their varying national priorities vis-à-vis North Korea. The situation does not seem any different now. On May 24, while Pyongyang itself expressed its willingness to rejoin the long stalled SPT, the rest of the SPT member states seemed to be divided and confused regarding the former’s sincerity.

    Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea insists on diffusing the ongoing inter-Korean tensions through dialogue. However, during Park’s visit to Washington in April this year, she also expressed resolve not to reward the North’s saber-rattling. Seoul’s stance on Pyongyang hardened further with the latter’s suspension of the two Koreas’ joint industrial park in Gaeseong in May. North Korea’s recent missile launches were treated by the South as a violation of its international obligations. However, realizing that such strong stance might deteriorate the situation in the Korean Peninsula further, Seoul softened its attitude and pledged to extend substantial assistance to Pyongyang while urging the latter to come for negotiation. On North Korea’s intentions to rejoin the SPT, Seoul remains skeptical claiming that Pyongyang’s proposal lacked specifics concerning the desired goal of the talks. The North’s continued noncommittal stance on denuclearization has also made Seoul suspicious about its intentions. Seoul insists that Pyongyang should first reveal its sincere intentions to denuclearize before the resumption of the SPT.

    Japan has always been critical of North Korea’s nuclear programme. However, it has used the SPT as a forum to address the abduction issue, a major irritant in the relationship. In the immediate aftermath of the North’s third nuclear test, Japan called on the international community to harden its stance on the former. However, realizing the Japanese people’s emotional attachment with the abduction issue, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently pledged to resolve the issue. In spite of the ongoing tension in the Korean Peninsula, Abe sent one his cabinet advisers in mid-May to Pyongyang to urge the Kim Jong-un regime to conduct a full investigation into the abduction issue. This visit drew fierce criticism from South Korea. Seoul alleged that Tokyo jeopardized the ongoing international efforts in forging a coordinated approach towards the North Korean regime.

    As for China, it has for long been encouraging North Korea to halt provocations and come to negotiations through diplomatic channels, especially the SPT. Even though China’s relationship with long standing ally North Korea began to strain after the latter’s conduct of the third nuclear test, Premier Xi Jinping has appreciated Pyongyang recent move to rejoin the SPT. Beijing will most likely agree to join the SPT without preconditions, as preferred by Pyongyang. However, by calling for a resumption of the SPT, Xi seems to be posing a challenge to both Seoul and Washington, as the two have always insisted on preconditions for the talks, especially Pyongyang’s pledge to denuclearize. The Chinese’s current stance could also adversely affect the candid and realistic discussions that have taken place in recent months between Beijing and Washington over North Korea’s denuclearization.

    The US has not reacted too strongly to North Korea’s recent missile launches. Washington, unlike Seoul, argues that Pyongyang’s conduct of missile launch did not violate North Korea’s “international obligations”. The UN sanctions prohibited the North from conducting ballistic missile tests. In May, as Pyongyang appeared to launch only short-range missiles, it did not necessarily violate the international obligations. At that time, by being less vocal about the missile test, Washington, however, might have hoped reduce reactions from Pyongyang as the US intended to conduct its own ballistic missile test on May 22. Nevertheless, just like South Korea, the US too seems to be wary of North Korea’s dialogue offer and has called on the North to demonstrate first its sincerity towards denuclearization efforts.

    Russia, on its part, expressed concern over the recent launches, but seemed to agree with the US that North Korea did not really violate its international obligation. On May 20, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clearly indicated Moscow’s interest towards the resumption of the SPT. Given Russia’s efforts in widening and deepening its influence over the East Asian states, Moscow might agree with China on restarting the dialogue as early as possible without any precondition. By doing so, Moscow could hope to please its erstwhile ally Pyongyang and to some extent Beijing.

    All these developments clearly indicate that the East Asian states are not really in tune with each other on North Korea’s recent missile launches. Most of these states have their national priorities while dealing with the North. While both South Korea and the US seem to be in a dilemma over the ‘carrot and stick strategy’, Japan is focusing on resolving the abduction issue on a priority basis. Both China and Russia, on the other hand, seem to be largely supportive of an engagement strategy while dealing with belligerent North Korea. If such divergence of interests continue to persist among the SPT member states, forging the mood for dialogue will be extremely difficult. Under such circumstances, there is a need to resolve, at the very outset, the current divisions and confusions among the states before they could proceed towards making a resolute and unified attempt at denuclearizing North Korea through the SPT.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.