U.S. Strategy For the Six-Party Talks

Report Asia

U.S. Strategy For the Six-Party Talks

July 22, 2005 5 min read

Authors: Baker Spring and Balbina Hwang

After a 13-month boycott, North Korea has finally agreed to return to the Six-Party Talks, which will resume on July 25th in Beijing. First convened in September 2003, the Talks, which bring together the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Russia, have completed three sessions so far without finding a diplomatic solution to North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. During the last round in June 2004, the United States led the other four parties in proposing a package of security assurances and economic assistance to North Korea in exchange for comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament. North Korea has yet to respond to this proposal. In the coming round Pyongyang is likely to make demands that will prove problematic, especially for the United States, South Korea, and Japan. These demands could include the retention of core elements of its nuclear weapons program, security assurances that amount to a guarantee of regime survival, and a renunciation-by the United States, in particular-of policies reserving the right to respond preemptively to certain kinds of threats.


In order to overcome the problems that are likely to result from North Korea's demands, the Bush Administration should prepare a set of negotiating strategies that are based on complete disarmament, narrowly limit U.S. obligations and guarantees, and further stability on the Korean Peninsula.


Provision No. 1: Continue to insist on the comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

Under no circumstances should the Bush Administration enter into an arrangement with Pyongyang that provides diplomatic cover for North Korea to continue to pursue nuclear weapons. Clearly, North Korea will seek ambiguous language that provides a fig leaf for some or all of its nuclear weapons programs. The Bush Administration must, therefore, insist on a disarmament agreement that contains language so explicit that it cannot be subject to any form of reinterpretation in the future. Likewise, the United States and South Korea should reject likely North Korean demands for the termination of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea.


At the same time, the United States should not assume that the Six Party Talks will result in North Korea's nuclear disarmament. As such, it should incorporate the assumption of a nuclear North Korea into its future strategies in the region-in particular with its alliance partners, South Korea and Japan. Washington should also continue to back its diplomatic efforts in the Six-Party talks with the ongoing restructuring of U.S. and allied military forces in the region and a comprehensive focus on restricting North Korean opportunities for aggressive military actions. These preparations should proceed during the negotiations, with the goal of maintaining peace and stability in a proliferated setting, and should include:

  • Deploying effective missile defenses;
  • Deploying improved counter-artillery capabilities;
  • Improving biological and chemical defenses; and
  • Issuing a joint statement by the United States, South Korea, and Japan that the policy of extended nuclear deterrence is essential to peace and security in region.

Provision #2: Security assurances and economic benefits that are offered to North Korea should be articulated narrowly.

It is reasonable to extend security assurances and economic benefits to North Korea in exchange for nuclear disarmament. It is unreasonable, however, to allow the North Korean leadership and others to claim that such assurances and benefits are synonymous with a guarantee of regime survival in Pyongyang under all circumstances. No inherent contradiction exists between security assurances and economic benefits, on the one hand, and a policy of regime change, on the other. Indeed, an agreement that allows the current regime in North Korea to engage in threatening destabilizing behavior without fear for its survival in exchange for nuclear disarmament would be self-defeating.


At most, any future agreement could imply that the United States and its allies would refrain from certain approaches to regime change. For example, the United States could extend a negative security assurance to North Korea: in exchange for its nuclear disarmament, the United States would not preemptively attack North Korea with nuclear weapons. During the end of the Cold War, the United States entered into arms control and security agreements with the Soviet Union that did not require the United States to prop up the Soviet regime. North Korea should not expect concessions that the United States was unwilling to grant to the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War tensions.


Refusing to guarantee unconditional regime survival to North Korea is likely to raise concerns in Seoul, where suspicions linger that Washington's motive all along has been to forcibly dismantle the Kim Jong Il regime. South Korea fears a collapse of the North Korean regime in the short term because of the immense economic and social costs to absorb refugees from the North. But President Bush and his Administration have repeatedly stated that the United States will not attack North Korea unprovoked. Thus, in order for this strategy to succeed, the United States must focus on convincing South Korea and the other Six-Party Talk partners that retention of the capability of preemption under certain circumstances is not destabilizing and actually contributes to greater regional stability in the long term.


Provision No. 3: Link the Six-Party Talks process to broader follow-on talks.

These follow-on talks should address issues beyond North Korea's nuclear weapons program, including its threatening conventional force deployments, biological and chemical weapons programs, missile proliferation, illegal activities including narcotics trafficking and counterfeiting, and human rights issues. Addressing the broader range of issues is necessary to establish true stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region. Ultimately, these talks would aim to achieve a formal peace treaty to end the Korean conflict. Obtaining a commitment to discuss these issues as follow-on talks is also important to prevent North Korea from using the nuclear issue to divert attention away from other relevant security issues on the Korean peninsula.

The Six-Party process presents the United States with a classic instance of confrontational diplomacy. Success requires the United States to adopt a competitive strategy for the Talks, which includes a firm articulation of limitations and goals. A truly competitive strategy begins with an emphasis on success, and the United States and its allies must be prepared to prevail over North Korea, not accommodate it. It also requires a clear definition of what will be achieved and cannot be subject to compromise. In this case, anything less than the comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament of North Korea is unacceptable. Finally, it means establishing viable options should diplomacy fail. The United States and its allies cannot expect to win a negotiation that they are unwilling to walk away from should the price be too high.


Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and  Balbina Y. Hwang is policy analyst for Northeast Asia, in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst