The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #331 on Asia

August 26, 2003

August 26, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia

The Six Party Talks:  Same Bed, Different Dreams

Representatives from the U.S. and five major Northeast Asian nations (China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas) will meet in Beijing this week to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons program. This is the first time the Six-Party talks have convened, serving as a follow-on to meetings this spring between the U.S., China and North Korea.

As the talks take place, it is important to bear in mind the following:

  • This is the first in what is likely to be a series of talks. There will likely be plenty of bluster, posing and posturing by the participants in this round. Keep expectations for the talks modest to low. The fact that the talks are taking place in the new, multilateral Six-Party format, which includes Japan and South Korea, is an important step forward and a victory for the Bush team.
  • North Korea will not give up its nuclear programs without a fight. Expect its demands to be outrageous at the outset. North Korea's goal will be to clandestinely retain part of its nuclear program for future use, while surrendering part of the program for life-sustaining international aid and assistance. North Korea is playing a relatively weak hand, but expect it to play all its cards-and then some.
  • China, as the swing donor and North Korea's back door, must play a central role in bringing North Korea's nuclear aspirations to an end. In the past, China has been an enabler of North Korea's nuclear habit. ¬†This must end and Beijing must be willing to sanction North Korean nuclear actions unless it wants a fourth nuclear neighbor (in addition to Russian, India and Pakistan).
  • The multilateral format supports the idea that this is a regional problem, not a bilateral US-DPRK issue, as North Korea contends. Multilateral pressure will be required for North Korea to surrender its nuclear ambitions in a complete and verifiable manner. The failure of China to participate as an enforcer of the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework led to the situation we face today. The Bush administration was right to be firm in insisting on a multilateral format in addressing and resolving this issue.
  • An international team must independently determine the depth and breadth of North Korea's nuclear programs. North Korea cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate accounting. This was a fundamental mistake in 1994, which led to the intelligence community's later assessment that North Korea continued to possess enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons after the Geneva Agreed Framework was reached. North Korea must come clean on the status of its plutonium-based program at Yongbyon-- and its new, clandestine highly enriched uranium program.
  • Should an agreement be reached regarding North Korea's nuclear program, early steps must be taken to remove all fissile material from North Korea. One of the shortcomings of the Agreed Framework was the failure to remove the spent fuel rods (which North Korea is now reprocessing for weapons material) early in the agreement. Peacefully resolving the North Korea nuclear program must ensure its irreversibility.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of these talks will be trying to get North Korea to provide the transparency required to verify compliance with any agreement that might be struck. It will be a significant obstacle to try to get North Korea to accept the intrusive inspections that will be required to ensure compliance with any nonproliferation agreement. Transparency, not a North Korean strong point, is a must.
  • North Korea must understand that it has a fundamental choice to make: a new nuclear-free relationship with its neighbors and the international community or greater isolation and privation. The North Korean regime must comprehend that the prospects of survival will significantly decrease should it decide to pursue a nuclear future. Nuclear proliferation beyond the Korean peninsula, especially to terrorist groups, will not be tolerated.

These talks will test North Korea's diplomatic intentions regarding its nuclear ambitions. It will also test China's willingness to be part of a nuclear nonproliferation solution and not a continuing part of its problem. Success resolving the North Korean nuclear nightmare will have a salutary effect on the challenge of global nuclear nonproliferation should it be achievable. The world, especially those countries with nuclear dreams, such as Iran, Libya and Syria, will be watching closely for how this drama unfolds.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy