The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #333 on Asia

September 8, 2003

September 8, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia

The Six-Party Talks: Much Ado About Nothing?

The United States and five other nations (China, Japan, Russia and both Koreas) concluded three days of talks in Beijing with seemingly little progress towards the ultimate goal of eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. Nevertheless, the talks did accomplish an important goal for the United States: delivering the unequivocal and united message to North Korea that its neighbors will not tolerate a nuclear Korean peninsula.

Unfortunately, North Korea used the multilateral forum to deliver a message of its own: that it possesses nuclear weapons and the capabilities to deliver them, and that it intends to prove so to the world by conducting a nuclear test. Such threats from Pyongyang were not unexpected and are consistent with its diplomatic strategy of trying to raise the stakes to win concessions. North Korea also stated its long-standing position that it is willing to end its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a security guarantee, energy assistance, and diplomatic recognition from the United States. But Washington has remained steadfast in its stance that North Korea must first act to verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear programs.

What happens next? The six parties have indicated that they may meet again in two months for the second round of talks. But these are contingent on whether or not North Korea chooses to increase tensions by conducting a nuclear test or firing a ballistic missile. In the meantime, the United States can take a number of measures as it prepares for the next diplomatic encounter:

  • Consider bringing North Korea's nuclear violations to the United Nations Security Council for action, including potential sanctions.
  • Continue preparations for implementing the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This is a multilateral approach to limiting North Korea's threatening behavior-including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related delivery systems via sea, air, and land interdiction.
  • Convince North Korea's neighbors to exert their influence on Pyongyang. The meeting in Beijing may have solidified the loose coalition of interests among North Korea's neighbors. China's influence, as a traditional ally of North Korea, is most obvious with its provision of basic food and energy needs to the impoverished regime. But South Korea and Japan can do more to reduce their trade with North Korea. South Korea, in particular, should be urged to scrutinize its policies of engagement that have engendered little reciprocity from North Korea.

The road ahead is a challenging one as the United States continues to exhaust all diplomatic measures to end the North Korean nuclear threat. The four major powers in Northeast Asia and the United States should continue to send the message to Pyongyang that the regime's continued efforts to pursue nuclear weapons will only ensure its demise, rather than guarantee its future survival. Ultimately, North Korea's future is in its own hands. It can either choose greater isolation and hardship or utilize the opportunity to coexist with its neighbors peacefully in the region.

About the Author

Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center