July 8, 2005 | WebMemo on Asia
On July 8, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will depart for a five-day whirlwind trip through China, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. During her visits to the three Northeast Asian capitals, Rice will likely seek to improve coordination before the Six-Party Talks to resolve North Korea's nuclear situation resume, most likely sometime in the next month. This is an important effort. Bringing the five allied countries-or at least the United States, Japan, and South Korea-together to a unified stance against North Korea's nuclear programs is essential if the Talks are to succeed.
The Talks-with United States, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Russia-have been stalled since the third round met last June, when a U.S.-led proposal for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program went unanswered. Since then, North Korea has escalated tensions by declaring itself a nuclear power, removing plutonium fuel rods from its facility in Yongbyon for reprocessing, and hinting that it may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test.
With the inability of the Six-Party Talks to halt these developments, criticism of the process itself has increased. Yet this multilateral effort to resolve the issue diplomatically remains the best option available and could succeed if certain weaknesses can be overcome. A major weakness has been the lack of credible unity in the five parties' stance against North Korea's actions, despite the official position that they all unequivocally oppose the presence of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Now that Pyongyang has signaled its interest in returning to the negotiating table, the United States must work to create a unified strategy to dismantle North Korea's nuclear programs permanently. To that end, the United States should focus its efforts on solidifying the underlying anchor of the Six-Party process, its alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Attaining a strong and unified trilateral stance with Tokyo and Seoul on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs would send a critical message not only to Pyongyang, but also to Beijing that it should do more to press North Korea. Without such coordination, the Six Party process is unlikely to produce any concrete results because North Korea will continue to "divide and conquer" the other five countries. In order to strengthen coordination with two of America's strongest allies, Japan and South Korea, Secretary Rice should consider these tasks for her visit to Asia.
Secretary Rice's trip to Asia comes at a critical juncture in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. Her active engagement of three of the most critical players in the Six-Party Talks will go far to muster their cooperation and create positive momentum as the next round of talks approaches. It is clear that the Talks will not go on forever, and in order to bring finality to the process and end North Korea's nuclear program, the five parties must show firm and unwavering resolve.
Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.