Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: The Potential of the Six Party Talks

03/18/2015 08:59 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

Read the first, second, and third installments of this series here, here, and here.

Since 2003, when the second North Korea nuclear crisis saw the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework (AF) unravel and North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Six Party Talks have served as the primary mechanism for engaging North Korea. The talks do serve a purpose - or did; they have not met since 2008. Any form of dialogue is better than none. But these talks are far from satisfactory, and the same can be said of the seemingly more successful prior decade (1994-2003) as well.

One problem, admitted in memoirs subsequently published by several participants, is that the US's acceptance of the AF was based on a mix of misapprehension and bad faith. Its willingness to postpone making North Korea come clean on past plutonium production, and generosity in agreeing to send fuel oil and (with other peoples' money) build two light water reactors, rested on the assumption - widespread at the time - that the Kim regime would collapse within a decade or so. Such predictions of collapse are remarkably resilient - as is North Korea's continued existence in defiance of them. Collapse or no collapse, we must conduct some kind of dialogue with North Korea and communicate at all levels as a preparation for possible reunification, in whatever form it may come.

The Six Party Talks had other problems too. The United States assumed that ending North Korea's nuclear program was the highest priority. But that was not the case for all the participants, some of whom would rather have pursued wider and more nuanced agendas. As there was no room in the discussions for other initiatives, the North just saw the negotiating process as a way of buying more time to develop its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Pyongyang believes that the talks were successful; it even received payments from those negotiations, which triggered criticism by conservatives in South Korea and the U.S.

Another issue, very prominent in the past year or so, which has affected engagement with North Korea is a stronger focus on human rights abuses there. Of course the issue of human rights has to be pursued, but the key question is how. As with the nuclear issue, a punitive threatening approach - "if these issues are not resolved, then you will be punished" - is likelier to spark a backlash than to succeed. No country has a perfect human rights record. Indeed, North Korea is one of the worst offenders. We need to address the issue and keep reminding the North that its policies are wrong; and the international community must be aware. But human rights is only one of many issues that need to be addressed in a comprehensive manner. It would be perverse and self-defeating if we repeat the mistake that was made with the nuclear issue: prioritizing a single issue in a way which obstructs rather than expedites broader engagement, thereby slowing down a negotiation process which could put in place new mechanisms that will improve the lives of ordinary people in North Korea.

A sober review of recent, mostly failed, attempts to engage and disarm North Korea can also yield further lessons. It should not be forgotten that the Six Party Talks' remit was wider than the nuclear issue alone, though this never came to fruition. The September 19th (2005) Joint Statement stipulated the formation and operation of a forum on a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, the establishment of a multilateral security cooperation mechanism in Northeast Asia, and measures related to energy and economic assistance and cooperation. As widely noted throughout the talks' fitful existence, we had here in embryo the foundations for a much-needed wider regional security architecture in Northeast Asia. As worsening Sino-Japanese relations attest, North Korea is far from being the sole security challenge in this area. President Park's Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative is a laudable effort to tackle regional challenges, and it is regrettable that North Korea refused the invitation to participate.

On North Korea itself, a fresh approach is urgently needed. Nothing said above is meant to downplay the seriousness of the North's nuclear program from South Korea's viewpoint. We can never wholly rule out a ghastly nuclear conflagration, and there are other tangible risks and costs. A nuclear North Korea forces us to spend much of our resources unnecessarily on defense, and it could also drive Japan to develop nuclear weapons. We are racing against the clock to deter them. But if Pyongyang's rate of development continues, in five years they will possess far more sophisticated technologies and the threat will be more tangible. How will the U.S. react if, or when, North Korea really acquires the ballistic missile technology to attack North America as it wildly threatened to in 2013?

The U.S. assumption is that the international community can put so much economic pressure on the North through sanctions that it will be unable to develop its nuclear arsenal further, or will simply collapse. Yet neither assumption appears correct, and we must admit that this policy has failed. If anything such pressure has hardened a crisis mentality in Pyongyang which has helped the Kim regime to maintain and consolidate its power.

It is time to try a different tack. At this point we have no choice but to use all measures available to persuade the North to consider a wide variety of options for economic and military security. Maybe we can guarantee Pyongyang's security through some new mechanism? The North Koreans are paranoid about their own defense capabilities, and convinced that nuclear armament is the cheapest way to achieve their goals.

So we need to guarantee the regime that it would be safe even without a nuclear arsenal, and at the same time offer them a benefit package which would make the gradual dismantling of this nuclear arsenal appealing. That kind of discussion has yet to take place. No doubt they may cheat us in the short term, as in the past. Yet I reckon that if we keep on going in good faith, they will be relieved that there is another way for the regime to stay afloat without pursuing nuclear weapons. We need to move away from the pairing of denuclearization with regime change in our engagement policy. When Pyongyang is certain we are not seeking regime change, it will be sincere about discussing its nuclear program.

Read the fifth installment of this series here.

The author is chairman and CEO of the JoongAng Media Network -- one of South Korea's leading media groups, including the prestigious JoongAng Ilbo daily -- and a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.