Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: What Are the Six Party Talks?

03/03/2015 08:22 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Read the first installment of this series here.

The Six Party Talks have gone on for a long time, but need to be revitalized. What are those talks about? Especially what the countries surrounding Korea think.

The first step towards a new evolution in our interactions with North Korea is to appreciate the perspectives that each of the nations engaged in the Six Party Talks has on the challenges which North Korea presents, and the varying ways that each reacts to them.

If we look at China, we will find that the fourth generation of leadership in the Chinese Communist Party does not share the comradeship with North Korean leadership that took shape in the Socialist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s against the Japanese and the Kuomintang, or the hardships of the Korean War. China still jealously pursues its national interests, which are changing; and as a result, trading partners are becoming more important than ideological bedfellows from a half-forgotten age.

There was once a remarkable solidarity in the minds of the leadership in Beijing and in Pyongyang, a strong comradeship that allowed the two countries to find common ground. But those leaders have passed away, and even the second generation after the founders of North Korea and the People's Republic of China have also either died or retired. During that period China's global position has changed, from a leader of the Socialist camp and the non-aligned bloc to a rising economic power that is tied to the contemporary global financial and manufacturing networks. China is part of the "G2" relationship with the United States, but unlike the former Soviet Union, the United States and China are deeply integrated in terms of trade and finance.

China is playing an increasingly central role in global governance, with many Chinese working in the World Bank and IMF. Indeed, we are witnessing the dawn of an age of Chinese global responsibility and commitment. As Chinese see their country not so much as a comrade of North Korea against a capitalist West, but rather as a leader in Asia and the world, their views of Pyongyang are changing dramatically. Amid increasingly frank debates within China about whether they should support North Korea, there is increased willingness in Beijing to consider alternative North Korean futures and even to begin discussing these with South Korea and the United States. Above all China is no longer concerned about ideological matters, but is focused on security.


Japan's view on North Korea has been confusing for the international community. In recent years Tokyo has prioritized and taken a very hard line on one issue above all: the kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and the fate of those unfortunates. (By contrast, South Korea has suffered many more cases of the kidnapping of its citizens over the years, but has chosen not to foreground this in its diplomatic dialogue with North Korea - for fear that this is an essentially insoluble issue that would prevent progress on other fronts.)

A decade ago the then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang twice, in hopes of settling the kidnap issue as the basis for possible normalisation of bilateral ties. But those efforts backfired on both him and Kim Jong-il. Kim's unprecedented apology not only failed to assuage Japanese opinion, but if anything inflamed it; because only 13 victims were acknowledged and the reasons given why eight of them had died seemed far from credible. Subsequently Japan responded to North Korea's nuclear tests with sanctions going beyond what UN Security Council resolutions required, to the extent of banning all bilateral trade.

Against that background, it is striking that even as Japan trumpets North Korea's security threat, its current frankly right-wing leader Shinzo Abe is making a serious bid to return to and resolve the abduction issue. After initially secret talks, North Korea agreed to reopen inquiries in this area: a first step which has already led Japan to ease some minor sanctions. Nor did Abe seek the consent of his US or South Korean allies before taking this bold unilateral step, quite independent of the long-stalled Six-Party Talks.

Abe had long campaigned on the abductions issue, which is partly what propelled him to the premiership. There is a key domestic political dimension here. Abe hopes that if he can solve this issue (and also the long-standing South Kuriles territorial dispute with Russia), this will enable him to remain in office for a long time - unlike his predecessors. If in fact some accord on the kidnapping issue can be reached, it would mark a very important change in both the domestic and regional political landscape. But conversely, as Koizumi found, the abduction issue is also a minefield and a high-risk gamble. Latest signs that North Korea has reverted to stalling tactics on the results of its supposed reinvestigation will bode ill for Abe if they continue.

All of this makes Japan's stance on North Korea quite distinct from that of South Korea, which focuses on reunification, or the United States which has broader geopolitical and security concerns. To be frank, seen from Korea the matter that the Japanese are so obsessed about is actually a secondary issue in a geopolitical sense, no matter how tragic it is for individuals.


To speak of Russia is to speak of Vladimir Putin. An extremely ambitious politician from the beginning, Putin has sought new opportunities for Russia in international affairs in the post-Soviet era. Well aware of East Asia's dynamic economy and growing importance in the areas of technology, finance and security, Putin considers it important for Russia to remain a visible and active stakeholder in Northeast Asia in the long-term.

The Russian presidency of APEC and the APEC Summit of 2012 in Vladivostok illustrate Putin's ambitions well. He spent billions of dollars on preparations for the summit and related political events, while allocating huge resources to construction of related infrastructure. Above all, Putin keeps a keen eye on the energy sector. Russia believes that the sales of oil and gas to the prosperous economies of China, Japan, and South Korea are crucial to Russia's development.

Russia's participation in the Six Party Talks and other diplomatic activities related to North Korea can serve as an important step in Putin's long-term plan to increase Russian economic presence in Northeast Asia. But Russia is not emotionally interested in the division of the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, the recent explosion of shale gas in the U.S. and the reemergence of the U.S. as an exporter of energy resources have put Putin under pressure to close long-term sales contracts with China, as we have seen this year.

There are also domestic issues in play. For example, the Russian population is decreasing, especially in sparsely populated regions such as Siberia and the Far East. We are witnessing the growth of Chinese immigration into these regions of Russia in order to take advantage of new opportunities. Over the long term, that demographic shift will have serious implications for Russia. Still, it does not appear that Russia is fully equipped with a comprehensive policy for Northeast Asia, and they do not have much to say about issues that are not directly related to their domestic agenda.

Two recent developments - one global, one local - must be noted. The Ukraine crisis, by worsening Putin's relations with the West, pushes Russia closer to China or even fellow-victims of sanctions like North Korea. The recent cancelling of 90% of North Korea's Soviet-era debts, followed by October's announcement of ambitious if vague Russian plans to invest in upgrading rail and other infrastructure, suggests an active business interest by Moscow in North Korea for the first time since Soviet days. It remains to be seen what will come of this.

United States

Although the United States is geographically the furthest away from North Korea, the Korean Peninsula has been central to American strategic thinking over the last sixty years, and the United States maintains a critical alliance relationship with the Republic of Korea that commits it to Seoul in a manner not matched by any other participants of the Six Party Talks.

Yet although the United States is committed to the Republic of Korea, maintaining a high level of interest in the Korean Peninsula in the halls of power in Washington D.C. has been a major challenge for the U.S. side The human resources and expertise devoted to peninsula issues are surprisingly low in Washington compared to Korea's importance. When the United States is not concerned about Ukraine, Israel and Iran, its attention is focused on China. Within the set of alliances that define American engagement in East Asia, traditionally the U.S.-Japan alliance has been assumed to be the primary key to U.S. security in East Asia. It is only recently that Americans have come to see that South Korea is just as important to the United States and deserves more attention. Perhaps the images of Korea as a poor nation requiring American support continue to linger on in the American imagination, long after South Korea has become a technological powerhouse.

Obviously the United States, taking a global strategic perspective, has been most concerned about the implications of North Korean nuclear weapons for the region and the world. These concerns are entirely justified, but the various strategies for persuading North Korea to end its nuclear program have been manifestly unsuccessful. The focus on the nuclear issue in North Korea has resulted in much dialogue on non-proliferation, but little engagement with the particulars of culture and history in Korea. As serious as the nuclear threat may be, nuclear experts simply do not have the background knowledge of the broader specifics of Korea that would be necessary for a meaningful long-term dialog on reunification.

The ironic result is that even though South Korea is an increasingly important global player, especially in technology, policy for Korea overall has taken a back seat. In a curious and negative way, while the western public still muddles up the two Koreas, in policy-making and political circles the North appears to cancel out the South. The image of North Korean starving children has blocked out more positive images of South Korean technological knowhow in the minds of politicians. Sadly, many in US diplomatic and security milieux seem to see Korean issues primarily as a distraction from other projects in other regions. The critical role of South Korea in the global economy is often overlooked.

Read the third 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.