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Dim Prospects for Six-Party Deal

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: December 19, 2006

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As Six-Party Talks resumed in Beijing on December 18, North Korea maintained its defiance (Korea Times), going so far as to demand mutual disarmament talks with the United States. But Pyongyang's real objective, which its delegates have made a precondition for any other negotiations, is the lifting of U.S. financial sanctions (Asia Times). On Tuesday, finance officials from both countries met on the sidelines to discuss the U.S. restrictions (BBC), including those imposed on a Macao-based bank linked to North Korean money laundering. Ahead of the meeting, Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man on North Korea, said he hoped for “significant progress” in the first round, though experts say that is unlikely.

The talks began in 2003 and stalled when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table just over a year ago. Prospects for any deal are grim at this point, says CFR Director of Studies Gary Samore. The North Korean regime’s “strategic objective is to survive” and it believes it can ensure that by having a nuclear weapons capability, Samore told a news briefing just prior to the new round.

A commentary by Michael Breen in the Korea Times says, “The pretend objective, about nuclear weapons, may yield some pretend results,” and how the United States and China negotiate with each other will prove to be the most important aspect of the talks. Beijing pressed North Korea to rejoin Six-Party Talks in late October. But China is likely to be satisfied with North Korea merely resuming a diplomatic process and is not expected to push for immediate results, CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal tells Bernard Gwertzman. Washington and Beijing need to overcome strategic differences to create a joint approach that includes a U.S. pledge not to move its troops north of the thirty-eighth parallel, write Minxin Pei and Oriana Skylar Mastro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The divergent interests of Six-Party Talk members—the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia—limit possibilities for a coherent North Korea policy. The United States and Japan, eyeing the buildup of a North Korean arsenal capable of reaching their shores, have taken a hardline approach. After the October test, China rebuked North Korea but still hesitated to back harsh sanctions out of fear of sparking a refugee crisis. Meanwhile, an East Asia expert at the Australian National University writes in the Asia Times that South Korea continues to increase aid to its neighbor even as Kim Jong-Il’s regime becomes more repressive. Glyn Ford, a member of the EU Parliament’s delegation to North Korea, calls the negotiations “Dead Talks Walking” in an article for the Nautilus Institute. He suggests involving more players than the original six—with the first invitation extended to the EU.

In terms of U.S.-North Korea policy, experts argue over the effectiveness of Clinton-era engagement strategies versus the high pressure approach of the Bush administration. In a new CFR.org Online Debate, David C. Kang, coauthor of Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, suggests economic engagement with Pyongyang to weaken the Kim regime. But co-debater Aaron L. Friedberg, an East Asia expert who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser, recommends a “full-scale crackdown” on the regime’s illicit activities to “put a crimp in Kim Jong-Il’s lavish lifestyle” and weaken his power.

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