The Six Party Talks are aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program through a negotiating process involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Since the talks began in 2003, the negotiations have been hindered by several diplomatic standoffs among individual participants, particularly the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang quit the talks in 2009, and a year later revealed a vast new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientists. In the meantime, the Obama administration has been pursuing talks with the other four countries in an effort to rekindle the process.
In early 2012, under new leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea announced it would suspend nuclear tests and allow international inspectors to monitor the moratorium in exchange for food aid from the United States. However, a long-range missile launch in late 2012 and a nuclear test by the North in early 2013 defied UN resolutions, alarming even Pyonyang's closest ally, China. Both Beijing and Moscow have urged the country to abandon its program and return to talks, but some analysts say the dialogue is unlikely to resume soon.
The Six Party Talks began in August 2003, and several rounds of negotiations eventually resulted in a September 2005 agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The talks marked a reversal from Washington's policy of non-engagement with Pyongyang.
President George W. Bush had previously included North Korea in the "Axis of Evil" during his 2002 State of the Union address, and later that year the CIA concluded that Pyongyang was pursuing a uranium enrichment program that violated the spirit of a prior agreement on the nuclear issue. North Korea admitted to the offending program and subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), forced IAEA inspectors to leave, and restarted its plutonium enrichment program. Tensions heightened further with the March 2003 interception of a U.S. spy plane by North Korean fighter aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The United States, North Korea, and China consequently held trilateral talks in Beijing a month later—a prelude to the first round of Six Party Talks, which brought the three other participants into the fold
According to the September 2005 pact, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear program, rejoin the NPT, and allow IAEA monitors to return. In exchange, North Korea would receive food and energy assistance from other members. The accord also paved the way for Pyongyang to normalize relations with both the United States and Japan, and for the negotiation of a peace agreement for the Korean peninsula.
However, negotiations hit a roadblock just one month later when the U.S. Treasury Department placed restrictions on Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, which Washington suspected was laundering millions for North Korea. The Macau government subsequently froze roughly fifty accounts held in the bank by Pyongyang. As the talks fell apart, North Korea stepped up its provocative behavior, which included a long-range rocket test and its first underground nuclear explosion in the second half of 2006.
Beijing pressed North Korea to rejoin the multilateral framework after the nuclear crisis came to a head. In February 2007 during the sixth round of talks, members hammered out a denuclearization plan involving a sixty-day deadline for Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for aid and the release of the Banco Delta Asia funds. The process gained momentum in the second half of 2007, when Pyongyang began disabling its Yongbyon plant, removing thousands of fuel rods under the guidance of U.S. experts.
Progress continued in mid-2008 after Pyongyang followed through on several more concessions, including providing the U.S. extensive details of its nuclear program, and further dismantling the Yongbyon facility. The Bush administration responded by easing sanctions on the regime and removing it from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
However, by the end of the Bush administration, Pyongyang failed to agree to a verification protocol for its nuclear program. U.S.-North Korea relations became strained, and by the end of 2008, the regime had restarted its program and barred nuclear inspectors in an effort to put pressure on U.S. negotiators.
The Obama administration signaled early on that it would be ready to engage Pyongyang. However, North Korea's multiple missile tests, followed by a nuclear test in May 2009, resulted in the United States pushing through tougher sanctions at the UN Security Council. Tensions continued to heighten throughout 2010, when the North sank a South Korean navy ship, revealed a new uranium enrichment facility and light-water reactor at Yongbyon, and shelled the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong.
In July and October 2011, the United States and North Korea held bilateral discussions, where Pyongyang said it would only return to the Six Party Talks if they occured without preconditions. However, Washington and Seoul demanded that the North demonstrate its commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons and related programs before talks could resume.
In February 2012 under new leadership, Pyongyang agreed to suspend nuclear tests and allow the IAEA back in to monitor activities at Yongbyon, possibly paving the way for the resumption of multilateral talks. But in December 2012, these hopes were dashed as North Korea launched a long-range rocket widely viewed as a test of ballistic missile technology. The incident triggered a UN Security Council vote in the following weeks that placed broader sanctions on the regime. In response, North Korea carried out its third and most powerful nuclear test that monitors say had double the force of the 2009 explosion. The act drew international condemnation from Six-Party powers, including China and Russia.
Reacting to this significant escalation, the UN Security Council, led notably by China and the United States, passed a new round of sanctions in March 2013 that imposed severe restrictions on North Korean banking, travel, and trade. The swift, unanimous vote passed just hours after North Korea threatened for the first time to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea. However, analysts point out that the resolution included an "escape clause" that reaffirms the UN's support for the Six Party Talks and calls for their resumption. "This means that all the measures authorized in UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea remain tactical," writes CFR's Scott Snyder, "designed to deter and punish North Korea for moving in directions that endanger the international interest, not strategic, designed to stifle or end the North Korean regime."
Objectives for Parties Involved
United States. For Washington, the Six Party Talks serve as a means to make North Korea's nuclear weapons program a multinational problem rather than a bilateral issue. The chief U.S. concern remains Pyongyang's nuclear program and the possible sale of nuclear materials and technology to hostile states and terrorist groups. As part of any agreement, Washington wants the reclusive state to accept IAEA monitors in the country.
North Korea. The regime seeks a nonaggression security pledge from the United States, which deploys more than 25,000 troops in South Korea and maintains a heavy naval presence in the Pacific. Pyongyang also wants normalized relations with Washington and unfettered access to economic aid from other Six-Party countries.
South Korea. Frozen in an unresolved conflict with North Korea, Seoul's ultimate goal is the denuclearization and reunification of the Korean peninsula. The South also wishes to liberalize North Korea's decrepit economy (PDF) through greater economic engagement aimed at mitigating the potential cost of future reunification.
China. Beijing serves as Pyongyang's long-standing ally and main trade partner, and has used its influence with the current Kim regime to bring North Korea to the Six-Party negotiating table. Its leverage in the talks has also boosted relations with Washington. Fearing a rush of refugees across its border, it has provided North Korea with energy and food assistance, although in March 2013 it finally agreed to sponsor a UN resolution with the United States for sanctions against the North.
Russia. Moscow's position at the table allows it to reassert its influence in Northeast Asia. While it has traditionally joined China in warning against harsh sanctions, North Korea's recent provocations have driven it to issue condemnations against the regime's nuclear testing. Russia ultimately backed renewed UN sanctions against Pyongyang over its third nuclear test.
Japan. Tokyo worries about North Korea's missile tests that could potentially reach Japan. But it also sees the Six Party Talks as a forum for negotiating an admission of Pyongyang's guilt in the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean spies in the 1970s and '80s. The issue remains a divisive point in U.S.-Japan relations, as Tokyo had not wanted Washington to remove North Korea from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list until the issue was resolved.
Obstacles to the Talks
An unpredictable North Korean regime. The United States has found North Korea erratic in negotiations and actions. "They know that we have a tough time figuring out what really motivates them," said Christopher Hill, Washington's former chief envoy to the talks.
Differing approaches by Six Party governments. CFR's Snyder says the Six Party Talks and other regional efforts preceding it failed because the participating states "placed their own immediate priorities and concerns above the collective need to halt North Korea's nuclear program." While Japan and the United States have consistently pushed for strong sanctions in response to North Korean weapons testing, China, South Korea, and Russia have traditionally settled for less stringent sanctions out of fear that a sudden toppling of the regime would trigger major refugee influxes. Pyonyang's most recent provocations have pushed boundaries, however, and all three ultimately backed the March 2013 UN sanctions.
Different tactics have also come out of Pyongyang, which has showed a certain willingness to resume dialogue with both the United States and Japan separately, but not with Seoul. "The North Koreans may be interested in moving forward with the United States and/or Japan while not addressing inter-Korean tensions," Snyder says.
U.S. resistance to bilateral negotiations. For much of the Bush administration, Washington resisted dialogue with Pyongyang, preferring the Six Party Talks so that any compromises with the Kim regime were framed as part of multilateral negotiations. Yet North Korea repeatedly demanded direct talks as a condition for halting its nuclear program. In June 2007, former envoy Hill made a surprise visit to Pyongyang to advance the February deal, marking a definitive reversal in the U.S. stance. The two countries have since held bilateral talks on several occasions. It has also been reported that an Obama administration official made secret visits to North Korea in April and August 2012 in an unsuccessful bid to engage the new leadership and moderate its foreign policy.
Solving the Policy Puzzle
So far, the Six Party Talks have failed to denuclearize North Korea and have elicited few results. Several experts think North Korea is now determined to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, in 2012, the North Korean leadership included a new preamble to its constitution that describes the country as a "nuclear state and a militarily powerful state that is indomitable."
Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in June 2009 that "the issue for diplomacy has become whether the goal should be to manage North Korea's nuclear arsenal or to eliminate it." He argues that any policy that does not eliminate the North's nuclear military capability "in effect acquiesces in its continuation."
After Pyongyang walked out of the Six Party Talks in 2009, the Obama administration has pursued negotiations with other parties in the forum to signal its persistence on denuclearization. In a testimony to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in June 2009, CFR's Snyder said this new process "provides the best available means by which to increase pressure on North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks and to honor its commitments to denuclearization."
However, some experts say that while a multilateral approach may be the best option, it has borne little fruit. Charles Pritchard, former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2001-2003, writes that "it is a bilateral approach between the United States and North Korea that has worked the best, that has produced the most results in the shortest period of time."
In the end, however, few analysts believe North Korea has any intention of giving up its nuclear program, and argue that Pyongyang makes concessions to gain the aid it needs to survive. Other analysts say the world has "run out of ideas" about how to disarm North Korea, and that the West's hopes now hinge on China to rein in its ally. "North Korea, we now know, will probably never truly and fully disarm of its own volition," wrote Max Fisher at the Atlantic in February 2012. Despite the stalemate, some view the recent cooperation between the United States and China on the drafting of the most recent UN sanctions as an effort that could move the needle.
The Six Party process has served as a catalyst for a more important regional issue: the future of Asia-Pacific security cooperation, argues Pang Zhongying in this Brookings Institution report (PDF).
This CFR Backgrounder delves into the pivotal China-North Korea alliance.
Chinese strategists believe that denuclearization requires not only engagement, but the reform of North Korea's economy and society, says this multimedia interactive from the Korea Economic Institute of America.
Carin Zissis and Beina Xu contributed to this report.