Launched in 2003, the Six Party Talks are aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program through negotiations involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The disjointed process has been hindered over the years by North Korea's repeated missile tests and other provocations. Progress reached a stalemate when Pyongyang walked out of negotiations in 2009 and, a year later, revealed a vast new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientists. In early 2012, under new leader Kim Jong-un, the isolated nation announced it would suspend nuclear tests and allow international inspectors to monitor the moratorium in exchange for food aid from the United States. But a long-range missile launch in late 2012 and another test in early 2013 that defied UN resolutions prompted Russia to prod Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
More recently, China has stepped up its efforts to relaunch the talks, sending its chief nuclear envoy to Pyongyang in early September 2013 and proposing soon thereafter to hold an informal meeting between Six Party participants. The United States has been reluctant to resume negotiations, however, insisting that Pyongyang first honor past commitments to dismantle its program before relaunching discussions with other parties.
The Six Party Talks, which marked a reversal of Washington's nonengagement policy with Pyongyang, began in August 2003 with several rounds of negotiations that culminated in a September 2005 agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Former president George W. Bush had previously included North Korea in the "Axis of Evil" during his 2002 State of the Union address, while the CIA concluded later that year that Pyongyang was pursuing a uranium enrichment program that violated a 1994 normalization agreement. North Korea admitted its activity and subsequently withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), restarting its plutonium enrichment program and forcing the departure of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. Tensions heightened further in March 2003, when North Korean fighter aircraft intercepted a U.S. spy plane over the Sea of Japan, leading the United States, North Korea, and China to hold trilateral talks in Beijing a month later in a prelude to the first round of Six Party Talks.
The September 2005 pact saw Pyongyang agree to abandon its nuclear program, rejoin the NPT, and allow the reentry of IAEA monitors in exchange for food and energy assistance. The accord also paved the way for Pyongyang to normalize relations with both the United States and Japan and negotiate a peace agreement for the Korean peninsula.
Talks hit a roadblock just one month later, however, 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 by Pyongyang. As the talks fell apart, North Korea stepped up its provocations, testing a long-range rocket and holding its first underground nuclear explosion in the latter half of 2006.
Beijing pressed North Korea to rejoin the multilateral framework after the nuclear crisis came to a head. During the sixth round of talks in February 2007, 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.
"So far, the Six Party Talks have yielded little progress in denuclearizing North Korea, and some experts think that the country is determined to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state." —Scott Snyder, Council on Foreign Relations
Progress continued in mid-2008 after Pyongyang made more concessions, providing the United States with 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.
But Pyongyang failed to agree to a verification protocol for its nuclear program by the end of Bush's term, straining U.S.-North Korea relations. By the end of 2008, the regime had restarted its program and barred nuclear inspectors in an effort to pressure U.S. negotiators.
The Obama administration signaled early on that it would be ready to engage Pyongyang, but North Korea's multiple missile tests—followed by a nuclear test in May 2009—compelled the United States to push for tougher sanctions at the UN Security Council. The North continued its belligerence throughout 2010, sinking a South Korean navy ship and revealing a new uranium enrichment facility and light-water reactor at Yongbyon. It also shelled the South Korean island Yeonpyeong.
In July and October 2011, Washington and Pyongyang held bilateral discussions in which the Kim regime said it would only return to the Six Party Talks if they occurred without preconditions. This fell short of U.S. and South Korean demands that the North demonstrate its commitment to abandon its nuclear program prior to talks resuming.
In February 2012, under its new leadership, Pyongyang agreed to suspend nuclear tests and allow the IAEA back in to monitor activities at Yongbyon. But hopes were dashed in December, North Korea launched a long-range rocket widely viewed as a test of ballistic missile technology. The incident triggered a UN Security Council vote that placed broader sanctions on the regime. In response, North Korea carried out its third and most powerful nuclear test, which monitors say had double the force of the 2009 explosion. The act drew international condemnation from Six Party powers, including China and Russia.
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."
September 2013 saw a marked push by Beijing to breathe new life into the Six Party process, despite a report that the North had restarted its Yongbyon facility. The Chinese government held an unusual commemorative ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Six Party Talks, although U.S., Japanese, and South Korean representatives boycotted the ceremony in the absence of North Korean commitments. At the meeting, North Korea's First Vice Minister called again for the resumption of dialogue "without preconditions." Soon thereafter, Pyongyang's chief nuclear envoy made a trip to Beijing.
Objectives for Parties Involved
United States: For Washington, the Six Party Talks serve as a platform for the multilateral mediation of North Korea's nuclear program. 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 consent to visits from IAEA monitors.
North Korea: The regime seeks a nonaggression security pledge from the United States, which deploys 28,500 troops in South Korea and maintains a heavy naval presence in the Pacific. Pyongyang also wants normalized relations with Washington and 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 financial 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 to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Although this leverage has boosted its relations with Washington, Beijing also fears a rush of refugees across its border and has thus provided the North with energy and food assistance. In March 2013, China finally agreed to sponsor UN sanctions alongside the United States, and it has since then increased its rhetoric for the resumption of talks.
Russia: Moscow's position at the table allows it to reassert its influence in Northeast Asia. Although 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, and it has consistently expressed concerns about the North's activities.
Japan: Tokyo worries that North Korea's missile tests could potentially reach Japan. But it also views the Six Party Talks as a forum for negotiating a resolution to the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean spies in the 1970s and 1980s. 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 to be erratic in negotiations and actions. "They know that we have a tough time figuring out what really motivates them," says 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, China, South Korea, and Russia have settled for less stringent actions from 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 countries ultimately backed the March 2013 UN sanctions.
North Korea's own approach exhibits an openness to separate dialogues with both the United States and Japan, 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 direct dialogue with Pyongyang so that any compromise with the Kim regime would be framed as a multilateral decision. Yet North Korea repeatedly demanded dialogue as a condition to halting its nuclear program. In June 2007, former envoy Hill made a surprise visit to Pyongyang to advance the February deal, marking a 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 yielded little progress in denuclearizing North Korea, and some experts think that the country is determined to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state. In 2012, its leadership included a new preamble to the 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 argued that any policy that does not eliminate the North's nuclear military capability "in effect acquiesces in its continuation."
Experts say that the Obama administration's diplomatic channels for dialogue quickly evaporated with Pyongyang's exit from the Six Party Talks in 2009. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April 2012, CFR's Snyder said that the "United States should redouble its efforts to shape North Korea's strategic environment rather than [try] to identify the right combination of carrots and sticks to be used in a negotiation with Pyongyang." However, some experts say that although 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 to 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 that North Korea has any intention of giving up its nuclear program, and they argue that Pyongyang makes concessions to gain the aid it needs to survive. Other analysts say that 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 in the Atlantic in February 2012. Despite the stalemate, some view the cooperation between the United States and China on the drafting of the most recent UN sanctions as an effort that could move the needle.
Carin Zissis contributed to this report.
This IFPA report (PDF) explores multilateral approaches to reducing risk and denuclearizing North Korea.
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.