The Chinese government held an unusual commemorative ceremony this week to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Six Party Talks and the eighth anniversary of the Six Party Joint Statement. The Joint Statement at the time seemed vague and incomplete, but it turns out that the consensus forged in favor of Korean peninsular denuclearization, peace, diplomatic normalization, and economic development was a high-water mark for the talks. In light of North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests and its open rejection of its Joint Statement commitment to abandon nuclear weapons, the Six Party Talks have stalemated for five years. Now China is trying to revive the Joint Statement and breathe new life into the Six Party process.
In his opening remarks, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who had served as China’s head of delegation in the early days of the Six Party Talks, stated that “denuclearization and peace and stability are directly connected and mutually reinforcing,” charged all the parties to recommit to the Joint Statement, and advocated for institutionalization of the Six Party Talks, reflecting a renewed Chinese investment of political capital to restart talks. But this diplomatic initiative will prove to be a heavy lift. Absent at the commemoration were American, Japanese, and South Korean high-level representatives who boycotted the ceremony in the absence of North Korean commitments backed by action to return to denuclearization.
Under the watchful eye of his Chinese hosts, North Korea’s Vice Minister Kim Kye-Gwan read a written statement shifting blame to the United States before pledging North Korea’s recommitment to denuclearization and calling for a resumption of talks “without preconditions.” It was the least he could do to meet the requirements of the occasion. Following Kim’s begrudging performance, Wang Yi is spending the anniversary of the Six Party Joint Statement in Washington for consultations with his U.S. counterparts.
At Sunnylands, North Korea seemed to emerge as one issue on which closer cooperation might give concrete meaning to the idea of a “new type of great power relationship.” But it is also an issue on which the United States and China have differing preferred instruments for addressing the shared challenge of a nuclear North Korea. Having exhausted diplomacy with North Korea, the United States seeks to pressure North Korea into making a strategic choice to reverse its nuclear and missile development, while China prefers avoidance of confrontation and pursuit of diplomatic solutions. But it would clearly be a mistake to allow North Korea to come back to a different starting line in 2013 from the one it left in 2008, having pocketed technical gains from two rounds of nuclear and missile tests while continuing full bore weapons nuclear development in the interim.
North Korea’s latest round of nuclear and missile tests and accompanying threats of nuclear attack on the United States have come at a high cost to North Korea primarily because they signaled the realistic prospect that North Korea could soon directly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack. These developments have redoubled U.S. attention to its own defense, including B-52 and B-2 bomber flights over the Korean peninsula in March and August.
North Korea’s own claim of “legitimate status” as a nuclear weapons state is indeed a fact to be reckoned with even if others do not recognize it, but expanded nuclear capacity and louder nuclear threats have clearly not made the regime safer. It is a point worth considering carefully in Pyongyang. It is a clear source of unease in Beijing. And it is a powerful argument for a return to the status quo ante that existed at the time of the last round of Six Party Talks in December 2008, when North Korea’s implementation of tangible steps toward denuclearization was winning it rewards and not threats from other parties, including the United States.