Today marks the 10th anniversary of the initiation of Six-Party Talks to get North Korea to abandon the nuclear weapons it previously promised never to build. It’s unlikely that there will be any celebrations, because the talks weren’t successful. Oh, there were agreements along the decade-long path, but they didn’t make any tangible progress toward achieving the real objective of North Korean denuclearization.
Those agreements were purposefully written vaguely to gain North Korean consensus. U.S. diplomats argued that forward movement was necessary—to “keep the bicycle moving; otherwise, it will fall down.” So the negotiators relied on such diplomatic sleight of hand as relying on a single letter (s) to capture North Korea’s covert—and prohibited—quest for uranium-based nuclear weapons.
In the Six-Party Talks September 2005 joint statement, North Korea committed to abandon “existing nuclear programs.” U.S. negotiators claimed that the plural form of programs reflected North Korean agreement to abandon both plutonium and its once-acknowledged uranium weapons. Not so fast, countered Pyongyang, denying even the existence of a uranium enrichment program—until they admitted it again years later.
But for advocates of engagement, simply convening the meetings was success. To be sure, negotiations are useful if they are done properly—i.e., they are based on principles of conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency. International agreements need to clearly specify the responsibilities of all parties rather than repeatedly kicking the can down the road in the hope of someday solving the problem.
Instead, the Six-Party Talks became a self-perpetuating system that had no purpose other than to sustain itself. North Korea demanded concessions “to improve the atmosphere of negotiations,” sometimes simply for returning to the table. The U.S. even abandoned enforcing its own money-laundering laws in order to maintain the diplomatic façade of progress.
The Six-Party Talks eventually collapsed in 2008—and haven’t been reconvened since—when North Korea balked at the verification protocol that Washington claimed it had agreed to. Since then, Pyongyang has made all too clear that it has no intention—if it ever did in the first place—of abandoning its nuclear weapons.
North Korea revised its constitution in May 2012 to declare itself as a “nuclear-armed state.” The government’s highest administrative body declared that “the nuclear weapons of [North] Korea are not goods for getting U.S. dollars and they are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings to be…put on the table of negotiations aimed at forcing [North Korea] to disarm itself.” Pyongyang declared that “those who talk about an economic reward in return for the dismantlement of [North Korea’s] nuclear weapons would be well advised to awake from their daydream.”
After threatening Washington and Seoul with nuclear annihilation earlier this year, Pyongyang has initiated another of its periodic charm offensives. The regime agreed to allow South Korea to resume its payments to Pyongyang through the joint economic venture in Kaesong and agreed to allow reunions of separated families (as it agreed to during the 2000 inter-Korean summit).
As a result, there has been a resumption of calls for a return to the Six-Party Talks. Advocates of resuming the negotiations should use this anniversary to ponder why the Six-Party Talks failed, as did the Four-Party Talks, Three-Party Talks, and two-party (Agreed Framework) talks that preceded them. They should not be resumed unless and until North Korea demonstrates a real interest in abandoning its nuclear weapons program.