Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:55 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:55 | SYDNEY

North Korea and the Six-Party Talks: Final thoughts


Malcolm Cook

20 October 2008 16:40

My original post noting my concerns about the latest bilateral agreement between Pyongyang and Washington and the health of the Six-Party Talks has sparked a healthy debate. It has even hit the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and led Peter Drysdale to castigate me for being 'unreal'. Here are my last thoughts on this thread.

My biggest worry about the latest US-North Korea bilateral deal and the progress of the Six-Party Talks over the last two years or so is that I find it hard to conclude that these talks are pushing Pyongyang in any serious way towards comprehensive denuclearisation. Aren’t we really still talking about Yongbyon two decades on and preventing a second North Korean test – where is the vaunted 'real' progress?

I find it much more 'real' to see that the recent direction of these talks are placing new and serious strains on the US-Japan, and to a lesser extent, US-South Korea alliance relationships, the central planks of the US security presence in the region. I am not sure that this is a good net outcome despite the benefits of the Six-Party Talks (providing Washington and Beijing a platform to work more closely and cooperatively together).

I agree with Robyn Lim. I think Japan’s concerns over the US approach to North Korea go much deeper than the abduction issue. North Korea tested missiles over the Sea of Japan two years ago, followed up a few months later with their first test of a nuclear device. After these tests (tests Beijing opposed but could not stop), then-Prime Minister Abe publicly discussed the idea that Japan should develop its own first-strike capabilities and now Prime Minister Aso, then foreign minister, publicly reopened Japan’s own nuclear weapons debate. Both of these reflect 'real Japanese concerns with their primary, alliance-based reliance on US extended deterrence.

Today, the Japanese believe that a nuclear North Korea poses a direct security threat to Japan, creating a new destabilising factor at the centre of the long-standing and long-predictable US-Japan alliance relationship that Australia and the whole Asia Pacific  has benefitted from. It has been a reassuring feature (some may even say oddity) of regional security that Japan, the second largest economy in the world, facing unfriendly neighbours, has chosen to remain non-nuclear, as has South Korea. 

It would be a very bad result if the Six-Party Talks did not lead to North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons (though I am sure they may dismantle Yongbyon to provide the image of 'real' progress) but did lead to a new and significant weakening of US-Japan and potentially US-South Korea alliance relations, and Japan considering more seriously its own nuclear option as its faith in the US-Japan alliance is questioned. The two countries Japan fears the most threatened by are North Korea and China, the only two nuclear weapons powers in the region.

I hope in a few years, if this has all been settled by then, that I will be able to tip my hat to the more realistic and level-headed analysis of Brendan and Peter; maybe after a meeting in Sydney of the successor to the Six-Party Talks, an expanded regional security body led jointly by Beijing and Washington, that includes a less anxious Japan and South Korea and a denuclearised North Korea. That would be much better than a region that has no effective regional security organisation with a nuclear North Korea, a more worried and assertive Japan and potentially South Korea, and with a reduced America trying to repair fractured alliance relationships. Alas, I think belief in the former requires a much larger leap of faith than in the latter.