Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 20:19 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 20:19 | SYDNEY

Six Parties, two illusions, one broken dream


Raoul Heinrichs

10 June 2009 15:53

What a difference a couple of years and a handful of nuclear tests make.

Until early 2008, the Six-Party Talks were viewed by many, including our own Prime Minister, as the most promising future model for regional security cooperation. Having cajoled Pyongyang back to the table and extracted from it a commitment to phased nuclear disarmament, the talks had always presented a seemingly golden opportunity: to marshal the diplomatic efforts of the region’s major powers to a common end, to resolve a major security challenge in a region well known for its simmering rivalries and anaemic multilateral security architecture.

Over the past few years, however, that vision has collapsed, culminating in North Korea’s recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests. Pyongyang remains as opaque and obstreperous as ever, deeply committed to its nuclear program and, if its increasing bellicosity is any indication, determined to reset negotiations on its own terms.

Meanwhile, a more acute sense of anxiety has been aroused in Japan and South Korea, as the limits of America’s capacity, and China’s willingness, to constrain Pyongyang have once again been laid bare before the world.

The futility of the Six-Party Talks boils down to the fact that they were predicated on two illusions, the first of which was a belief that North Korea might one day be prepared to give up its nuclear weapons, if only the price was right.

For North Korea, nuclear weapons are a tool for survival, ensuring the continued existence of the regime and the state — salient concerns for a country whose outlook is shaped by historical memories of a forty-year occupation, a war for its existence, a hegemonic adversary dedicated to its demise, and whose future will be determined, in part at least, by the colliding fears and ambitions of the region’s major powers.
As Sam pointed out in a recent op-ed, the value of a credible nuclear capability always exceeded any quid-pro-quo that North Korea could be offered to abandon its nuclear arsenal. As a result, the Six Party Talks went in pursuit of an unattainable diplomatic objective — disappointment was just a matter of time.

The second illusion, one that informed Washington’s decision to create the Six-Party Talks, was that Chinese and American interests were fundamentally congruent on North Korean denuclearization. Washington envisaged a situation in which it could compensate for its own lack of options vis-à-vis North Korea by taking advantage of China’s influence in Pyongyang. Such a strategy, it imagined, could produce an outcome suited to everyone, including China, which could reinforce its role as a constructive and responsible contributor to regional security.

For its part, China has revealed the weakness of this assumption. China does not want its unwieldy ‘little brother’ bristling with nuclear weapons, and it has an abiding interest in the process, if not progress, of the Six-Party Talks, which give it enormous leverage in Washington. But Beijing is reluctant to push too far, or too hard. It is determined to preserve its monopolistic influence over Pyongyang and unwilling to risk exposing itself to the many dangers that could arise from the nuclear disarmament of a small, fragile ally adjoining its economic heartland.

More than anything, then, the latest crisis over North Korea has exposed the limits of cooperation in Sino-US relations. While Pyongyang’s provocation is par for the course, Beijing’s ambivalence reflects an increasing unwillingness to play ‘responsible stakeholder’ in America’s hegemonic order.

Photo by Flickr user (stephan), used under a Creative Commons license.