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Resume the six-party talks on Korea

Gérard Roland, E. Morris Cox professor of economics and professor of political science | April 9, 2013

The six-party talks need to resume immediately and without conditions.

The escalating tension in the Korean peninsula has raised the fear of war in North East Asia.

The bellicose rhetoric on the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un’s “authorization” to the North Korean army of a preemptive nuclear strike on U.S. territory raise the fear that the new and inexperienced leader of North Korea may do the unthinkable. On the North Korean side, the strong sanctions following the nuclear test in February and the launch of joint South Korean-American military exercises are seen as proof of an imminent military invasion of North Korea.

In reality, none of these military attacks are likely. The North Korean regime has in the past used extremely bellicose rhetoric and threats of nuclear attacks to try to bully the international community into keeping its regime alive via economic aid. The problem is that the tension is currently so strong that any incident between North and South Korea — like the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan ship in March 2010 or the shelling of the Yeonpyeong island in November 2010 —  could easily degenerate into an outright war. The U.S. would be involved and China would possibly also get drawn in. Who knows how it would end?

While a war on the Korean peninsula is still highly unlikely, it has become more likely than in the past. A war should be avoided at all costs and a healthy dose of calm must be restored. None of the sides has an interest in war, but it may still happen because all diplomatic channels have been closed.

The obvious solution is to resume the six-party talks immediately and unconditionally. The six-party talks, regrouping the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia had as objective to negotiate a halt to the North Korean nuclear program. Such an agreement was reached in 2005, but it later faltered as North Korea continued its nuclear program.

The six-party talk is the only real diplomatic initiative that can contribute to reduce tension in North East Asia. Since the six-party talks were abandoned, tension in the North Korean peninsula has continued unabatedly with no solution in sight. The current tensions are probably at their highest point since the end of the Korean war in 1953, 60 years ago.

We should not be any under illusion that the North Korean regime has at any time the willingness to definitely abandon its nuclear program. It would, however, be counterproductive to set any conditions to the resuming of the six-party talks.  Resuming these negotiations, if only to calm the current tension and to eliminate the danger of uncontrolled spiral of tension, would be a huge benefit. The resuming of the six-party talks can also contribute to slow down the North Korean nuclear program.

There is, in fact, no real downside to resuming these negotiations as quickly as possible and without negotiations. The North Korean side may claim this as a “victory,” but this would be purely for internal consumption. Whoever takes the initiative in resuming the six-party talks will show definite signs of international leadership. Nobody has shown such a leadership so far, and certainly not the White House, unfortunately.

Talking to the North Koreans is important to reduce the tensions, even if we should be under no illusion as to their objectives. One thing the international community should remain very firm on is to keep the current sanctions and not to be bullied into economic aid that would keep the regime alive, and promise future international tension. Here, it is very important that China takes its responsibilities and be firmer in condemning North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The North Korean regime is not able to feed its people. Blackmailing the international community to obtain economic aid has been the repeated strategy of the North Korean leaders.  The nuclear program is the regime’s only ticket to survival. It is possible to be firm on sanctions while keeping diplomatic channels open. Talking to one’s enemies helps reduce tensions that could get out of control.

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