Six-Party Failure on North Korea

North Korea may be a distant enemy to the United States, but to South Korea it is the closest and most threatening reality in the global community. The communist regime in the North is the gravest threat facing the democratic South as North Korea's reckless and provocative behavior continues, especially its recent second nuclear test and firing of short-range missiles.

It thus no surprise that some Korean analysts are claiming that the six-party talks cannot function normally any longer in dealing with an erratic North. Some who previously praised the dialogue as meaningful step in terms of regional security and the establishment of a peace regime, not to mention the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, are giving up.

The inconvenient truth for those still in favor of the six-party talks is that the five countries on one side of the table ­ South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia ‑ have been unable to lead the unwieldy North to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.

As North Korea has made continually clumsy attempts to legitimate its nuclear weapons program, however, many conservative political pundits and experts here in Seoul have begun to consider North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his regime as hopeless.

They're right. The Stalinist country's hostile attitudes were enough to show that the stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations had more holes than Swiss cheese and that the conventional wisdom that diplomacy is preferable to sanctions was wrong.

The six-party process didn't work despite the five nations' efforts to stop the North's never-ending ambitions to go nuclear. Moreover, Pyongyang also finds the multilateral talks unnecessary because it considers direct talks with Washington urgent to guarantee the Kim-family regime's survival through diplomatic normalization and economic assistance in return for its abandonment of nuclear weapons.

The six-party formula, which was launched by the Bush administration in 2003 after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is still alive under the Obama administration, even though it overturned many aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Unlike the US, South Korea thinks it's time that a new negotiating mechanism be found to redefine its role of focusing on North Korea's denuclearization.

It is no accident that pessimism about the multilateral security forum has surfaced in the mind of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. A conservative who has intensified his assaults on North Korea in contrast to his liberal predecessors, Lee suddenly found himself drumming up a new five-party framework without North Korea. Lee now has an urgent task.

First, while the six-party talks were aimed at eliminating the North's nuclear cards, the process seems to have offered Pyongyang time and breathing space to add nuclear arms to its arsenal.

Secondly, the out-of-focus six-party talks failed to follow up agreements as each member state spends time coordinating its own different policy position toward the North's provocative behavior. There is a little harmony among supposed allies. In the South's eyes, the clueless six-party talks have already become, according to one local expert on North Korea, "a structure that cannot turn a wolf into a sheep" as long as a continuing lack of trust among the member states persists.

With North Korea a de facto nuclear-armed state, its weapons and relevant technologies are certainly bargaining chips to gain leverage with the US. Pyongyang has learned how to use the multilateral talks' limits to its advantage, while prevaricating on the agreed-upon conditions imposed by the consensus-oriented forum.

In addition, given the complicated structure of nuclear politics, any kind of talks related to North Korean issues can't proceed without China's help. Many North Korea watchers suspect that China, a reliable guardian of the regime in Pyongyang, will not likely engage in North Korea in a substantive way because the status quo on the Korean Peninsula suits Beijing, lest North Korea fall into the American orbit. A peaceful Korean unification led by South Korea may be a nightmare to China if US troops in a unified Korea guarded the border overlooking Chinese territory.

But this is really a Neanderthal way of looking at a unified Korea. But Seoul's and Washington's claims that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be a threat to China are equally hollow given that China is bordered by Russia, India and Pakistan, all of them with nuclear weapons already.

For now, unfortunately, the nuclear weapons program and regime survival are linked in Pyongyang, despite the world saying it cannot have both. Pyongyang's brinkmanship is now common, of course, but Kim Jong-il should be pragmatic in calculating US strategies.

In this regard, the sentencing of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling to 12 years of hard labor was a potentially fatal error.

North Korea needs to be flexible and to abandon brinkmanship. For North Korea, there is no way to checkmate the US. Freeing the American journalists with no conditions would be a good signal to send to Washington. At the same time, Obama's outreach policy should apply to North Korea as well, letting Kim Jong-il and his merry men realize that diplomacy is still the most reliable and effective tool of US foreign policy.

In a fast-paced global security environment, the winner is going to be the person with the greatest ability to adapt. The Obama administration should prepare to pull the rug out from under North Korea if it refuses a well-structured carrot. The ailing Kim must know that a second Korean war would be fatal to his country. For this reason – Kim's self interest ‑ Obama's "grand bargain" could happen in North Korea earlier than in Iran.

Lee Byong-Chul is senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a non-partisan policy body based in Seoul, South Korea.