Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Seize chance to resume Six-Party Talks

By Sun Ru (China Daily) Updated: 2011-08-18 08:17

The relations between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) seem to be thawing. Foreign ministers of the DPRK and the ROK met on the sidelines of the ASEAN regional forum recently. The DPRK and Japan, too, have tried to re-establish contacts, and the DPRK and the United States recently held their first senior-level dialogue in one and half years.

These developments show that the countries involved in the Six-Party Talks want to revive the dialogue which can take the denuclearization issue forward and maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula. The DPRK, which withdrew from the Six-Party Talks, is now the most eager party to resume them. In the past two and half years, Pyongyang has made advances in its nuclear program, but it has also invited stricter sanctions which soiled its image and put its economic development at risk.

To reduce the shortage of food grains and create a favorable environment, the DPRK has no choice but to improve relations with the US, Japan and the ROK. By doing so, it would prompt them to fulfill their promise of "opening the gate to a strong and prosperous nation" in 2012.

Moreover, the Lee Myung-bak administration in the ROK has seen the results of its policy of "principled engagement" toward the DPRK. US President Barack Obama, too, has realized the limits of his "strategic patience" policy. If the US insists on its policy, it has to face the hard fact that the DPRK's nuclear capability has improved, and could pose a greater threat to the US' presence in Northeast Asia.

The DPRK has been most eager to resume the Six-Party Talks and discuss its uranium enrichment issue. The US and Japan have changed their policies of moving the United Nations Security Council against the DPRK, while the ROK no longer insists that the DPRK apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incidents as a condition to resume Six-Party talks.

Thus, the four countries have shown more flexibility in their policies since the beginning of this year and laid the basis for further negotiations.

Opportunities take a long time to materialize but can disappear easily. Therefore, the DPRK and the ROK should seize this opportunity to restore stability and development on the Peninsula. The tensions between the two countries had eased in the beginning of 2010, but the Cheonan incident and the exchange of fire in Yeonpyeong Island changed things for the worse. That should be a vital lesson for the two sides not to let the new opportunity pass.

But three obstacles remain. First, though the situation on the Peninsula has eased, it could reverse because the ROK, following its "proactive deterrence" policy, has held frequent military drills near its border, which the DPRK could see as an exercise in muscle flexing. In fact, there was an exchange fire between the two on Aug 10, raising tensions briefly. Hence, any misunderstanding could change the situation for the worse.

Second, the US' attitude toward the DPRK is still not clear. On one hand, after the Cheonan incident, Washington began relying more on Seoul for its policy toward Pyongyang and became increasingly rigid in its stance. On the other, Washington has held several "track two" talks with Pyongyang since the beginning of this year. In other words, the US has kept in touch with the DPRK but maintained its pressure on the latter to be more "constructive".

The DPRK could see this US tactic as an imperative contact without substance, rather than an offer of serious negotiation. The Obama administration has realized the necessity of resuming the Six-Party Talks, but it is still not clear if it is determined to change its "strategic patience" policy.

Third, the four countries still hold very diverse positions. At their last talks in New York, the US asked the DPRK to take four measures: suspend its uranium enrichment program, accept inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), promise to implement the "Sept 19 Joint Statement" and cap its nuclear and missile tests. This means the US still wants the DPRK to show its sincerity toward denuclearization before the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.

The DPRK, among other things, asked the US to sign a peace agreement and help lift the UN sanctions. Besides, it is not willing to give up its uranium enrichment program because, it says, it needs it to build light water reactors.

The dilemma is that, though all the parties realize that resuming the Six-Party Talks is their interests, they have not stepped up efforts toward a common goal. Until then, we hope they will exercise restraint and continue to interact to avoid misunderstandings. Especially, the DPRK and the ROK have to maintain contact and take measures to avoid exchange of fire.

The four countries must find a common ground, for which they, especially the US and the DPRK, have to show a more proactive attitude. Following the principle of "action for action", the US and the DPRK should explore what steps they could take now and work toward a breakthrough. In fact, some concrete steps could be taken if both sides have the political will to do so. The US should respect the DPRK's sovereignty to win the latter's trust.

For one, the Obama administration could invite the DPRK orchestra to the US as a reciprocal gesture to the New York orchestra's visit to the DPRK in 2008, and expedite talks on food aid to Pyongyang. Such moves could remove much of the DPRK's suspicion toward the US and help promote dialogue.

The DPRK, on its part, has to promise to act in accordance with the "Sept 19 Joint Statement". That is necessary because many countries lost faith in the DPRK after it conducted its last missile test. Last year, Pyongyang agreed to invite IAEA experts back, and hopefully it would turn its words into deeds.

All sides have their own plans of how to resolve the Korea Peninsula denuclearization issue. But they must realize that it can be achieved only through the Six-Party Talks. The Six-Party Talks are an essential mechanism for defending peace in Northeast Asia, but it could become ineffective if all sides are not sincere.

The author is a research scholar with China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily 08/18/2011 page9)

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