Call them Five-Party Talks

The Bush Administration demonstrated greater caginess in the recent six-party talks, making accommodations that highlighted Pyongyang’s defiance.

SEOUL, South Korea

The six-party talks were every bit the failure they have largely been identified as in terms of leading to a nuclear disarmament breakthrough with Pyongyang. But that failure allows for progress in another potential goal for the talks: bolstering the consensus among the other participants in how to respond to and pressure North Korea. After all, the six-party talks are just as much a forum for five parties as they are for six.

The United States and other parties have been stuck in a kind of cinematic time-loop in regards to North Korea.

After six rounds of the six-party talks, the United States and others find themselves facing the same dilemma over and over again, with Pyongyang continuing its nuclear brinkmanship and demanding that sanctions be dropped before it will disarm. In order to eventually break out of this foreign policy "Groundhog Day Syndrome", U.S. officials will have to forge a common strategy with others, particularly with Beijing, which has become an important stakeholder in this matter. The Bush Administration's actions indicate that they are increasingly aware of the importance of this aspect of the talks.

Pushing Beijing to share more of the responsibility, and blame, for the current standoff is in Washington's interest. In order for the United States to garner Chinese support for more forceful sanctions against the defiant North Korean regime, it is important to show Beijing that Washington has tried hard to gain a diplomatic solution.

For this meeting, the United States launched a charm offensive, with a more aggressive approach and more aggressive proposals than in previous talks.Abandoning its previous refusals to meet North Korean demands for direct negotiations, the Bush Administration adopted a more flexible approach to engage in bilateral talks with North Korea. Last week's six-party talks were the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks in October and November, arranged by Beijing. In addition to the six-party meetings, Washington and Pyongyang also held separate bilateral talks discussing financial sanctions on North Korea's secret bank account in Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau.

What's more, Washington offered a more comprehensive and detailed plan for implementing nuclear dismantlement. According to various reports, the U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, proposed that North Korea freeze its 5-MW Yongbyon reactor and resume IAEA surveillance; close its nuclear test site; and list all nuclear programs and related facilities, to be followed by IAEA inspections. In return, the United States would issue a written statement guaranteeing no intention of military invasion, sweetened by an official declaration of ending the Korean War that would replace the current armistice agreement. And the resumption of heavy oil delivery could be arranged once Pyongyang begins the dismantling process. Hill had also offered diplomatic recognition and other types of economic aid to North.

North Koreans came to the talks as a newly declared nuclear power. When the North Korean delegation demanded nuclear-arms-reduction talks with the United States on an equal footing, Hill almost declared the breakup of the talks. Upon the conclusion of talks, North Korea said it will accelerate its nuclear program until the United States lifts sanctions.

Washington cannot afford another war, its hands already more than full with the military situation worsening by the day in Iraq. And notwithstanding North Korea's defiance, the six-party talks provide a useful venue for the United States and other concerned parties to discuss various measures to deal with the North's nuclear threat. In the past, many suspected that the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq led to a malign neglect toward North Korea and that Washington lacked a genuine will and strategy to solve the nuclear problem. The administration demonstrated in this latest round, that it is making serious efforts to engage in constructive negotiations with North Korea.

The six-party talks could thus become what one of its negotiators, Victor Cha, calls Hawk Engagement, a strategy for laying the ground for punishing North Korean defiance. The latest round of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea could finally enable the United States to break out of the six-party time loop and set the stage for putting some real pressure on Pyongyang.

SeongHo Sheen is assistant professor of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.