JIM KELLY says straightforwardly, after summarizing the history of the six-party talks, that “the upshot is that diplomacy has been unsuccessful and the six-party process has not worked.” He says the reason is “simple. North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear-weapons power and has sought this for decades.”
I agree on both points. This is precisely why the talks have failed, are failing and will fail to achieve the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear program that Jim agrees should be the American goal. Nonetheless, on go the talks, and Jim supports their continuation because he dislikes the alternatives (as he describes them) and because, who knows, something may happen.
This is not a matter of reason or realism, but a matter of quasi-religious faith. Like most matters of faith, it is not susceptible to empirical rebuttal for those who adhere to it. Indeed, contrary empirical evidence only strengthens the heart of the True Believers, who see such evidence as more tribulations for the faithful to suffer. So it is with the six-party talks. Participants in the talks have not yet wandered the desert for forty years like Moses and his flock, but they are working on year six, with no promised land in sight.
Of the many forms of parochialism that abound at State, the “clientitis” of its regional bureaus is perhaps the most acute. Clientitis has had the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in its iron grip in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Jim reflects the clientitis when he says the problem “must be solved in a regional context.”
But North Korea is a global problem for America, not a regional one. The North’s missile proliferation to Iran and other rogues, and nuclear-reactor construction in Syria, are not, in northeast Asia, high-priority problems. For us, however, they are of the very highest priority. Endless patience with a North Korea apparently willing to sell anything to anyone with enough hard currency is a prescription for trouble. A. Q. Khan may be out of business, but his wares are still available at the Pyongyang souk. And the lengthening impact of a nuclear-weapons-capable North Korea on national-security deliberations in Japan and elsewhere cannot be underestimated.
Among the six parties, the plain fact is that even China and Russia do not have the same global interests as the United States. Although China has progressed in strengthening its nonproliferation controls, its hunger for oil and natural gas today clearly has the upper hand, for example, in its Iran policy. Russia is worse: retrogressing to czarist impulses (the invasion of Georgia), bullying its European neighbors (using oil and natural-gas supplies as leverage) and prowling America’s neighborhood (naval maneuvers with Venezuela).
Regional diplomacy has been tried—at length—and failed. Global diplomacy, which will inevitably include the participants in the failed six-party talks, won’t work any better. We must face up to evident failure and adjust our policies accordingly, as I suggested earlier. Otherwise, we will have a continuing nuclear threat from Pyongyang that could result in some unfortunate city, country or region becoming a real wilderness.