Choong Nam Kim: Six-Party Talks Still Best Option But May Never Resolve Nuclear Standoff

Date: 02-15-2005

By Choong Nam Kim

HONOLULU (Feb. 15) -- While Asians were enjoying the Lunar New Year, officials of the United States and other participants of the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue were busy working to restart stalled negotiations. With the second-term Bush Administration appearing more flexible than expected, observers predicted that this year could be a turning point for the North Korean nuclear crisis. But then Pyongyang poured cold water on such optimism by declaring it "has manufactured nukes” and is “suspending its participation” in the talks. North Korea observers are trying to figure out the motive and timing for this nuclear declaration delivered last week

At the height of the Iraqi War in late March 2003, I predicted that North Korea's next move would depend on the development of that war. If the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled quickly and the country was stabilized within a reasonable period of time, North Korea would become more conciliatory. But if the war dragged on, it could re-escalate tension. In fact, North Korea came to the negotiating table in the summer of that year. But the ongoing conflict in Iraq has emboldened Pyongyang to return to its brinkmanship tactics.

The United States is preoccupied with stabilizing Iraq and dealing with the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, North Korea believes a U.S. military option on the peninsula has become less feasible than before. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has manufactured enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs, and South Korea and China continue to provide enough economic assistance to allow North Korea to muddle through its economic woes. The longer the issue is stalled, the stronger Pyongyang’s position and the more bombs it can produce.

Thus, the issue requires America’s serious attention. Should it negotiate with Pyongyang directly? When there is no progress with multilateral negotiations, a head-to-head negotiation may seem to some to be a better option. But it is doubtful that Washington will ever accept such North Korean demands as a peace treaty, full diplomatic relations, and withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. Furthermore, bilateral talks may rekindle anti-American sentiments in South Korea, where many put a priority on inter-Korean reconciliation rather than on a North Korean threat. The Six-Party Talks still provide the best forum to try to solve the crisis.

However, these talks may never resolve the nuclear crisis either. The problem is that Kim Jong Il is more concerned about the survival of his regime than his country. Therefore he is determined to keep nuclear weapons to ensure he stays in power. Without economic revitalization, the Kim Jong Il regime is unlikely to continue over the long term, but reforming the country could destabilize or destroy the regime sooner.

If the United States and its allies are not going to tolerate a nuclear North Korea, for the time being they need to persuade the North to return to the negotiating table by suggesting more carrots as well as threatening to use some sticks. Furthermore, the United States must pressure other countries to isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically. China and South Korea, which have more leverage than other participants in the talks, should warn North Korea against its ambition of becoming a nuclear state, possibly cutting off all economic aid.

Kim Jong Il missed opportunities before. He should not miss this opportunity again because it might be the last one. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons but it still collapsed. Nor will such weapons guarantee the survival of the Kim Jong Il regime, but becoming a normal state may improve the chances.

--Choong Nam Kim is an East-West Center specialist on North Korea and U.S.-Korea relations. He served as an assistant for political affairs and public relations under three South Korean presidents before joining the East-West Center. He can be reached at (808) 944-7372 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center