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Reviving multilateral negotiations emerge as alternative to breaking deadlock on North Korea

President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden talked on the phone earlier this month and discussed Korean Peninsula issues. Korea Times file
President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden talked on the phone earlier this month and discussed Korean Peninsula issues. Korea Times file

By Do Je-hae

During the previous U.S. administration under Donald Trump, talks on North Korea's denuclearization revolved primarily around the U.S. and North Korea. President Moon Jae-in has also put priority on mediating U.S.-North Korea talks, but the two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not lead to fundamental progress on denuclearization. The lack of results during the Trump administration on North Korea and the urgency from Seoul to quickly resume peace diplomacy have resulted in renewed attention to the type of multilateral negotiating framework that was seen during in the late 1990s, such as the four-party talks with representatives from the two Koreas, the U.S. and China. Six rounds of negotiations were held in 1997 and 1998.

The need for expanded talks has been highlighted particularly with the launch of the Biden administration. Two-way talks between North Korea and the U.S. are likely to remain sidelined under President Biden who has ordered a meticulous review of the North Korea policy of the previous administration and the rare exchanges between his predecessor and Kim.

Some experts, including former Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who served from April 2019 until June 2020, have begun to stress the need for the revival of four-party negotiations that would include China, which has significant economic and political influence over North Korea. The frequent exchanges at the highest level between the leaders of the two countries in recent years show the strength of bilateral relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang for a summit with Kim in June 2019, the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years.

"If the Biden administration is unable to prioritize the North Korea issue, cooperation from other concerned parties is necessary," Kim said during a recent online conference, underscoring the fact that China and North have become closer economically and politically than in the past. "Following the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim, China-North Korea ties have become so close that it is hard to find a precedent. The order on the Korean Peninsula has changed, and it has become difficult to exclude China."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, recently sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace. Korea Times file
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, recently sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace. Korea Times file

The four-party talks including China have also been supported by experts in the U.S., including Joseph Yun, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, based on expectations for China's role in preventing provocations through dialogue or partial economic aid.

Prospects for expanded talks

The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been China's consistent strategic goal. Xi sent a letter to Kim Jong-un recently during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace.

But it remains unclear whether Beijing will be interested in joining expanded talks on North Korea at this point. The last time the four countries engaged in such talks was before the rise of the U.S.-China competition, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic that is still hampering the resumption of normal diplomacy.

Therefore, some experts question the feasibility and timing of expanded talks on North Korea due to the diplomatic and domestic priorities of the related parties.

"At the moment, while there seems to be clear interest in Seoul on such an initiative, I doubt the timing works for Washington, Beijing or Pyongyang," Harry J. Kazianis, senior director for Korean Studies at Center for the National Interest, told The Korea Times. "All three are in the middle of struggles against the coronavirus and have little time for anything else. Here in Washington, with such massive political upheaval and COVID-19 dominating everything, I don't see much interest at all on anything North Korea for some time, unless Pyongyang were to offer some amazing concession ― like something near full denuclearization ― for America to show any interest at all. My fear is that North Korea would have to test an ICBM or detonate a nuclear weapon to get anyone's attention."

Others remain skeptical of the effectiveness of expanded talks on North Korea even if they were to happen, given past precedents during the previous Bill Clinton administration that did not produce any significant outcomes.

"Certainly the Biden team, after a review of North Korea policy, may consider expanded talks. Four-party talks including China and North and South Korea would definitely be one option, but the American team would have to face the reality that China would support North Korea on refusing to give up its nuclear program as long as sanctions remained in place and U.S. troops remained in South Korea," Donald Kirk, columnist on Korean Peninsula issues, told The Korea Times. "U.S. negotiators might see such talks as really going nowhere, as was the case with four-party talks in the late 1990s, and might be reluctant to enter into them except possibly as a delaying tactic or a means to assess the real intentions of China and North Korea."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, arrives in Pyongyang in June 2019 for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Korea Times file
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, arrives in Pyongyang in June 2019 for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Korea Times file

Some analysts said that the four-party talks involving China have limitations in achieving progress on denuclearization as North Korea ultimately wants a deal with the U.S., not China, according to Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

"China could also be included in these discussions, but the key players are the two Koreas and the U.S.," Pardo, who also serves as associate professor of international relations at King's College London, told the Korea Times.

"If the Biden administration is willing to settle for an arms control deal, even if this only an interim step, I think that the Kim regime will be willing to sit down to talk. Even if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization as the ultimate goal in any discussion with North Korea, I think that Pyongyang would be interested if a step-by-step process involving arms control in exchange for sanctions relief or exemptions as a first step is on offer. So ultimately resumption of talks depends on the position that the U.S. will take, since Kim has clearly indicated that he wants economic exchanges with South Korea and not only aid or other type of support."


President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden talked on the phone earlier this month and discussed Korean Peninsula issues. Korea Times file
President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden talked on the phone earlier this month and discussed Korean Peninsula issues. Korea Times file

By Do Je-hae

During the previous U.S. administration under Donald Trump, talks on North Korea's denuclearization revolved primarily around the U.S. and North Korea. President Moon Jae-in has also put priority on mediating U.S.-North Korea talks, but the two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not lead to fundamental progress on denuclearization. The lack of results during the Trump administration on North Korea and the urgency from Seoul to quickly resume peace diplomacy have resulted in renewed attention to the type of multilateral negotiating framework that was seen during in the late 1990s, such as the four-party talks with representatives from the two Koreas, the U.S. and China. Six rounds of negotiations were held in 1997 and 1998.

The need for expanded talks has been highlighted particularly with the launch of the Biden administration. Two-way talks between North Korea and the U.S. are likely to remain sidelined under President Biden who has ordered a meticulous review of the North Korea policy of the previous administration and the rare exchanges between his predecessor and Kim.

Some experts, including former Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who served from April 2019 until June 2020, have begun to stress the need for the revival of four-party negotiations that would include China, which has significant economic and political influence over North Korea. The frequent exchanges at the highest level between the leaders of the two countries in recent years show the strength of bilateral relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang for a summit with Kim in June 2019, the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years.

"If the Biden administration is unable to prioritize the North Korea issue, cooperation from other concerned parties is necessary," Kim said during a recent online conference, underscoring the fact that China and North have become closer economically and politically than in the past. "Following the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim, China-North Korea ties have become so close that it is hard to find a precedent. The order on the Korean Peninsula has changed, and it has become difficult to exclude China."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, recently sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace. Korea Times file
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, recently sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace. Korea Times file

The four-party talks including China have also been supported by experts in the U.S., including Joseph Yun, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, based on expectations for China's role in preventing provocations through dialogue or partial economic aid.

Prospects for expanded talks

The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been China's consistent strategic goal. Xi sent a letter to Kim Jong-un recently during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea and reiterated his commitment to the settlement of Korean Peninsula issues and regional peace.

But it remains unclear whether Beijing will be interested in joining expanded talks on North Korea at this point. The last time the four countries engaged in such talks was before the rise of the U.S.-China competition, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic that is still hampering the resumption of normal diplomacy.

Therefore, some experts question the feasibility and timing of expanded talks on North Korea due to the diplomatic and domestic priorities of the related parties.

"At the moment, while there seems to be clear interest in Seoul on such an initiative, I doubt the timing works for Washington, Beijing or Pyongyang," Harry J. Kazianis, senior director for Korean Studies at Center for the National Interest, told The Korea Times. "All three are in the middle of struggles against the coronavirus and have little time for anything else. Here in Washington, with such massive political upheaval and COVID-19 dominating everything, I don't see much interest at all on anything North Korea for some time, unless Pyongyang were to offer some amazing concession ― like something near full denuclearization ― for America to show any interest at all. My fear is that North Korea would have to test an ICBM or detonate a nuclear weapon to get anyone's attention."

Others remain skeptical of the effectiveness of expanded talks on North Korea even if they were to happen, given past precedents during the previous Bill Clinton administration that did not produce any significant outcomes.

"Certainly the Biden team, after a review of North Korea policy, may consider expanded talks. Four-party talks including China and North and South Korea would definitely be one option, but the American team would have to face the reality that China would support North Korea on refusing to give up its nuclear program as long as sanctions remained in place and U.S. troops remained in South Korea," Donald Kirk, columnist on Korean Peninsula issues, told The Korea Times. "U.S. negotiators might see such talks as really going nowhere, as was the case with four-party talks in the late 1990s, and might be reluctant to enter into them except possibly as a delaying tactic or a means to assess the real intentions of China and North Korea."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, arrives in Pyongyang in June 2019 for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Korea Times file
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, arrives in Pyongyang in June 2019 for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Korea Times file

Some analysts said that the four-party talks involving China have limitations in achieving progress on denuclearization as North Korea ultimately wants a deal with the U.S., not China, according to Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

"China could also be included in these discussions, but the key players are the two Koreas and the U.S.," Pardo, who also serves as associate professor of international relations at King's College London, told the Korea Times.

"If the Biden administration is willing to settle for an arms control deal, even if this only an interim step, I think that the Kim regime will be willing to sit down to talk. Even if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization as the ultimate goal in any discussion with North Korea, I think that Pyongyang would be interested if a step-by-step process involving arms control in exchange for sanctions relief or exemptions as a first step is on offer. So ultimately resumption of talks depends on the position that the U.S. will take, since Kim has clearly indicated that he wants economic exchanges with South Korea and not only aid or other type of support."


Do Je-hae jhdo@koreatimes.co.kr


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