Why the Six-Nation Talks?

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By Amanda Lilly
Thursday, June 18, 2009; 2:28 PM

Why are these six countries interested in a diplomatic approach to ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program?

The six-nation talks began in August 2003 as a multilateral effort to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Earlier that year, the communist country had withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which eliminated the authority of U.N. weapons inspectors to monitor North Korea's nuclear program. Rather than give into North Korea's demands to resume fuel oil shipments, the United States took a hardline approach and refused to hold bilateral talks with the North, saying any acknowledgement of the country's actions would enhance North Korea's political standing. To prevent a potential nuclear standoff that could threaten its security, South Korea soon began petitioning the United States to open dialogue with North Korea. On the other side, China began putting pressure on North Korea to engage in peaceful exchange with the United States. Finally, after both the United States and the North agreed to attend multilateral talks, Russia and Japan decided to join the negotiations, rounding out the six nations most closely involved with North Korea's nuclear ambitions. According to recent reports, all five countries involved in the multilateral talks are in range of North Korea's alleged missiles.

United States

The United States joined the six-party talks as a way to avoid bilateral talks while still engaging with the potentially volatile North Korea. Traditionally, the United States has been a leader in pressing for tougher sanctions in response to provocative actions by the North.

North Korea

Originally hesitant to participate in the six-party talks, North Korea has used the negotiations to seek concessions such as food and fuel aid. The country has often proceeded to used brinksmanship, a policy of chaos and confusion to see how much it can get at the negotiating table the next time. The North has often argued for the United States to agree to bilateral talks, a non-aggression treaty and normalized relations.


With more nuclear neighbors than any other country in the world (Russia, India, Pakistan, and likely North Korea), China helped broker the six-nation talks in 2003. China, once aligned with North Korea during the Korean War and a communist ally during the Cold War, has played a key intermediary role between the United States and North Korea. Moreover, China has provided the North with extensive energy aid and food and has therefore had the necessary leverage to help influence North Korea's decisions. China has often opposed too harsh of sanctions against North Korea, fearing they may trigger an influx of refugees to cross its borders. China also wants to be involved in the North's denuclearization because it does not want to see a unified Korean Peninsula that could become dependent on the United States. However, because the United States is one of China's main trading partners, it wants to maintain positive relations with America.

South Korea

As a neighbor to the unpredictable North, South Korea joined the talks largely out of concern for its security. Fragile relations between the North and South since the Korean War ended in 1953 have also led to tension on the peninsula. Similar to China, South Korea fears an influx of refugees if harsh sanctions are imposed on the North. However, since President Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2007, the South has taken a harder approach toward the North.


Japan's unease over its proximity to North Korea and the unpredictable nation's nuclear test sites influenced Japan to join the six-party talks. Japan also has had a continuing interest in discovering what happened to a group of Japanese nationals who disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, after it accused North Korea of kidnapping them. Japan has typically agreed with the United States on strong sanctions.


Once a Cold War and communist ally of the North, Russia joined the negotiations to maintain influence in the region and in world affairs. Russia also had long-time investments linked to the Korean Peninsula, including oil and gas pipelines and railroad junctions. Moreover, a special relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong II had developed after Putin became the first leader of a major Western democracy to visit North Korea in 2002. It is reported that Kim insisted that Moscow be invited to the six-party talks. However, Russia also had security interests in mind when joining the multilateral talks. Due to its geography, Russian safety could be at risk if the North Korean government collapsed or went to war with the United States.

What has been the U.S. stance toward the six-party talks?

The Bush Administration- for the first few rounds of the six-party talks, the United States closely adhered to its reason for joining the negotiations in the first place -- to engage with North Korea on a multilateral platform without acknowledging the nation individually. However, after the fourth round of talks stalled in 2004 and relations had taken few steps forward, Christopher Hill, the newly-appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs and chief U.S. negotiator to the six-nation talks began to transform the administration's approach to the discussions from confrontation to accommodation. From the start of his term in 2005, Hill pressed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to travel to Pyongyang and even advocated direct talks with leader Kim Jong II. However, Rice and President Bush refused Hill's requests because too many officials in the administration considered such actions inappropriate, according to Post reports.

North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006 helped Hill persuade Bush to try a more forceful negotiating push. Less than a year later, Hill was granted the right to travel to North Korea, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to the country since 2002. Over the next two years, Hill was able to persuade Pyongyang to shut down its main nuclear reactor, disable key facilities and provide thousands of pages of records meant to verify the size of its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. Although Hill was often accused of conceding too much during his three years as chief negotiator with North Korea, it seemed he was making progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

In the last few months of Hill's term, however, North Korea handed the Bush administration a major setback. In early 2008, Pyongyang had verbally assured Hill it would verify its nuclear declarations if Bush removed North Korea from the terrorism blacklist. However, after the Bush administration did so in October, North Korean officials refused to provide a written declaration confirming its nuclear claims. Since then, the six-party talks have stalled and Bush and Hill had to hand down a complicated and broken disarmament process to the new Obama administration.

The Obama Administration- throughout his campaign, Obama criticized Bush for taking too long to engage with North Korea, saying he would be willing to promptly participate in direct talks with Kim Jong II. North Korea's missile launch on April 5, however, quickly complicated the administration's approach toward the communist nation. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the administration's goal is "to try to come up with a strategy that is effective at influencing the behavior of the North Koreans at a time when the whole leadership situation is unclear." Clinton said the six-nation negotiating process "has merit" as "a vehicle for exerting pressure on North Korea," but that normalized relations are out of question until North Korea fully gives up its weapons programs and answers unrequited questions.

Clinton appointed Stephen Bosworth, dean of Tuft University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as special representative for North Korean policy. Bosworth has said that he would "ideally like to meet with the leader," Kim, and that he hopes to reach higher in the foreign ministry than we have been able to before." Kim Jong II, however, has called the new administration "hostile" and "unchanged" from the Bush era.

Source: Washington Post staff reports

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