China pushes six-party talks with North Korea, but others remain skeptical

South Korean media announced on Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and his son had arrived in China for a surprise visit.
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

TOKYO - China is in the midst of a sales pitch. It is pushing for the resumption of six-party talks, the process concocted seven years ago to end a North Korean nuclear program that has not yet ended.

This time, Beijing says North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is onboard. And in recent days, China has sent its nuclear envoy to South Korea and Japan, touting the six-party idea to Washington's closest Asian allies. On Wednesday, he will visit Washington for a meeting at the State Department.

According to officials in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, China has emerged as the driving force pushing to restart the talks, which Beijing sees as the best way to maintain security and status quo on the Korean Peninsula.

China has proposed a three-step process that calls first for bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States, perhaps in Beijing, Pyongyang or New York. That would be followed by a meeting of nuclear delegation leaders representing the six participating nations: Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States, China and North Korea. Last, barring provocations from Pyongyang, the six countries would resume full-fledged talks for the first time since 2008.

But even as the Obama administration seeks palatable alternatives to its pressure-and-punishment stance toward North Korea, the six-party process seems, at best, months away.

On Wednesday, China's nuclear representative, Wu Dawei, will discuss the possibility of talks with deputy secretary of state James Steinberg, assistant secretary Kurt Campbell, North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth and six-party talks ambassador Sung Kim. Analysts foresee a scenario where Bosworth soon travels to Beijing, Seoul or Tokyo to push the process farther along.

"We want to see North Korea take irreversible steps to fulfill its denuclearization commitments," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "If we see evidence that North Korea is prepared to move in that direction, then we are open to further engagement."

Although there is no agreement in Washington about the best way to proceed, analysts and experts on U.S. policy describe an overall cynicism about the usefulness of six-party talks, calling them a playground for Kim to make promises that he subsequently ignores.

With the United States having announced new sanctions against North Korea on Monday, many analysts and officials now envision a period of strategic patience, in which the United States consults closely with South Korea and possibly explores a new framework for dealing with the North - an alternative to six-party talks.

China attempted to build momentum for talks this week, as Kim traveled by armored train through its northeastern countryside. Analysts and North Korea watchers say Kim's trip had several purposes, both pragmatic and symbolic. He sought economic aid from China, his country's chief benefactor. He wanted to build support for an upcoming power transfer to his son. Just as important, in visiting two Chinese landmarks associated with his father, he wanted to reinforce the Kim family narrative, the sacrosanct underpinning of his reclusive nation.

But after Kim's return to Pyongyang, China emphasized North Korea's readiness for six-party talks. The official Xinhua News Agency said that Kim, who met with Chinese President Hu Jintao, sought an "early resumption" of the talks as a way to ease tensions. He also said, according to New China, that North Korea's stance toward denuclearization remained unchanged.

Notable to U.S. officials, however, was the rhetoric coming from North Korea: The state-run Korean Central News Agency made note of Kim's trip but did not mention six-party talks or disarmament.

"It's just stretching incredulity to think that six-party talks are some panacea where the region's problems disappear," said Patrick Cronin, senior director at the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. "This is the same Kim Jong Il who said, months ago, that six-party talks are dead. And now what are we to believe? That Kim Jong Il is very serious this time?"

Among North Korean experts, South Korea is viewed as the six-party nation most reluctant about reengagement. In recent weeks, however, Seoul has signaled a modest shift. After an investigation that blamed Pyongyang for the March torpedoing of its Cheonan navy ship, South Korea cut off almost all trade and aid to the North. It also said that an apology for the Cheonan sinking was a prerequisite for reengagement.

South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, said last week that the North needs to disable its nuclear facilities and permit international inspections before any engagement. According to the Yonhap News Agency, citing an unidentified Foreign Ministry official, South Korea has backed away from its demand that an apology is also necessary. And Tuesday, South Korea's Red Cross pledged $8.4 million worth of aid to the North Korea to help it recover from recent flooding.

Japan could also be a hard sell. On Tuesday, China's Wu met with Japan's foreign minister, Katsuya Okada in Tokyo. But Okada, according to Japanese media reports, told Wu that talks should not begin until North Korea abandons its nuclear program.

In Washington, according to numerous sources familiar with internal discussions, many senior U.S. officials see growing reason for some form of engagement with North Korea.

"I think the administration's feeling right now is, they're not comfortable with having zero contact with the regime," said Michael Green, a former Asia specialist at the National Security Council.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company