North Korea's nuclear ambitions and prospects for five-party talks


© 08.02.2016, A. Fedorovskiy, K. Voda

In the weeks since North Korea declared its H-bomb test on January 6, not only have international debates on this issue failed to reach any solid conclusions, but diplomatic negotiations between major Asia-Pacific countries have intensified. Of particular importance in this context is a proposal put forward on January 22 by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to hold five-party talks – with the participation of Russia, China, the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, but excluding North Korea – to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The response of the regional powers to Seoul’s proposal will undoubtedly affect the political situation on the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK's own position.

The nuclear test has shown that Pyongyang intends to proceed on its path “until the United States has abandoned its hostile policy toward the DPRK,” leaving no doubt about the intentions of the North Korean leadership to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. There are a number of reasons that induce Kim Jong Un’s regime to act in this way, with political and economic factors being intertwined. In the past few years DPRK authorities have relaxed their repression of entrepreneurs (though not approving their legal status) and allowed quasi-market operations leading to some improvement in the economic situation. However, they are not ready to deepen reforms in order to radically change the economic system. In such circumstances, “the triumph of the DPRK’s defense policy” is a tried-and-tested mechanism for blackmailing external partners to obtain commercial concessions and financial assistance in exchange for the “restraint” of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Secondly, internal forces demand that the country’s militarization should periodically be affirmed through impressive displays of military might. Showing preparedness to resist external aggression seems to function as a mechanism to legitimize the government’s authority, a proven means of rallying the people and the bureaucracy around the leader.

Thirdly, the deterioration of the situation on the Korean Peninsula gives Pyongyang an opportunity to play on disagreements between Russia and China on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, expanding the scope for North Korean diplomacy to maneuver.

Meanwhile, according to Dmitry Peskov, the president's press secretary, Moscow was “extremely concerned over information that North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb.” He said that on January 6 Putin “had given instructions for specialists to carefully study all measurements from seismological stations to analyze and confirm” what happened at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. In turn, on January 13 Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov expressed “utmost concern over North Korea’s test of a hydrogen nuclear bomb’ in a telephone conversation with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se. However the Russian side also underlined “the need to show restraint and avoid actions that could increase tensions in Northeast Asia” and also noted the “importance of urgently resuming dialogue aimed at finding a political and diplomatic settlement to the current crisis.”

The Head of the Council of the Federation’s International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev noted that “if the information regarding the nuclear test does not turn out to be false as has happened previously,” it directly affects the national security of Russia, because “it is less than 700 km from Pyongyang to Vladivostok.”

Vladimir Voronkov, Russia's Permanent Representative to the International Organizations in Vienna said that Moscow “condemned North Korea’s nuclear bomb test as it is a clear violation of international law.” All statements left no doubt of the character of Moscow’s opinion on the DPRK’s nuclear test, as well as Russia’s readiness to support negotiations aimed at overcoming the crisis.

Indeed, dialogue on the current situation on the Korean Peninsula is genuinely necessary, first to understand what actually happened on January 6 in North Korea, and secondly, to develop adequate political measures. The question, however, is not about which countries are ready for dialogue and what kind of dialogue to hold. All major regional powers share concerns about what has happened on the Korean Peninsula, however, they do not agree on what should be done to alleviate that concern.

In China, the putative H-bomb test caused resentment not only in the capital's political circles, but also among the general population: authorities in Jilin province were forced to evacuate residents who felt the earth shake following the explosion. China strongly opposes the emergence of a new nuclear power at its borders, but does not seem ready for drastic action that could destabilize the situation in North Korea. In addition, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s public calls to China to cease conducting “business as usual” with North Korea compel Beijing to be careful in making their decisions, so as not to appear to be acting under pressure from Washington.

Although the administration of President Barack Obama greeted the news of the North Korean H-bomb test with skepticism, Pyongyang’s overt ambitions have caused concern in the United States. The U.S. has increased its naval and air presence near the Korean Peninsula. In addition, the test conducted by the DPRK led to the intensification of contacts between the United States, Japan and South Korea. On January 13 and 16 representatives of the foreign ministries of the three countries held two rounds of consultations in Seoul and Tokyo, after which they agreed to cooperate in seeking a strong and effective UN resolution and to deter North Korea from further provocations.

However relations within the “triangle” are not easy. Although all three parties condemned DPRK’s actions, the possibility of full trilateral cooperation between the United States and its Asian allies in the fields of defense and security remain limited. One of the reasons is the absence of a legal framework, which would be necessary for such cooperation. There are also problems regarding the relations between Japan and South Korea, strained by past stigmas and territorial disputes. In addition, the strengthening of Japan's military capabilities in Northeast Asia, even when aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions, could provoke unpredictable reactions on the part of neighboring countries.

Détente between Japan and South Korea, including an agreement between the governments on the sensitive issue of the so-called "Comfort Women,” reached in December 2015, suggests that the leaders are willing to resolve some disputes in the face of threats from North Korea.

We should probably expect the resumption of negotiations between Japan and South Korea following the conclusion of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Its signature was originally scheduled for 2012 but postponed due to negative public reactions in South Korea. In December 2014 a trilateral agreement was reached on the indirect exchange of information related to North Korea's missile and nuclear programs was reached between the United States, South Korea and Japan.

However, the effectiveness and efficiency of such exchanges via a third party remains contested. In the current circumstances GSOMIA is more likely to be ratified. In Japan, whose government supports expanding cooperation with South Korea, some experts are calling on the government to consider an agreement on defense exchanges, such as the one signed between Japan and Australia in 2010 (the Japan-Australia Acquisition and Cross -Servicing Agreement, ACSA).

Another important question that arises in relation to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs is the expansion of missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea. Tokyo started negotiations with the US on the deployment of missile defense systems on the archipelago in 1998, after the launch of the North Korean ballistic missile that flew over Japan’s territory. Now Japan has missile defense systems deployed on land and sea. However the potential deployment of missile defense systems in South Korea (namely the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, THAAD system) is still under consideration. The South Korean government, which is under pressure from the United States (to accept) and China (to refuse), was until recently reluctant to make any decision. However, after the latest provocations from North Korea, President Park Geun-hye decided to put the issue back on the table.

Given the complexity of the situation, the South Korean president's proposal of five-party talks is an important diplomatic move. Although experts have discussed the possibility of a five-party framework several times, officials refrained from voicing such proposals, advocating the idea of resolving the issue under the framework of the six-party talks, stalled since 2008 when Pyongyang walked out of the process.

The current proposal by Park Geun-hye marks a new stage in the discussion of the Korean problem. Not only do frozen negotiations do nothing to resolve North Korean nuclear and missile problem and to improve political and security situation in the region, but negative trends are gaining momentum. Pyongyang continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions. Mistrust remains among the other regional powers concerning the intentions of the negotiating parties. Amid increasing U.S.-Russia tensions, and mounting differences in approaches toward regional security between the United States and China – as well as Japan and China – there is a strong risk that North Korea may once again become a “buffer” state between Russia and China one the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. Such a development would be disastrous from every point of view: for inter-Korean dialogue and the prospects for the Korean reunification, for regional security and economic integration in Northeast Asia, for national development projects, including the modernization of the Russian Far East, and would result in reviving the Cold War atmosphere in the region, with North Korea being the sole beneficiary.

Hence, it is necessary for the five parties to discuss how they view peace and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, and how they intend to reconcile the primary and strategic priorities of the Korean people with the justified interests of the regional powers.

It will be difficult to implement Park Geun-hye’s proposal. The reactions of the various participants (not to mention North Korea) may be skeptical, or at least cautious. Beijing’s position will be decisive. However, Russia will also have to make an important diplomatic decision. The deadlock over North Korea's nuclear program speaks in favor of South Korean proposal. The format of dialogue put forward by Seoul could possibly be included in an arsenal of diplomatic solutions to the Korean problem.

The missile launch by the DPRK on February 7 was strongly condemned by all regional powers, as well as some European countries and the Secretary General of the UN. But ta decision on the issue remains to be made and the five countries must work out and present their common position soon.

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