Skip to main content

Just over a decade ago, the Six Party Talks secured a promise that North Korea would abandon nuclear weapons. With Kim Jong-un now threatening to launch an intercontinental missile, Nathan VanderKlippe asked those who sat down with Pyongyang in 2005 to offer frank assessments on a grim situation

An undated picture released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on March 7, 2017, shows the launch of four ballistic missiles during a military drill. Pyongyang’s missile tests have escalated tensions in the region as the Hermit Kingdom boasts it is coming closer to developing nuclear-capable missiles that can reach American soil.

There was a time, not so long ago, that the world looked at North Korea and dared to breathe a sigh of relief.

In June of 2007, Washington gave about $25-million (U.S.) in frozen regime funds back to Pyongyang, following a landmark deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. A month later, a team of International Atomic Energy Agency monitors landed in the isolated Asian nation to verify that it had, as promised, shut down its nuclear reactor.

By December, George W. Bush, who once ridiculed Kim Jong-il as a "pygmy" and "tyrant," had signed a remarkably civil letter that addressed the North Korean leader as "Dear Mr. Chairman."

A decade later, the furious escalation in tensions around North Korean missile and nuclear tests makes such civility seem almost unthinkable. But do past breakthroughs offer any hope for a more peaceful future?

Underlying what looked like a remarkable chance for peace in the mid-2000s were the Six Party Talks, which took two years from their launch in 2003 to produce a joint statement in which Pyongyang said it "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons," while the U.S. pledged it had "no intention to attack or invade" North Korea. Both sides said they would "exist peacefully together." The two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan all came together to hash out the framework for a solution – and finally, it seemed, decades of tensions with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea calls itself, could dissipate.

Then the agreement fell into a muddle of mutual recriminations followed by an alarmingly quick development of new weapons technology by North Korea that has led to the crisis today: a pariah state that appears on the verge of its sixth nuclear test and is closing in on the ability to deliver a nuclear-tipped missile to the continental U.S. Even normally staid China has warned that war appears terrifyingly close at hand.

Is there a way, again, out of this mess? The Globe spoke with some of the most authoritative voices on North Korea in four countries: people who negotiated at the Six Party talks, helped draft the 2005 agreement and now provide scholarly support to their country's policies. Their comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Christopher Hill, shown in 2008, headed the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks. MICHAEL BUHOLZER/REUTERS

Song Min-soon, shown in 2007, was the South Korean chief negotiator at the talks. AHN YOUNG-JOON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alexander Lukin is director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Co-operation Organization Studies. SHANGHAI CO-OPERATION ORGANIZATION

Yang Xiyu drafted the Six Party Talks joint statement in 2005. YOUTUBE/UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA

North Korea has repeatedly proved an ability to detonate nuclear devices. Can it still be expected to abandon its nuclear program, or disarm?

Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks:

They have proved a capacity to detonate nuclear devices underground. They have never, to our knowledge, taken one of these devices, miniaturized it and made it into a warhead, nor have they ever tried to put the warhead on a missile and tried to deliver the warhead. So they have a long way to go in terms of a deliverable nuclear weapon. But I don't think it's to be ruled out that they could get there somewhere in the next four years. Whereupon President Trump will have some explaining to do to the American people why, on his watch, he allowed a new threat to the U.S.

I don't think they have indicated any interest in negotiating away their nuclear weapons. If anything, they have embraced them even more closely than they did before. I think this has to do with the impetuous leader they have. So it's not a pretty picture.

Song Min-soon, former South Korea national security adviser and Six Party Talks chief negotiator:

The 2005 joint statement envisaged the abandonment of all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs, if any, in North Korea. So at that time we already adopted a catch-all clause in case North Korea had nuclear weapons – that they were to be abandoned. Now the problem is how to bring North Korea back to talks based on the promises we had in that joint statement. And I think it's up to what we can offer. They demand the abolition of all hostile intent and threats toward them. We have to characterize what threats they are talking about, and how to get rid of them.

Alexander Lukin, director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Co-operation Organization Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

North Korea won't give up nuclear weapons unless you somehow destroy it completely, or it collapses. To destroy it is impossible, and this is obviously a bluff from the United States. Because you cannot really strike its facilities, since that will start a terrible mess. China will probably protect North Korea, and then there will be a serious conflict, possibly nuclear.

But you also cannot make any dictator reject nuclear weapons, because they understand that if they do it, like [Saddam] Hussein or [Moammar] Gadhafi, they are going to be punished for that. [Both leaders, unpopular in Washington, were taken down by U.S. forces, creating worry that the same will happen to North Korea's Kim Jong-un if he is not protected by nuclear weapons].

Yang Xiyu, senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing and drafter of the 2005 Six Party Talks joint statement:

North Korea indeed has severe security concerns because of the U.S. and South Korean military pressures or threats. But the more severe and tangible threat to the North Korean regime is the sustainability of their economy. That is the basis for the regime's stability and survival.

So we need to maintain existing sanctions measures. But we also need to make greater efforts to create an environment under which North Korea has confidence, so that even without nuclear weapons they see no problem with their national security. That's the key for a peaceful solution.

South Korean protesters hold pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and anti-North Korean banners during a rally near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on July 8, 2006.

What sort of preconditions should there be before talks can begin – both for North Korea and for other countries?

Song Min-soon: North Korea has to reiterate clearly that they intend to abandon all their nuclear weapons if their conditions are met. The United States, South Korea, Japan and others must also commit to implement what was promised in the joint statement from 2005. We don't need to rearrange all of those commitments – they can be a good platform for new talks.

Christopher Hill: If North Korea said, "We want to get back to talks and get back to things we've already agreed to," I think we could find a route forward that wasn't humiliating. But they doubt our resolve, they doubt South Korea's resolve, they doubt China's resolve. Until they are convinced that these three countries are of considerable resolve, then I don't think they will agree to any talks on the basis of denuclearization.

They have talked about the idea of talking to the U.S. on the basis of one nuclear power to another, sort of like the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But I don't think anyone in Washington is prepared to accept that, because it would usually involve some aspect of them limiting, but not eliminating, their nuclear program in return for which the U.S. stops having exercises with the [South] Korean military.

Yang Xiyu: North Korea has repeatedly said that if the U.S. gives up its hostile policy against the DPRK, there would no reason for them to keep even a single nuclear weapon. But we have never had a clear definition of what they see as "hostile policy." Diplomatically, they should elaborate what they want. Then at least all of the related parties can seriously bargain over that.

What would a long-term solution look like?

Alexander Lukin: A solution was possible near the end of the 1990s. But the United States has shown that it's an unreliable partner. They have this strange custom of changing presidents, for example. So you agree with one president and then the next one says, I don't know anything. And the U.S. agrees to things but never delivers. So I think the North Koreans have decided that it's useless. The only way this conflict is going to be solved is when the North Korean regime collapses. But we don't know when that will happen – and if it does, it may be a terrible mess.

Song Min-soon: A peace treaty is necessary, but between whom? In my view it should constitute two sets of normalization of relations: between the United States and North Korea, and in inter-Korean relations, too. Based on those terms and formalities, we can have a peace treaty. But I don't know whether U.S. politics would allow it.

Christopher Hill: It would include a peace treaty, it would include assurances by the U.S. of no intention to attack. The problem is North Koreans have no interest in collective security, and no interest in any international guarantees.

But the idea that they can maintain nuclear weapons in a place like northeast Asia is a very dangerous concept. If it's security they want, there are plenty of ways to assure that. But I think what they really want is for the U.S. to leave South Korea. And I think they feel that nuclear weapons could be a part of an eventual process to decouple the U.S. from its ally. I think that's the problem right now.

Yang Xiyu: A future peaceful regime should be built up by a set of agreements rather than a single peace treaty. There should be a trilateral peace treaty between North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. – and another treaty agreement between China and the U.S., because those countries were the major players in the [Korean] war. A treaty between them would guarantee a future reliable peace for the peninsula. The U.S. and China should also sign a document to guarantee some fundamental things for the peninsula, including a pledge to support and not intervene in the independent peaceful reunification between the two Koreas.

Christopher Hill, left, shakes hands with North Korean chief negotiator Kim Gye-gwan as South Korean deputy foreign minister Song Min-soon, middle, looks on at the close of talks over North Korea’s nuclear crisis at the Diaoyutai state guest house in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005.

How should other nations employ sanctions or threats of military strikes – if at all – to persuade North Korea to the negotiating table?

Song Min-soon: I don't think either military threats or the threat of economic sanctions can bring North Korea to the negotiating table, unless China is ready to economically and socially strangulate the North Korean region. But I don't think China will be ready to do that under any circumstances in the foreseeable future. So under those circumstances, what kind of sanctions can be effective?

Alexander Lukin: Military threats are useless – because everyone knows it's a bluff, and the North Koreans also know it. The only thing they can be scared of is a real united front against them, if the U.S., China, Russia and possibly Japan really agree on some united action. But I don't think that's possible. What China wants to do is persuade North Korea to have some kind of China-style reforms. But the North Koreans understand that if they do that, they have to open their borders, and then they are going to collapse.

Christopher Hill: I don't think any solution will ever be arrived at without Chinese assent. So I think we have to find a common language with the Chinese. We need to make sure there's no perception in China that they are losers and we are the winners in a solution on North Korea. At the same time, though, I think it's important that we not talk to the Chinese in a way that suggests that we don't care about the South Koreans. After all – it's their peninsula.

All of this requires some rather deft diplomacy.

Yang Xiyu: Military strikes are not useful to persuade North Korea back to the table. The more threats, the more necessity for Pyongyang to get more nuclear weapons. So stop. Stop anything provocative.

At some point, North Korea will have to make a choice between a bright future with reliable security, or a dark future with an unpredictable and fragile security – an even more dangerous environment. During the past two decades, with the increasing nuclear buildup by North Korea, their external security environment has gotten worse and worse. So the logic of nuclear weapons for security is totally wrong for them. Every step of progress in nuclear and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles eans a loss of economic opportunity.

But if they make a right choice toward denuclearization, they will gain removal of all international sanctions and the international community's business and help in bringing a prosperous future.

So how do you build up the kind of trust it will take to get people talking?

Song Min-soon: Trust is based on action, not on rhetoric or words – and it can be accumulated from small steps to larger steps. It could start with a small lifting of some portion of the sanctions on North Korea, and North Korea simultaneously suspending some part of their nuclear and missile activities. And small symbolic steps can develop into more trust-building steps.

Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.