Time to give up on six-party talks?

Time to give up on six-party talks?

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is resisting Beijing’s call to respond to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula by launching another round of the six-party talks. The administration is wise to resist the temptation to put the short-term desire to respond to heightened tensions ahead of the long-term need to resolve the North Korean problem once and for all.

As Mike Green explained, this is a temptation to which previous Administrations, including the Bush administration, fell prey. When all of the options look bad, sitting down and talking with North Korea can seem, on the surface at least, to be a least-bad way of "doing something." But it has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work this time.

The theory behind the six-party talks was plausible, and many people (including myself) endorsed the approach as a way of breaking a regional impasse that derived from several structural conditions.

  • Condition 1: North Korea favors regime preservation above all else and viewed nuclear weapons as its best guarantor of regime survival. Only if its possession of nuclear weapons could be seen as threatening its own survival is it plausible that the regime would agree to an adequate diplomatic solution.
  • Condition 2: Given decades of economic sanctions, U.S. non-military leverage over North Korea is limited. Not zero, as we found out when we started deploying new financial sanctions, but substantially less than the leverage China wielded. Only if we can get China to wield that leverage would North Korea begin to feel sufficient pressure that might alter condition one.
  • Condition 3: The United States and China have fundamentally different preference orderings regarding the various possible outcomes. While both might prefer a nuclear-free peninsula above all, China next prefers living with a North Korea with nuclear weapons to living next door to a collapsed North Korean regime. The United States, by contrast, clearly prefers North Korean regime collapse to living with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Nothing either side can say to the other will change this preference ranking. Only if other costs and benefits are applied can the strategic calculus change.
  • Condition 4: Given that the status quo trajectory defaults in its favor (i.e., reinforces condition three), China is happy to free-ride off of U.S. diplomatic efforts, even fruitless efforts. Only if China has more of a stake in the success of the diplomacy will they be likely to shoulder any actual burden.

The six-party talks were a plausible way to change these conditions. The idea was to give China an equity stake in the success of the non-proliferation effort. As host and co-leader, failure of the six-party talks would become China’s failure. North Korea’s belligerence would, of necessity, be directed at all of the six-party members, including China. Few people thought the six-party talks would by themselves yield a diplomatic solution. More people, myself included, thought that the collapse of the six-party talks, if demonstrably North Korea’s fault and demonstrably China’s problem, might adjust the incentives sufficiently to elicit more responsible Chinese leadership on the security issue.

That theory was tested and found wanting. As expected, North Korea repeatedly demonstrated bad faith. Yet the hoped-for response from China never materialized. Instead of ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, China has responded to North Korean belligerence with successive rounds of concessions and cover-ups. The situation rather resembles a weak parent seeking to excuse the public misbehavior of a spoiled child.

The Obama administration is wise not to rush in to rescue China from this latest embarrassment, and it is wise not to make other concessions that China is demanding — for instance, restricting U.S. naval activity in the Yellow Sea. Instead, the United States should take visible steps to deepen cooperation with our regional treaty allies. And we should insist that China take similarly responsible steps to reign in North Korea.

The six-party talks only make sense if China is willing to shoulder its regional security responsibilities. Until that is demonstrated, there is not much to talk about.