BY JOE WEBSTER
In 2003, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States initiated the Six Party Talks in order to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The talks stalled in 2009 after Pyongyang walked away from negotiations. Various parties have tried to restart the negotiations, but North Korean recalcitrance has prevented substantive progress on the issue. Restarting the talks could provide significant benefits for all sides.
North Korea’s isolation imposes major costs to all parties. Due to the North’s autarky, South Korea has essentially become an island nation; Chinese exporters and railroad manufacturers suffer; Russia faces greater difficulties in connecting its Far East with export markets in Japan, South Korea, and beyond; and Japan, the United States, and South Korea pay high security costs. Moreover, the possibility of a North Korean regime collapse hangs over the region’s economy like the sword of Damocles.
Economic opening in North Korea could reduce the costs and risks of reunification. It could also provide economic benefits to the parties while enabling the powers to build habits of cooperation.
There is much warranted pessimism about what the talks can achieve. However, the risks of inaction are high. The North Korean regime has been able to maintain power for seventy years yet is seemingly forever verging on collapse. The near-total opacity of its system makes preparation for and prediction of regime collapse extraordinarily difficult. Meanwhile, the benefits of successful talks are potentially enormous. North Korean economic development is an issue where all parties have convergent – not identical but convergent – interests. All sides benefit from a functional North Korean economy. No one benefits from an unstable North Korea constantly teetering on collapse.
How can North Korea be induced to return to the negotiating table? The answer is unclear to this author, but the peninsula’s current situation is beneficial for none and harmful to all. All sides have an interest in promoting economic development on the peninsula. Any issues involving North Korea are, of course, extraordinarily challenging ones. Restarting the talks will require creative intellectual effort and cooperation from all sides.