::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
       February 27 2021
Joint Statement of Six-party Talks ?One small step forward towards Cooperation by Lee, Jung Chul
A joint statement on the North Korean nuclear issue was finally adopted 35 months after the second phase of the North Korean nuclear crisis broke out in October 2002. A great fuss was made about it in the media as if it heralded a new framework to replace the agreed framework signed in Geneva in 1994. But the optimism quickly turned out to be misplaced and, in fact, doubts about the validity of joint statement have been raised.

Nuclear Abandonment First or Light Water Reactor First?: The story Behind the Joint Statement

Throughout the whole process of negotiation, the sticking point in the 4th round of Six-party talks was the conflict between the North Korean assertion that they receive a light-water reactor in advance of returning to the NPT and the US insistence on the abandonment of all nuclear programs first before a light-water reactor would be provided.

Given the level of mistrust that has existed between the two parties, the resolution of this issue was never going to be easy and the depth of confrontation understandable. In addition, it is also easy to understand the dilemma that faced the other parties in the negotiations - South Korea, China and Russia. If they appeared to take sides with one or the other party in the dispute or make any suggestions that were deemed tactless or biased, they would have forfeited their roles as honest brokers.

The joint statement issued on this occasion, however, still contains a lot of anguish and room for possible confrontation, and so cannot be hailed as a decisive momentum in resolving the nuclear crisis. It is ironic, in terms of Northeast Asian cooperation, that a joint statement was announced in spite of ongoing conflicts in bilateral relations.

When the North Korean and the U.S. delegations returned to their respective homes, they again stated areas of disagreements between the two countries, which would seem to devalue the meaning of the joint statement. Indeed this was already known before the signing of the statement. This cooperation by mutual agreement, so to speak, was not noticeable to many people. Throughout the conference period, as the talks ran round in circles and led nowhere, participating countries decided to announce a bland and vague joint statement at the end and then later on focus on their own interpretation of the statement. (Sankei Shimbun, September 20)

Some people have expressed concerns that this is not a genuine act of cooperation between the countries but rather an unstable cohabitation, which was concocted for domestic policy reasons in each of the countries. This seems undeniable. However, in a climate where the fate of the international system is unclear and the current situation in Northeast Asia is unstable due to fears of a new cold war system, it is difficult to dismiss altogether the hope that the statement indicates that some groundwork has been laid at a preliminary level.

Stage of Commitment for Commitment and Conditions for Cooperation

Cooperation between nations premises an exchange of interests. To make it possible, there should be a clear understanding of what the interests are. Furthermore, the exchange of interests is easier to regulate when cooperation stretches across a multi-national system rather than having the meaning of reciprocity reduced to a one-to-one bilateral exchange.

That is why we put the emphasis on diffuse reciprocity. At the current six-party talks, the provisions for energy, investment, trade and friendly relations in exchange for North Korea's denuclearization, therefore, certainly raised the possibility of an exchange of interests.

If so, can cooperation be achieved if only interests are exchanged? From a neo-realism point of view of the international system, if the cooperation is to be possible, nothing is more crucial than the will of the hegemonic power. After all, the issue depends on whether the US wants to see the realization of a Northeast Asian collaboration project or not. During the process of formulating a Six-Party Talks statement on this occasion, the US was known to be reluctant to sign the joint document until the last minute. As was mentioned earlier, the US finally endorsed the joint statement on the condition that participants could express their own different interpretations afterwards. In the end a moment was achieved when the six nations arrived at an 80% level of cooperation. Even this had seemed highly unlikely due to the hostile US policy toward North Korea and it referring to North Korea as an 'Outpost of Tyranny.'

What remains now is to put the cooperation into effect. According to North Korea's interpretation, the present statement is only a pledge to identify and exchange the obligations and interests of all those concerned and therefore means a level of exchange of commitment for commitment. The next step is an exchange of action for action. At this level, countries will be able to decide the order and progress of exchanges and trade. It will not be easy, of course. The road will be long and winding with many hazards as each step is taken. But if the parties demonstrate again the experience and wisdom they gained from the talks this time, it seems that future efforts could be more successful than previous ones. The possibility of failure is always present but they should not give up in advance.

Giving Consent to South Korea's Role as Mediator.

The success of the joint statement is attributed to the outstanding efforts of South Korea and China. China has played a crucial role as the chair country of the Six-party Talks for the past years, and South Korea also played a vital role in helping the talks succeed this time. Unlike in the past, South Korea became one of the main actors this time and now regards itself as a mediator, which can explain in good faith the North Korean position and convey the requests of international community to North Korea. It was also an important moment because this new mediating role was acknowledged and approved of by the other parties for the first time.

For how long can South Korea maintain this mediating role? This will be a decisive variable in regulating cooperation and initiating actions at the action level in the future. The trust building process and mechanisms that helped achieve balance and parity between the Warsaw Pact and NATO Alliance under the auspices of the Helsinki Agreement in the Cold War era will be difficult to realize on the Korean Peninsula where the Cold War has dissolved in an asymmetric manner. Only when South Korea communicates to North Korea its sincerity in not pursuing advantages or opportunities stemming from the current disparity or imbalance in power relations, will it serve as a true conduit for cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

Game Logic and Survival Logic

Already some political observers in Washington can be heard saying that the successful outcome of the talks this time was due to concessions made by either the U.S. or N. Korea - depending on which pundit you listen to, and whoever made the concession was the "loser.?" This kind of logic may be familiar to those who know about game theory but on the Korean peninsula where the very real threat of a security crisis or war is all too possible, such reasoning seems trivial as there are only losers when situations cannot be resolved peacefully and end in war.

Now we are at the stage when the first act towards cooperation must take place. In these acts of cooperation there are no "winners?" or "losers.?" Rather we make common cause for life and prosperity and hope all peoples will benefit from such actions.

***Lee, Jung Chul (Senior Fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute)
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