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Six-Party Talks: Japan may have to lump it

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COMMENTS

15 October 2008 12:41

Guest blogger: Brendan Taylor is a lecturer in the Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence program, ANU.

It’s not often I disagree with my good friend Malcolm Cook. But his latest post oversells the Six-Party Talks, in my view. Malcolm argues that the talks were well placed to achieve five goals (my comments in italics):

  1. Preclude bilateral talks with Pyongyang: But US-North Korea negotiations were increasingly occurring on the sidelines of the Six-Party Talks. Hence they have fuelled bilateralism, not precluded it.
  2. Stronger US communication and coordination with other five parties: The Six-Party Talks have just as often exposed divisions and a lack of coordination, particularly between the US and Japan over the abductions issue.
  3. Concerted pressure on Pyongyang from the US and other negotiating parties: The ‘on again-off again’ history of the Six-Party Talks is hardly consistent with concerted pressure.
  4. Reassert the US’s central constructive security role in Northeast Asia: The Six-Party Talks have exposed how much Washington increasingly needs Beijing to get anything done in Northeast Asia.
  5. Stop North Korea going nuclear: The Six-Party Talks have already failed to prevent that outcome.

Malcolm is also unduly harsh in his criticism of the Bush Administration. Keep in mind here the timing of Christopher Hill’s latest bilateral negotiations. There’s been much speculation lately over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. Given this uncertainty, and with the Six-Party Talks in suspended animation, the US would have been criticised for sitting on its hands if North Korea upped the ante in coming weeks by, for instance, conducing another nuclear test.

We also shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that alienating allies is always a bad thing. Remember the 1994 Agreed Framework? Seoul and Tokyo were both cut out of negotiating this deal, even though they footed the bill for implementing it. Sure, it wasn’t a perfect agreement. But it arguably remains the most successful diplomatic effort of the protracted North Korean nuclear crisis. Within a similar space of time, it certainly produced more in terms of substantive outcomes than the Six-Party Talks have.

Perhaps we also need to move more imaginatively beyond the tired old bilateral/multilateral debate. I’m attracted to the idea of a trilateral China-North Korea-US mechanism as an alternative to the Six-Party Talks. The Chinese, after all, played an important behind the scenes role in setting up the Agreed Framework. The Six-Party Talks themselves started as a China-North Korea-US three-way. And it is separate meetings involving these players which have reportedly got the Six-Party Talks going almost every time they have stalled.

Tokyo will not be fond of this idea. But peace in Asia is ultimately contingent upon the ability of Beijing and Washington to get along, not Tokyo and Washington. If the region’s hopes for a peaceful ‘Asian century’ are to be realised – and as Japan’s own economic and strategic weight gradually diminishes – I’d argue that Tokyo can increasingly expect more of the same and that they may just have to learn to live with it.

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