Since taking office just over a year ago, U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed a robust willingness to address the North Korean nuclear issue through talks. He has also indicated it would be possible for both countries to at last discuss normalizing relations.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration has since failed to come up with an effective mechanism to persuade the North Koreans to return to the talks. During his visit to Pyongyang between December 8 and 10 last year, Stephen Bosworth, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, exchanged views with North Korean officials on the six-party talks as well as U.S.-North Korea relations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Bosworth's mission had proven "quite positive"—despite the fact that neither side could agree on a date at which the six-party talks could restart.
Media reports indicated that Bosworth hand-delivered a confidential letter from Obama to the North Korean top leader Kim Jong Il. It remains unclear whether the letter had prompted North Korea to make its latest move. But the move was clearly not what Washington had expected.
So far, the Obama administration has yet to develop a viable approach toward resolving nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, it has demonstrated a tendency to regard North Korea's denuclearization as a precondition to any and all forms of progress.
With regard to specific issues, however, the United States faces other challenges, too. For instance, it recently raised concerns over South Korea's human rights record—a move that could prevent North Korea from rejoining the six-party talks.
It is thus imperative the United States fully engage itself in the resumption of the six-party talks.
While reinforcing the U.S. view, South Korea clearly has its own agenda. In the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity issued in 2007, state leaders of South Korea and North Korea pledged trilateral and four-party summits to formally put an end to the Korean War.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, however, has largely abandoned his predecessor Roh Moo Hyun's policy toward North Korea since taking office in 2008. Consequently, the declaration has been shelved, leaving Seoul reluctant to discuss the prospects of a peace treaty.
North Korea's recent calls for a peace treaty have since sparked concerns among South Koreans that Pyongyang might further delay its denuclearization process under the pretext of these peace talks.
South Korea's interpretation of the clause in the September 19 Joint Statement that includes language stating that "the parties will negotiate a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum" is, in particular, worth noting. To Seoul, that means precisely that the parties will carry out peace talks only after progress is made toward denuclearization.
In fact, Lee's drastic changes regarding Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang are among the factors that led to the nuclear issue stalemate to begin with. In an effort to ease tensions, Lee coined the concept of a "Grand Bargain" in September 2009, but declined to offer specifics.
But some sources say the program mainly followed Lee's vision of a South Korea willing to provide economic assistance to help North Korea to achieve $3,000 in per capita income—if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons and offers greater transparency.
This purported package solution, however, gives no mention to peace talks. Had Lee emphasized peace talks instead of openness and transparency, rather, his proposal might prove to be more acceptable to North Korea.
Under the current circumstances, moreover, even if the six-party talks were to restart, South Korea's role would be dubious.
North Korea's recent proposal has underscored the fact that the six-party talks that seek a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula are not expected to dodge the security issue. Meanwhile, the parties must not regard denuclearization and security guarantees for North Korea as mutually exclusive goals. Instead, they must try to address them side by side.
The author is an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies