Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Ten years after the start of the Six-Party Talks, which has been suspended since 2008, the diplomatic pace has recently quickened to explore the possibility of pursuing a new multilateral initiative to address the North Korean nuclear challenge.
Some have called this a misguided idea, enumerating the faults of the previous initiative, the impact of subsequent nuclear tests, and the unacceptable North Korean ambition to be acknowledged as a nuclear-weapon state.
The context for this diplomacy has changed since the talks broke down. After elections in the US, South Korea, and Japan, a change of leadership in China, and the smooth succession in North Korea from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, there is a significantly different cocktail of leadership interests and freedom to pursue new opportunities to change the status quo.
Some 60 years since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed that has framed the ongoing standoff on the Korean Peninsula, the Northeast Asian regional economic and security context has also changed dramatically. Now it is the time for all countries concerned to look to the future, not be hung up on the past.
What North Korea needs is a vision of a viable future that others will support and help secure. Fundamentally, this vision has to be shaped by inter-Korean dialogue and building a relationship that can hold to a long-term course and weather internal political storms on both sides of the border.
A reframed Six-Party Talks process can reinforce the primacy of inter-Korean relationship building and define a new international support framework that can help it succeed. This needs to be grounded in shared interests in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and political will to address long-standing issues that can lead to normalization of relations with the US and Japan and integration of North Korea into the international community.
The signature achievement of the Six-Party Talks was the signing of the 9.19 Joint Statement in 2005. While North Korea revoked its endorsement of the Joint Statement earlier this year when it declared that it would pursue being a nuclear state together with economic development, any effort to revitalize multilateral talks will require North Korea to modify its position and accept the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula as a strategic objective it can share with the other parties.
A good start point for reframing the talks would be reaffirmation of the Joint Statement and willingness to focus initial discussions on ways to strengthen it.
Economic cooperation is one way to strengthen the Joint Statement. What North Korea needs are not just inducements to make political concessions, but a genuine commitment to assist in retooling the economic system to more fully embrace the role of markets that are now a reality both inside North Korean and in its external trade and investment promotion.
Expanding and diversifying trade and attracting foreign investment will require not only a political environment that supports North Korea's economic development, but also building capacity for economic management and institutions that will allow North Korea to participate successfully in the regional and global economies.
In the late 1980s Vietnam made critical political choices to pursue reform of its poorly performing economic system, improve political relations with the international community, and downsizing the army. The result has been a remarkable process of economic growth, social development, and integration in regional and global affairs. Today, North Korea faces similar choices.
A revitalized and reframed Six-Party Talks process or some similar forum for multilateral dialogue could provide the opportunity both to build confidence that charting a new course for North Korea can succeed, and to provide the framework of commitments that can give this substance.
South Korea under the leadership of Park Geun-hye has pointed the way through the adoption of a "trust-politik" policy. The question is whether this could be a platform for complementary efforts on the multilateral stage. North Korea is at a critical juncture and the choices it makes now will determine whether the efforts to reframe the Six-Party Talks will be folly or lead to a new phase of cooperation.
The author is chair of the DPRK Economic Forum at the US-Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Committee on North Korea. firstname.lastname@example.org