The six-party talks may have made a breakthrough but it’s a long road aheadAfter nearly four years, five rounds and at least five sub-phases of talks, it came down to a 16-hour stint around the negotiation table that ended in the early hours of February 13. The result of this particular episode in the six-party talks was a commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear development in exchange for aid and security guarantees.
At least, that was how it stood as China Economic Review went to press. If we have learned anything from these talks, it is to expect the unexpected.
Beijing deserves some credit for its role. In the angry aftermath of North Korea's nuclear test, it was China that called for a return to the negotiating table. And it was China that presented the plan that was accepted last month.
If anything, this reflects the unique position China occupies as an accepted arbiter to all concerned. It must not shy away from exploiting this over the coming months. Beijing may feel obliged to protect Pyongyang but this doesn't mean it can't crack the whip if Kim Jong-il reneges on his commitments.
After all, given the distrust that exists between the parties, there are myriad ways in which this deal could bite the dust.
As it stands, North Korea has agreed to close down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days. If it does this, and complies with further requirements, China, the US, Russia and South Korea – but not Japan – will provide around US$300 million in oil or economic aid. Washington also will take steps to unfreeze North Korean bank accounts and remove the nation from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
It is worth noting that this plan is similar to the agreement struck in September 2005 which fell apart a few months later. These negotiations are defined by tone and detail but they cover over some pretty deep ideological cracks. This means interpretation of the rules is as important as the rules themselves.
In addition to playing the role of Pyongyang's friendly police officer, Beijing could be more proactive. US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill observed that this breakthrough is just the first step in a long process. It could also signal an evolution in Sino-North Korean relations and, ultimately, influence the development path that the reclusive country follows.
It was over a year ago now that South Korean media talked of Kim making a below-the-radar visit to China. This trip supposedly included a tour of Guangdong manufacturing bases, the idea being that China was showing North Korea's leader how opening up to foreign industry can jumpstart an economy.
In this way, the onus is on Beijing not only to steer North Korea away from nuclear development but also to usher it onto the world stage. In the long run, there is as much potential gain for China's foreign policy as there is for North Korea's people.