By Fu Ying
The year 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the release of the September 19 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks in 2005 about the Korean peninsula nuclear issue. Although the peninsular situation has undergone a lot of changes in the past 15 years, the goals, principles and concepts set in the Joint Statement are still playing a significant guiding role today.
In February 2003, Secretary of State Powell of the administration of George W. Bush visited China trying to convince it into mediating the Korean nuclear issue. It was a new proposition at the time as the Bush administration was so embroiled in anti-terrorist wars that it needed China’s cooperation and help in Asia-Pacific security affairs. The Korean nuclear issue provided a new opportunity for Beijing and Washington to cooperate in major international issues.
Two years later, the September 19 Joint Statement was released at the second-stage meeting of the fourth round of six-party talks. In 2007, the third-stage meeting of the sixth round of the talks reached the February 13 Agreement, outlining the initial actions for the implementation of the Joint Statement.
As we look back now, that important progress could be made then was because the related parties reached a consensus on two matters of principle. First, they realized the need to avoid another war on the Korean peninsula. On this premise, all parties showed basic trust and were willing to remain at the negotiating table. Second, to make sure the negotiations could be sustained, the parties realized the need to find a compromise between their own bottom lines and the concerns shared by other countries.
The September 19 Joint Statement is important because it has not only specified the common goal of peninsular denuclearization and the common and separate obligations of each party, but also put in place the basic principle of "commitment for commitment, action for action". This is a valuable diplomatic legacy and the crystallization of collective wisdom. It has been the fundamental framework for handling the Korean nuclear issue even after the six-party talks came to a de facto halt.
Unfortunately, the consensus reached in the Joint Statement hasn’t been fully implemented in reality. The DPRK believed the US had failed to honor its commitment to providing energy assistance and didn’t abandon its hostile policies toward Pyongyang, while the US reckoned that Pyongyang had been secretly developing nuclear weapons. American intelligence agencies imposed sanctions on the DPRK for its so-called “overseas money laundering” and “missile part trafficking”. In the end, the six-party talks came to a de facto halt in 2010.
In retrospect, the deep-rooted reasons why the six-party talks came to a standstill fall on Washington’s reluctance to acknowledge Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns and its unwillingness to let go of its obsession with changing DPRK’s political system.
The global situation has changed dramatically since then, and it’s much harder to create favorable conditions for negotiations from nowhere today. One important change lies in the general atmosphere and the nature of China-US relations. The US is pushing hard for strategic competition between the two countries. Although the outcome could be anyone’s guess, the cooperative momentum between Beijing and Washington on major international and regional issues will definitely be affected.
However, I think things remain unchanged in two aspects. The first is that all parties are still committed to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and safeguarding peace and security in Northeast Asia. No one wants or dares to start war on the peninsula. It is said that in his early days in the White House, President Trump did consider resolving the issue by force, but eventually gave up the option after assessing its risks and consequences. The second is that DPRK needs a peaceful and secure external environment so that it can focus on developing the economy and improving people’s lives.
The Korean nuclear issue has been chronically trapped in a downward spiral of “nuclear test - sanction - dialogue - test again - sanction again”. On the other hand, it has also revealed no matter how pointed divergences are, dialogue always holds the key to resolving complicated international issues, and diplomacy always finds a way to unlock deadlocks.
The peninsular issue has dragged on for more than 60 years, so it’s impossible to resolve it any time soon. All parties need to show kindness, patience and perseverance and avoid throwing out demands that are impossible to become reality in the current stage. A certain leeway should be left to make every party feel comfortable and keep the process going forward. That would be a marvelous step forward. It is hoped that all parties can make efforts in parallel to promote peninsular denuclearization and establish a peace mechanism for it, so as to eventually set up a security frameworkmore inclusivein the region that accommodates and reasonably guarantees the security needs of all countries.
For China’s part, the six-party talks that have generated the important outcome of September 19 Joint Statement is an important platform where we exert our role as a constructive and responsible major country. It is a breakthrough in China’s efforts to mediate regional hot spots, carry out multilateral diplomacy, shape a secure surrounding and expand the cooperation with the US, and it offers much experience for future reference. The six-party talks haven’t been resumed yet and a relapse of Korean nuclear issue is still possible. As a direct stakeholder in the region, China cannot allow a war on the peninsula or give up the initiative in coordinating peninsular affairs.
(The author is director of the Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University)
Disclaimer: This article is originally published on thepaper.cn, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.