Top U.S. nuclear envoy Glyn Davies arrived in Seoul Monday as part of a trip that also takes in China and Japan to gauge the positions of members of the six-party talks aiming to denuclearize North Korea. The U.S. and China are at considerable odds over the question of resuming the six-party talks, which hit the rocks more than five years ago.
In talks with U.S. President Barack Obama last Friday at the G20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced hopes to resume the six-party talks "soon." But in a press briefing later, a White House official said the U.S. does not "support resumption of talks simply for the sake of a resumption of talks." Beijing had a tough time convincing Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table after its third nuclear test in February, so now of course it wants the six-party talks to resume as soon as possible, lest any delays spur more provocations from North Korea.
But the U.S. feels that the talks cannot resume unless North Korea takes voluntary steps toward denuclearization and demonstrates that it is serious. Washington wants Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and agree to let IAEA inspectors back in. Only then can it return to the talks. North Korea has yet to respond to this demand.
Resuming the six-party talks now, as China wants, carries the risk of weakening sanctions against North Korea and giving Pyongyang more time to develop nuclear weapons. The North conducted its first nuclear test back in 2006 even as the six-party talks were in progress. If South Korea, the U.S, China, Japan and Russia repeat their past mistakes, the six-party talks could end up completely toothless.
China believes the U.S. is no longer interested in the six-party talks at all because the Obama administration’s focus is on the Syrian crisis and the U.S. economic recovery. Such concerns are also felt here in Seoul. But rather than publicly exhibiting their discord, the U.S. and China must first narrow their differences discreetly. Only when the U.S. and China are on the same page can the six-party talks truly serve their purpose of convincing the North to scrap its nuclear weapons. The bigger the gap between the U.S. and China, the greater the chances of another North Korean provocation.