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Will the five-powers coalition of the six-party talks hold together?

Updated On: Oct 20, 2006

North Korea continues to give the other six-party talks members a run for their money.

As the secretive state prepares for a second nuclear test, three factors have emerged as possible points of fission amongst the other five powers of the six-party talks. The first factor is China’s apparent reluctance to implement measures made mandatory by the UN economic sanctions. However, China took a proactive stance in dispelling such perceptions when it erected barbed wires along its borders with North Korea at Dandong and stepped up inspections of vehicles in and out of North Korea.

The second challenge that surfaced to pose some difficulties for the East Asian coalition facing North Korea was talk about Japan having its own nuclear bomb. The cabinet secretary and the foreign minister of Japan had both raised the possibility of debating about Japan’s own nuke possession. Again, this factor, which could have been a possible rupture between Japan and China/South Korea, died down when PM Shinzo Abe put an end to the talk in media releases while Foreign Minister Taro Aso assured Washington that there were no such plans on the table. In return, Japan was rewarded by American assurances that it would be protected by US military forces if under attack from North Korea.

The third challenge which possibly poses the greatest potential for disruption is a second nuclear test by North Korea. The less than one kiloton yield of the first bomb was seen as a failure by experts in the international community despite US surveillance confirming the explosion of a plutonium-based device. Such loss of face will not do for North KoreaChina has sent top envoys Tang Jiaxuan (just back from the States) and Wu Dawei (a high profile diplomat that specialized in Japanmatters) to dissuade the Stalinist regime from persisting with a second test. The next time Pyongyang tests the bomb, even China may not be sufficiently strong to shield North Korea from an intensification of naval blockades or interdictions of its vessels by US/Japan forces or other hardline measures.

Despite overcoming the above challenges in this initial stage of UN resolution implementation, there are signs that North Korea’s East Asian neighbours still require time to work together closer. For example, even though China has stepped up inspection along its borders with North Korea, it will not participate in interdiction which it interprets as an activity outside the purview of the UN sanctions. China is still wary of Japan’s participation in naval interdiction, a muscular display of Japanese seapower which most are aware ranked amongst the top three in the world. Interdictions have the potential to flare up into actual conflicts or naval combat, forcing Japan to open fire in self-defense.

On a macro scale, North Korea will test Sino-Japanese relations after the delicately-arranged Abe/Hu reconciliation. The still fragile relations between the two countries will be simultaneously tested by other issues such as the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by 84 members of the Diet – an act considered uncomfortable by Beijing but quietly acceptable as long as Japan’s top leaders (the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Cabinet Secretary) keeps off the controversial shrine. Just as North Korea swaggers to obtain international recognition of its newfound nuclear status, China and Japan have their own idiosyncratic desires for international status and prestige as well.     

Sources:

China may have sent envoys to North Korea (Straits Times, 19 October 2006)

Japan’s lawmakers pray at Yasukuni (Straits Times, 19 October 2006)

North Korean Fuel Identified as Plutonium (NY Times, 17 October 2006)

DPRK lashes out at UNSC resolution (People’s Daily 18 October 2006)

N. Korea apparently preparing nuke test (AP, 18 October 2006)

UN resolution is 'firm, appropriate' (People’s Daily, 16 October 2006)

Questions Grow Over U.N. Curbs on North Korea (NY Times, 16 October 2006)

Security Council Backs Sanctions on North Korea (NY Times, 15 October 2006)

Roundup: International community welcomes UN resolution against DPRK (People’s Daily, 15 October 2006)