The six-party talks over North Korea’s denuclearization resumed Wednesday, July 18, amid real grounds for cautious optimism. The agreement reached in February 2007 has held despite some delays in implementation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that the DPRK has shut down the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Russia, like its negotiating partners, has welcomed these trends and expressed cautious optimism about the future of the talks (RIA-Novosti, Itar-Tass, July 15; Interfax, July 16). For example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that he “wouldn’t make any complaints about North Korea” (Russia and CIS Interfax Diplomatic Panorama, July 11). Russia’s role in facilitating this progress by serving as the transfer agent for North Korea to receive its formerly frozen accounts in Macao also helped bring this process forward and demonstrate that everyone was acting in good faith (Itar-Tass, July 15).
Nevertheless, some Russian officials like Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, could not resist the temptation to shoot arrows at the United States, saying that essentially Washington had just settled for what President Bill Clinton had previously accepted and is implicitly to blame for the recent delay (Interfax, July 15). At the same time, Russia has evidently decided to push the six-party conference to faster action along the lines of the February 13, 2007, accord. Thus its delegate to the talks, ambassador Vladimir Rakhmanin, advocates synchronizing the work of both the six-party format (the ambassadors meetings and working groups on specific issues) with bilateral talks, mainly between Washington and Pyongyang, in order to make all these tracks function more or less simultaneously (Interfax, July 16).
Similarly the Russian Foreign Ministry called for an action plan acceptable to all with clear deadlines, volumes, and procedures for the “declaration of North Korea’s nuclear programs.” Furthermore, “The next stage should involve qualitative progress to the implementation of the political component of the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, and the February package.” Loosely translated, this means U.S. security guarantees for — and perhaps recognition of — North Korea and the settlement of North Korea’s relations with Washington and Tokyo. The Ministry’s statement also took a backhanded swipe at Washington for supposedly holding up the transfer of the frozen funds back to North Korea (Russian and CIS General Newswire, July 17).
The Russian Foreign Ministry also wants to make progress toward North Korea regarding denuclearization irreversible, in order to improve the overall situation in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia (RIA-Novosti, July 17). Rakhmanin offered the assistance of Russian experts in phasing out North Korean nuclear sites as part of this denuclearization and security process (Russia and CIS General Newswire, July 17). He also commented favorably on North Korea’s businesslike attitude and announced Moscow’s readiness to implement the previously reached agreements and to not table any new demands while sticking to a course of “action and reaction” (RIA-Novosti, July 18).
Russia’s expressions of cautious optimism and its stated readiness to be flexible and patient in pursuit of its goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula tracks well with the apparent relative moderation of Pyongyang’s approach and the equally cautious optimism voiced by the other four members of the negotiations (United States, Japan, China, and South Korea) as they resumed this week (RIA-Novosti, July 16, 18).
Indeed, on July 19 Rakhmanin announced that North Korea had said it would deactivate all its nuclear facilities as a step towards denuclearization, a process that takes from six months to a year. At the same time, he also said that experts from all six parties could meet in Moscow to begin discussions for the working group on Northeast Asian security established by the February accord (RIA-Novosti, July 19). He also indicated that he hopes this will be or become a meeting at the foreign ministerial level (Interfax, July 19).
Although so far the February 13, 2007, agreement has been implemented, with South Korea providing oil and energy for North Korea in return for shutting down the reactors and with the United States returning the frozen funds to Pyongyang, it is likely that the ensuing round of negotiations will be a time-consuming one, as the parties grapple with issues of a permanent peace mechanism for the Korean peninsula, a verification regime that is both effective and acceptable to all, and even more with the idea of using the six-party forum as the basis for a broader Northeast Asian security framework. Therefore, only time will tell if this February agreement can go further or if it will fall victim to the growing U.S.-Russian tensions about missile defense and arms control.