China urges a reboot of Six Party Talks

A new series of discussions, the first since 2009, could address the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear programme.

China remained committed to the Six-Party Talks and to involving all parties, writes Stanzel [Reuters]

In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged China’s five fellow participants of the Six-Party Talks to restart negotiations with North Korea.

The Six-Party Talks, which were launched in 2003, include China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States in negotiations with North Korea around the termination of its nuclear programme.

Time and again, the talks stopped and were relaunched, until eventually collapsing completely in 2009, after a North Korean satellite launch prompted the UN Security Council to expand sanctions on North Korean firms.

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Ever since, China has been attempting to reconvene the talks but has failed as the other parties (mainly the US) do not wish to resume negotiations without imposing preconditions on North Korea.

When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, hopes rose again that the son would be more willing to re-engage in negotiations. Those who had this hope were disappointed soon.

In 2012, Kim oversaw nuclear and missile tests to which the UN responded by broadening sanctions against North Korea. He threatened nuclear strikes against both the US and South Korea in 2013, and tested again ballistic missiles in 2014.

Pyongyang’s actions that are both aggressive and destabilising have increasingly frustrated and infuriated Beijing, as any larger crisis on the peninsula would quickly involve China.

Therefore, China remained committed to the Six-Party Talks and to involving all parties. Beginning of 2014,
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea before North Korea the first time, and several visits of Chinese officials to Pyongyang and Seoul followed, attempting to resume the talks.

As China will be one of the immediately affected countries, the Six-Party Talks might be the last resort to keep Pyongyang in check. In particular, since it became apparent that North Korea’s new leadership seeks to weaken China’s control and influence in the north.

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China is understood to be pressuring the regime by limiting exports and assistance, but the apparently unpredictable young leader in Pyongyang seems to have little concern for his only ally.

Meanwhile, Kim is seeking alternative allies. Although Russia too is concerned over North Korea’s nuclear programme, both countries have taken first but evident steps towards an improvement of both countries’ relations since the Ukraine crisis.

For Russia, North Korea is a convenient ally, and for North Korea, which needs all the support it can get, it’s a lucky turn of events: Besides more frequent high-level visits, Russia cancelled most of North Korea’s $11bn debt last year.

Earlier this year, India too was signalling a wish to enhance relations with North Korea. In April, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong went on a three-day trip to India marking the first high-level visit since 2009 and the first visit of a North Korean foreign minister in 25 years.

Beijing is trying to keep the ties with Pyongyang alive, but it seems doubtful that these efforts will be sufficient to reach any consensus with North Korea on the matter of the Six-Party Talks.


Whether this visit will really help in warming relations between North Korea and India – despite North Korea’s well-established relations with Pakistan – remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, North Korea’s objective seems to be obvious: It no longer wants to solely depend on China.

However, China needs North Korea’s dependency in order to keep the nuclear-armed bully of Northeast Asia in line.

With alternative partners emerging, young Kim feels further encouraged to ignore China’s concerns. He even declined the invitation to attend the Victory Day military parade in Beijing last month.

At the beginning of October, China announced it would send a leading member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (Liu Yunshan) to Pyongyang this month for commemorative celebrations of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party.

Beijing is trying to keep the ties with Pyongyang alive, but it seems doubtful that these efforts will be sufficient to reach any consensus with North Korea on the matter of the Six-Party Talks.

Also read: North Korea’s worst ever drought will test new policies

It would be desirable to achieve a similar agreement with North Korea as the E3+3, (France, Germany, and the UK, plus: Russia, the US and China) managed to negotiate with Iran recently.

However, just like negotiations with Iran over time developed from an E3 to an E3+3 format, it might be time to re-think the Six-Party Talks framework, as well, in order to break the long-enduring deadlock with North Korea.

A new or adjusted format – a Six-Party Talks 2.0 – could be relaunched involving more parties with strengthened efforts from other countries, which could play a mediating role.


The EU is one major actor possibly able to play a role here, not least because Europeans too have high stakes in Northeast Asia. China, Japan and South Korea are the most important trading and investment partners of the EU in Asia.

Given the uncertainty that even China is faced with in Pyongyang, no time should be wasted in addressing the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear programme development; and the EU could be among those addressing it with more efficiency than was possible in the past.

Angela Stanzel is a policy fellow in the Asia programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.