The six-way talks involving North Korea made news across East Asia as they wrapped up Friday in Beijing. The parties that gathered around the specially made hexagonal negotiating table (China, North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and Russia) agreed to meet again but did not set a timetable. North Korea is caught in a stand-off with the United States, which insists that the DPRK dismantle its nuclear program as a precondition to reopening normal diplomatic channels and providing economic aid. For its part, the North refuses to give up its nuclear bargaining chip before the United States signs a binding nonaggression pact. The recent summit, orchestrated by China, marked a breakthrough for Washington, which insisted on multilateral talks including North Korea’s neighbors as a way to bring more pressure to bear on the recalcitrant regime.
Asian commentators had mixed reactions to the summit, with opinion divided between those who felt that the talks were a step in the right direction and those who felt that they had ended on a bad note. The Korean Herald seemed to hedge its bets, running two stories on the end of the talks titled “Six nations agree on nuke-free Korea” and “After Beijing talks, still long way to go.” The more positive of the two articles reported China’s Central Television agency claiming that a new round of talks would begin “within two months.” Both articles repeated Thursday’s news that North Korea had threatened to “formally declare itself a nuclear power and conduct nuclear tests if the United States does not show a shift in its hostile policy.”
Meanwhile, the two Koreas continue to fascinate each other despite their tempestuous relationship. An op-ed in the Herald described a separate North-South economic conference in Seoul that was eclipsed by the political negotiations. The piece argued that the two countries still have not worked out their unique relationship, particularly “whether or not to regard each other as sovereign states pending national unification.” Before the Koreas unite, however, there’s money to be made in South Korea employing North Korea’s idle factory base and low-cost labor to manufacture goods for export. The Korea Times ran an editorial focused on another inter-Korean event overshadowed by the Beijing summit: an international sports festival in Daegu, South Korea, attended by North Korean athletes and cheerleaders.
Japanese papers focused on security concerns, particularly missile threats, but also demanded closure on the issue of abducted Japanese citizens. Abductees who were released from North Korea after years of captivity are now demanding that their families be allowed to join them in Japan. The Asahi Shimbun noted early in the talks that “the North Korean delegates made no response to Japan’s mention of the abduction issue.” Later in the negotiations, however, the Mainichi Daily News reported that, according to a source in the Japanese delegation, the North Korean chief negotiator’s last-minute concession, agreeing to further talks, occurred because he was “was under orders” to soften his stance on Japanese abductees.
A pessimistic editorial in the Japan Times noted that North Korea has no real fear of economic sanctions, because “Pyongyang sees little reason to believe that Beijing or especially Seoul will really withhold economic life support.” The piece argued that summit-watchers should focus on Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo, rather than the predictable Washington v. Pyongyang matchup. Unless these other parties “are prepared to play hardball in demanding an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program—thus making a continuation of this program a net minus rather than a perceived net plus—it is unlikely to take the talks seriously.”