The New York Times reported last week that after a meeting with Liu Yunshan, the head of the ideological department within the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong-hae of North Korea announced that his country is ready to engage in six-party talks. This development comes after months of tensions dating from the end of 2012, in which Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test, launched a satellite in orbit, and performed repeated missile tests. While North Korea's willingness to talk is a positive signal, the talks won’t go anywhere if the traditional demands for North Korea to halt its nuclear program are at the top of the meeting agenda again.
Pyongyang’s game is one of escalation and negotiation in roughly eight-to-12-month cycles. If we take into account its nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013, as well as its successful attempts to launch a rocket into space, major developments in the way of North Korea's capabilities happen every several years. But as the country continues to develop a larger and more potent arsenal, six-party diplomacy can't go anywhere without the qualitative developments needed to lessen tensions in the Korean peninsula.
It is doubtful that this upcoming diplomatic round will achieve systemic shifts in North Korea’s behavior, but there is the potential that it will set a lasting tone of tolerance between Pyongyang and the international community (at least until the next time somebody launches a missile, holds a military exercise, or tests a nuke). A moratorium on tests for a certain period of time and the re-institution of inspections by the IAEA could result from the upcoming diplomatic round. However, there is a distinct possibility that North Korea will also put in practice a civilian nuclear program, which would be a game-changing maneuver by the regime because it would make the reversal of the country’s nuclear program impossible.
Perhaps the point to take away here is that nuclear power is going to spread around the world, and its containment is no longer as simple as it was 30 years ago. Pyongyang will continue to progress technologically and become more militant, while our diplomacy fails to produce substantive changes in the regime's behavior.
Since a military solution would be undesirable on all sides, save perhaps for the most hawkish of the hawks in the respective countries, the way forward is to routinize North Korea’s nuclear abilities in the international system in the context of mutual security guarantees, as part of a long-term strategy to stabilize the international relations of the region and avoid the cyclical crises discussed above. That, however, would require politicians with the vision to not only see, but convince the other participants of the value of peace over war.
It is difficult to expect too much of this diplomatic round with North Korea, but as long as diplomacy is at work, there is hope that it will go in the right direction.