Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

An Emergent Path of the Six-Party Talks: Toward Institutional Multilateralism in Northeast Asia

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia

An Emergent Path of the Six-Party Talks: Toward Institutional Multilateralism in Northeast Asia

Article excerpt


The Six-Party Talks (SPTs) are an ad hoc multilateral security forum to deal with North Korean nuclear program. The talks were initiated in the wake of the second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2003 and have undergone several rounds of negotiation process with occasional fluctuations of ups and downs. Even though the talks have stalled since November 2008, pundits and foreign policy makers often claim that the six-party process is an indispensable path toward achieving peace and security on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia. Underlying assumption of this view is that path dependence in the process might induce an emergent dynamics toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a formal ending of the Korean War with a peace treaty, and building a Northeast Asian security mechanism. Any account of this development requires a sequential change from path dependence to path emergence in institutional dynamics.

Given the complexity of circumstances on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia, complexity theory may offer a new set of conceptual tools to help explain dependence of and emergence from the SPTs. Complexity theory is an interdisciplinary science focusing on the study of a complex adaptive process. A complex adaptive process involves interdependent, heterogeneous agents who act adaptively toward each other and their environment, in order to create a distinct macro entity. Although there is no universal agreement on the concept of complexity theory or complex adaptive processes, the hallmark of this approach is that complex interactions among the six parties within the talks set in motion self-organizing dynamics which might lead to an emergence of unintended consequences or path emergence.

The primary goal of this article is to examine the six-party process from this perspective. In order to do so, this article is organized into four sections. The first section provides theoretical underpinnings by elaborating the key concepts of path dependence and path emergence. The second section explains why the stalled SPTs are still conceived of as a potential option from the perspective of path dependence. The third section explores the future of the SPTs from the perspective of path emergence. Lastly, the concluding section summarizes the research outcomes.


The concept of path dependence has been used to explain the particular characteristic of institutional self-reinforcement (Thelen 1999; Mahoney 2000 and 2006; Pierson 2000 and 2004; Greener 2005; Mahoney and Schensul 2006; Page 2006; Schreyoegg and Sydow 2011). However, there is still substantial disagreement on how best to define and apply path dependence. In order to establish greater clarity, first of all, we need to survey two different usages of the term. In the broader sense, path dependence refers to the causal relevance of preceding stages in a temporal sequence. This usage may entail only the loose assertion that "history matter." In the narrower sense, in contrast, path dependence means self-reinforcing sequences in which initial steps in a particular direction induce further movement in the same direction such that over time it becomes difficult or impossible to reverse direction. This usage connotes the idea of increasing returns, self-reinforcing or positive feedback processes. It seems that the narrower definition better fits into our analysis than the broader one.

Path dependence entails at least two common elements: critical junctures, and institutional reinforcement (Bennett and Elman 2006). First, critical junctures imply that there is a critical moment for the selection of a particular institutional arrangement from among two or more alternatives (Mahoney 2000). The selection processes during a critical juncture period are marked by contingency. In this context, contingency does not mean that an event is truly random and without antecedent causes. It refers to "the inability of theory to predict or explain, either deterministically or probabilistically, the occurrence of a specific outcome" (Mahoney 2000: 513). …

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