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Verification Dispute Stalls NK Nuclear Talks

Peter Crail

On July 12, the six parties involved in negotiations over North Korea's denuclearization agreed on a vague outline for verifying Pyongyang's nuclear program. Further agreement on the specific verification measures to be taken, however, have proved elusive, with the other five parties unable to win agreement from North Korea on the access inspectors would be granted to various aspects of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons work.

The United States has declared that it will not remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism until Pyongyang agrees to a sufficient verification protocol. Meanwhile, North Korea claims that Washington has not followed through on pledges to delist it and has responded by halting work on disabling its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

Verification Outline, Disablement Timeline Agreed

According to the July 12 statement, the inspection mechanism would involve experts from the six parties involved in the talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) and entail "visits to facilities, review of documents, interviews with technical personnel," and other steps as agreed. In recent months, North Korea has provided two sets of initial documentation in the form of operating records for its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and a declaration regarding its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, July/August 2008. )

The statement also appeared to suggest that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would only play a marginal role in the verification process. It indicated that the parties "can welcome" the agency to provide "consultancy and assistance" for the verification measures "when necessary." Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill met with IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei July 25 regarding the agency's role in verification, telling reporters afterward that the agency will continue to have a role but that its involvement will be determined during the six-party verification negotiations.

In the July 12 statement, the six parties tasked a working group on denuclearization with negotiating the specific measures to be taken. The United States tabled a draft protocol regarding these verification procedures in mid-July. Hill told reporters July 22 that the North Korean delegation "indicated some problems" with the draft but that he hoped an agreement could be reached by mid-August.

Laying out the U.S. conditions for an acceptable verification protocol, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated during a July 24 press conference that it "will have to have means for access and it will also have to have means to continue this process as new information becomes available." That same day, Rice met with her North Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, along with the foreign ministers of the other four parties of the talks, during an informal meeting on the sidelines of a conference of southeast Asian states. It was the first time that the foreign ministers of the six parties had held such a meeting since the talks began in 2003.

Chinese, South Korean, and U.S. negotiators continued to hold consultations bilaterally in Beijing and New York regarding their approach to the verification protocol. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today in August that part of those discussions entailed determining on which aspects of the protocol they would exhibit the greatest flexibility with North Korea. Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, met with North Korean officials in New York Aug. 22 regarding the revisions to the draft verification protocol. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood simply described the talks Aug. 25 as "substantive and detailed."

In addition to addressing verification, the statement also laid out a timeline for completing the disablement of North Korea's key facilities at Yongbyon and the provision of energy assistance by the other parties. In an intended assurance to North Korea, the statement declared that these two steps would "be fully implemented in parallel." North Korea has repeatedly complained that the disablement of its nuclear facilities was proceeding faster than the energy assistance it was to receive. Pyongyang began slowing the disablement process earlier this year in response to these delays. (See ACT, March 2008. )

Specifically, the six parties aimed to complete both the disablement measures and the delivery of heavy fuel oil by Russia and the United States by the end of October, while China and South Korea pledged to conclude "binding agreements" with North Korea on their energy assistance by the end of August.

These steps would complete the second phase of a February 2007 agreement in which North Korea committed to disable its nuclear facilities and provide a declaration of its nuclear activities in return for 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent. In October 2007, Russia and the United States agreed to provide their energy assistance in the form of heavy fuel oil while China and South Korea pledged to provide fuel oil equivalents. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

Japan maintained that it would not participate in the energy assistance effort until other bilateral concerns with North Korea were resolved.

U.S. Links Terrorism Delisting to Verification Agreement

As the United States and other parties involved in the talks await agreement from North Korea on the verification protocol, U.S. officials have indicated that Washington would not move forward with removing Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Department of State spokesperson Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters Aug. 7 that the United States must have "a strong verification regime before taking action to remove [North Korea] from the list."

In an October 2007 six-party talks agreement, the United States agreed to "advance the process" of lifting certain restrictions against North Korea, including removing it from the terrorism list, once Pyongyang provided a declaration of its nuclear activities. North Korea provided a declaration of its activities at the Yongbyon facilities June 26. (See ACT, July/August 2008. )

 President George W. Bush certified the same day that North Korea satisfied the criteria for removal from the list, thereby starting the clock on a 45-day time period granted to Congress to potentially reject a delisting before the administration can proceed. Congress did not adopt any measures to block the delisting during that time frame, which expired Aug. 11. The executive branch is not legally required to carry out the delisting once this notification period has expired. Wood stated during an Aug. 12 press conference that the 45-day period is a "minimum" rather than a deadline.

The United States placed North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism in January 1988 following the November 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner believed to have been carried out by North Korean agents. In July 31 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hill assured the panel that an interagency judgment concluded that North Korea met the qualifications to be removed from the list, stating that its last known involvement in a terrorist incident was the 1987 bombing.

North Korea issued a strong reaction Aug. 26 to the U.S. decision not to remove it from the terrorism list. It declared in a Foreign Ministry statement that, since Washington did not carry out the delisting "within the fixed date," the United States violated the October 2007 agreement. The statement indicated that, in response to the delisting delay, North Korea halted the disablement activity at Yongbyon Aug. 14, adding that it will "consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in [Yongbyon] to their original state."

Work to disable the Yongbyon facilities is intended to prevent North Korea from restarting their operations for at least a year. Hill told lawmakers July 31 that 8 of the 11 disablement steps had been completed.

The United States called the halting of the disablement work a violation of North Korea's commitments. Wood stated that North Korea's move was "clearly a step backward," but indicated that discussions within the six-party talks would continue "in the coming weeks."

U.S. officials also characterized the disablement freeze as a temporary step. Without specifying a date at which the freeze began, a State Department official told Arms Control Today Aug. 27 that the disablement activities "have been halted temporarily," adding that the U.S. monitors overseeing the disablement "will remain on the ground" at Yongbyon.

Legal Implications of Delisting

Although removal from the terrorism list would lift some level of political stigma from Pyongyang, such an action does not guarantee a significant reversal of many of the U.S. restrictions placed on North Korea. In addition to the comprehensive sanctions applied against North Korea as a result of the terrorism designation, U.S. legislation also authorizes the president to impose punitive measures on Pyongyang for national security, proliferation, human rights, and other reasons.

According to a January 2007 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, restrictions on the provision of arms, foreign aid, Export/Import Bank financing, and other measures apply to North Korea for reasons beyond the terrorism designation.

One area likely to be affected by a delisting is the body of U.S. trade restrictions on sensitive dual-use materials. North Korea's placement on the terrorism list has made it subject to the most restrictive trade controls on national security-controlled items, including computers and software. Once Pyongyang is delisted, it would no longer be subject to the same level of restrictions. However, it is unclear which rules would govern transfers of such items at that point.

CRS foreign policy legislation specialist Dianne Rennack told Arms Control Today Aug. 15 that the Departments of Commerce and State would have to determine new trade rules for such items, taking into account remaining national security restrictions on the country, including proliferation-related sanctions.

Placement on the terrorism list also requires the executive branch to oppose designated states from acquiring financial assistance from international monetary institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Rennack noted that if North Korea is removed from the list, Washington could no longer use the terrorism list as justification for blocking such funds but could still attempt to prohibit such assistance for a variety of other reasons, including human rights, environmental degradation,  and regional security.

Washington holds considerable weight in the decisions of international monetary organizations but cannot unilaterally block a country from receiving international loans. Japan has supported the United States in blocking such assistance, but South Korea has supported North Korea's bids to join the World Bank and IMF.

Tokyo, Pyongyang Agree on Abduction Reinvestigation

Talks on a nuclear verification mechanism are currently at a standstill, but some progress has been made in Japanese-North Korean side negotiations under the six-party talks on the long-stalled issue of North Korea' s abduction of Japanese citizens.

The two countries agreed Aug. 13 on a procedure for investigating North Korea's abduction of about a dozen Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. One of the working groups of the six-party talks entails negotiations on the normalization of Japanese-North Korean relations. The abduction issue has been a focal point of these discussions for Japan, however, and Pyongyang has been unwilling to address the topic until recently. Japan has pledged, once the countries agree on a normalization process, to provide $5-10 billion in economic assistance to North Korea as compensation for its occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

According to the Aug. 13 agreement, North Korea committed to complete a reinvestigation into the fate of the abducted Japanese nationals by this fall. Pyongyang would then share the results of its investigation with Japan and jointly determine how to deal with any surviving abductees. North Korea also agreed to allow Japan to carry out its own investigation in North Korea, granting access to documents, relevant sites, and interviews with concerned parties.

In return, Japan will lift certain travel restrictions between the two countries once the new investigation begins and will continue to discuss easing a ban on North Korea's access to Japanese ports.

Kyoko Nakayama, Japan's minister for the North Korean abduction issue, told reporters Aug. 13 that "if investigations will be done with the presumption that [the abductees] are alive and not dead, then we will be entering a new phase." Tokyo maintains that it has evidence suggesting that there are abductees that remain alive in North Korea.

The agreement represents a partial reversal of North Korea's position regarding the abduction issue. Following negotiations in 2004 that led to the return of five children of abducted couples and the alleged remains of two abductees, Pyongyang declared that no other abductees remained alive and that the issue was closed. North Korea walked out of subsequent talks on the issue.

Satisfactory progress in the issue may also open the door for Japan's participation in other efforts under the six-party talks. Japan has maintained that it would not participate in providing energy assistance to North Korea or aid in the disablement and dismantlement of that country' s nuclear facilities until the abduction issue was resolved. According to the July 12 statement on verification, Japan indicated that it would be willing to take part in any economic and energy assistance to North Korea "as soon as possible when the environment is in place."

In addition, progress may also ease some concerns regarding the U.S. removal of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The United States has come under fire from Japan for agreeing to remove North Korea from the list before the abduction issue was resolved. (See ACT, December 2007. ) Members of Congress have also raised the issue of relations with Japan in regard to the delisting. North Korea's efforts to address the issue now may be aimed at helping to pave the way for this delisting.