Concluding a four-month policy review, President George W. Bush announced June 6 that his administration is prepared to resume “serious discussions” with North Korea on a “broad agenda.” The decision marks a shift from the doubts Bush aired earlier in his presidency about negotiating with North Korea.
In March, the president suspended negotiations aimed at ending Pyongyang’s production and export of ballistic missiles while his administration completed a review of its North Korea policy. Those negotiations had reportedly been close to success just prior to the end of the Clinton administration. In announcing a halt to the talks, Bush expressed “skepticism” about North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and explained that he had concerns about Washington’s ability to verify an agreement with a closed society like North Korea. (See ACT, April 2001.)
In a shift in tone, Bush’s most recent statement set out what he termed a “comprehensive approach” to North Korea and detailed priorities in dealing with Pyongyang. The president said that his administration plans to seek “improved implementation” of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; “verifiable constraints” on Pyongyang’s missile programs; a ban on its missile exports; and—perhaps most controversially—a “less threatening” North Korean conventional military presence on the peninsula.
Bush also said he would provide Pyongyang with incentives to cooperate during discussions. Offering North Korea “the opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness of its desire for improved relations,” the president indicated a willingness to reward North Korea for responding “affirmatively” and taking “appropriate” action. Incentives included expanding humanitarian aid, easing sanctions, and taking unspecified “other political steps.”
At a June 7 press conference, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out the difference between the Bush approach and that of the Clinton administration. “We have expanded the areas of dialogue by putting conventional forces on the agenda and by making it clear to the North Koreans that we want to talk about missiles and missile technology and missile sales and nuclear weapons programs, but also we want to talk about humanitarian issues,” he said.
During its time in office, the Clinton administration did not link progress in nuclear weapons or missile talks to each other or to negotiations on conventional forces. When asked at the press conference whether including conventional forces in talks was a precondition for discussions, Powell remarked, “We’re not setting any preconditions right now.” But he added that North Korea’s conventional forces are still of concern and said that “you can’t really have a full set of discussions without raising this particular issue.”
Later in the month, press reports indicated that Washington had agreed to let Seoul take the lead on the conventional forces dialogue. A South Korean official confirmed these reports, saying agreement was reached during a June 22 visit to Washington by South Korean Defense Minister Kim Dong-Shin. However, the official stressed that the new arrangement did not represent a change in the Bush administration’s desire to address conventional issues in parallel with nuclear and missile issues.
Pyongyang waited until June 18 before responding to Bush’s announcement. In a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman described Bush’s proposal for resuming dialogue “as unilateral and conditional in its nature and hostile in its intention.” The statement contended that inclusion of Pyongyang’s nuclear, missile, and conventional forces in Bush’s proposed agenda illustrated that Washington is attempting to “disarm the D.P.R.K. through negotiations.” The spokesman noted that this approach contrasted with the “previous dialogue,” which was “held in conformity with the interests of both sides and produced results helpful to improving bilateral relations.”
Instead of holding comprehensive discussions, the spokesman insisted that bilateral talks focus on compensating Pyongyang for the loss of electricity due to delays in the construction of the nuclear reactors required by the Agreed Framework. Warning that the accord is in “danger of collapse,” the statement characterized U.S. fulfillment of its obligations under the agreement as “the most realistic and urgent issue at present.”
The Bush administration has stated it remains committed to the Agreed Framework, but construction of the first light-water reactor called for in the accord has not yet begun and the project is years behind schedule. However, according to a State Department official interviewed June 26, the oft-repeated rumor that the Bush administration might try to amend the agreement by substituting conventional power plants for the light-water reactors is “not something that we’re looking at right now.”
Despite its concerns with Bush’s announcement, North Korea sent its ambassador to the United Nations, Li Hyong Chol, to meet Jack Pritchard, U.S. special envoy for Korean peace talks, to arrange for future talks. The meeting, held June 13 in New York, was the first official contact between the United States and North Korea since Bush took office in January. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker described the two-hour meeting as “businesslike and useful as a beginning to the dialogue process.” No date has been set yet for future discussions.