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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
North Korea, U.S. Meet; Pyongyang Said to Claim Nukes

Paul Kerr

North Korea’s reported disclosure that it has nuclear weapons has left the future direction of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang uncertain, although the United States has not ruled out the possibility of future talks and remains open to a diplomatic solution.

North Korean officials, for the first time, told a U.S. delegation that Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons during trilateral talks with China in Beijing April 23-25, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated during an April 28 briefing.

It is not known whether North Korea’s claim is true. Boucher stated April 24 that “we have certainly said for years now that we thought North Korea had nuclear weapons. So it would not come as any great surprise for them to say something like that.”

A December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate states that “the Intelligence Community judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons.” Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet seemed to support this view during a February 12 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stating that North Korea “probably” has “one or two plutonium-based devices.”

A January 2003 CIA report to Congress, however, states only that “North Korea probably has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.” The most recent report, released April 10, does not mention the subject.

Crisis Intensifies

The Beijing talks marked the first time the United States and North Korea have met officially since October, when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited North Korea. U.S. officials said that North Korea admitted to having an illicit uranium-enrichment program during the October meeting, but North Korea has denied making such an admission.

Frank Jannuzi, a Democratic staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a February Woodrow Wilson Center report that North Korea also offered to be flexible on “key areas of concern” to Washington, including its ballistic missile development and exports, the future of U.S. forces in Korea, and comprehensive inspections to ensure compliance with its nonproliferation commitments.

North Korea’s uranium-enrichment procurement activities are a violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, as well as several other nuclear arms control agreements. (See ACT, May 2003.) The Agreed Framework was concluded to resolve the crisis following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) discovery that Pyongyang had been diverting spent fuel from a plutonium-based reactor for a nuclear weapons program. North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear facilities, and the United States agreed to provide two proliferation-resistant reactors and to supply heating oil each year to North Korea during the reactors’ construction.

The U.S. announcement of North Korea’s admission of an enrichment program last October prompted the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization—the U.S.-led international consortium responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework—to suspend fuel-oil deliveries to North Korea in November. North Korea responded by announcing in December 2002 that it would restart the reactor to produce electricity, and U.S. officials confirmed in February 2003 that North Korea had done so.

During the weeks following its December announcement, North Korea removed seals and monitoring equipment from its nuclear facilities and expelled IAEA inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze and the spent fuel rods taken from the reactor. On January 10, Pyongyang announced that it was withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Renewal of Talks

The April talks represented an easing of the stalemate that has characterized relations between the two countries since October. Until January, the United States maintained it would not engage in formal talks or negotiate with North Korea until it agreed to give up its prohibited nuclear programs. Washington, however, shifted its policy in January, saying it would “talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community” but would not negotiate a settlement. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

The United States has also insisted that it meet with North Korea in a multilateral setting and implied that behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts were underway to convene such talks. (See ACT, April 2003.) The trilateral nature of the April talks signaled a compromise between Washington’s and Pyongyang’s negotiating positions.

Washington has argued that multilateral talks are necessary because the crisis affects many countries and because such talks will be more effective than bilateral negotiations. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued in an April 24 speech that the Agreed Framework was ineffective because of its bilateral nature. Although the Agreed Framework is a bilateral agreement, it obligates North Korea to accept full IAEA safeguards when a “significant portion” of the reactor project is complete.

North Korea had previously rejected multilateral talks, arguing that the issue should be settled in bilateral negotiations. However, an April 12 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated that Pyongyang “will not stick to any particular dialogue format,” although it reiterated previous calls for direct talks and a bilateral settlement.

Beijing’s exact role is unclear. Boucher said April 25 that China was a “significant participant” in the talks, but an April 25 KCNA statement described China as “presiding” over the talks. China’s ambassador to South Korea said his government did not plan to “mediate” between the two sides, according to an April 18 Associated Press report.

Boucher stated April 25 that the U.S. delegation told North Korea that it must “verifiably and irreversibly” end its nuclear weapons program, emphasizing that such a move was necessary for North Korea to be able to engage with other countries, including the United States. The U.S. delegation also emphasized that South Korea and Japan need to participate in future talks, Boucher said. Japan and South Korea have both said that they wish to participate in multilateral talks.

Boucher said April 28 that the North Korean delegation told the U.S. officials that Pyongyang “might get rid of all their nuclear programs…[and] stop their missile exports.” On April 28, Powell would not discuss what North Korea’s demands were, except to say it expects “something considerable in return.”

North Korea reiterated its call for the United States to conclude a “nonaggression treaty” in an April 27 KCNA statement and said in a April 24 KCNA statement that ending the U.S. “hostile policy” is a necessary precondition for discussing “verification and the dismantlement of physical deterrent force”—a possible reference to nuclear weapons.

North Korea reiterated its claims that Washington poses a threat in the April 24 statement, citing President George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” and its belief that the United States has targeted it for a “preemptive attack.”

The Bush administration has countered that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program started during the Clinton administration. (See ACT, May 2003.) Bush and other U.S. officials have also stated that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea.

A September report outlining the U.S. National Security Strategy emphasizes preemptive action to counter threats from countries developing weapons of mass destruction. The report explicitly mentions North Korea. In addition, a leaked version of the Bush administration’s January 2002 classified Nuclear Posture Review lists North Korea as a country against which the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, although it does not mention pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The Agreed Framework requires the United States to “provide formal assurances to [North Korea], against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”

U.S. Policy

An April 25 statement from China’s foreign ministry said that “the parties agreed that they would continue to maintain contact on further talks through diplomatic channels,” but Boucher said April 25 that Washington is still evaluating possible options. He added that the United States is not willing to negotiate, saying the administration is “not going to give a quid pro quo to get rid of a nuclear weapons program that never should have existed in the first place.”

Boucher stated April 28 that the United States “could…move back to the comprehensive approach…to U.S.-North Korea relations that we had talked about before”—a policy the administration has called its “bold approach.” Kelly described that policy in congressional testimony last month as involving “economic and political steps” to help North Korea and move the bilateral relationship “towards normalcy” if Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear programs.

Since June 2001, the Bush administration has said other issues—such as conventional forces, terrorism, and human rights—must be addressed along with concerns over missiles and nuclear weapons. Powell suggested April 24 that this is still the case. North Korea is resistant to such an approach.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer also indicated April 25 that the administration will continue to address the issue through the United Nations, but a U.S. official said in an April 28 interview that no specific meetings are planned. Fleischer added that the United States has not yet taken a position on whether it supports imposing sanctions on North Korea.

The United States wants the Security Council to adopt a statement condemning North Korea’s actions but was unable to overcome opposition from China during an April 9 Security Council meeting, the U.S. official said April 28. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry reiterated April 8 Beijing’s position that Security Council action “will not be conducive to the settlement of the issue.” (See ACT, April 2003.)

Reprocessing Questions

The status of the spent nuclear fuel from the reactor frozen under the Agreed Framework is unclear. Boucher stated April 28 that North Korea told the U.S. delegation that they are reprocessing the fuel, but Powell said that same day that the intelligence community could not confirm this. U.S. officials have said that North Korea could extract enough plutonium for four to six nuclear weapons within approximately six months after beginning reprocessing.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton stated in an April 15 interview with Arms Control Today that reprocessing the spent fuel would make the crisis “even more serious,” but he added that the Bush administration has not “declared anything to be a red line.”

Allied Reaction

Other regional countries have signaled support for multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis but have also indicated their backing for diplomatic inducements. Alexander Losyukov, Russian envoy to North Korea, said that Russia believes North Korea “must abandon its nuclear option” and that it can be persuaded to do so by offering “reliable guarantees of security,” according to an April 25 Agence France-Presse report.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda expressed Tokyo’s support for continuing discussions and said Japan is “willing to give our full support on matters such as rebuilding the economy” if North Korea dismantles its nuclear facilities, Reuters reported April 25.

Meanwhile, North and South Korea held bilateral talks from April 27-29. Although South Korean officials participating in the talks asked Pyongyang for an explanation of its comment about possessing nuclear weapons, the North Korean officials “avoided direct responses to these requests” and requested discussions about “economic cooperation,” a South Korean press pool report from Pyongyang said, according to an April 28 Reuters article.