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June 2, 2022
North Korea Ups the Ante in Nuclear Standoff
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Paul Kerr

North Korea accused the United States of violating the spirit of a 1992 agreement to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, calling the agreement a “dead document” in a May 12 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Meanwhile, Washington and its allies worked to formulate their next moves in the diplomatic standoff surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program, but no decisions have been made on whether another round of talks with North Korea will take place.

The 1992 Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula mandates that the two countries “not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” The agreement also calls for the two countries to conduct inspections in order to verify the agreement, but the inspections have never been implemented.

Pyongyang did not explicitly repudiate the agreement but blamed the United States for causing the nuclear confrontation and singled out the Bush administration’s policies for especially severe criticism. The May 12 statement cited President George W. Bush’s 2001 termination of negotiations over North Korea’s missile programs, his inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil,” the administration’s policy of pre-emption, and the U.S. attack on Iraq as evidence that the United States poses a threat to North Korea. North Korea has repeatedly made similar charges in the past. (See ACT, May 2003.)

The statement also says that North Korea needs a “physical deterrent force”—a possible reference to nuclear weapons—to protect itself from a U.S. attack. Bush and other U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea.

In a May 13 statement, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker termed Pyongyang’s announcement a “regrettable step…in the wrong direction.”

The United States has argued for months that North Korea violated the 1992 agreement by pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. U.S. officials said in October that North Korea admitted to having such a program during a meeting earlier that month when a U.S. delegation visited North Korea. North Korea has denied making such an admission. (See ACT, November 2002.)

North Korea, however, told the United States during trilateral talks held in April with China in Beijing that it possesses nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Appropriations Committee during an April 30 hearing that North Korea also threatened to transfer the weapons to other countries or “display them”—a possible reference to nuclear testing.

The state of Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains unclear. Powell stated April 30 that North Korean officials told the U.S. delegation during the April talks that it “reprocessed all the fuel rods” stored in North Korea as a result of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Sun Joun-yung, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, was less definite in a May 15 speech, saying that North Korea declared during the talks that it “had nearly completed” reprocessing.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher did not comment on whether North Korea has started reprocessing during a May 8 press briefing. Whether North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons is also unknown, but Powell said during a May 4 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press that North Korea could generate enough plutonium for “five or six” nuclear devices by reprocessing the fuel rods.

Washington Evaluates Options

Meanwhile, Bush held meetings with South Korean and Japanese leaders to coordinate policy on the nuclear standoff. A May 14 joint statement issued after a meeting that day between Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said the two countries “will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea” and expressed their “commitment to work for the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program through peaceful means based on international cooperation.”

The statement added that “increased threats to peace and stability on the peninsula would require consideration of further steps,” but it did not specify what those steps might be.

Additionally, the joint statement reiterated the U.S. claim that it cannot implement its “bold approach” unless North Korea eliminates its nuclear programs. Administration officials have described this policy as involving “economic and political steps” to help North Korea and improve relations between the two countries, although it is not clear whether North Korean concessions on its nuclear program would be sufficient for Washington to implement these measures.

Bush said during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi following a bilateral May 23 meeting that talks with North Korea “must…include Japan and South Korea.” 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.

Whether the United States will pursue future talks with North Korea is unknown. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated during a May 14 speech that the United States would be “willing” to conduct further talks with North Korea “if we believe that they are useful at some point in time.”

But Rice also stated in a May 12 interview with Reuters that the United States will not “respond point by point” to a proposal North Korean delegates made during the April talks. Boucher said in April that North Korea had offered to eliminate its two nuclear programs and halt its missile exports in exchange for U.S. compliance with a list of demands. Rice characterized the North Korean proposal as “blackmail” during the May 14 speech.

Ambassador Sun stated in his May 15 speech that North Korea’s demands included the resumption of heavy-fuel oil deliveries, the completion of the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, the “normalization of relations” between the two countries, and an “assurance of non-aggression.”

North Korea has repeatedly demanded a nonaggression pact and an end to U.S. economic sanctions in its public statements. Washington insists that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program as a precondition for discussions on other issues.

North Korea argued in a May 13 KCNA statement that it is only asking the United States to live up to promises made in past agreements. The first three of its demands are explicitly covered under the Agreed Framework, which also requires the United States to “provide formal assurances to [North Korea], against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”

A May 24 KCNA statement indicated that Pyongyang will accept multilateral talks but wants to have bilateral talks with Washington “for a candid discussion on each other’s policies” before participating in multilateral discussions.

Bush administration officials also indicated that Washington might pursue a more robust interdiction policy to halt illicit North Korean exports. Rice indicated May 12 that the United States would step up its efforts to interdict North Korean shipments of missiles and narcotics. Powell said in a May 5 press briefing that the United States would work to prevent any exports of nuclear material. The United States intercepted a shipment of Scud missiles bound for Yemen in December but let the cargo go through. (See ACT, January/February 2003.)

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer would not say during a May 23 press briefing whether the United States was pursuing sanctions against North Korea.

A North Korean army spokesman said in February that North Korea would “abandon its commitment” to the 1953 Armistice Agreement signed at the end of the Korean War if the United States imposes a blockade.

Allied Policy

Differences remain among Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington over North Korea policy. Roh expressed support for continuing negotiations with North Korea during a May 15 interview on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, arguing that “there is a high likelihood” that North Korea will give up its nuclear program if the United States, South Korea, China, and Japan offer North Korea “security guarantees and…an opportunity to reform and open up its economy.” “It’s quite common to arrive at a compromise through giving and taking,” Roh added.

Despite Roh’s pro-negotiation stance, the U.S.-South Korean statement also says that “future inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation will be conducted in light of developments on the North Korean nuclear issue”—an indication that Seoul is taking a harder line in its bilateral relations with North Korea. South Korea has previously held talks on economic cooperation and other issues without any linkage to North Korea’s nuclear program.

In the May 15 interview, Roh also stated that North Korea “will not be allowed to reprocess…plutonium to make new nuclear weapons”—a tougher stance than the United States has taken. In a May 8 statement, Reeker said only that reprocessing “would be a matter of deep concern.”
North Korea reacted negatively in a May 21 KCNA statement to the Bush-Roh meeting’s outcome, criticizing Seoul for its apparent policy shift and arguing that increased pressure on Pyongyang would increase the risk “of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.”

Tokyo’s North Korea policy statements have been more in line with Washington’s view than with South Korea. Koizumi, however, took a position on further talks with North Korea that reflected Seoul’s stance, saying May 23 that “continuation of the multilateral talks is important.”

Koizumi also said the same day that Tokyo would not normalize relations with Pyongyang until the latter resolves concerns about its nuclear program, its development of ballistic missiles, and abduction of Japanese citizens. The two countries agreed during a September 2002 meeting to meet to discuss normalizing diplomatic relations, but progress has been stalled by reports of North Korea’s claim to have a nuclear weapons program and Japanese anger over Pyongyang’s September 2002 admission that it had abducted Japanese citizens.

Addressing concerns about illegal exports to North Korea, Koizumi added that “Japan will crack down more rigorously in [sic] illegal activities,” apparently referring to more stringent enforcement measures on Japanese firms that have been trading with North Korea. A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, however, said in a May 20 statement that Japan “has not been considering” sanctions on North Korea.

A May 27 joint Chinese-Russian statement expresses support for the “nuclear-free status of [the] Korean peninsula and observance there of the regime of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” but it adds that “power pressure or the use of force to resolve the problems existing there are unacceptable” and that the issue should be resolve diplomatically.

The statement seems to express greater support for the North Korean negotiating position, saying that North Korea’s security “must be guaranteed and favorable conditions…established for its socio-economic development.” It also says that these activities should occur “simultaneously” with nonproliferation efforts.

A May 27 Chinese Foreign Ministry statement expressed support for the continuation of multilateral talks but added that the United States and North Korea should make future trilateral talks a “top priority.”