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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Countries Meet to Discuss N. Korean Nuclear Stand-off
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Paul Kerr

The United States and North Korea participated in multilateral talks August 27-29 in Beijing to discuss issues surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The discussions, which also included China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan, marked the first time the two countries have met officially since April, when they participated in trilateral talks with China in Beijing.

The talks did not appear to achieve any significant breakthroughs. Although participants in the talks appeared optimistic that there would be another round of talks, North Korea cast some doubt on this shortly after the meetings ended. One of the chief reasons behind the impasse is a fundamental difference over timing: the United States insists that North Korea dismantle its nuclear arsenal before discussing security guarantees to Pyongyang or other issues; Pyongyang demands that the United States sign a nonaggression pact and take other steps before it eliminates its nuclear facilities.

Nonetheless, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in an August 29 press conference that the participants now “share a consensus” on several items: a “peaceful settlement” of the crisis through dialogue, the need to address North Korea’s security concerns, the continuation of dialogue and the six-party talks, the need to avoid actions that would escalate the situation, and a plan to solve the nuclear issue “through synchronous and parallel implementation.”

State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz said August 29 that Washington is “pleased” at the participants’ endorsement of the multilateral process, according to Agence France-Presse.

Despite positive comments from China and the United States, however, an August 30 statement from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) expressed Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction with the U.S. position at the recent talks, adding that Pyongyang has no “interest or expectation for the talks as they are not beneficial” to North Korea. The U.S. delegation reiterated its demand that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program before addressing other North Korean concerns, according to the statement.

Wang Yi appeared to confirm that the United States had taken a hard-line stance during the talks, telling reporters September 1 that the U.S. policy is “the main problem” in achieving diplomatic progress.

Press reports indicated that the North Korean delegates threatened to test nuclear weapons, but the nature of their statement is unclear. According to an August 29 KCNA statement, North Korea told the other parties that it would not “dismantle its nuclear deterrent force” and “will have no option but to increase it” if the United States does not react positively to its proposal. Hatsuhisa Takashima, press secretary for Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said August 29 that North Korea referenced nuclear weapons but said he would not characterize the delegation’s statement as a threat.

Prokopowicz said August 29, however, that the North Korean statement at the talks was “an explicit acknowledgement” that North Korea “has nuclear weapons, but the United States will not respond to threats.” U.S. officials have said that North Korea made a veiled reference to nuclear testing during the April talks.

Attempting to Defuse a Crisis

U.S. officials had warned that the talks were the beginning of a process and not likely to yield quick results. It appeared that Washington was taking a somewhat harder line going into the talks than its allies.

A State Department official interviewed August 26 said the U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, was to “comment” on a North Korean proposal put forward during the April talks. That proposal, according to a South Korean official, offered to eliminate Pyongyang’s two nuclear programs and halt its missile exports in exchange for energy assistance, the completion of nuclear reactors promised under a 1994 accord called the Agreed Framework, normalization of bilateral relations, and an “assurance of non-aggression.”

The April talks in Beijing were an effort to defuse the most recent nuclear weapons crisis with Pyongyang, which began last October when U.S. officials announced that their North Korean counterparts had admitted to a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in violation of several arms control agreements. In the series of tit-for-tat actions and statements that followed the October meetings, North Korea responded to U.S. pressure with several steps: ejecting UN inspectors charged with monitoring the plutonium-based nuclear facilities frozen under the Agreed Framework, withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in January, and restarting its nuclear reactor.

Still, the exact status of North Korea’s nuclear program as the August talks began was unclear. U.S. officials said that North Korea told the United States during the April talks that it possesses nuclear weapons, threatened to transfer them to other countries, and referred to testing. Moreover, North Korean officials at the United Nations told the United States that North Korea has completed reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods from its previously frozen plutonium reactor, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said July 15. Washington, however, cannot confirm these claims, Boucher added. During the April talks, North Korea claimed to have reprocessed the fuel rods, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress April 30.

Powell has said that reprocessing the fuel rods could yield enough plutonium for as many as six nuclear devices. But even if North Korea has extracted fissile material, it is unclear whether the country has used it to construct any nuclear weapons.

In addition, North Korea further muddied the waters August 29 when for the first time KCNA ran an explicit denial from Pyongyang to the U.S. charges that it had a uranium-enrichment program.

Bush said in a May joint statement with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that the two countries “will not tolerate” a North Korean nuclear weapon, but U.S. officials have not specified what the United States would do if North Korea produces such weapons anyway.

China Finds a Compromise

The talks came about after intense diplomatic efforts by China to find a workable format—an issue that has been a major impediment to their taking place. Before the April talks, Washington insisted on a multilateral setting while Pyongyang insisted on meeting only bilaterally. Washington says it has insisted on multilateral talks because they will place the maximum amount of pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear program. North Korea has explained that bilateral commitments from the United States are the only way it can be sure that the United States will not threaten its security. (See ACT, May 2003.)

The April trilateral talks represented a compromise between these two positions. Afterward, the United States said it was willing to meet again but that it preferred multilateral talks expanded to include Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang responded that it would participate in such a format but wanted to first hold a bilateral meeting with Washington.

Aspects of the latest talks also represented a compromise. State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker stated August 27 that members of the U.S. and North Korean delegations met bilaterally on the sidelines during the first day of the Beijing talks. South Korean Foreign Ministry official Wie Sing-rak said that the U.S. officials “made comments about easing North Korea’s security concerns,” but he did not elaborate, according to an August 27 Associated Press article.

John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said during a July 31 speech that, in addition to multilateral diplomacy, Washington is pursuing two other tracks to counter the North Korean threat. The first is the Proliferation Security Initiative—a broad effort to prevent proliferation by persuading other countries to interdict the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies. Bolton described the initiative as a vehicle for pressuring the North Korean regime, but countries involved in the initiative are still discussing its specifics, and they have not yet made final decisions regarding interdictions. Boucher said August 18 that the United States is scheduled to participate in interdiction exercises in Australia sometime in September.

Bolton also mentioned the U.S. effort to persuade the UN Security Council to adopt a statement condemning North Korea’s actions. Washington, however, has been unable to overcome Beijing’s opposition to such a measure. Bolton said August 1 that the United States would delay going to the United Nations if multilateral talks make progress.

U.S., North Korea Stake Out Positions

According to the August 29 KCNA statement, North Korea made a proposal at the talks, similar to that made at the April discussions, for settling the nuclear issue. North Korea insisted that the United States end its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang by concluding a “non-aggression treaty,” normalizing bilateral diplomatic relations, refraining from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, completing the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resuming suspended fuel oil shipments, and increasing food aid.

North Korea has repeatedly cited Washington’s “hostile policy” as the justification for its nuclear program, expressing fear that the United States intends to attack it in the same manner that U.S.-led coalition forces attacked Iraq in March. It has also cited the U.S. policy of pre-emptively attacking states developing weapons of mass destruction—as described in the Bush administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy.

The planned U.S. response going into the talks was somewhat difficult to discern. But U.S. officials appeared to expect Pyongyang to take the first step. A senior administration official in an August 22 briefing characterized the talks as the “beginning of a process” and added that the U.S. delegation would “urge” North Korea to comply with Washington’s oft-repeated demand that North Korea “commit to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible ending of its nuclear arms program.”

Whether the United States would offer North Korea incentives to comply was uncertain. In his July speech, Bolton condemned the idea of negotiating with Pyongyang, saying that “giving into [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il’s extortionist demands would only encourage him and…other would-be tyrants around the world.” Washington has repeatedly ruled out offering North Korea quid pro quos for an end to its nuclear program, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has dismissed North Korea’s April proposal as “blackmail.”

A senior Bush administration official said August 22, however, that North Korea’s compliance “could open the door to a very new kind of relationship” with the United States and other countries. This is an apparent reference to the administration’s previously proposed “bold approach,” which involves “economic and political steps” to help North Korea. The administration has repeatedly said that Pyongyang’s elimination of its nuclear program is necessary—although not necessarily sufficient—to reap the rewards of this policy, but the senior official indicated that he was not going to the talks “with some package of rewards in anticipations of progress.” Powell said August 1 that the administration would not “trade” economic incentives at the meeting for North Korean compliance.

Indeed, the administration has also insisted that issues such as human rights, missiles, and conventional forces be addressed before Washington would provide aid to North Korea. The senior official said August 22 that the talks were to be “primarily focused” on North Korea’s nuclear program, but some of these other issues could be discussed.

Washington did, however, indicate some flexibility. Powell said August 1 that the multilateral talks could provide some form of written security assurance to North Korea, although he ruled out a nonaggression treaty. In addition, the senior official said that the United States would not necessarily oppose other countries offering incentives to North Korea. Some of the other participants have indicated their intentions to so.

The agreement to solve the nuclear issue through “synchronous and parallel implementation” is perhaps another indication of U.S. flexibility on it previous position that North Korea had to dismantle its nuclear program before the United States would undertake actions of its own.

The two sides appeared to be far apart on two issues in particular. First, an August 20 KCNA statement emphasized that Washington and Pyongyang should take “simultaneous actions” to arrive at a solution, but Washington did not indicate that it planned to do so. For example, the senior administration official said August 22 that normalization of diplomatic relations was something that could occur “in the future, as progress is developed.” North Korea also has a sequence of steps it insists on following. For example, an August 20 KCNA statement said North Korea has insisted the United States must meet its demands before it could allow inspections of its nuclear facilities.

The second bone of contention is a nonaggression treaty. Although the United States said that it could provide North Korea with written security assurances that have less formal congressional backing, North Korea insisted on a treaty as a guarantee that the United States had reversed its “hostile policy.”

Administration officials have repeatedly said that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea, and several joint statements, including the Agreed Framework, explicitly state this policy. North Korea, however, argues that the U.S. National Security Strategy—which explicitly mentions North Korea—and the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review indicate that the administration is preparing to attack it. 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.

U.S. officials have offered conflicting statements in the last three months. In June, the administration emphasized pressuring North Korea by persuading other governments to interdict shipments of items such as weapons components and illegal drugs, which are sources of hard currency for North Korea. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued in May that the Pyongyang regime was “teetering on the edge of economic collapse” and that this weakness was a “point of leverage” for the United States and its allies.

Powell said August 1, however, that he has no reason to believe that the regime is in danger of “imminent collapse” and that he plans to work with Pyongyang. He also acknowledged that North Korea’s neighbors do not support a policy of causing the regime’s collapse.