Some headway was made in October toward breaking the stalemate between the United States and North Korea, but it is far from clear that the year-long crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program will be settled anytime soon. President George W. Bush said Oct. 19 that the United States is willing to provide a written, multilateral guarantee that the United States will not attack North Korea—an indication that the United States will present a concrete offer to North Korea if future multilateral discussions are held. North Korea said Oct. 25 that it is willing to consider the still-developing U.S. proposal but announced earlier in the month that it is closer to developing additional nuclear weapons.
The U.S. proposal is still a work in progress and will be developed in consultation with the other participants in the six-party talks. Although the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Oct. 30 that North Korea has “in principle” accepted a new round of multilateral talks, no date has been set.
The crisis began in October 2002 when a U.S. delegation told North Korean officials that Washington possessed intelligence confirming Pyongyang’s pursuit of a uranium enrichment program. Such a program can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Since then, the crisis has escalated. North Korea pulled out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), restarted its plutonium-based nuclear facilities frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework, and regularly reported advances in its nuclear weapons capabilities. The Agreed Framework defused the first North Korean nuclear crisis by providing North Korea with heavy-fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors in exchange for freezing its plutonium program. Construction on the reactors has not been terminated, but the oil shipments were suspended in November 2002 in an effort to pressure North Korea.
The apparent decision to negotiate with North Korea is part of an evolution in stated U.S. policy. Administration officials had previously dismissed the idea of negotiating a settlement to the crisis as giving in to blackmail.
Two rounds of talks aimed at resolving the crisis have taken place in Beijing since October 2002. The United States, North Korea, and China took part in the first round in April and were joined by Japan, Russia, and South Korea for a second round in August. Neither round yielded an agreement. The United States has said its delegation to the August talks did not make an explicit offer but signaled Washington’s willingness to compromise with North Korea. North Korea argues that Washington simply restated its previous policy, however, and U.S. allies have said they want the administration to be more flexible. (See ACT, October 2003.) Bush’s statement came during a trip to Asia earlier this month, where he consulted with other participants in the six-party talks.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Washington has no intention of attacking North Korea and have indicated their willingness to provide a written agreement to this effect. Department of State officials said in September that the United States is willing to employ a step-by-step approach to resolve the crisis, rather than continuing to insist that North Korea first completely dismantle its nuclear facilities.
Still, the administration has also emphasized multilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang and said it wants any security agreement to be concluded within the context of the six-party talks. Bush said Oct. 19 that previous bilateral agreements with North Korea have failed, asserting that North Korea “cheated” on the Agreed Framework. Administration officials have previously argued that multilateral negotiations will be more effective than bilateral ones because North Korea will feel increased pressure to comply in a multilateral setting.
Although the Agreed Framework is a bilateral agreement, its implementation is multilateral in nature. For example, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union share membership on the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization’s (KEDO) executive board. KEDO is the U.S.-led consortium that is charged with supplying the heavy-fuel oil and building the reactors under the Agreed Framework.
The United States has not yet decided on a precise formulation for a security arrangement, but the United States has addressed the question in past official statements. For example, the Agreed Framework requires the United States to “provide formal assurances” to North Korea that the United States will not threaten or use nuclear weapons. Additionally, the two countries stated in an October 2000 Joint Communiqué that neither “would have hostile intent toward the other.”
The Way Forward
After initially dismissing Bush’s statement Oct. 21 as “laughable,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Oct. 25 that Pyongyang would “consider” Bush’s comments, according to KCNA. The spokesman added, however, that any U.S. proposal would have to come with “the intention” for the two countries to “coexist” and be part of a step-by-step solution to the crisis. Pyongyang is currently evaluating the “intentions” behind Bush’s remark, the spokesman said, labeling discussions of further six-party talks “premature.” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Oct. 26 that North Korea contacted the United States about the matter two days before.
There are several potential obstacles to a settlement. One question is whether the U.S. proposal will be sufficient to satisfy North Korea’s concerns about its relations with the United States. Pyongyang has condemned Washington’s preference for multilateral solutions as a tactic intended to divert attention away from what Pyongyang regards as the real issue: Washington’s “hostile policy” of placing economic pressure on North Korea and threatening it with military force, including use of nuclear weapons.
In particular, North Korea cites a September 2002 document describing the U.S. National Security Strategy, which explicitly mentions North Korea and emphasizes pre-emptive action to counter threats from countries developing weapons of mass destruction. To justify their stated fears of a pre-emptive nuclear attack, North Korean officials cite a leaked version of the Bush administration’s January 2002 classified Nuclear Posture Review, which lists North Korea as a country against which the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in the event of a military confrontation.
The administration has pursued other aspects of a containment policy, such as attempting to persuade allies such as Japan and Australia to interdict Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency. Moreover, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued in May that other regional powers should threaten to cut off aid to North Korea if it does not change its objectionable policies.
Bush made it clear during an Oct. 19 press conference that a formal nonaggression pact—a persistent North Korean demand—was “off the table.” North Korea said Oct. 7 that it wants U.S. security assurances to come in the form of a treaty because it does not trust Congress or future administrations to adhere to policies made by any president, according to a KCNA statement. North Korea has frequently argued that the United States did not live up to its commitments under the Agreed Framework, citing delays in the reactors’ construction and the administration’s “hostile policy.”
North Korea has also previously rejected the idea of a multilateral security agreement. An Aug. 19 KCNA statement dismissed such a plan as a diversionary tactic and referred to “the concept of ‘collective security’” as “an insult” to North Korea, suggesting that Pyongyang wants to be seen as an equal to the United States in any negotiations.
The specifics of implementing any agreement may well prove to be another sticking point. Pyongyang has resisted the notion of dismantling its reactor before concluding an agreement with the United States because it believes the United States will simply pocket any concessions. Washington has yet to finalize either the specific steps required by each side or the sequence in which they will be implemented.
It is also unclear how the United States intends to address other North Korean demands. Pyongyang has called on the United States to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel oil shipments, and increase food aid.
Pyongyang’s declaration that it would discuss verification measures for any agreement “only after the [United States] drops its hostile policy” could also complicate a settlement.
Upping the Ante
Meanwhile, North Korea again upped the ante in the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, announcing earlier this month that it had completed reprocessing the spent fuel rods from its five-megawatt nuclear reactor and implying that it was using the resulting plutonium to construct nuclear weapons. Pyongyang further increased concern Oct. 16 by issuing what may have been a veiled threat to test nuclear weapons.
North Korea had privately made the reprocessing claim earlier, but an Oct. 2 KCNA statement marked Pyongyang’s first public pronouncement.
An Oct. 3 KCNA statement said that the country completed reprocessing the spent fuel rods in June, and an Oct. 2 statement noted that Pyongyang “made a switchover in the use” of the spent fuel “in the direction increasing [sic] its nuclear deterrent force.” The earlier statement added that North Korea would continue to produce and reprocess additional spent fuel when deemed necessary.
According to Powell and other U.S. diplomats, North Korean officials on more than one occasion have told their U.S. counterparts that they had completed reprocessing the spent fuel.
But U.S. officials have expressed skepticism about the earlier announcements and continue to cast doubt on the North Korean claims. Powell told reporters Oct. 2 that Washington has “no evidence” that Pyongyang has reprocessed the spent fuel rods, adding that the United States would “continue to pursue diplomacy.” North Korean officials have said Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons, but it is unclear whether this is the case.
North Korea’s possible suggestion that it may test nuclear weapons came in a Oct. 16 announcement from KCNA, which stated that Pyongyang will “take a measure to open its nuclear deterrent to the public as a physical force” if the United States refuses to change its negotiating stance.
The Oct. 2 KCNA statement also said that Pyongyang is “stepping up the preparations for the construction of a graphite-moderated reactor.” Whether this statement refers to incomplete reactors whose construction was frozen under the Agreed Framework is uncertain, but the announcement could be a signal that North Korea intends to produce additional fissile material for nuclear weapons. Graphite-moderated reactors are better suited for producing nuclear weapons-grade fuel than their light-water replacements. These plants could produce enough fuel for approximately 30 nuclear devices per year, according to an August Congressional Research Service (CRS) report.
Powell has said that North Korea’s fuel rods could yield enough plutonium for as many as six nuclear devices, and the CRS report estimates the reactor could produce enough fissile material for one weapon per year.
North Korea produced the spent fuel rods before agreeing to freeze operating the reactor and its related facilities in accordance with the Agreed Framework. North Korea announced in December that it was restarting the reactor, and U.S. officials confirmed in February that it had done so.
At the same time it announced its reprocessing claim, North Korea also reiterated two previous claims regarding its nuclear intentions. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon said North Korea has no intention of exporting nuclear material to other countries, Xinhua News Agency reported Oct. 2. Additionally, the Oct. 2 KCNA statement repeated North Korea’s claim that its nuclear weapons are solely for defensive purposes.