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U.S. Courts Allies to Contain North Korea, Talks Lag
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Paul Kerr

As the United States continues to insist that it seeks a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, recent statements from high-level officials indicate that Washington plans to push forward with a strategy of containment. No negotiations have been held between the two countries since April, and on June 9 North Korea explicitly declared for the first time that it is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.

A U.S. containment strategy would aim to impede North Korea’s trade in items that provide Pyongyang with hard currency that could then be used to support its weapons programs. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, identified “remittances” from foreign organized crime networks, as well as the sale of ballistic missile components and illegal drugs, as sources of North Korean hard currency during a June 4 hearing before the House International Relations Committee.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a June 9 press briefing that preventing North Korea from acquiring hard currency would “restrict the…movement of the regime” and perhaps induce North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued during a May 31 conference in Singapore that North Korea “is teetering on the edge of economic collapse” and that this weakness “is a major point of leverage” for the United States and its allies. Other countries in the region should threaten to cut off aid to North Korea if it does not change policies the United States finds objectionable, he added.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a June 11 press briefing that the United States has been consulting with Japan and Australia on specific measures to stop North Korean illicit trade but emphasized that no decisions on interdiction have been made. South Korea participated in similar discussions with the United States and Japan, according to a joint statement following a June 13 meeting of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG). Japan has taken a first step toward enhancing interdiction, increasing port inspections of North Korean ships traveling between the two countries, Japan’s Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Chikage Oogi said in a June 10 press conference.

The effort to contain North Korean trade policy is related to the Bush administration’s recently announced Proliferation Security Initiative—a broader U.S. effort to prevent proliferation by persuading other countries to interdict the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies. Australia and Japan are members of the initiative, but China and South Korea are not. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) Secretary of State Colin Powell said June 17 that he believes that sufficient pressure can be brought to bear on North Korea even without China’s help.

There is concern among experts, however, that the containment strategy taking shape will not protect the United States from North Korea’s nuclear program—at least not for the immediate future. When asked if a containment policy provides a short-term solution to the nuclear crisis, Wolfowitz conceded that it does not but added that he did not think any other solution would be effective in the short term.

North Korea called the planned U.S. interdiction policy “little short of a sea blockade” and a “war action” in a June 18 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). North Korea also denied that it conducts illicit commerce, saying specifically that it would not sell nuclear material or missiles to terrorist organizations.


Despite its moves to strengthen the containment of North Korea, the United States maintains that it wants to “have multilateral talks” with Pyongyang that include Japan and South Korea, Armitage said in a June 20 press briefing. In a June 9 KCNA statement, Pyongyang reiterated that it would be willing to participate in multilateral negotiations but insisted that it first hold bilateral talks with Washington.

The United States and North Korea last held formal discussions in April that included China. During the trilateral talks, which took place in Beijing, North Korea told the United States that it possesses nuclear weapons, threatened to transfer them to other countries, and made a veiled reference to nuclear testing, according to U.S. officials. (See ACT, April 2003.)

The April talks were the first since the nuclear crisis started last October. At that time, according to the United States, North Korean officials told a U.S. delegation during a meeting in Pyongyang that North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program in violation of several nuclear agreements, including the 1994 Agreed Framework. The situation escalated for months, and in January North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). [See sidebar below.]

It is not known whether North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, but Powell said June 9 that the United States believes North Korea has “some small number of nuclear weapons.” The uranium enrichment program is being designed to produce two weapons per year. (See ACT, June 2003 and April 2003.) Additionally, U.S. officials have said that North Korea can develop five or six nuclear weapons within months if it reprocesses several thousand spent-fuel rods it has. Despite reports that in April North Korea claimed to have begun reprocessing its spent fuel, a State Department official interviewed June 24 said the United States does not know the status of Pyongyang’s reprocessing efforts.

The official also confirmed that Washington continues to insist that Pyongyang verifiably dismantle its nuclear program before President George W. Bush will undertake his self-described “bold approach,” which U.S. officials have said involves “economic and political steps” to help North Korea and to improve relations between the two countries. The official explained that the Bush administration may initiate these steps if North Korea gives up its nuclear program, but that issues such as human rights, missiles, and conventional forces would still have to be addressed.

North Korea continues to reject the U.S. stance on negotiations. A June 18 KCNA statement stated that this policy, combined with Washington’s efforts to increase pressure on Pyongyang, is an attempt to “contain” the country “with ease after forcing it to disarm itself.” The statement also explained North Korea’s view that such attempts at disarmament are a prelude to war, citing the invasion of Iraq in March as proof.

Increasing its rhetoric even further, North Korea stated in a June 9 KCNA statement that it would “build up a nuclear deterrent force” if the United States “keeps threatening [North Korea] with nukes instead of abandoning its hostile policy toward Pyongyang.” Although the statement did not say that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, it marked the most explicit public statement from North Korea on the issue. The statement nevertheless maintained that a North Korean nuclear force would not be aimed “to threaten and blackmail others.”

U.S. officials have said that in April North Korea offered to eliminate its two nuclear programs and halt its missile exports if the United States complied with a list of demands which, according to a South Korean official, 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 referenced its April proposal in the June 9 statement and indicated that it would “clear up” U.S. concerns about its nuclear program if Washington “drops its hostile policy toward” North Korea—a reference to what North Korea perceives as U.S. attempts to weaken its economy and threaten its security with both nuclear and conventional forces.

Meanwhile, Washington is renewing its efforts to persuade the UN Security Council to adopt a Security Council president’s statement condemning North Korea’s actions, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said June 20. A U.S. official interviewed that same day said that the United States has informally circulated a draft among the Security Council’s members.

The official added that China continues to oppose the statement because it does not believe the timing is right and wants to know more about the U.S. “game plan” for resolving the situation. (See ACT, April 2003.) Beijing continues to encourage dialogue and support a negotiated settlement to the nuclear crisis, a foreign ministry spokesperson said in a June 17 press briefing. (See ACT, June 2003.)

South Korea and Japan also continue to support a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but a joint press conference held June 7 between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun revealed that the two leaders continue to differ somewhat in their approaches to North Korea. Koizumi stated that “dialogue and pressure are necessary for the diplomatic…solution,” according to a June 7 Agence France Press report, but Roh said that Seoul places “more emphasis on dialogue.”

Indeed, Seoul proposed a negotiating strategy with North Korea during the TCOG meeting, apparently similar in many respects to North Korea’s April proposal. According to a June 17 Joongang Ilbo article, the South Korean plan suggests “step-by-step measures,” requiring North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear program, end missile exports, and continue its missile-test moratorium. In return, Pyongyang’s demands for security assurances, economic assistance, normalized relations, and the resumption of heavy-fuel oil shipments that had been part of the Agreed Framework would be addressed.

North Korea’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Status

Although North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) on January 10, Pyongyang’s status within the regime has yet to be formally determined.

Some states have argued that because North Korea did not cite or explain what “extraordinary events” led to its January 10 announcement, as required by the treaty, its withdrawal is invalid. A requisite three-month waiting period ended without comment on April 10, and a meeting of the remaining 188 NPT member states in late April did not confront the issue directly. (See ACT, June 2003.) The treaty’s depositories—Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have not arrived at a decision about how to address North Korea’s withdrawal, prolonging the holdup of a formal announcement of North Korea’s treaty status.

Sources indicated that the depository governments are unwilling to expend bureaucratic time and energy on the question. One Western diplomat stressed, “It’s important to focus on what the North Koreans are actually doing” and leave the question of its NPT status aside for the moment. According to another source close to the issue, if the biggest problem—getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambition—is solved, North Korea could again be compliant with NPT standards, thus rendering the question of withdrawal moot.

-Christine Kucia

Posted: July 1, 2003