With another round of six-party talks concerning the North Korean nuclear crisis likely to take place, the Bush administration has signaled new flexibility in its bargaining position. Although U.S. policy is still far from fully formed, the biggest change appears to be that the United States will not insist that North Korea completely dismantle its nuclear facilities before Washington addresses some of North Korea’s concerns. Instead, Department of State officials say, they are looking at a step-by-step approach to reduce tensions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sept. 22 that future multilateral discussions are likely, and officials from South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China—the other participants in the recent talks held in Beijing—have all expressed support for another round.
North Korea, however, has been ambivalent. An Aug. 30 statement from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) indicated that Pyongyang was uninterested in further six-party talks. But a Sept. 2 agency statement reaffirmed Pyongyang’s “will to peacefully settle the nuclear issue…through dialogue.”
Subsequent North Korean statements have argued that future six-party talks will not be useful unless Washington changes its “hostile policy” of threatening a military attack and economic strangulation. Pyongyang officials have repeatedly demanded that the two countries conclude a non-aggression treaty before Pyongyang destroys its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang’s ambivalence toward future talks stems from its aversion to U.S. demands that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program before addressing any of North Korea’s concerns. Indeed, the United States has repeatedly insisted that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program as a necessary—although not necessarily sufficient—condition for improved bilateral relations.
North Korea contends that the United States continued to articulate this position during the Beijing talks. (See ACT, September 2003). However, a senior State Department official insisted during a Sept. 4 press briefing that the U.S. delegation actually displayed more flexibility than the North Koreans claim and that Pyongyang’s statements seemed “pre-scripted” rather than responsive to the actual discussions.
The official said the U.S. presentations were “different in tone and in content” from those made during talks with North Korea in Oct. 2002 and this past April. The official added that the U.S. delegation “made clear that we are not seeking to strangle North Korea…we can sincerely discuss security concerns in the context of nuclear dismantlement, and...we are willing to discuss a sequence of denuclearization measures with corresponding measures on both sides.” The United States did not specify what measures it would take, the official said.
This account of the U.S. position is somewhat consistent with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Aug. 29 statement that all parties had reached a “consensus” to solve the nuclear crisis “through synchronous and parallel implementation.” However, a Sept. 1 statement from the South Korean government said there were “sharp differences” between the two sides, and Wang told reporters the same day that—despite his earlier comments—Washington’s policy is the “main problem” preventing diplomatic progress.
During the talks, North Korea reiterated and elaborated on its solution for resolving the standoff. According to an Aug. 29 KCNA statement, North Korea proposed a step-by-step solution, calling for the United States to conclude a “non-aggression treaty,” normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel oil shipments, and increase food aid. In return, North Korea would dismantle its “nuclear facility,” as well as end missile testing and export of missiles and related components.
North Korea made a similar proposal during a round of trilateral talks held in Beijing in April. A Sept. 10 KCNA statement also said that Pyongyang would discuss verification measures for any agreement “only after the U.S. drops its hostile policy.”
“Nuclear facility” appears to refer to its plutonium-based nuclear reactor frozen under the Agreed Framework—the agreement that 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-based nuclear facilities. An August KCNA statement denied U.S. charges, first made during a bilateral meeting in Oct. 2002, that North Korea possesses a uranium-enrichment program—another method for producing fuel for nuclear weapons.
Following meetings with Bush and Powell in early September, South Korean Foreign Affairs-Trade Minister Yoon Young-kwan said in a statement that the United States would probably go to the next round of talks with a proposal that would likely address North Korea’s security concerns. Powell said in August that the United States could support some form of written security assurance to North Korea, although he ruled out a nonaggression treaty.
Although State Department spokesman Richard Boucher Sept. 5 said the United States is not “going to grant inducements to North Korea to change its behavior,” a State Department official interviewed by ACT Sept. 24 said Washington is “looking at a sequence of steps” toward North Korean dismantlement. The senior State Department official stated Sept. 4 said North Korea would not “have to do everything before they would hear anything.”
Still, U.S. policy is clearly in flux. For example, the senior State Department official said Washington has not “completely decided” on procedures for verifying any North Korean agreement. And although Bush said in May that the United States “will not tolerate” a nuclear-armed North Korea, the administration has not said how it will respond to North Korea’s producing nuclear weapons. Powell stated during a Sept. 22 interview with Business Week that the United States will say “Gee, that was interesting” if North Korea test nuclear weapons, contending that North Korea would only conduct such a test to “scare the international community.”
State Department Spokesman J. Peter Ereli said Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is to meet his counterparts from South Korea and Japan Sept. 29-30 to coordinate their North Korea policies.
A Nuclear Doctrine?
North Korea articulated the circumstances under which it would use nuclear weapons in a Sept. 1 KCNA statement, which describes Pyongyang’s “nuclear deterrent” as “defensive,” adding that its weapons will “remain unused” unless another country “provokes” it. North Korea does not intend to sell its nuclear weapons or provide them to terrorists, the statement adds.
North Korea told the U.S. delegation during the April talks that it had nuclear weapons and made a veiled reference to testing them. According to the senior State Department official, during the August talks the North Korean delegation threatened to test nuclear weapons or “demonstrate the means that they would have to deliver” them—an apparent reference to their missiles. The Sept. 2 statement warned that North Korea “will have no option but to increase its nuclear deterrent force” if the United States does not change its policy.
Meanwhile, Bush agreed Sept. 14 to waive the restrictions on funding to the Korean Peninsula Development Organization (KEDO), the U.S.-led consortium that is building the reactors under the Agreed Framework. Congress had prohibited funding KEDO unless Bush determined “that it is vital to the national security interests of the United States.” Bush’s decision provided “up to” $3.72 million for KEDO’s administrative expenses—not for the actual reactors, which the United States has never funded.
U.S. allies have opposed scrapping the reactor project. Minister Yoon said Seoul favors a “temporary suspension” of the project, as opposed to terminating it, according to a September press release.
Decisions about the reactor project’s future would be made at a KEDO Executive Board meeting, but no meeting has been scheduled, a KEDO official said during a Sept. 24 interview.
The following is the keynote speech given by Kim Yong II, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, at the six-party talks in Beijing Aug. 27. It is the most detailed account to date of what the North Koreans proposed, and appeared in an article published by KCNA, the state-run news agency:
In His Own Words
The following are excerpts from the first public comments made by Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, since he resigned from the State Department in late August (prior to the Beijing talks) over the Bush administration’s approach toward North Korea. The comments were made during a Sept. 8 press briefing at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.: