“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
U.S. and North Korea at Impasse Over Talks
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Paul Kerr

More than four months after China hosted the first round of six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, discussions remain stalled as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to reach mutually acceptable terms for resuming them. North Korea has implied that it will not attend the next round unless the talks address Pyongyang’s offer to freeze its nuclear program in return for U.S. concessions. Washington repeatedly insists it has no set “preconditions” for its participation but rejects North Korea’s position and wants future talks to focus solely on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

The Dispute

The current standoff is the latest manifestation of a months-long stalemate between the United States and North Korea that has persisted since the August talks. Pyongyang continues to express dissatisfaction with what it claims are vague U.S. responses to its past proposals for resolving the nuclear crisis.

In particular, North Korea has called on the United States to issue a security assurance, normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, and increase food aid. Additionally, Pyongyang has demanded that Washington complete the suspended nuclear reactor project and resume fuel oil shipments that were part of the 1994 Agreed Framework. That agreement froze the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for the construction of two proliferation-resistant light-water nuclear reactors, the provision of heavy-fuel oil, and the normalization of diplomatic relations. (See ACT, October 2003.)

The United States has not publicly responded with a comparable counterproposal. Department of State spokesman Adam Ereli reiterated the U.S. position Dec. 19, stating that the United States is “willing” to offer a written, multilateral security agreement “in the context of North Korea’s complete and verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program.” Washington had previously insisted that North Korea dismantle all of its nuclear facilities before the United States would act but has since signaled flexibility regarding the timing of a security agreement. (See ACT, December 2003.)

The Bush administration has not said what North Korea must do before Washington implements such an agreement. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Dec. 18 that the administration “expect[s]” the North Koreans to “achieve benchmarks toward ending their nuclear program” but did not elaborate.

As for North Korea’s other demands, Bush administration officials continue to insist that the United States will not “reward” North Korea for dismantling its nuclear program but that it may address other North Korean concerns if Pyongyang does so.

North Korea has said it is willing to consider the U.S. security proposal, which falls short of Pyongyang’s previous demand for a formal “nonaggression pact,” but Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed reluctance to dismantle its nuclear facilities and weapons before the United States acts, arguing that Washington will simply pocket any concessions in an attempt to “disarm” North Korea.

The dispute over the next round of talks reflects the sensitivity of the timing issue. According to a Dec. 9 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that, in addition to a written security assurance, Pyongyang wants the United States to take “practical actions” in return for dismantling its nuclear facilities.

To that end, the spokesman stated that resuming the talks depends on the other parties’ willingness to agree to a “first phase” of North Korea’s larger proposal. He stated that North Korea will “freeze [its] nuclear activities” if the United States removes North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism; lifts “political, economic, and military sanctions;” and provides heavy-fuel oil and other energy assistance.

Still, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials have suggested that these preconditions are negotiable. The spokesman described North Korea’s demands Dec. 9 as a “proposed first-phase step.” Additionally, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il said the same day in Malaysia that Pyongyang would attend a new round of talks if it “will be a process toward the realization of a package solution based on simultaneous actions we have proposed,” Kyodo News reported.

Although President George W. Bush dismissed Pyongyang’s proposal by stating that the U.S. “goal” is for North Korea to “dismantle,” not freeze, its nuclear program, North Korea has repeatedly offered to dismantle its nuclear program as part of a final settlement. KCNA reported Dec. 28 that a Foreign Ministry spokesman described these steps as a “starting point” for solving the nuclear crisis.

The Way Forward

Although consultations among the parties continue, the evident lack of common ground casts doubt on whether another round of talks will yield progress, especially if there is little advance agreement on the meeting’s objectives.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated Dec. 8 that United States, South Korea, and Japan reached agreement on language designed to form the basis for a joint statement resulting from a next round of talks. China, however, which has taken the lead in arranging the talks, was unsuccessful in obtaining North Korea’s agreement.

U.S. differences with other participants over the appropriate approach also remain evident. On Dec. 23, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman admonished “all sides” to be “flexible and more pragmatic” in their approaches, and South Korea’s Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said Dec. 4 that Washington should “ease its stance for the momentum of dialogue,” Agence France Presse reported.