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

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Six Nations Square Off Over North Korea

Seoul Advances Proposal

Paul Kerr

The second round of six-party talks designed to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula began Feb. 25 in Beijing with some early signs that they might yield progress. The nations involved are the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

There was little initial indication that the United States and North Korea had altered significantly their previous stances, but Agence France Presse reported Feb. 26 that South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck issued a proposal at the talks to provide energy assistance to North Korea if Pyongyang froze its nuclear program. Lee said that China and Russia expressed “their willingness to join” the proposal, adding that Washington indicated “support” for it.

The current crisis began in October 2002, when the United States announced that North Korea admitted to having a covert uranium enrichment program. The following month, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which includes the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union, cut off fuel oil shipments promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under that agreement, North Korea agreed to freezes its graphite-moderated reactor and related facilities, as well as spent fuel from the reactor, and place them under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring to dispel concerns that it was reprocessing spent fuel for weapons. In return, the United States established KEDO as an international consortium to provide heavy fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors to North Korea.

Since then, the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang has escalated. In response to KEDO’s decision, North Korea ejected the IAEA inspectors in December 2002 and restarted its nuclear reactor shortly thereafter. North Korea has said it has reprocessed all the spent fuel from its graphite reactor to extract plutonium and implied that it is using the material to construct nuclear weapons. It is unclear whether this is true.

In the meantime, the United States and North Korea held two previous rounds of talks in Beijing to ease the crisis: a trilateral discussion with China last April and the first round of six-party talks last August. The talks achieved no significant breakthroughs, although all participants expressed optimism that a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be reached (See ACT, October 2003 and May 2003.)

A Possible Compromise

According to a Feb. 24 Xinhua News Agency report, Lee told reporters that the South Korean proposal consists of three phases. In the first, North Korea would state “its willingness to dismantle its nuclear program” and the United States would state “its readiness to provide security guarantees.” Then “North Korea would take the first step towards [sic] dismantling its programs by freezing its nuclear activities.” North Korea would receive “energy aid and other rewards” once inspectors have verified the freeze. South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun elaborated Feb. 26, saying that North Korea has to present “a definite timetable from a freeze to the complete dismantlement” in order to receive energy assistance.

The third phase of the proposal would see the verified “complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear facilities…and all other related issues resolved,” reportedly including a written security guarantee.

How the main adversaries in the dispute—Washington and Pyongyang—will react is unclear, although there were indications that both sides would be flexible. A senior U.S. official told reporters Feb. 19 that the United States might be able to accept a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities as a “first step” toward resolving the dispute. Furthermore, Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli suggested Feb. 20 that the United States would not oppose other countries offering energy assistance to North Korea.

As for North Korea, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan said in an opening statement that Pyongyang would be “flexible,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. Additionally, a North Korean official told reporters Feb. 26 that Pyongyang offered during the talks to abandon its “nuclear weapons plan while the U.S. is taking a corresponding measure.” He did not specify what that measure would be.

North Korea’s very presence at the talks represented a compromise on its part. Pyongyang had said that resuming the talks depended on the other parties’ willingness to agree to a “first phase” of a larger North Korean proposal (See ACT, January/February 2004). It is unclear why Pyongyang changed its stance.

Lee also stated that Japan signaled support for South Korea’s proposal, but whether Japan will ultimately agree is uncertain. A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Feb. 13 that Tokyo will not give economic assistance to Pyongyang until the two governments have normalized diplomatic relations—a process that must include resolution of the nuclear issue and North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens, he said. The same spokesman said Feb. 24, however, that Japan wishes to build on recent bilateral discussions on the matter by having similar meetings at the Beijing talks.

Washington vs. Pyongyang

The crux of the disagreement between the two sides continues to be mainly one of timing. The United States is resistant to “reward” North Korea for pursuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of its previous commitments and North Korea fears that the United States will pocket any concessions.

Agence France Presse reported that North Korea’s recent offer to get rid of its nuclear weapons also came with a demand that the United States change its “hostile policy.” This is consistent with past North Korean demands for the United States to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, increase food aid, and issue an assurance that it will not attack North Korea. Additionally, Pyongyang has demanded that Washington complete the suspended reactor project and resume fuel oil shipments that were part of the Agreed Framework. (See ACT, October 2003).

A Feb. 23 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reiterated North Korea’s “first-stage” proposal—first articulated in December—that the United States remove it from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, lift “political, economic, and military sanctions,” and provide energy assistance. In return, Pyongyang would freeze its “nuclear facilities,” the statement said. KCNA provided more detail about the freeze Jan. 6, stating that North Korea would not test or produce nuclear weapons and would stop operating its “nuclear power industry.”

On Feb. 24, North Korea suggested flexibility on its “first phase actions.” According to the Xinhua News Agency, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson repeated North Korea’s offer of a nuclear freeze, but did not specify the sort of “compensation” it wanted in return.

For its part, the senior U.S. administration official downplayed expectations for the talks, describing the meeting as a “step in a process.” The official added that Washington wants Pyongyang to make a “fundamental choice” to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but would not specify how North Korea should demonstrate that it has done so. The official also reiterated the administration’s position that it is “not looking to bargain on this arrangement.”

The U.S. official added that the U.S. delegation would provide more details during the talks about the “kind of elements that….would go into a security assurance.” The official also stated that the delegation expected to have direct talks with their North Korean counterparts, but added that they would not engage in “direct bilateral negotiations.” Whether to have such talks has been a sticking point between the two sides for some time. A compromise was struck when both sides met bilaterally during the August talks. (See ACT, September 2003.)

The opening statement from the leader of the U.S. delegation contained no surprises. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly stated that the United States seeks the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of both North Korean nuclear programs. He also repeated Washington’s offer of a written, multilateral security agreement in the “context” of Pyongyang’s compliance. Kelly did not specify the steps the United States wants North Korea to take before receiving a security assurance, although the U.S. official reiterated the administration’s position that the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program does not need to be complete before the United States will act.

In contrast to North Korea, the United States has never issued a detailed proposal for resolving the dispute and Kelly said only that “resolution of the nuclear issue will facilitate resolution of important bilateral issues among the parties and this open up the prospect of fully normalized relations among all of the six parties.”

On Feb. 19, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton mentioned “the possibility of a completely new relationship” between the two countries, but did not elaborate. He said the United States also wants to discuss issues such as North Korea’s human rights record, conventional forces, and suspected chemical and biological weapons programs. Other U.S. officials have made similar vague statements in the past.

Going into the talks, U.S. officials suggested that a possible sticking point could be North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. At the last round of talks, North Korea denied having such a program, and the country has dismissed reports that a network run by a Pakistani official supplied North Korea with uranium enrichment technology. Bolton implied that North Korea’s continued refusal to admit to having such a program during the February talks could jeopardize future discussions. The other senior official indicated that would not be the case, however.