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North Korea Talks Stymied

Paul Kerr

A second round of six-party talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis apparently yielded only marginal progress on procedural issues with major substantive differences still dividing the United States and North Korea. In addition, the participants, including China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, have yet to follow through on even the modest measures announced at the talks’ conclusion.

According to a Feb. 28 Chairman’s Statement issued by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi after the talks, which took place Feb. 25-28 in Beijing, the parties agreed to meet again in Beijing by the end of June and form a “working group” of lower-level officials to prepare for the meeting. A precise date has not yet been set, however, for either the next round of talks or a working group meeting.

Wang’s statement also said that all parties “expressed their commitment to a nuclear weapon-free Korean Peninsula” and agreed to “take coordinated steps to address the nuclear issue and…related concerns.” However, this does not appear to signify progress because China made a similar statement following the first round of talks.

Recounting the meeting to reporters during a Feb. 28 press conference, Wang described U.S. and North Korean positions that were essentially the same as those expressed prior to the talks. “Sharp” differences remain between Washington and Pyongyang, he said. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The participants are attempting to resolve the crisis that erupted in October 2002. That month, the United States announced that North Korea admitted during a meeting in Pyongyang to having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, a charge North Korea has since disputed. Such a program can produce explosive material for nuclear weapons. Washington argued that the program violated an agreement that the two countries concluded in 1994, known as the Agreed Framework, to resolve the first North Korean nuclear crisis, which began after North Korea was discovered diverting spent fuel from its graphite-moderated nuclear reactor for reprocessing into plutonium for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, November 2002.)

Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to freeze the reactor and spent fuel, as well as the related facilities, and place them under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. In return, Washington agreed to several measures, which included establishing an international consortium to provide heavy-fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors to North Korea.

After the international consortium suspended fuel oil shipments the following month, North Korea ejected IAEA inspectors and withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Since then, North Korea has restarted the reactor, claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel, and implied that it is constructing nuclear weapons. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Talks Redux

Attempting to resolve the crisis, the United States and North Korea have participated in two rounds of multilateral talks before the recent discussions: an April 2003 trilateral meeting in Beijing and a first round of six-party talks in August. (See ACT, October 2003 and May 2003.)

Nevertheless, little substantive headway has been made as neither of the parties has budged much from its opening bid. The United States has insisted that North Korea dismantle its nuclear programs but refuses to “reward” Pyongyang for doing so. The Bush administration has not publicly presented any specific proposals for resolving the crisis, but it has said that relations between the two countries might improve if North Korea verifiably dismantles its nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has linked such an improvement to Pyongyang’s progress in other areas, such as human rights, and has not stated that North Korean nuclear concessions would be sufficient for the United States to enact any policy changes.

Wang said the U.S. delegation told North Korean diplomats during the recent talks that Washington has “no intention of invading…or attempting a regime change” in North Korea and hoped to “normalize relations…after its concerns were addressed.” Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 2 that the United States “could” normalize its relations with North Korea if the latter addresses such issues as conventional forces on the Korean peninsula and human rights.

Wang also stated that North Korea “reaffirmed its willingness to give up nuclear programs…[if] the U.S. abandoned its hostile policies toward the country” and “offered to freeze its nuclear activities as the first step” if other participants take “corresponding actions.”

North Korea has previously claimed that it would be willing to dismantle its nuclear program, beginning with a freeze in further nuclear developments, but only in a series of synchronized steps that coincide with the United States providing significant concessions. Pyongyang wants Washington to normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, lift economic sanctions, increase food aid, issue an assurance that it will not attack North Korea, complete the suspended reactor project, and resume fuel oil shipments that were part of the Agreed Framework. (See ACT, October 2003.) Pyongyang’s demand for unspecified “corresponding actions,” however, may signal some flexibility on this position.

In a statement following the talks, Japan’s Foreign Ministry identified two specific issues dividing North Korea and other participants. The first is that Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul want all of North Korea’s nuclear programs to be dismantled, but Pyongyang wishes to be allowed to have one for peaceful purposes. This demand may signal North Korea’s wish to revive the Agreed Framework’s currently suspended nuclear reactor agreement. The second issue is that Washington and the other two governments want Pyongyang to acknowledge having an uranium enrichment program, which it has so far refused to do.

Wang also said that the other parties “discussed the concept” of Washington’s oft-repeated demand that the North Koreans agree to the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling” of its nuclear programs but added that “no consensus has been achieved” on the specifics.

One sign suggesting that the talks were contentious is that the six parties failed to reach consensus on a joint document, leaving it to Wang to issue his statement instead. Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher told reporters March 4 that North Korea demanded unacceptable “last minute” changes which ruined the prospect for a joint document.

There were some small signs of progress. Wang noted that China, South Korea, and Russia “pledged to provide energy assistance to [North Korea] on certain conditions.” South Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Lee Soo-hyuck, issued a proposal at the talks to provide energy assistance to the North in return for a freeze of its nuclear program, along with a promise to dismantle it. Washington was consulted on Seoul’s proposal and did not oppose it, a State Department official told Arms Control Today March 25.

The decision to announce another round of talks at the end of the February meeting also contrasts with the situation following the previous round, when North Korea implied that it was uninterested in further talks. Although Pyongyang quickly agreed in principle to participate in another round, a date was announced only after months of intense diplomacy.

The participants are now trying to agree on a date for a working group meeting. China has circulated a “concept paper” about the group’s composition and agenda to the other five parties, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said March 18. The State Department official said that both of these items remain under discussion.

Describing the working group’s purpose, the official said the concept is designed to form a regular meeting process to “clarify questions and reach agreements on certain matters” before the next round of six-party talks.

The Aftermath

North Korea blamed U.S. intransigence for the talks’ lack of progress. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated Feb. 29 that the U.S. delegation would not address its concerns and “said that it was not willing to negotiate.” Instead, the U.S. officials “insisted…that it can discuss [North Korea’s] concerns only when it completely scraps its nuclear program,” the spokesperson said.

A March 29 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) indicates that Pyongyang’s current position appears unchanged from the one expressed during the talks. However, North Korea seemed to issue a new demand in a March 8 KCNA statement, which said that the United States should withdraw its troops from South Korea if Washington’s position does not change.

Other participants also noted the distance between Washington and Pyongyang. Chinese Foreign Ministry official Liu Jianchao urged all participants to show “flexibility” in their positions during a Feb. 27 press conference, but added that the U.S. goal of North Korean nuclear dismantlement is “not enough” and that North Korea’s “concerns should be addressed.” Additionally, the South Korean official told Arms Control Today March 23 Washington and Seoul “share many important goals,” but there are “differences on tactics.”

For its part, the United States expressed satisfaction with the talks’ outcome, although North Korea apparently did not satisfy the U.S. requirement that it make a “fundamental choice” to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A senior administration official briefing reporters just before the talks did not say how North Korea should demonstrate that it had made this choice. However, Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter told Arms Control Today March 12, without mentioning North Korea by name, that a “strategic commitment” to disarm included granting inspectors the sort of information and access that Libya has provided since announcing its intention to give up its nuclear weapons program in December.

State Department Director of Policy Planning Mitchell Reiss elaborated on this “choice” in a March 12 speech that appeared to signal a subtle shift in U.S. policy. Reiss explained that Washington’s “immediate objective” is for Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program but added that the administration also seeks “the transformation of [North Korea] into a normal state.” Referencing Libya’s decision, Reiss argued that North Korea currently faces a “pivotal choice” where it can either pursue nuclear weapons or “transform its relations with the outside world.” Reiss suggested that North Korea’s economy and government could collapse if it chooses the former.

Reiss then described the actions North Korea may be expected to take if it wishes to become a “normal” state. These include adopting economic reforms and an efficient energy distribution policy. These demands supplement the list of non-nuclear issues that the Bush administration has linked to progress in bilateral relations.

The March 12 speech also contains what is probably the administration’s most specific articulation to date of the possible benefits that North Korea might receive if it complies with U.S. demands. These benefits include the end of economic sanctions, “removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, opportunities for economic and technical assistance” in such areas as agriculture and defense conversion, and “the normalization of relations.” However, Reiss’ speech did not specify which North Korean actions would be sufficient to realize these benefits and, apart from specific types of economic assistance, the speech added little to previous U.S. suggestions that it would normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Additionally, most of the benefits Reiss discussed were part of the Agreed Framework, but current U.S. demands well exceed North Korea’s obligations under that agreement.

Furthermore, recent revelations from knowledgeable U.S. government sources appear to contradict the premises of Reiss’ statement. For example, U.S. intelligence agencies have stated that North Korea shows no signs of imminent collapse. (See ACT, December 2003.) Additionally, some U.S. and British officials have pointed out that Libya’s disarmament came about after years of diplomacy, and a former Clinton administration official wrote in January that the United States offered to lift sanctions on Libya in exchange for disarming. (See ACT, March 2004.)

North Korea has also dismissed elements of this policy. In his Feb. 29 statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson described the linkage of normalizing relations with issues other than its nuclear program “absurd.” He also implied that a policy designed to force a collapse of the North Korean regime would actually give Pyongyang time to build its nuclear weapons arsenal.