A series of recent statements from North Korea has raised doubts about whether September nuclear talks with the United States and four other countries will take place, despite the participants’ June agreement to hold them.
Since the June talks, when the United States made its first concrete offer thus far to resolve a nearly two-year-old nuclear standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, North Korea has criticized the U.S. proposal and blasted President George W. Bush in statements carried by its state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). It has neither provided Washington with a formal response to the U.S. proposal nor, despite efforts by third parties, agreed to a date for new talks.
An Aug. 24 KCNA statement said that recent comments by Bush made it “quite impossible” to attend any talks. It said that “there is a question as to whether there is any need for [North Korea] to negotiate with the [United States] anymore.” South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuk said two days later that Pyongyang may be trying to delay the next round of talks until after the U.S. presidential election in November, Chosun Ilbo reported.
In an Aug. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, a Bush administration official familiar with the talks said that statements referring to Bush as “a thrice-cursed fascist tyrant” and “human trash” may be attempts to elicit a harsh response from U.S. officials. Such a reaction would provide North Korea an excuse for not attending the talks, whereas Pyongyang’s outright refusal would anger the other participants, the official said.
A Department of State spokesperson told Arms Control Today Aug. 30 that the United States still expects both the talks and a working group meeting of lower-level officials to be held before the end of the month. China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea are also participants.
The June round of six-party talks was the third such round held in Beijing. The talks have been held to resolve a crisis that began in October 2002 when Washington announced that a U.S. delegation visiting Pyongyang claimed their North Korean counterparts acknowledged having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Such a program would have violated the 1994 Agreed Framework, an agreement between the United States and North Korea that froze the latter’s nuclear reactor and related facilities.
The Agreed Framework resolved an earlier crisis, when North Korea was discovered diverting spent nuclear fuel from a reactor. Both uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Since the onset of the recent crisis, North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor, claimed it has reprocessed the spent fuel, and said that it already possesses nuclear weapons.
Several governments have attempted to encourage the next round of talks. For example, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited North Korea in August to persuade Pyongyang to attend the next round. North Korean officials told him they remain “committed” to the talks, he wrote in an Aug. 23 article, but did not agree to a firm date.
Proposals and Reactions
The U.S. proposal called for a two-phase process in which North Korea would receive fuel oil from China, South Korea, and Russia after agreeing to dismantle its nuclear programs following an initial freeze. Japan agreed during the meeting to participate in providing fuel oil.
According to the proposal, the United States and the other parties to the talks would also draft a multilateral security agreement and begin surveying North Korea’s energy needs.
Washington is willing to negotiate the details of a security assurance with its allies but requires that the agreement not be legally binding, interfere with existing security alliances, or be limited to a bilateral U.S.-North Korean agreement.
Additionally, the United States would begin bilateral discussions with North Korea on the removal of U.S. sanctions— discussions that could eventually lead to talks on normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee July 15 that the United States still links full normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations to other issues, such as improving North Korea’s human rights record and restricting its conventional forces.
Kelly also discussed a counterproposal North Korea presented at the June meeting. Pyongyang offered to “refrain from” producing, testing, or transferring nuclear weapons, as well as conditionally to freeze “all the facilities related to nuclear weapons and products churned out by their operation.” The latter is a probable reference to the production of fissile material. The freeze would ultimately result in the dismantling of Pyongyang’s “nuclear weapons program,” a North Korean official said.
Although Kelly said North Korea identified its nuclear reactor as a nuclear weapons-related facility, the overall scope of Pyongyang’s proposed freeze is unclear. Kelly did note, however, that the proposed freeze would not include plutonium produced prior to the Agreed Framework.
U.S. officials have also said that for progress to be made North Korea has to acknowledge that it has a uranium-enrichment program and abandon hopes to retain a peaceful nuclear program. Pyongyang’s public statements indicate that it has not done either.
For its part, North Korea argues that the U.S. proposal does not provide enough rewards up front. In an Aug. 10 KCNA statement, Pyongyang said that, as a “first-stage step,” it wants the United States to lift economic sanctions, “directly join in energy compensation” for two million kilowatts of electricity, and remove it from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism.
In June, North Korea made similar demands but seemed to indicate more flexibility on timing. For example, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson at the time called for a U.S. “commitment” to lift sanctions, rather than lifting them immediately.
Some North Korean statements have suggested that Pyongyang wants the United States to help provide heavy-fuel oil as it did under the Agreed Framework. The administration official characterized such a demand merely as a potential pretext for postponing the talks, adding that the United States will not give fuel oil because of congressional opposition.
Pyongyang and the United States have also squared off over how an eventual agreement might be verified. Pyongyang said at the June meeting that it was willing to discuss the matter during the six-party talks. Furthermore, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson indicated July 14 that Pyongyang will allow outsiders to verify facilities after they are frozen but will only discuss verifying other nuclear activities, such as its pre-1994 plutonium production, “at the phase of dismantling its nuclear program.” Kelly noted that North Korea wants to exclude the International Atomic Energy Agency from any verification effort, contrary to U.S. wishes. The United States has a verification plan that it has been discussing with allies.