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"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
U.S. Allies Split on North Korea; Talks Stalled as Pyongyang Waits

Paul Kerr

Since the Nov. 2 re-election of President George W. Bush, the United States, along with North Korea’s neighbors, has accelerated diplomatic efforts to convene another round of six-party talks. However, Washington and the other participants still appear to differ on how the crisis surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should be resolved.

The six parties, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, agreed after the most recent talks in June to meet again before the end of September, but North Korea refused to do so. The parties had hoped to ease a crisis that began in October 2002 when U.S. officials said their North Korean counterparts had acknowledged having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. North Korea has since said it has accelerated its nuclear weapons efforts, moving ahead with a plutonium-based program that had been frozen by a 1994 agreement with the United States. Either highly enriched uranium or plutonium can provide the explosive material for a nuclear weapon. (See ACT, October 2004.)

Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to China, Japan, and South Korea in October to coordinate diplomatic strategies in an unsuccessful effort to bring North Korea back to the table. It is widely believed that Pyongyang refused to attend the talks because it was waiting for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

On Nov. 9, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il told Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei that Pyongyang is evaluating Washington’s post-election North Korea policy before committing to a meeting, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said.

Additionally, Mitoji Yabunaka, a director-general in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, urged North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan to attend another round before the year’s end, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated Nov. 16. Kim declined, however, and reiterated Pyongyang’s complaints about what it terms Washington’s “hostile” policy. The two officials met during bilateral working-level talks concerning Pyongyang’s past abductions of Japanese citizens. (See ACT, November 2002.)

Both North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and state-run media continued to accuse the United States of planning to overthrow the Pyongyang regime, including through the use of military force. A Nov. 16 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) contended that the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) interdiction exercise in late October, which Japan hosted, is part of this strategy.

PSI participants intend to carry out cargo interdictions to stop shipments of weapons of mass destruction and related goods to and from countries of proliferation concern. The participants claim that the initiative does not target any particular country, but U.S. officials have made it clear that North Korea’s shipments of missiles and related components are an interdiction priority.

Pyongyang has not yet responded to the U.S. proposal presented in June but continues to argue that Washington should reward North Korea for freezing its nuclear facilities. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

North Korea also has continued to criticize Washington’s handling of recently discovered South Korean nuclear activities. A Nov. 20 KCNA statement implied that Washington’s application of “double standards” with respect to Pyongyang’s and Seoul’s respective nuclear programs may jeopardize the six-party talks. The statement dismissed the current International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation of recently revealed South Korean nuclear research and added that North Korea will “never dismantle its self-defensive nuclear deterrent force unless a thorough and understandable probe is made into South Korea’s nuclear issue.”

The IAEA has said that the South Korean nuclear activities in question have ceased and that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program. North Korea, by contrast, has developed the infrastructure to develop nuclear weapons and claims it possesses such weapons.

Tactical Differences?
Although North Korea has yet to respond to the June U.S. proposal, the Bush administration has not made any further diplomatic gestures toward Pyongyang. Instead, it is admonishing North Korea to respond in the next round of six-party talks, a senior administration official told reporters Nov. 17.

Bush discussed North Korea with the four other participating countries at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Chile. He stated Nov. 20 that the other parties are “united” and are sending a clear message that Pyongyang must dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.

Recent public statements, however, suggest persisting tactical differences. The United States has favored a more hard-line approach while the other participants have supported greater engagement with North Korea. Indeed, Washington formulated its June proposal, which moderated its previous diplomatic approach, in response to the other participants’ recommendations. The two-phase proposal, which was the Bush administration’s first concrete offer to resolve the dispute, provides incentives for North Korea to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear programs. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters Nov. 19 that the talks are “meeting with some difficulties” and Beijing wants “all parties” to show “patience and flexibility.” South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was more explicit in a Nov. 14 speech in Los Angeles, arguing that economic sanctions “would not be a desirable solution” and “[t]he use of force should be restricted as a negotiating strategy,” Agence France Presse reported.

The senior administration official did not directly answer when asked if the United States would be more flexible in response to pressure from its allies. Instead, the official cited some past U.S. successes in obtaining support for its approach while acknowledging that “we still have more work to do.” Another senior administration official argued that “pressure” from North Korea’s neighbors will induce Pyongyang to resolve the matter “peacefully through the six-party talks.”