In late June, the United States for the first time presented a detailed proposal for resolving a nearly two-year-old nuclear crisis with North Korea, demonstrating new flexibility in a series of meetings that has already stretched on for more than a year. U.S. officials said that pressure from impatient allies helped force the initiative.
The talks, held in Beijing June 23-26, yielded no immediate breakthroughs, but the U.S. proposal contributed to greater optimism among the participants, which also included China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. They agreed in principle to hold another round by the end of September.
A June 26 Chairman’s Statement issued by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “differences among the Parties remained,” but both the U.S. Department of State and North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said June 28 that the talks made progress and called for each side to study the other’s proposal.
According to Wang, all participants “stressed the need for a step-by-step process of ‘words for words’ and ‘action for action’” to resolve the crisis. Additionally, they agreed to hold another round of working group talks “at the earliest possible date” to discuss the “first steps for denuclearization.”
Prior to the talks, Japan, South Korea, and China had pushed for the United States to be more flexible in dealing with North Korea and advocated the use of incentives to persuade North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue.
The six-party talks followed working group talks held during the previous two days—the second round since the parties agreed to such lower-level talks in February.
The six-party talks marked the third round of high-level talks since an initial trilateral meeting involving the United States, North Korea, and China in April 2003. The first two rounds of six-party talks, held in August 2003 and this past February, made little headway in resolving the recent North Korean nuclear crisis.
The standoff began in October 2002 when the U.S. delegation claimed that their North Korean counterparts acknowledged that they had a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Such a program would be in violation of 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 its reactor. Both uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Since the onset of the crisis, North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor, claimed it has reprocessed the spent fuel, and declared that it already possesses nuclear weapons. (See ACT, April 2004.)
New U.S. Proposal
An administration official told Arms Control Today June 24 that U.S. diplomats did not expect North Korea to accept the U.S. proposal in the near term, but that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly presented it to test North Korea’s intentions.
The proposal calls for a two-phase process in which North Korea would receive fuel oil from China, South Korea, and Russia after agreeing to first freeze, then dismantle its nuclear programs. 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. Additionally, Washington would begin bilateral discussions with North Korea on the removal of U.S. sanctions. The benefits spelled out in the proposal could then be withdrawn if North Korea did not comply (see sidebar).
The U.S. proposal marks a shift from its prior position. Previously, the United States insisted that North Korea agree to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear programs but said it would not “reward” North Korea for doing so. Washington did say that it would be willing to provide a written, multilateral security agreement to North Korea and “could” normalize relations with Pyongyang if it meets U.S. demands. The administration would not specify, however, what North Korea had to do to meet U.S. demands or what benefits it could gain from doing so.
In the past, the United States linked normalizing relations to other issues, such as North Korea taking steps to improve its human rights record and reduce its conventional forces.
The administration official acknowledged that the United States had not presented a specific enough position at past talks. In recent months, some U.S. officials clarified some aspects of the administration’s policy but had only hinted at the change embodied in the U.S. offer.
An offer to engage in bilateral discussions on sanctions appears to mark another administration shift. Previously, Kelly could only meet with North Korean officials on the side of the six-party talks. The administration official emphasized, however, that bilateral talks concerning sanctions would only be for the purpose of discussing procedures for North Korea to follow and would not constitute negotiations.
Kelly met bilaterally with his North Korean counterparts during this round of talks. According to the official, Kelly was only explaining the U.S. proposal, rather than negotiating its terms, adding that Washington will have more flexibility to take bilateral actions once North Korea commits to dismantlement.
The administration altered course in response to U.S. allies, the administration official said. South Korea had argued for testing the North Koreans, Japanese Prime Minister Jonichiro Koizumi told President George W. Bush June 8 at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit that North Korea might be willing to make a deal on dismantlement.
Moreover, while Washington had been holding to a hard line, South Korea, Japan, and China had launched their own initiatives to improve relations with Pyongyang. (See ACT, June 2004.)
During June alone, North and South Korea concluded a shipping agreement, began measures to prevent naval clashes, and halted propaganda broadcasts along their mutual border. Also, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun stated June 15 that Seoul would increase economic aid and development assistance to Pyongyang if the North dismantles its nuclear weapons program, Chosun Ilbo reported.
As for Japan, Koizumi met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in May to discuss North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese citizens, as well as the nuclear issue. Koizumi told reporters June 10 that he emphasized to Kim the benefits that North Korea would get from dismantling its nuclear program. Koizumi also “announced his intention to provide food and medical equipment to North Korea…through international organizations,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry said May 22.
Tokyo has said it will not normalize relations with North Korea until the nuclear issue is resolved, but Japanese officials have indicated that they are willing to begin talks beforehand.
For its part, China in the past few months has supported efforts to offer North Korea incentives for cooperation and has expanded ties with the country, agreeing in April to increase bilateral economic cooperation and hosting a visit by Kim. Moreover, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong indicated disagreement with the U.S. approach in a June 8 interview with The New York Times, saying Washington “has not presented convincing evidence” that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program exists. Zhou also claimed that there were “problems” with the U.S. dismantlement demands, although he did not elaborate.
The administration hoped that the new policy would unite the other participants behind the U.S. proposal, a plan that succeeded to an extent.
The Xinhua News Agency reported June 24 that Japan’s representative to the talks said Tokyo would also participate in providing oil to North Korea. That appeared to mark a policy shift: a Japanese embassy official had told Arms Control Today in May that Japan would not provide economic aid to North Korea until relations were normalized. South Korea, meanwhile, advanced a proposal very similar to both the U.S. proposal and one it made at the February talks. (See ACT, March 2004.)
Developing the new U.S. position apparently required administration advocates of greater engagement with North Korea to overcome the significant internal opposition that had stymied such an offer until recently. Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, former State Department special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, told National Public Radio June 23 that this group consists of “almost the entire Pentagon...an element within the State Department” led by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, members of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and a portion of the National Security Council led by senior director for counterproliferation Robert Joseph.Most State Department officials and the National Security Council’s Asian experts favor a “more moderate approach,” Pritchard said.
North Korea Reacts
The administration’s proposal appears to address several past North Korean demands, such as the lifting of sanctions, provision of energy assistance, and issuance of a security agreement.
North Korea countered with its own proposal at the talks. According to a June 28 North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, North Korea proposed to “refrain from” producing, testing, or transferring nuclear weapons and 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. Whether North Korea’s nuclear reactors or reprocessing facilities are covered by this statement is unclear.
“The freeze…would lead to the ultimate dismantlement of the nuclear weapons program,” the spokesperson added. Xinhua reported June 26 that North Korea’s delegation spokesperson, Hyun Hak Bong, stated that Pyongyang will discuss verification measures during the six-party talks.
In return, North Korea wants a “reward” consisting of “energy assistance” totaling two million kilowatts—the equivalent amount of power that would have been produced by two never-completed, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors promised under the Agreed Framework—and a U.S. commitment to lift sanctions. The statement only names “heavy oil and electricity” as forms of energy assistance, perhaps signaling compromise on North Korea’s previous demand that it be allowed to keep a civilian nuclear program. The Foreign Ministry statement is unclear on whether Pyongyang made other demands.
North Korea’s proposal also contains an element of conditionality. According to the Foreign Ministry, the length of the freeze depends on “whether reward is made or not.”
Although some aspects of North Korea’s position are similar to the U.S. proposal, disagreement remains. Hyun said Pyongyang wants Washington to join the other countries “in providing energy aid” after North Korea implements its nuclear freeze—an apparent reference to future energy projects, rather than fuel oil. North Korea “will show flexibility” on sanctions if the United States complies, Hyun said.
The Foreign Ministry also said Washington’s three-month time frame is not “realistic” and that the United States should drop its demands concerning the uranium-enrichment program, which Pyongyang has repeatedly denied possessing.