On March 2, North Korea exacerbated the already tense nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, stating in a lengthy memorandum that Pyongyang is no longer bound by its more than five-year-old moratorium on testing longer-range missiles. Yet, North Korea did not say it will resume such testing.
The Foreign Ministry memorandum did not cite any recent events as reason for the decision, instead arguing that the moratorium is no longer “valid” because the Bush administration suspended previous missile negotiations between the two countries in March 2001, pending a policy review. At that time, North Korea stated that it could not maintain the moratorium “indefinitely.”
North Korea originally pledged in September 1999 that it would not flight-test longer-range missiles as long as then-ongoing negotiations with the United States continued. About a year later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that it would discontinue testing of its Taepo Dong-1 missile, which it had once test-fired over Japan in August 1998.
North Korea’s explanation regarding the moratorium is curious because Pyongyang has reaffirmed the pledge on several occasions since March 2001. For example, Kim said in May 2001 that North Korea would extend the moratorium until 2003, and during a May 2004 summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim reaffirmed his September 2002 pledge to extend the moratorium indefinitely.
The 2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong-1 is the longest-range missile North Korea has flight-tested. As configured, that missile cannot reach the United States. A December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate stated that the longest-range missile North Korea has deployed is the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong.
CIA Director Porter Goss told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 17 that North Korea could flight-test its longer-range Taepo Dong-2 missile “at any time,” adding that the missile “is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear-weapon-sized payload.”
Other recent reports have been somewhat more qualified. A November CIA report stated that the Taepo Dong-2 “may” be ready for testing. It described the missile as “potentially capable of reaching parts of the United States.”
Additionally, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Thomas Fingar told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that there is “no evidence” that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons or “mated them to a missile capable of delivering them to the United States.”
U.S. officials have also said that North Korea is in the process of deploying a new, likely road-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile which has been under development for years. The missile, said to be based on the Soviet SS-N-6, has a range at 2,500-4,000 kilometers, according to press accounts citing U.S. and South Korean government estimates. (See ACT, September 2004.)
Talks Remain Stalled
The United States, along with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, has been negotiating with North Korea in talks designed to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Speaking to reporters March 2, Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli described Pyongyang’s threat as “not consistent with the spirit” of the talks, which have not taken place since last June.
Later in the month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited China, Japan, and South Korea—all of which have been more supportive of engaging Pyongyang than has Washington—in an attempt to induce them to pressure North Korea to return to the talks. Rice especially exhorted Chinese officials to exert greater “leverage” on Pyongyang.
However, Chinese statements following a later bilateral meeting in Beijing with North Korean Premier Pak Bong Ju suggested little willingness to increase pressure on Pyongyang. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao told reporters March 24 that both the United States and North Korea “should make greater effort” to restart the talks.
Pak told his Chinese interlocutors that Pyongyang would return to the talks “at any time, as long as the time was mature,” Liu added.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry memorandum articulated what appeared to be Pyongyang’s conditions for returning to the talks, stating that the United States should end its “hostile policy” toward the country and express the “political will to come to peaceful coexistence” with Pyongyang. The memorandum also demanded that the Bush administration apologize for Rice calling North Korea one of several “outposts of tyranny” during her January confirmation hearings. (See ACT, March 2005.)
Rice dismissed these complaints as attempts to “change the subject.” She also suggested several times that the Bush administration is running out of patience for the talks, but still emphasized Washington’s support for them. Bush told reporters March 23 that the United States has not set a deadline for the negotiations.