North Korea Talks Achieve Breakthrough

Paul Kerr

After more than two years of stop-and-go efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, six countries agreed Sept. 19 in Beijing on a joint statement of principles to guide future negotiations. The product of several weeks of tough diplomacy, the statement commits the participants to achieving “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

The statement contains several ambiguities and leaves many difficult issues to be resolved. Nevertheless, it marks the most important diplomatic achievement of the talks to date. The next round also is to take place in Beijing next month, but an exact date has not yet been determined. Besides North Korea and China, the participants are Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

Getting to Yes

The latest round of talks was the fourth since August 2003. Negotiators have been attempting to resolve a crisis that began in October 2002 when Washington announced that North Korean officials had admitted to a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. The enrichment program was viewed as a violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, an agreement that froze Pyongyang’s plutonium-based nuclear program. Either highly enriched uranium or plutonium can provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons

Until the latest round, the first since June 2004, the talks had made little progress. Moreover, although all parties said the atmosphere at this round was much improved, they still recessed Aug. 7 after failing to reach agreement on a joint statement.

During the recess, the participants attempted to narrow their differences. But when the talks resumed Sept. 13, several issues were still unresolved, particularly North Korea’s insistence that the statement recognize its right to a peaceful nuclear energy program and commit the other participants to provide it with light-water nuclear power reactors.

In August, the Bush administration had differed with other parties, arguing that North Korea should have no nuclear reactors at all. The lead U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, later indicated that the United States could be flexible on the principle of North Korea’s “right” to nuclear energy. But Hill stated repeatedly that Washington remained adamantly opposed to an explicit provision for allowing Pyongyang to obtain reactors.

Both the United States and North Korea eventually accepted last-minute compromise language drafted by China. The final statement notes that North Korea “stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and that the “other parties expressed their respect.” The participants also agreed to discuss Pyongyang’s reactor request “at an appropriate time.”

Hill has argued that the reactors would not remedy North Korea’s energy shortages and are unnecessary because South Korea offered to provide its northern neighbor with electricity. But a former Department of State official who met with high-ranking North Korean officials after the first phase of talks told Arms Control Today Sept. 16 that the reactors are a “political issue” for Pyongyang. The reactors would provide a tangible sign that the United States recognizes the country’s sovereignty—an issue of long standing importance to North Korea.

Several subsequent North Korean statements articulated this argument and noted that the reactor provision can prevent Washington from backing out on its commitments.

The Agreement

The statement addresses some of Washington’s and Pyongyang’s long standing concerns. In general, Washington has demanded that Pyongyang quickly and verifiably eliminate its nuclear programs. North Korea has sought economic and energy assistance, as well as an end to what it has repeatedly characterized as Washington’s “hostile policy” of regime change.

Nuclear and Security Issues

North Korea has offered to eliminate its nuclear weapons program on several occasions, but the Bush administration has criticized these proposals as vague and too narrow in scope. For example, Pyongyang’s June 2004 proposal omitted both an accounting of plutonium separated prior to the Agreed Framework as well as the government’s suspected uranium-enrichment program.

However, North Korea has now “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” This phrase appears to include all of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, although uranium enrichment is not mentioned, and Pyongyang continues to deny the program’s existence.

The statement also has another mechanism for addressing the enrichment question. It calls for the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which forbids the two Koreas from possessing uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation facilities, to be “observed and implemented.”

Additionally, the agreement calls on Pyongyang to return “at an early date” to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Pyongyang’s return to its IAEA safeguards agreement would obligate it to allow the agency to conduct its first complete accounting of the country’s pre-Agreed Framework nuclear activities. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003.

The statement also addresses North Korea’s security concerns in several ways. First, the United States “affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade [North Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons.” North Korea has frequently defended its nuclear weapons program by asserting that the United States has been planning such attacks.

Hill said that this commitment, however, does not prevent the United States from using its “nuclear umbrella” to defend South Korea or Japan. North Korea had suggested eliminating the umbrella, Hill said, but the U.S. delegation refused to discuss it.

Washington’s and Pyongyang’s commitment to “respect each other’s sovereignty” and “exist peacefully together” also signals that the United States will not try to overthrow the Pyongyang regime. The Bush administration has suggested it would recognize North Korea’s sovereignty, but it has never used these phrases before. North Korea has been asking for such statements for some time.

Diplomatic Issues

In addition, North Korea and the United States have agreed to “take steps to normalize their relations.” But Hill stated Sept. 19 that the administration has not changed its long standing policy of linking normalization to several other issues, including concerns about North Korea’s human rights record and ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang and Tokyo have similarly agreed to “take steps to normalize their relations,” a process which involves resolving such issues as North Korea’s ballistic missile programs and abductions of Japanese citizens during the Cold War. The two sides have agreed to meet, but no specific date has been set.

The statement also addresses another long standing North Korean demand: the establishment of a “permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” The statement makes clear, however, that such an agreement will be negotiated “at an appropriate separate forum” rather than during the six-party talks.

Energy/Economic Assistance

Apart from the nuclear reactor issue, the statement says the parties will “promote economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment,” but the statement contains few specifics. However, North Korea has been expanding its economic relations with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, for some time.

Seoul also reaffirmed its July electricity proposal. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told PBS’s “Charlie Rose” show Sept. 19 that South Korea will provide the North with electricity after Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear weapons and related programs and returns to the NPT.

The joint statement also suggests that Washington may now be willing to provide energy directly to Pyongyang. The omission of such assistance from the U.S. June proposal has drawn complaints from North Korea. A State Department official, however, told Arms Control Today Sept. 29 that Washington has not yet made a decision regarding energy provision.

Looking Ahead

Several controversial issues will need to be resolved in upcoming rounds.

For example, the United States wants North Korea to issue a declaration of its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities so that a proper verification scheme can be devised. This demand will likely prove controversial because the United States wants the declaration to include Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment program.

The two sides also will likely clash over the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations. Washington has been reluctant to “reward” North Korea while it possesses nuclear weapons facilities, but Pyongyang fears that the United States will pocket any concessions.

Hill told reporters Sept. 19 that sequencing for issues that Pyongyang views as priorities, such as normalizing diplomatic relations and energy assistance, has not yet been agreed on. On the other hand, his closing statement at the talks, as well as his press remarks, indicate that the United States wants North Korea to fulfill its denuclearization commitments before reaping any rewards. By contrast, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Choe Su Hon, told reporters that all issues “should be resolved on the basis of simultaneous actions.”