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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Challenges Face North Korea Talks

Paul Kerr

Participants in the six-party talks designed to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis are attempting to devise a strategy for implementing a Sept. 19 joint statement of principles for achieving “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” All the parties have agreed to participate in a fifth round of talks, but no date has been set.

Key parties have held bilateral meetings. For instance, Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose country is hosting the talks, visited Pyongyang in late October. Additionally, Japan and North Korea have scheduled senior working-level normalization talks beginning Nov.3 in an effort to settle some of their outstanding issues. The last such talks took place late last year. (See ACT, June 2004.)

Reflecting South Korea’s increasingly public role in the diplomatic process, an Oct. 19 statement from its Foreign Ministry exhorted the other talks participants, particularly the United States and North Korea, to “harmonize the differences in their stances concerning the settlement of the North’s nuclear program” before the next round begins. Russia is the sixth party in the talks.

The joint statement of principles represents the most significant diplomatic achievement after four rounds of six-party talks spanning more than two years and provides important guidelines for future negotiations. For example, North Korea has committed to abandoning all of its civilian and military nuclear weapons programs as well as returning to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In return, other parties have promised security assurances, economic cooperation, and political normalization. However, the statement leaves several controversial issues unresolved. (See ACT, October 2005.)

The current nuclear crisis began in October 2002 when Washington announced that North Korean officials had admitted to possessing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, which violated a bilateral agreement freezing Pyongyang’s graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities located at Yongbyon. The 1994 Agreed Framework resolved a crisis that began in the early 1990s when International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors discovered that Pyongyang had diverted spent fuel from the reactor. Enriching uranium or reprocessing spent reactor fuel to obtain plutonium can both produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The Issues

A persistent obstacle to the resolution of the latest North Korean nuclear crisis has been the two sides’ repeated clashes over the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations. The Bush administration has been reluctant to “reward” North Korea while it possesses nuclear facilities, and Pyongyang fears that the United States will pocket any concessions.

Although Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill acknowledged during an Oct. 4 press briefing that “we also have to take some measures on our side,” he has spent considerably more time describing the Bush administration’s detailed demands of North Korea. Washington wants Pyongyang to produce a declaration of its nuclear holdings, including components associated with its uranium-enrichment program, during the next round.

Other countries, such as South Korea and Russia, seem to disagree with this approach. They have called for the parties instead to focus on producing a specific plan to implement all aspects of the joint statement. Pyongyang would be required to issue a declaration during a future round.

Interestingly, despite the repeated U.S. insistence on the importance of verifying any North Korean declaration, two Department of State officials told Arms Control Today Oct. 21 that the administration has not yet agreed on a minimally acceptable verification scheme. This could be significant if Washington believes Pyongyang’s declaration to be inaccurate.

Although North Korea’s Sept. 20 demand for the early receipt of a U.S.- provided light-water nuclear reactor caused a stir, that issue now appears less significant. At that time, North Korea said it would not rejoin the NPT or the IAEA until it received a reactor, a demand the other parties rejected. However, subsequent North Korean statements have modified this demand, and an Oct. 24 Foreign Ministry statement does not mention such an early provision at all.

Operating Reactor, No Freeze

Despite Pyongyang’s September pledge to abandon its nuclear programs, Hill told a Washington audience Sept. 28 that North Korea continues to operate the Yongbyon reactor. The administration wants North Korea to shut down the facilities but will not negotiate a freeze, Hill said.

Administration officials such as Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have argued that negotiating a freeze would prolong the six-party talks and distract from focusing on dismantlement. A former State Department official agreed during a September interview with Arms Control Today that negotiating a freeze could have such an effect, observing that a June 2004 North Korean proposal contained a detailed compensation scheme for a freeze but lacked sufficient detail about the dismantlement phase. (See ACT, September 2004.)

By contrast, Ambassador Robert Gallucci, the lead U.S. negotiator in the Agreed Framework talks, said that his team sought a freeze as a means of securing a rapid settlement so that North Korea could not benefit from protracted negotiations.

During those talks, North Korea agreed to an IAEA-monitored freeze of the reactor and related facilities, including approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods. Since December 2002, Pyongyang has ejected the inspectors, announced its withdrawal from the NPT, restarted the reactor, and claimed to have reprocessed the rods. (See ACT, June 2005.)

Pyongyang announced last spring that it had shut down the reactor and unloaded the spent fuel rods. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D), who visited North Korea in October, said officials told him they had reprocessed this additional spent fuel, the Associated Press reported Oct. 20. Richardson previously served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

It is unknown whether North Korea’s claims are true. U.S. intelligence assesses that North Korea has produced one or two nuclear weapons using plutonium produced prior to the 1994 agreement.

Additionally, North Korea appears to have resumed construction on at least one of two larger reactors whose construction also had been frozen under the Agreed Framework. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) stated in September that North Korean officials had notified him during a recent meeting that they were “proceeding with” reactor construction, Agence France Presse reported. A Sept. 11 satellite image published by the Institute for Science and International Security shows what appears to be limited new construction activity at the smaller of the two reactors.

Whither KEDO?

The United States established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to implement the Agreed Framework, including the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors. However, the organization may be eliminated when its executive board next meets.

A KEDO spokesperson told Arms Control Today Oct. 26 that the board will likely meet in late November, although no date has been set. The board comprises Japan, the European Union, South Korea, and the United States.

The board first suspended work on the reactor project in December 2003. The Bush administration had repeatedly stated that it does not want the project revived but had previously contemplated a role for KEDO in implementing any future agreement with North Korea. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

However, that is no longer the case. Hill stated Sept. 19 that “the United States supports a decision to terminate KEDO by the end of the year.” Furthermore, recent statements from South Korea and Japan, who had previously not supported terminating the reactor project, make the organization’s demise appear even more likely. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura asserted that “there is no one who thinks there is that option for KEDO…to continue,” the Kyodo News Agency reported Oct. 11.

Taking a slightly different tack, South Korean Foreign Minster Ban Ki-moon told Reuters Oct. 2 that the reactor project should be ended, although he appeared to leave open the possibility that the organization may still have a role to play in the future, including overseeing possible future reactor projects.