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North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall

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Paul Kerr

Participants in the Nov. 9-11 six-party talks in Beijing attempted to build on a September breakthrough in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis, but they apparently made little headway. Differences between the United States and North Korea, especially regarding the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations, continue to block progress.

The participants have divided this round—the fifth since August 2003—into at least two phases. President George W. Bush told reporters Nov. 8 that the session was “really to prepare for the longer meetings” where more detailed discussions would take place. Chinese and South Korean diplomats made similar comments.

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei stated Nov. 11 that the participants have agreed to hold the second session “at the earliest possible date,” but no date has yet been set. Japan and Russia are the other participants in the talks.

The November meeting was the parties’ first attempt to discuss implementing the statement of principles, which was adopted in September to guide future talks. North Korea committed in that statement to abandon all of its nuclear programs and return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In return, the other parties pledged to respect Pyongyang’s sovereignty, normalize their diplomatic relations, and provide North Korea with economic cooperation and energy assistance.

But since the talks ended, the United States and North Korea have accused each other of failing to take the negotiations seriously. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in South Korea Nov. 16 that “the jury is out” on whether Pyongyang is willing “to get serious about dismantlement and verification.”

North Korea continues to question Washington’s commitment to respecting its sovereignty, arguing that the Bush administration remains intent on pursuing a policy of regime change, even while participating in the talks.

The current nuclear crisis began in October 2002 when Washington announced that North Korean officials had admitted to possessing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. That bilateral agreement froze Pyongyang’s graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities located at Yongbyon. Both plutonium, which is obtained from spent reactor fuel, and highly enriched uranium can serve as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Since then, North Korea has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze, withdrawn from the NPT, and taken several steps that have likely enabled it to increase its fissile material stockpile.

The Talks

Washington vs. Pyongyang

The United States and North Korea appear to agree that improved bilateral relations will remove the need for Pyongyang to have a nuclear weapons program. But the Bush administration argues that Pyongyang should first begin the process of eliminating its nuclear programs in order to pave the way for better relations. North Korea takes the opposite view.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill described these different perspectives while speaking to reporters Nov. 11. North Korea “is always urging that there be a good atmosphere in order to make progress,” he said, adding “[m]y point is, if you make progress, there will be a good atmosphere.”

Hill said the previous day that Washington is “prepared to live by” its commitments outlined in the joint statement. But Hill made it clear that the Bush administration wants the current round of talks to focus on devising a plan for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs quickly and verifiably.

The United States wants North Korea quickly to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, as well as prepare a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Washington will not promise rewards to Pyongyang for taking such a step.

The Bush administration did not provide any further details about implementing its part of the joint statement. Hill said that the U.S. delegation would contemplate the recent discussions and return next time “with some very specific ideas.”

A Department of State official familiar with the talks told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the United States wants North Korea to demonstrate that it will implement its portion of the joint statement before Washington presents a more detailed proposal. Shutting down the research reactor would be one way for Pyongyang to do so, the official said.

For its part, North Korea proposed to dismantle its nuclear program in several phases, although details remain unclear. According to United Press International, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said Nov. 14 that North Korea had pledged that it would first refrain from testing nuclear weapons, producing additional nuclear weapons, or transferring nuclear technology or materials to other countries. Pyongyang would then freeze and dismantle its nuclear facilities. Finally, North Korea would return to the NPT and its IAEA safeguards agreement, as well as allow inspectors to verify North Korea’s dismantlement, Chung said. This scheme is not substantively different from previous North Korean proposals.

Hill criticized Pyongyang’s proposed denuclearization approach, arguing that it would unnecessarily prolong the talks.

North Korea did not mention any conditions for halting work at its nuclear facilities, Hill told reporters. But North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, told the Associated Press Nov. 12 that Pyongyang would only freeze its reactors following the provision of an unspecified reward.

Despite the U.S. refusal to negotiate a freeze, a South Korean delegate to the talks indicated that the United States and other parties could take unspecified reciprocal gestures if North Korea were to shut down the reactor, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Nov. 10.

Kim said at the talks’ end that Pyongyang intends to follow through on its commitments but wants Washington to lift “financial sanctions” on North Korea. The Bush administration decided Oct. 21 to freeze the U.S. assets of eight additional North Korean entities for their unspecified “involvement” in the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or related delivery vehicles. The action was taken pursuant to an executive order Bush issued in June. (See ACT, September 2005.)

Hill said that North Korea also protested U.S. efforts to crack down on a bank located in Macau for allegedly laundering money for North Korean firms engaged in illicit activities, such as counterfeiting.

Kim warned that these measures violate the September joint statement and “are going to hinder the implementation of the commitment we have made.”

Pyongyang also has said that other recent U.S. actions, such as labeling North Korea as a state that limits religious freedom, signal the administration’s continued commitment to its “hostile policy.”

Whether these issues will ultimately derail the talks or further complicate them is unclear. North Korea has issued similar threats and complaints numerous times in the past but has never broken off the talks completely. Pyongyang did, however, cite U.S. criticism as a reason for its months-long refusal to attend talks before the previous round. (See ACT, March 2005.)

On the other hand, Hill said that North Korea devoted little attention during the November session to its previous demand that the United States provide a light-water nuclear reactor. North Korea said immediately after the last round that it would not rejoin the NPT or the IAEA until it received such a reactor but later softened this demand. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Other Parties Weigh In

Some other participants continued to exhort both Washington and Pyongyang to be more flexible in their diplomacy. For example, Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said in a Nov. 16 joint statement that “each party to the talks should show sincere flexibility on its position…in order to ensure continued progress in the six-party talks,” Yonhap reported.

South Korea and Japan also attempted to present more concrete proposals for implementing the September statement. Officials from both countries said they proposed that the participants separate outstanding issues into three categories: the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, provision of economic and energy assistance to North Korea, and Pyongyang’s bilateral issues with Washington and Tokyo.

Hill told reporters that South Korea offered suggestions for implementing each of the principles in the September statement, but he did not elaborate. South Korea had previously proposed a plan that would provide energy assistance to North Korea, but that proposal received little attention during the session, Hill said.

Japan proposed that the six parties establish working groups responsible for the first two issue areas. Likewise, Hill said Nov. 11 that the participants may designate groups of lower-level officials to work on the technical details related to North Korea’s declaration and dismantlement of its nuclear facilities. The six parties should also hold “technical discussions” before the next session in order to devise a proper implementation scheme, he added. The other participants appear to support the concept of establishing working groups, but no final plan has been formulated.

Japan, North Korea Meet

Japanese and North Korean officials also met in early November to discuss issues related to normalizing their relations, such as constraining North Korea’s ballistic missile programs and resolving concerns related to abductions of Japanese citizens during the Cold War.

The two sides did not appear to make progress, but Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi suggested that they might meet later in December, the Kyodo News Service reported Nov. 28.