The recent round of nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea follows more than a decade of nuclear tensions between the two countries.
First Nuclear Crisis
In 1992 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uncovered evidence that North Korea had understated the amount of plutonium it had separated from spent fuel generated by its graphite-moderated nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. After the IAEA demanded “special inspections” in 1993 of two suspected North Korean nuclear-waste storage facilities, North Korea reacted by announcing its intention to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), sparking a diplomatic crisis.
That crisis was ultimately resolved in October 1994 when the United States and North Korea concluded the Agreed Framework. The agreement mandated an IAEA-monitored freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as well as approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods produced by the reactor. It also called for the eventual dismantlement of the Yongbyon facilities and extensive IAEA inspections to fully account for Pyongyang’s nuclear activities, but neither provision was ever implemented.
The United States agreed to create an international consortium called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to supply North Korea with two proliferation-resistant light-water nuclear reactors and to provide shipments of heavy-fuel oil during the reactor construction. The first reactor was originally scheduled to be completed by 2003, but construction fell far behind schedule. The reactor project has been suspended since December 1, 2003.
The agreement also called on both sides to take steps toward normalizing bilateral relations and abide by a 1992 denuclearization agreement covering both Koreas. Bilateral discussions on these and other issues continued through 2000.
Recent Nuclear Crisis
After it broke off direct talks for more than a year, the United States announced in October 2002 that, during a meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea admitted to having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Both highly enriched uranium and plutonium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. North Korea has since denied that it made such an admission.
After KEDO suspended fuel-oil shipments the following month, North Korea ejected IAEA inspectors and announced its withdrawal from the NPT. North Korea restarted the reactor shortly thereafter. Since then, Pyongyang has claimed to have taken several other steps, such as reprocessing spent fuel, that have enabled it to construct nuclear weapons.
In April 2003, China, North Korea, and the United States held the first multilateral meeting regarding the nuclear crisis. During this meeting, a North Korean delegation member told U.S. officials that Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons. This was the first time that North Korea had made such a claim.
According to U.S. and South Korean officials, the North Korean delegation stated that Pyongyang may be willing to eliminate all of its nuclear programs if a series of demands is met.
Subsequently, China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States conducted three other rounds of six-party talks in Beijing between August 2003 and June 2004.
August 27-29, 2003
During the first round, North Korea issued a step-by-step proposal that called for the United States to conclude a “non-aggression treaty,” normalize bilateral diplomatic relations, refrain from hindering North Korea’s “economic cooperation” with other countries, complete the reactors promised under the Agreed Framework, resume suspended fuel-oil shipments, and increase food aid. Pyongyang stated that, in return, it would dismantle its “nuclear facility.”
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated at the meeting’s end that the participants “share a consensus” on several items: a “peaceful settlement” of the crisis through dialogue, the need to address North Korea’s security concerns, the continuation of dialogue and the six-party talks, the need to avoid actions that would escalate the situation, and a plan to solve the nuclear issue “through synchronous and parallel implementation.”
February 25-28, 2004
Little progress was made during the second round of talks. According to Wang, North Korea reiterated its willingness to give up its nuclear programs if the United States abandoned its “hostile policies” toward Pyongyang. North Korea also offered to “freeze its nuclear activities as the first step” in return for other participants taking “corresponding actions.”
Additionally, South Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Lee Soo-hyuck, issued a proposal, which China and Russia both supported, to provide energy assistance to the North in return for a freeze of its nuclear program and a promise to dismantle it.
June 23-26, 2004
The United States made its first concrete offer to resolve the nuclear crisis. The proposal called for a two-phase process in which North Korea would receive fuel oil from China, Russia, and South Korea after agreeing to dismantle its nuclear programs following an initial freeze. Japan agreed during the meeting to participate in providing fuel oil.
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, the United States would begin bilateral discussions with North Korea concerning the removal of U.S. sanctions. Such discussions could eventually lead to talks on normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Offering a proposal of its own, North Korea offered to “refrain from” producing, testing, or transferring nuclear weapons, and conditionally to freeze “all the facilities related to nuclear weapons and products churned out by their operation.” The freeze would ultimately result in the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The proposal did not include the plutonium produced prior to the Agreed Framework. In return, North Korea demanded a “reward” consisting of “energy assistance” and a U.S. commitment to lift sanctions. All parties agreed to hold another round of talks in September, but North Korea ultimately did not attend.