Since North Korea agreed Oct. 31 to return to multilateral negotiations designed to resolve the crisis surrounding its nuclear weapons program, officials from other participants in the six-party talks have held a series of preparatory meetings. But no starting date has been set for the talks. Meanwhile, a UN Security Council committee has finalized lists of military items whose export to North Korea are restricted because of Pyongyang’s Oct. 9 nuclear test.
North Korea Returns
North Korea said after the test—its first—that it was still willing to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told reporters Oct. 31 that during meetings in Beijing involving U.S., North Korean, and Chinese officials, the North Korean delegation reiterated Pyongyang’s willingness to implement a September 2005 joint statement. In that statement, produced at the end of the fourth round of talks, Pyongyang agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for incentives from other participants of the talks.
North Korea’s decision to return to the talks marked a shift from its previous refusal to do so until Washington lifted what Pyongyang has termed “financial sanctions” on the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia, a reference to the Department of the Treasury’s September 2005 designation of the bank as a “money laundering concern.”
The United States asserts that the bank provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking. Since the U.S. designation, Banco Delta Asia has frozen North Korea’s accounts, and other financial institutions have curtailed their dealings with Pyongyang. (See ACT, September 2006.)
A spokesperson for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Nov. 1 that Pyongyang agreed to return to the talks “under the precondition” that North Korea and the United States would resolve the Banco Delta Asia issue “within the framework” of the six-party talks.
But Hill said the previous day that although the United States had agreed to “find a mechanism within the six-party process” to address the matter, the North Koreans made “very clear” that these discussions “were not preconditions.”
Washington is “prepared to form a working group” that would develop a way for Pyongyang to address U.S. concerns about its illicit activities, Hill said without specifying further.
The Banco Delta Asia issue has haunted the stalled talks since all six parties last met in November 2005. The North Korean delegation focused almost exclusively on that issue during that session, which lasted only a few days. (See ACT, January/February 2006.)
North Korea and the United States have not met bilaterally to discuss the matter since March. At the time, North Korean officials made several suggestions for resolving U.S. concerns about the country’s illicit activities. The Bush administration, however, apparently rejected these proposals at the time.
Pyongyang subsequently attempted to discuss the matter with the United States, but the Bush administration refused to engage in bilateral discussions separate from the six-party talks.
However, a U.S. official familiar with the issue claimed in a Nov. 21 interview with Arms Control Today that U.S. officials have made offers since the March meeting to provide North Korea with advice on ensuring that their financial transactions are legitimate. But the official said that Pyongyang has not taken advantage of the offers.
Since the October announcement, U.S. officials have been meeting with officials from the other parties in order to “prepare the groundwork” for the talks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Nov. 16.
However, the United States has not decided on the details of its plan for implementing the September 2005 agreement, including the resolution of controversial questions regarding the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations, the State Department official said.
Regardless, Rice made clear that Washington expects Pyongyang to take the first step when the talks resume, saying that North Korea will “need to demonstrate” its commitment to denuclearization in order to show that “the talks are going to produce something.” She did not specify further.
Similarly, the U.S. official said that the Bush administration hopes that North Korea will come to the talks with a proposal to dismantle its nuclear programs, adding that the United States has not yet decided precisely how Pyongyang should implement this commitment.
Nevertheless, Hill apparently discussed some specifics during a Nov. 29 bilateral meeting with North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gae Gwan in Beijing, telling reporters that day that he “share[d] some ideas…that we had already worked out” with the other participants in the six-party talks. Hill provided no details, but added that North Korea will study the proposals.
However, the U.S. official provided ACT with some details regarding Washington’s expectations of North Korea. For example, Washington wants Pyongyang’s initial actions to go beyond simply suspending the operation of its nuclear facilities, the official said.
Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, a former State Department special envoy to North Korea, told a Washington audience Nov. 15 that in recent discussions he had in Pyongyang, North Korean Deputy Director-General for North America Li Gun indicated that North Korea might be open to such a suspension.
North Korea has continued to operate the facilities associated with its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang also is suspected of having a uranium-enrichment program. Both can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The official also said that North Korea would be expected to present a declaration of its nuclear program and materials, adding that Pyongyang’s failure to provide some information regarding its enrichment program will likely result in the end of negotiations. “Some people here will pull the plug” on the process, the official said.
The United States has not received any indication from North Korea that it wants to discuss the program, he added.
As for the Banco Delta Asia issue, the U.S. official said that the working group would likely begin work around the same time as the next round of talks.
However, he said that the issue is unlikely to be resolved in the short term because the United States is not in a position to end its investigation of the bank. The official also dismissed reports that some funds may be unfrozen in the future, explaining that the investigators do not know which accounts are associated with illicit activities. No funds will be freed up until the investigation is completed, the official said.
Some observers have speculated that releasing some funds could be part of a deal to persuade North Korea to be more conciliatory.
Pritchard also said that Pyongyang apparently expects China to unfreeze the funds, but China’s Foreign Ministry has indicated that this is not the case.
Resolution Implementation Moves Ahead
Meanwhile, the UN committee has finalized the lists of weapons-related items whose export to North Korea are restricted, a South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today Nov. 30. The committee was established under Security Council Resolution 1718, which was adopted Oct. 14 in the wake of the North Korean test. The diplomat said that the committee has “yet to work out” the list of North Korean entities and officials subject to the resolution’s restrictions. In addition to military-related items, the resolution says that states are to prevent the transfer of luxury goods to North Korea, but it does not define what those are.
The diplomat also said that about 33 governments have submitted their initial reports on the steps they have taken to implement the resolution, which called on all governments to submit such reports within 30 days.One of those was the United States. On Nov. 29, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said that the United States had defined its set of luxury goods that Washington would ban from being sold to North Korea. They include such items as “cognac and cigars,” he said, adding that the relevant regulations “will be published in the Federal Register.” He did not specify a date.