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"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
No Progress at North Korea Talks

Paul Kerr

After a lapse of more than a year, representatives of six countries met in Beijing Dec. 18-22 in another attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Yet, although the United States presented a new proposal to North Korea during one of several bilateral meetings, the session ended without any apparent progress.

A Dec. 22 statement from Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei said that the parties “held useful discussions” on ways to implement a September 2005 joint statement produced at the end of an earlier round of talks. The parties “put forward some initial ideas,” he said, adding that they had “agreed to recess and report to capitals and to reconvene at the earliest opportunity.” No date has been set for another round.

North Korea agreed to attend the meeting less than a month after conducting its first explosive test of a nuclear device Oct. 9. (See ACT, November 2006.) In the run-up to the latest talks, the various parties held numerous preparatory sessions, including two bilateral meetings between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterparts.

Speaking to reporters Dec. 22, Hill expressed disappointment at the talks’ outcome, explaining that the United States had wanted to reach an agreement on implementing the joint statement, in which Pyongyang agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for incentives from other participants, which also include Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Washington had received “indications” prior to the talks that Pyongyang was willing to take some steps to implement the statement, Hill said, but added that the North Korean negotiators lacked the proper diplomatic instructions to do so.

The six parties need to make “tangible progress” relatively soon, he argued, warning that the United States cannot otherwise “sustain political support for this process.”

Issues concerning the Macau-based bank Banco Delta Asia apparently continue to obstruct progress. Hill said Dec. 21 that the North Korean delegation “had strict instructions from their capital that they cannot engage officially” on Pyongyang’s nuclear program until the issue is resolved. The United States expected that discussions of the matter would be confined to a separate discussion with officials from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, he said.

North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gae Gwan appeared to confirm this in a Dec. 22 press conference. According to China’s official Xinhua news agency, he told reporters that, during the talks, the North Korean delegation said it would discuss the nuclear issue after the United States lifts what Pyongyang calls “financial sanctions.”

This position is similar to one that Pyongyang had articulated in a previous session of talks. During the six parties’ meeting in November 2005, the North Korean delegation focused almost exclusively on the Banco Delta Asia matter. The Treasury Department designated the bank as a “money laundering concern” in September 2005.

The United States asserts that Banco Delta Asia provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking. Since the U.S. designation, the bank has frozen North Korea’s accounts, and other financial institutions have curtailed their dealings with Pyongyang. (See ACT, September 2006.)

Kim reiterated that North Korea views the sanctions as part of what it terms a U.S. “hostile policy,” which aims to undermine the regime in Pyongyang.

During the six-party talks, a U.S. delegation headed by Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary of the treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes, held two days of bilateral discussions with North Korean counterparts about the financial issues. Although Glaser told reporters Dec. 19 that the meetings were “businesslike and useful,” no agreements were reached. The two sides “discussed the possibility of meeting next month,” he added, but no further meetings have been scheduled.

Other parties to the talks expressed concern that the issue had impeded progress in resolving the nuclear issue. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a Dec. 16 television interview that the U.S. actions regarding the bank “have obstructed this process.” South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Chun Young-woo, expressed similar sentiments, the semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported Dec. 12.

The North Koreans also demanded a light-water nuclear reactor, Hill told reporters Dec. 20, a demand that provoked controversy during past rounds. (See ACT, October 2005.)

A U.S. Proposal

Hill presented a “detailed, concrete proposal” to his North Korean counterparts, Chun confirmed Dec. 20.

Yonhap reported that same day that the United States proposed a multistage denuclearization plan in which North Korea would freeze its operating nuclear reactor, declare its nuclear-related programs, and dismantle its nuclear facilities.

For his part, Kim told reporters that the United States asked Pyongyang to “freeze” its nuclear facilities and allow the freeze to be verified. In addition to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor, which produces spent fuel that can be “reprocessed” to yield plutonium for a nuclear weapon, the United States argues that North Korea has a uranium-enrichment program, which could potentially produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Oct. 9 North Korean nuclear test explosion almost certainly used plutonium. (See ACT, December 2006.)

The U.S. proposal suggested that if North Korea complied with U.S. demands, Washington would provide Pyongyang with a written security guarantee and increase economic assistance to North Korea, Yonhap reported. According to the Associated Press, Chun provided more details about the U.S. proposal during a Dec. 26 television interview, saying that the United States also offered to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea, remove it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and conclude a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War.

The United States has indicated in the past that it would provide similar inducements; most are contained in the September 2005 joint statement.

That statement says that the six parties would implement the rewards and obligations of any final agreement “in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action.’” Whether and to what extent the U.S. proposal included such a sequence is unclear, although Yonhap reported that the United States offered to provide the security guarantee in exchange for the reactor freeze.

Such sequencing has been a persistent source of disagreement between the two sides.