Declaration Snags U.S.-North Korean Talks

Peter Crail

A March 13-14 bilateral meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials initiated by Pyongyang was unable to resolve differences over what Pyongyang needs to do to meet a commitment to declare all of its nuclear activities. The key differences involve U.S. concerns that North Korea has pursued a uranium-enrichment program and provided nuclear assistance to other countries. Washington asserts North Korea must come clean on these activities, which Pyongyang denies have occurred or are occurring. U.S. officials also want to make additional progress on dismantling North Korea’s known plutonium-based nuclear weapons program but highlight that the terms of an October 2007 agreement must be completed first.

In October 2007, during six-party talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, Pyongyang agreed to provide a declaration of all of its nuclear activities by the end of that year. (See ACT, November 2007. ) The agreement also stipulated that, by the same deadline, North Korea would complete disabling the primary nuclear facilities used for its weapons program in return for energy assistance and efforts toward normalizing relations with the United States.

North Korea has proceeded with the disablement process, albeit far more slowly than it originally promised, because of technical obstacles and complaints that other countries have been slow in meeting their commitments. (See ACT, March 2008. ) U.S. officials acknowledged that there have been logistical delays in providing the promised energy assistance but indicate that China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have subsequently made greater progress on this assistance.

U.S., North Korea Moot Declaration Formats

Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, in Geneva March 13-14 to discuss ways to make progress on North Korea’s declaration. The discussion appeared aimed at finding a compromise that addresses U.S. concerns by clarifying North Korea’s activities while allowing the broader process of denuclearization to continue.

The Yonhap News Agency reported March 12 that Chinese diplomats had proposed that North Korea provide information about the two most contentious issues separately from disclosures about the plutonium program. In particular, North Korea alone would provide details on its plutonium program in one document, and Washington and Pyongyang would issue a joint statement addressing the uranium-enrichment and proliferation concerns.

The Washington Times reported Feb. 28 that the United States was considering a different arrangement involving both public and secret declarations. Using this formulation, Pyongyang would provide a formal declaration on its plutonium program and a private document addressing the uranium-enrichment and proliferation questions.

Hill told reporters March 13 that the United States “can be flexible on format” but rejected the notion that he and Kim discussed separating the various issues, stating that the two sides “have never talked about separating elements from the other.” He also dismissed the idea of agreeing on a secret document, stating March 19 that the United States is “not interested in more secrecy.”

A congressional source told Arms Control Today March 25 that a side letter agreement on the uranium-enrichment and proliferation issues would not be a problem for Congress so long as the admissions are “fully transparent and verifiable.” The source added that a secret document would be problematic due to the likelihood that it would be leaked, potentially jeopardizing the process.

Consistent Stance on Enrichment, Proliferation

Pyongyang continues to deny any involvement in uranium enrichment and proliferation. Kyodo News quoted Kim March 14 as stating that North Korea has not carried out such activities in the past or present and “will not engage in them in the future.”

The dispute regarding the uranium-enrichment issue has been a major sticking point since 2002, when U.S. officials claimed that North Korea admitted to pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, a claim Pyongyang continues to deny. (See ACT, November 2002. ) This disagreement led to the collapse of a previous denuclearization agreement between North Korea and the United States.

Following the October 2007 agreement, North Korea sought to provide evidence to U.S. officials that some of the materials that Washington believed Pyongyang imported for a uranium-enrichment program were intended for conventional weapon systems. (See ACT, March 2008. )

In regard to North Korean nuclear proliferation, U.S. officials have maintained that the issue has always been part of the six-party talks. This issue rose to the forefront following a September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility allegedly constructed with aid from North Korea. Since that incident, Hill has said that he discussed with the North Koreans U.S. concerns regarding Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear assistance to Syria.

Disagreement over these issues does not only relate to North Korea’s past activities, as U.S. intelligence assessments conflict with North Korea’s assurance that these activities of concern are not ongoing. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell Feb. 27 told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “[w]hile Pyongyang denies a program of uranium enrichment and they deny their proliferation activities, we believe North Korea continues to engage in both.”

South Korea Conditions Key Aid

The lack of progress on fulfilling the terms of the October 2007 agreement may also hinder South Korea’s development assistance to North Korea. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said March 19 that Seoul would continue to maintain the landmark development zone it established at Kaesong to provide economic aid to Pyongyang, but “it would be difficult to expand (the complex) unless North Korea’s nuclear issue is resolved.”

The Kaesong industrial zone was part of a landmark agreement in 2000 in which South Korean companies agreed to operate an industrial park in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. The complex employs about 22,000 North Koreans, and during an historic inter-Korean summit on Oct. 4, 2007, the two Korean states agreed to expand operations at Kaesong over several years. (See ACT, November 2007. )

Prior to taking office, the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, pledged to revisit Seoul’s long-standing “sunshine policy” toward Pyongyang and to pursue an economic cooperation policy contingent on North Korean nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2008. ) The sunshine policy, which gave priority to warmer ties with North Korea, was central to Seoul’s relations with Pyongyang between 1998 and 2007.