The latest round of six-way talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea ended Dec. 11 in stalemate as the parties continued to disagree on the issue of verifying North Korea's nuclear activities. The four days of talks are expected to have marked the last formal gathering of the six parties (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) in which the Bush administration participated.
The six countries primarily discussed procedures for verification and the schedule for completing the disablement of North Korea's key nuclear facilities and the delivery of energy assistance to North Korea in line with agreements concluded in 2007.
Japan, South Korea, and the United States attempted to tie energy assistance to an agreement on verification. Despite this attempt, the parties agreed in a chairman's statement issued at the close of the meeting "to implement in parallel the disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and the provision of economic and energy assistance" to North Korea. China and Russia indicated following the meeting that they would continue this assistance while U.S. allies in the region indicated that they would review any assistance in light of the stalemate on verification.
Sampling Remains Key Hurdle
The primary issue of contention was Pyongyang's refusal to agree in writing that verification of its nuclear activities will include scientific sampling. Sampling allows inspectors to analyze materials, equipment, or the environment around facilities to gather information about substances of relevance to a nuclear program.
Sampling is the main outstanding issue in a long-standing dispute over when and how to address the verification of North Korea's nuclear activities. During a Dec. 21 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "[W]e have about 80 percent of the verification protocol agreed with the North.... What the North wouldn't do is go the last 20 percent, which is to clarify some of the elements of scientific procedures that might be used to sample the soil."
The verification dispute began in earnest after Pyongyang's formal declaration of its nuclear activities in June 2008. The next month, the six parties agreed on a broad outline for what verifying that declaration would entail, but Washington insisted afterward that North Korea's declaration was not complete without a verification protocol identifying more specific inspection measures. (See ACT, October 2008.)
North Korea asserted that it was not obligated to address verification at all at that point in the negotiations because six-party agreements in October 2007 outlining the sequence for the current phase of North Korea's denuclearization did not require concluding a verification protocol.
Nonetheless, the United States and North Korea addressed the verification issue during a bilateral meeting in early October. No written text has been publicly released from the meeting. In public fact sheets and briefings, however, U.S. officials have summarized what they believed was agreed to at the meeting, without clearly distinguishing between written and verbal commitments.
Rice seemed to imply on "Meet the Press" that the two sides had agreed in writing to "things like interviews with scientists, the right to go and ask questions and probe concerning various facilities, the right to look at operations records, [and] to look at production records." She also noted that North Korea had turned over to the United States about 18,000 documents detailing the operations of its nuclear facilities.
In addition, according to U.S. officials, North Korea verbally agreed to allow foreign inspectors to conduct sampling procedures at that meeting. (See ACT, November 2008.) The U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, stated during a Dec. 10 press briefing that "the issue has always been whether we could take understandings reached in Pyongyang and get them onto paper."
North Korea has since insisted that it is only required at this point to carry out the limited verification steps agreed in writing with the United States in October 2008, which did not include sampling provisions. The Japanese pro-North Korean daily Choson Sinbo, which often expresses Pyongyang's official policy, said Dec. 12 that "an agreement on guaranteed [verification] actions is restricted to the scope confirmed in writing by the two sides."
Pyongyang, however, appears to have left the door open to going beyond its written agreement with Washington once the October 2007 agreement has been fully implemented. A Nov. 14 statement by a North Korean Foreign Ministry official that the written verification agreement defines "the way and scope of verification...at the phase of disablement" suggested that Pyongyang may be willing to address the question of sampling in the third and ostensibly final phase of the negotiations. (See ACT, December 2008.)
North Korea pledged to disable the key nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in the October 2007 six-party agreement detailing the "second phase actions" of the country's denuclearization efforts. (See ACT, November 2007.) In return for disablement and Pyongyang's provision of a declaration of all of its nuclear activities, the other five parties pledged that North Korea would receive political benefits and one million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent in energy assistance.
During the first phase of the process, North Korea shut down its key nuclear facilities in July 2007 and received an initial shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
Although the six-party agreements are intended to lead to the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the existing agreements did not require the conclusion of a verification protocol. Pyongyang has insisted that verification is a "third phase" step.
Acquiring a written North Korean agreement on sampling during the meeting was a key goal for Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today in December that the three countries coordinated a common position on verification prior to the meeting.
The sources contrasted this close coordination among the three countries in December with what they saw as a lack of consultation by the United States with its Asian allies prior to the October 2008 U.S.-North Korean agreement and Washington's subsequent removal of Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. (See ACT, November 2008.)
China, as chair of the meeting, led an effort to draft a document on verification for the parties to negotiate, based on bilateral consultations with each of the other states. The South Korean daily Hankyoreh reported Dec. 10 and Arms Control Today confirmed with diplomatic sources in December that the Chinese drafts did not mention sampling explicitly but used wording such as "scientific verification procedures" and "international standards" in order to find consensus.
Hill told reporters Dec. 10 that "most delegations were prepared to work with the Chinese text," although "that consensus was not shared by" North Korea.
Despite the lack of agreement on sampling during the meeting, Rice predicted that Pyongyang would agree to acceptable verification measures. She stated in a Dec. 19 Council on Foreign Relations interview that, "within the context of the six-party talks, you ultimately will get a verification protocol that allows us to deal with a lot of very troubling activities."
Disagreement Over Energy Assistance
In response to the stalemate in the six-party talks over the verification issue, Washington has sought to halt energy assistance to North Korea being provided in return for the disablement of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack claimed during a Dec. 12 press conference that heavy fuel oil shipments being provided as part of this assistance will not continue without a verification agreement, stating that "there is an understanding among the parties...that fuel oil shipments will not go forward absent progress."
Of the one million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent pledged to North Korea in 2007, about 60 percent has been provided as of the beginning of 2009. Washington finished supplying its portion, amounting to 200,000 tons, in December, leaving it with no shipments of its own to halt.
South Korea, which has been providing heavy fuel oil equivalents such as steel plates to North Korea, stopped short of stating that it would halt its energy assistance but indicated that such assistance will be reconsidered. Noting that Seoul had 3,000 tons of steel plates prepared to send to Pyongyang, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Moon Tae-young explained that "the timing for the delivery will be reviewed in consideration of various factors, including the disablement."
It does not appear that Washington coordinated its intention for halting all energy assistance with Beijing and Moscow.
Russia's envoy to the six-party talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin told reporters Dec. 14 that Moscow was "surprised" by the State Department's remarks on halting energy assistance and intended to complete its supply of 200,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. Russia delivered its third shipment of 50,000 tons in December, and Borodavkin noted that a fourth and final shipment is planned to follow "in a few months."
Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao told reporters Dec. 16 that the parties to the talks confirmed that they would continue to implement the agreements made in 2007, "including on fuel oil deliveries in exchange for deactivating North Korean nuclear facilities." Beijing intends to provide energy assistance equivalent to about 99,000 tons of heavy fuel oil by the end of January.
Also at issue is Japan's share of the energy assistance, which amounts to 200,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. Tokyo has maintained that it would not provide any assistance until its concerns regarding Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and '80s were resolved.
The United States has approached Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union to request that they provide energy assistance in lieu of Japan. Australia and New Zealand have offered to contribute energy assistance to Pyongyang in order to assist the negotiations but, following the failed talks, conditioned their offer on further progress on verification. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told reporters in Tokyo Dec. 18 that Canberra will "need to see progress made so far as verification is concerned" before it will agree to deliver any fuel to North Korea.
Pyongyang responded to the prospect of halted energy assistance with a threat to slow disablement work. The North Korean envoy to the six-party talks, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, stated during a Dec. 13 press conference that if the energy assistance was not provided, "we will adjust the speed of disablement."
It may be months before Pyongyang halts disablement altogether because China and Russia are continuing to deliver energy assistance. Asahi Shimbun quoted a North Korean source Dec. 18 as stating that "aid from China and Russia has continued and we do not intend to stop the disablement process yet."
The six parties have traditionally linked energy assistance to progress on disablement, and Pyongyang has complained on several occasions that disablement efforts have outpaced the fuel oil deliveries. North Korea slowed disablement work on several occasions in 2008 in response. Eight of 11 agreed disablement steps have been completed as of January 2009.