Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Asia during her first overseas trip facing concerns about continued progress in negotiations on North Korea's denuclearization and questions regarding the status of North Korea's leadership. In order to help address these challenges, Clinton Feb. 20 named Ambassador Stephen Bosworth to serve as the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. During a press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, Clinton said that Bosworth "will be our senior official handling North Korea issues, reporting to me as well as to President [Barack] Obama."
Bosworth served as the first executive director for the Korean Peninsula Economic Development Organization (KEDO), the body previously responsible for implementing economic assistance to Pyongyang under a 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement. He was also ambassador to South Korea from 1997 to 2000. More recently, he has been dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a position he will continue to hold while serving as special representative.
Explaining the distinction between the roles to be played by Bosworth and U.S. Special Envoy to the Six-Party Talks Sung Kim, Department of State spokesperson Robert Wood said Feb. 20 that Kim "will handle the day-to-day contact and discussions with our six-party colleagues" while Bosworth "will be the special representative coordinating the overall U.S. government effort." The six-party talks, initiated in 2003 to denuclearize North Korea, involve China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
Clinton frequently stressed during her visit to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China the U.S. commitment to the six-party talks and indicated that Washington is prepared to normalize relations with Pyongyang once it "verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear program."
Meanwhile, she also raised the additional challenge posed by suspected changes in the state's leadership following North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's apparent stroke in August 2008. During a Feb. 20 press conference en route to Seoul, she stated that the U.S. goal "is to try to come up with a strategy that is effective in influencing the behavior of the North Koreans at a time when the whole leadership situation is somewhat unclear."
North Korea Declares Plutonium "Weaponized"
Another factor potentially complicating efforts to denuclearize North Korea is its recent assertion that its entire stockpile of separated plutonium has been used to build nuclear weapons. In Feb. 12 congressional testimony, scholar Selig Harrison stated that North Korean officials told him during his Jan. 13-17 visit to Pyongyang that the country's declared stock of plutonium has "already been weaponized" and could not be inspected.
North Korea is believed to have declared about 30 kilograms of separated plutonium produced at its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in a nuclear declaration it submitted to the other five parties in June 2008. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) This declaration has not been made public. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress Feb. 12 that, prior to Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test, the United States assessed that North Korea had enough plutonium for at least six nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Pyongyang refused to say under what conditions it would relinquish such weapons. Harrison said Feb. 12 that the director-general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's American Affairs Bureau, Li Gun, told him that North Korea is "not in a position to say when we will abandon nuclear weapons" and added "that depends on when we believe there is no U.S. nuclear threat."
The latter comment appears to refer to Pyongyang's call for efforts to verify that U.S. nuclear weapons are not maintained in South Korea as part of the denuclearization of the peninsula. North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Jan. 13 asserting that "free field access should be ensured to verify the introduction and deployment of U.S. nukes in South Korea and details about their withdrawal," including verification procedures "on a regular basis" to prevent their reintroduction.
The United States has declared that it removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991.
Continued Disablement in Question
Although recent North Korean statements place long-term progress on denuclearization in doubt, ongoing efforts to prevent Pyongyang from producing additional plutonium for weapons may soon reach another key hurdle. North Korea indicated in December 2008 that it would only continue to disable its key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon as long as it received the energy assistance the five parties promised in a 2007 aid-for-denuclearization deal. The United States and Russia have completed delivery of their share of the energy assistance and China has pledged to continue its own deliveries. Whether Japan and South Korea will follow through on their pledges to provide their remaining shares of energy assistance is currently in doubt.
As part of a six-party agreement in 2007, North Korea pledged to temporarily render inoperable the facilities it used to produce plutonium for weapons in exchange for one million tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent in energy assistance. (See ACT, March 2007.) The six parties agreed on 11 steps to disable those facilities in November 2007, and as of the beginning of 2009, eight of those 11 steps have been completed. One of the most prolonged steps in that process, however, the removal of spent fuel rods from North Korea's five-megawatt reactor, has been ongoing over the past year. Pyongyang has slowed the pace of removal to 15 rods per day and has threatened to slow this pace to one per day in response to declining assistance.
South Korea has been withholding a shipment of about 3,000 tons of steel plates in response to a lack of progress on denuclearization talks and deteriorating inter-Korean relations. A South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today in February that, in light of North Korean provocations toward the South Korean government, it is in no hurry to make a determination regarding continuing assistance.
Already in a state of tension, North-South relations declined sharply in the beginning of 2009 as North Korea took increasingly confrontational steps in reaction to the policies of South Korea's year-old government under President Lee Myung-bak. Lee instituted a significant shift in Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang when he entered office in February 2008, conditioning all economic assistance to its aid-dependent neighbor on North Korea's progress on nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2008.)
In response, Pyongyang declared Jan. 30 that it was scrapping all bilateral military and political agreements with Seoul. South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson Kim Ho-nyeon said the same day that he regretted the announcement and encouraged North Korea to engage in dialogue to defuse tensions.
It remains unlikely Japan will provide any of its share of 200,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea. Tokyo has insisted since the six-party agreements were concluded in 2007 that it would not deliver any energy assistance to North Korea unless the two countries resolved Japanese concerns regarding Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang has consistently rebuffed efforts to account for the abductees and claims that those that have not been returned to Japan are no longer alive.
Australia and New Zealand have declared a willingness to provide some of the energy assistance for North Korea but on the condition that progress is made in the six-party talks. In a Jan. 7 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an Australian diplomat said that Canberra has made an "in principle offer" of energy assistance to North Korea but that "[a]ny final decision will take into account progress in the six-party talks and be made in close consultation with others." Seoul is believed to have contacted other potential suppliers to make up Japan's share.