Probe of Ship Sinking Halts Outreach to N. Korea

Peter Crail

Months-long efforts to convince North Korea to return to multilateral disarmament talks have been stalled over the past month by suspicions Pyongyang may have been behind the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.

An explosion sank the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan March 26 near the maritime border between North and South Korea. That border has been the site of prior naval skirmishes between the two countries.

During an April 25 press briefing, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said “a bubble jet caused by a heavy torpedo is thought to be one of the most likely things to be blamed, but various other possibilities are also under review.”

North Korea has denied any involvement.

Although the cause has not been officially determined, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak cited the incident as an indication that Seoul must strengthen its military alertness, calling North Korea “the world’s most warlike power.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters April 19, “I believe the resumption of the six-party talks will not be possible for some time, if we find evidence that clearly shows North Korea’s involvement.” China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have held six-way talks addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs intermittently since 2003.

Yu also said that Seoul would refer the matter to the UN Security Council if Pyongyang was found to be behind the incident.

U.S. officials have echoed Seoul’s calls to halt outreach to North Korea until the Cheonan incident is resolved. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters April 14, “At this juncture, we told our South Korean friends that our primary objective is to work with them on the recovery of the ship,” adding, “and at that point, we will be able to make some judgments about the way forward.”

Meanwhile, North Korean state media reported April 21 that Pyongyang has issued a memorandum detailing its nuclear policy, declaring that it will join international nonproliferation and disarmament commitments “on an equal footing with other nuclear weapons states.”

Portions of the document were carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, which said that the memorandum sought to provide a “correct understanding” of the causes of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

The memorandum appears to link Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament to broader global nuclear disarmament, claiming that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are intended “to deter and repulse aggression and attack on the country and the nation till the nuclear weapons are eliminated from the [Korean] peninsula and the rest of the world.” It further declares that North Korea will produce nuclear weapons “as much as it deems necessary” but will not participate in a nuclear arms race.

The document repeats Pyongyang’s call to replace the current ceasefire agreement on the Korean peninsula with a formal peace treaty prior to its nuclear disarmament. (See ACT, March 2010.) The United States and its allies in the region have maintained that North Korea must first abandon its nuclear weapons and nuclear programs before such a treaty could be concluded.

At an April 21 press briefing, Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected Pyongyang’s call for a peace agreement prior to giving up its nuclear weapons. “This is not a new request from North Korea,” he said, adding that “they cannot expect a different relationship until they take specific actions first.” Crowley said those actions included fulfilling a September 2005 six-party agreement in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons and adhering to UN Security Council resolutions calling on Pyongyang to carry out that pledge.