China Proposes Steps to N. Korea Talks

Peter Crail

China last month proposed a three-step process to revive multilateral talks addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Chinese Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs Wu Dawei outlined the proposed process to reporters in Beijing April 18, following a meeting with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, who also serves as Pyongyang’s nuclear envoy. Wu said the process would begin with discussions on the nuclear issue between North and South Korea, followed by similar discussions between North Korea and the United States, which would lead to the resumption of the so-called six-party talks.

The talks have been held intermittently since 2003 to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China serves as the chair for the talks, which also involve Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States. Pyongyang backed out of the negotiations in April 2009 in response to the UN Security Council’s censure of its rocket launch earlier that month.

North Korea rebuffed a South Korean proposal this January to hold bilateral denuclearization talks prior to resuming multilateral negotiations. Diplomatic sources said in April that North Korea preferred to discuss the nuclear issue with the United States.

The new Chinese proposal is a slight variation on a three-step process Beijing proposed in late 2009 that would have begun with talks between the United States and North Korea and followed with preliminary discussions among the six parties leading to the formal resumption of the multilateral talks. The countries were unable to agree on that formula, particularly after the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship in March 2010, which an international investigation determined was caused by a North Korean torpedo. Last November, North Korea also shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians.

South Korea has demanded that North Korea apologize for the two attacks prior to reviving the six-party talks, a step the North has refused to take. Working-level military talks in February between the two countries broke down over the issue of the two attacks, with the North Korean delegation walking out during the second day of the meeting. (See ACT, March 2011.)

The United States has backed South Korea’s position, with Department of State spokesman Mark Toner telling reporters April 18 that “a successful rapprochement between North and South Korea is an essential first step before we can consider getting involved diplomatically again or even talk about six-party talks.”

South Korea and the United States also have maintained that North Korea must take steps to demonstrate its commitment to making progress on denuclearization.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates provided the first public indication of what such steps may entail during a Jan. 11 press briefing in Beijing when he called on North Korea to adopt a moratorium on further nuclear and missile tests. The UN Security Council has required that North Korea halt such testing since 2006.

In addition, U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace audience March 29, “Those [denuclearization] steps must include monitored suspension of their newly declared uranium-enrichment program.”

Last November, North Korea revealed that it had built a uranium-enrichment plant it said was intended to provide fuel for a light-water nuclear power reactor it would construct. (See ACT, December 2010.) The United States and its allies have long expressed concern that North Korea was working to develop a uranium-enrichment capability in secret, allowing Pyongyang to make weapons from highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium.

North Korea denied pursuing an enrichment capability for years, admitting such work publicly for the first time in 2009 after it left the six-party talks.

Although Seoul and Washington have maintained that North Korea must take steps toward North-South rapprochement and denuclearization prior to the formal resumption of six-party talks, the two countries also have suggested that bilateral discussions could happen before such steps are taken. The Korea Times quoted South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek April 18 as stating, “I’m not saying those things are necessarily preconditions for North-South dialogue, but without them it would be very difficult to produce results.”

The last formal negotiations on the nuclear issue between North and South Korea, which took place in January 2009, were aimed at the removal of about 12,000 fresh nuclear fuel rods from North Korea. If used to operate North Korea’s five-megawatt nuclear reactor, the rods could yield enough plutonium for several additional nuclear weapons if North Korea reprocessed the spent fuel.

Diplomatic sources said at that time that North Korea asked for an exorbitant amount of energy assistance in return, making the talks inconclusive.

Former U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said at a Dec. 21 press briefing in Beijing that North Korean officials told him during his visit to Pyongyang earlier that month that the country would be willing to discuss the removal of the fresh fuel.

Richardson is one of several former U.S. diplomats that have held unofficial meetings with North Korean officials in recent months to discuss the nuclear issue informally. Former President Jimmy Carter also traveled to North Korea at the end of April in an effort to restart negotiations and discuss humanitarian issues in the country.

Efforts to resume negotiations with North Korea come amid warnings that the country might take steps to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities if talks do not resume. The Korea Times reported April 19 that National Intelligence Service Director Won Sei-hoon told a parliamentary intelligence panel that North Korea is seeking dialogue now, but may carry out nuclear or missile tests or other military provocations if no progress is made. Parliamentary member Hwang Jin-ha, who attended the closed session, told reporters the same day that Won said there was only “a slim possibility” of a nuclear test in the near future, although North Korea could conduct one “at any time.”

Gates said in January that Pyongyang’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities “is becoming a direct threat to the United States,” adding, “We consider this a situation of real concern, and we think there is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement.”