North, South Korea Meet on Nuclear Issue

Peter Crail

North and South Korean nuclear negotiators held bilateral talks in Beijing last month, continuing an effort to revive stalled multilateral negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. The two sides do not appear to have bridged differences on the conditions for resuming the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Seoul and Washington maintain that Pyongyang first must demonstrate its commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons and related programs, including verifiably halting a uranium-enrichment program the North first publicly revealed last year. North Korea says it wants to restart the six-party talks without preconditions.

Uranium enrichment can be used in making fuel to power nuclear reactors and to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

North Korea first agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and programs in a September 2005 joint statement of the six-party talks. After taking some steps to implement that agreement, North Korea scuttled the negotiations in April 2009 after the UN Security Council reprimanded Pyongyang for a rocket launch earlier that month. (See ACT, May 2009.) Although North Korea said at that time it would never return to six-way negotiations, it has since reversed its position.

China, which chairs the six-party talks, has previously proposed a three-step process to revive the talks. The process involves North Korean bilateral meetings with South Korea and with the United States, followed by a preparatory meeting of the six parties. (See ACT, May 2011.) Although the first two steps have been carried out, the countries have not agreed to go beyond the bilateral discussions. The Sept. 21 discussions between South Korean nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, followed high-level talks in New York between U.S. and North Korean officials in July. (See ACT, September 2011.)

At a Sept. 19 seminar in Beijing celebrating the sixth anniversary of the 2005 joint statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, “We are happy to see that there have been some new, positive interactions between the parties concerned surrounding the restart of the six-party talks.”

The North-South nuclear dialogue appears to be a sign of thawing tensions between the two countries. The tensions reached a peak last year after North Korea was found to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel and Pyongyang shelled a South Korean island in response to a military exercise, killing four and injuring 19 South Korean civilians and soldiers.

Wi and Ri formally initiated the recent round of bilateral nuclear discussions during a July 22 meeting in Bali, following which Ri said the two sides were “moving to a new stage of dialogue.” Prior to that meeting, the two countries had not met to discuss the nuclear issue in two years. Seoul initially insisted that Pyongyang apologize for the altercations prior to negotiating on the nuclear issue, but it has since dropped that requirement.

The North-South talks followed the first International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in four years to consider a report by an IAEA director-general on Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. The Sept. 2 report provided a detailed overview of the agency’s understanding of North Korean nuclear activities going back to the 1970s and, for the first time, included third-party information on North Korea’s enrichment program. The information came from former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, who was allowed to visit a North Korean enrichment facility last year. (See ACT, December 2010.)

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano told the IAEA board Sept. 12 that North Korea’s nuclear program “is a matter of serious concern” and that reports about the construction of a new uranium-enrichment facility and light-water reactor in North Korea “are deeply troubling.” He also stressed the IAEA’s role in verifying Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

IAEA inspectors have not been present in North Korea since April 2009, when Pyongyang last ejected them.

The U.S. government said the report showed that North Korea’s claim that it only began work on its enrichment program in April 2009 was “unlikely,” U.S. Permanent Representative to the IAEA Glyn Davies told the IAEA board Sept. 14. “The report’s assessment of [North Korea’s] enrichment-related procurements is consistent with our belief that North Korea has been pursuing enrichment for an extended period of time,” Davies said.

The United States accused North Korea of pursuing enrichment in 2002, but North Korea denied carrying out such work until 2009.

The IAEA report also publicly detailed for the first time the agency’s assessment of suspected North Korean assistance to Libya’s now-defunct nuclear weapons program. It said that it was “very likely” that a large cylinder of uranium hexafluoride Libya obtained in 2001 originated in North Korea. “That would indicate that [North Korea] had undeclared conversion capabilities prior to 2001,” the report said.

Conversion is the industrial process that produces uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for enrichment. To support an indigenous enrichment program, North Korea would need to have mastered the process or obtained the uranium hexafluoride from elsewhere.