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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
North Korea Sets Conditions for Talks
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Kelsey Davenport

North Korea spelled out its conditions for resuming negotiations over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but U.S. officials say that they are unacceptable and reiterated that Pyongyang must make clear its commitment to denuclearization in order to resume talks.

North Korea’s National Defence Commission said in an April 18 statement that before the talks can restart, the UN Security Council must lift sanctions placed on Pyongyang for its past nuclear and ballistic missile activities. Additionally, the United States must withdraw all “nuclear war means” from the vicinity of South Korea, and Washington must stop joint military exercises with Seoul because “dialogues and war games can never go together,” the defense commission said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Pyongyang’s terms “unacceptable” as a basis for negotiations. Kerry said on April 18 that he was prepared to look at the announcement as a “beginning gambit,” but that Washington needs to see “clear evidence” that Pyongyang is willing to live up to its international obligations to resume negotiations.

North Korea’s announcement of preconditions came after several weeks of escalating rhetoric from Pyongyang in response to joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.

Multilateral negotiations between North Korea and China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, known as the six-party talks, began in 2003. In 2005 the parties reached an agreement under which Pyongyang said it would abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for possible future assistance on a peaceful nuclear energy program.

In April 2009, however, Pyongyang announced it was withdrawing from the 2005 accord and the six-party talks. (See ACT, May 2009.) The announcement came in response to a UN Security Council statement on expanding sanctions against North Korea for attempting to launch a satellite. A prior council resolution banned North Korean satellite launches because satellite launch vehicles use technology directly applicable to ballistic missile development.

During a trip to South Korea last month, Kerry reiterated the U.S. position on negotiations, saying on April 12 that Pyongyang must be willing to make it clear that it will “move to denuclearization as part of the talks.”

The April 18 statement from the North Korean defense commission said that denuclearization of “the Korean Peninsula” remains “the unshakable will” of North Korea.

New Nuclear Strategy

In an April 16 interview, Leon Sigal, a Korea expert with the Social Science Research Council, said that North Korea will not return to negotiations under conditions that require it to abandon and dismantle its nuclear program. Referring to a March 31 statement on a new policy laid out by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Sigal said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons might now be more important to the regime.

Evidence of N. Korean Nuclear Test Grows

Monitoring stations in Japan and Russia detected radioactive gases that likely came from North Korea’s declared Feb. 12 nuclear test, the organization tasked with detecting nuclear explosions announced April 23.

Tibor Tóth, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), said in a speech in Geneva that the timing of the detection “coincides very well” with the Feb. 12 event.

The CTBTO maintains a worldwide monitoring system to detect nuclear explosions. Of the system’s 337 planned stations, 275 are currently operating. The system monitors seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide activity to detect nuclear explosions. The CTBTO detected seismic activity consistent with a nuclear explosion in the area of North Korea on Feb. 12. (See ACT, March 2013.) The detection of radioactive gases is the “ultimate proof” of a nuclear explosion, according to the organization.

A separate April 23 statement issued by the organization said that the CTBTO was in the process of “eliminating other possible sources” of nuclear activity that could have released the gases.

A monitoring station in Canada detected radioactive gases from North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006, two weeks after the explosion occurred. The monitoring system did not detect any gases after the second test in May 2009, but the organization said seismic activity was indicative of an explosion.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

    According to the statement, published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim is planning to emphasize building up North Korean nuclear forces along with economic development. Sigal said this could indicate that Pyongyang will spend less money maintaining its aging conventional forces and increase its reliance on nuclear deterrence for national security.

    Sigal said Pyongyang’s commitment to this new policy is unclear and should be tested in negotiations. He suggested, however, that North Korea would not give up its nuclear weapons for economic aid or seek international recognition as a nuclear-weapon state. Pyongyang will retain its nuclear weapons as long as it perceives a “hostile policy” from the United States and South Korea, he said.

    Sigal suggested that the United States should rethink its position to focus negotiations on impeding the development and expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program. A process that prevents Pyongyang from testing further nuclear devices or ballistic missiles is more likely to be successful and would prevent North Korea’s nuclear arsenal from growing, he said.

    As an example of such a process, he cited the February 2012 Leap Day agreement between North Korea and the United States. Under that accord, North Korea agreed to refrain from nuclear and missile testing in exchange for aid from the United States. The deal broke down in April 2012 after Pyongyang attempted to launch a satellite. (See ACT, April 2012.)

    Since the Leap Day agreement fell through, Pyongyang successfully launched a satellite into orbit last December and tested a nuclear device Feb. 13. The UN Security Council unanimously expanded the sanctions against North Korea after each incident. (See ACT, January/February and March 2013.)

    Reactor Restart

    Recent actions by North Korea also appear to support its policy of expanding its nuclear arsenal. On April 2, Pyongyang announced its intention to restart the heavy-water reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility that produced the plutonium that North Korea later separated to use in nuclear weapons.

    The reactor was shut down in July 2007 and dismantled later that year as part of the 2005 action plan concluded during the six-party talks. The International Atomic Energy Agency verified the shutdown.

    An April 2 KCNA article quoted a spokesman for the North Korean General Department of Atomic Energy as saying that restarting the reactor would solve the critical tasks of “expanding and reinforcing nuclear forces” and resolve development constraints caused by the “strained electricity supply.”

    Mark Fitzpatrick, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in an April 17 e-mail that it is difficult to determine how long it may take North Korea to restart the reactor. The reactor could be “too old and defective” to operate or may require “extensive renovation” after six years of lying dormant, he said.

    Fitzpatrick, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said North Korea already could have begun preparing fresh fuel for the reactor. In that case, replacing the cooling system, which could take about three months, would determine the time frame for restarting operations, he said. North Korea blew up the original cooling tower in June 2008 as part of its commitment to dismantle its nuclear program.

    North Korea is estimated to possess enough separated plutonium for four to eight warheads. Pyongyang could have additional uranium-based warheads, but it is unclear how much weapons-grade uranium, if any, North Korea has produced.

    Also at the Yongbyon complex, North Korea is constructing a light-water reactor. Although such reactors are not typically used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, they can be configured for that purpose. (See ACT, October 2012.)

    Missile Threat

    North Korea’s ability to deliver its nuclear weapons using ballistic missiles remains unclear. U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview broadcast April 16 on NBC that the United States does not believe that North Korea has the capacity to fit a warhead onto a missile, although Washington must deal with “every contingency.”

    Obama’s remarks qualified a conclusion reached by the Defense Intelligence Agency in March, which said in a written report that it had “moderate confidence” that North Korea could miniaturize a warhead to fit onto a ballistic missile. This statement, made public April 11 by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, was mistakenly labeled as declassified, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during an April 18 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Clapper said only that it is unknown if North Korea actually has the ability to “make a weapon that will work” for use on missiles.

    Although North Korea has tested and deployed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the status of its longer-range systems is unclear. Pyongyang’s Musudan missile, which is estimated to be able to carry a 500-kilogram warhead approximately 3,000 kilometers, has not been tested. Experts say the road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea unveiled in April 2012 are mock-ups, rather than actual missiles.