After 20 Years of Failed Talks With North Korea, China Needs to Step Up

By Joseph R. DeTrani

Twenty years ago this month, North Korea and the United States concluded the Agreed Framework. That accord halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program at Yongbyon in exchange for heavy fuel oil and the eventual provision of two light-water reactors (LWRs) at Kumho, North Korea. 

The agreement was the result of prolonged negotiations during a tense period. Unfortunately, its success was temporary. Eventually it became clear that North Korea in the late 1990s was pursuing a clandestine program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons in violation of the Agreed Framework. In October 2002, when an official U.S. delegation confronted the senior North Korean negotiator with this information during talks in Pyongyang, the negotiator admitted that North Korea was pursuing an enrichment program and other unspecified programs.

Subsequent to this admission, North Korean officials maintained that they did not have an enrichment program. They changed their story again in 2010, when they revealed to visiting U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker that they had an enrichment facility at Yongbyon with 2,000 spinning centrifuges. Hecker was permitted to visit this facility and was impressed with its sophistication.[1] Thus, the issue of North Korea’s clandestine enrichment program was finally put to rest. North Korea proudly admitted having the program, despite its past disclaimers and the skepticism of observers in the United States and China who questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea had a clandestine enrichment program for nuclear weapons development.

The October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang triggered a series of events starting with the North pulling out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the United States halting construction of the two LWRs and ceasing shipments of heavy fuel oil. North Korea then started to reprocess the more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, stored in a cooling pond pursuant to the Agreed Framework, for the purpose of fabricating nuclear weapons. During this period, China brought the United States and North Korea together in April 2003 for talks in Beijing. Those discussions resulted in a decision to establish the six-party talks to address nuclear issues with North Korea through negotiations. The first six-party meeting was in August 2003.

As part of this process, the six parties issued a joint statement on September 19, 2005, committing North Korea to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic assistance, and the eventual provision of LWRs. Although some subsequent progress was made, North Korea in 2008 refused to commit to a written verification protocol providing for meaningful monitoring of its denuclearization efforts. When confronted with their lack of cooperation on the monitoring, North Korean officials summarily declared an end to the six-party talks. This declaration came after the United States had complied with a request by North Korean officials to remove their country from the list maintained by the U.S. Department of State of countries supporting terrorism. To date, the six-party talks and related nuclear negotiations with North Korea have not resumed.

The Potential Threat

It is estimated that North Korea has six to 12 plutonium nuclear weapons and an active enrichment program. These realities must be addressed. North Korea has an active ballistic missile program that includes its long-range Taepo Dong missiles and its new KN-08 long-range, solid-fueled mobile missile that, according to people familiar with North Korea’s missile program, is capable of reaching any location in the United States. North Korean missiles now pose an existential threat to South Korea and Japan and, once the KN-08 is operational, will pose such a threat to the United States and other countries.

Since 2006, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, four long-range Taepo Dong missile launches, and numerous launches of short- and mid-range ballistic missiles, all in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The December 2012 Taepo Dong launch successfully put a North Korean satellite in orbit. The routine launches of Pyongyang’s short- and mid-range missiles have established that these missiles are accurate. They are also in abundant supply, as North Korea has sold these missiles and its technical know-how to countries such as Iran, Libya, and Syria. 

Despite UN resolutions prohibiting North Korea from selling or purchasing missiles and high-end weapons, North Korea has done its best to continue to sell these proscribed items, mainly for revenue purposes. The Proliferation Security Initiative, with more than 100 countries participating, has been relatively effective in monitoring North Korea’s consistent attempts to circumvent these resolutions. 

Since the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, has assumed a more belligerent approach toward relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. With the reconstitution of a reactor, which has a capacity of 5 megawatts electric, and a reprocessing facility, which uses the standard PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) process for separating plutonium from spent fuel, at the Yongbyon site, North Korea is capable of producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and may in fact be doing so. At the same time, Pyongyang apparently is expending resources on the miniaturization of these weapons, with the goal of mating them to ballistic missiles. 

Overall relations with North Korea have deteriorated exponentially since the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean ship, which killed 47 sailors. In March and April 2013, North Korea threatened pre-emptive nuclear attacks against South Korea and the United States and brazenly posted a YouTube video of a simulated nuclear attack on New York City. Pyongyang followed that with the brutal execution in December 2013 of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful official in North Korea, and the reported purge of officials whom Jang had appointed. These unsettling developments coincided with the unprecedented shuffling of senior generals in the Korean People’s Army, which contributed to speculation that the domestic situation in North Korea was fluid and potentially volatile. 

North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programs, if unchecked, could encourage other countries such as Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear weapons despite extended-deterrence commitments from the United States. Senior Japanese and South Korean officials often broach this subject in private conversations with their U.S. counterparts, noting the nuclear threat from North Korea and their concern that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons and will build more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems capable of defeating any missile defense system in these countries. 

Current UN sanctions on North Korea are having a significant impact. Additional UN sanctions may target the leadership’s money and deny Pyongyang access to international financial institutions, which are necessary for the movement and laundering of its money. North Korea undoubtedly will work hard to circumvent these sanctions and acquire needed revenue through the sale of missiles, high-end weapons, and possibly even nuclear materials and nuclear know-how. 

Pyongyang’s past nuclear relationship with Syria should not be forgotten. The preponderance of evidence indicates that North Korea provided Syria with the assistance and materials necessary to build a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. The key element of the assistance was a gas-graphite reactor with an estimated capacity of 40 megawatts thermal, making it similar to but larger than North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor.[2] This is a powerful reminder that nuclear proliferation from North Korea is a concern.

Chinese Action Needed

Progress in addressing North Korea’s nuclear programs depends greatly on China’s role because North Korea depends on China for food and most of its energy supply. Historically, the bilateral relationship with China, memorialized in a 1961 treaty, was deep and thorough—like “teeth and lips,” as it was described in a common refrain from China and North Korea during the warmer days of their relationship. 

China is North Korea’s only meaningful ally, even with the current tension in the bilateral relationship. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia scaled back its relations with North Korea, leaving only China as the North’s true benefactor. Indeed, China provides North Korea with more than 70 percent of the country’s requirements for crude oil; significant amounts of food and aviation fuel also come from China. Chinese-North Korean trade was worth more than $1.3 billion last year, with China investing heavily in the North’s precious-metals sector. Although bilateral relations have deteriorated since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father and one seldom hears the “teeth and lips” refrain, the relationship is still strong.

Given the close and long-standing relationship between the two countries and the reliance of North Korea on China for energy and food assistance, the United States believes that China can exert more pressure on the North to return to meaningful nuclear negotiations and persuade North Korea to take some important steps. In particular, North Korea would be expected to declare that it is still committed to the 2005 joint statement and thus is prepared to dismantle its nuclear program in return for assurances that the United States and other countries would not invade the North or seek regime change and for economic assistance that would include engagement with international financial institutions, the provision of LWRs, and, ultimately, the establishment of normal relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. 

Only China has this leverage with North Korea, and it is in China’s interest to use this leverage to ensure that North Korea returns to meaningful negotiations. A refusal by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons could incite other countries in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs, as noted above. Such a development would be of great concern to China. Also of concern to Beijing would be the possible proliferation of nuclear materials and the resulting adverse effects on China of such proliferation. 

As it did in 2003, China should promptly convene an exploratory meeting in Beijing with North Korea and the four other countries involved in the six-party talks process. This meeting would determine if North Korea is committed to fulfilling the terms of the 2005 joint statement. If it is committed to that goal, then the resumption of talks, focusing on implementation of the joint statement, would be possible. This would benefit the international community and constitute a diplomatic success for China. Convincing China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, to take the lead on this issue also could lead to a closer dialogue on other issues currently affecting China’s relationship with the United States and other countries.

If North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons, then China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States need a strategy for dealing with a nuclear North Korea capable of destabilizing the region. This strategy would need to ensure that North Korea does not proliferate missiles, high-end weapons, and nuclear materials.

Permitting North Korea to retain and build more nuclear weapons will destabilize Northeast Asia. That could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region and the potential for a progressively isolated and desperate North Korea proliferating nuclear materials and know-how. China, with the support of the United States, must prevent this from happening. 

Joseph R. DeTrani, the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, was U.S. special envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He was mission manager for North Korea from 2006 to 2010 and director of the National Counterproliferation Center from 2010 to 2012 in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government department or agency. 


1. Peter Crail, “N. Korea Reveals Uranium-Enrichment Plant,” Arms Control Today, December 2010.

2. David Albright and Paul Brannan, “The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications,” ISIS Report, May 12, 2008,; David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Syria Update III: New Information About Al Kibar Reactor Site,” ISIS Report, April 24, 2008,