North Korea Shifts on Denuclearization

September 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea has publicly redefined its denuclearization policy, a move that some experts say may have been intended as an overture to resume nuclear negotiations until the U.S. decision to sanction the North Korean leadership likely closed off any opportunity for new talks.

A July 6 statement by a spokesman for the North Korean government said that “the denuclearization being called for by [North Korea] is the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a news report September 15, 2015, on North Korea’s declaration that it had resumed normal operations at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and that the nation is improving the “quality and quantity” of its nuclear arsenal. [Photo credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images]North Korea is estimated to possess approximately six to eight plutonium-based warheads. South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, and the last U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea were withdrawn in 1991. 

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department senior policy adviser to the special ambassador for talks with North Korea, said the statement marked a change from North Korea’s past characterizations of denuclearization, which stated that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons only when countries such as the United States disarm.

Carlin, speaking at a July 13 press briefing hosted by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that the new position, which called only for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, is more practical and “clearly and very deliberately” lays out a definition of denuclearization similar to North Korea’s position in the 1990s, when the two Koreas signed a joint denuclearization agreement for the Korean peninsula. 

Yet, just hours after Pyongyang’s statement, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and several senior officials because of human rights violations. This was the first time that the United States directly targeted the North Korean leader. 

Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that action was taken to highlight Washington’s “condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.” 

The sanctions imposed by the United States are a “dialogue killer,” said Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, at the July 13 press briefing. Sanctioning Kim was a “major step” because states do not take lightly such a decision against a foreign leader, and it is unlikely that he would have been targeted personally if the United States was interested in negotiations at that time, DeThomas said. 

Pyongyang responded July 11 by saying in its state-run central news agency that it would cut off communication with the United States after Washington “impaired the dignity” of North Korea’s leadership by imposing sanctions. 

North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, but communicate via the so-called New York channel at the United Nations. North Korea said it cut off the channel after the United States refused to drop the sanctions. 

When asked about North Korea’s decision, State Department spokesman John Kirby said July 11 that the United States does not comment on the details of diplomatic exchanges, but he called on North Korea to “refrain from actions and rhetoric that only further raise tensions in the region.”

North Korea’s Conditions

In its July 6 statement, North Korea cited five specific demands for achieving denuclearization on the peninsula: public disclosure of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea, removal and verification that such weapons are not present on U.S. bases in South Korea, U.S. guarantees that it will not redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea, U.S. assurances that it will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea, and withdrawal from South Korea of U.S. troops authorized to use nuclear weapons. 

North Korea said it would take “corresponding measures” if the United States satisfies its conditions. 

By invoking the names of past leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in the statement, Carlin said North Korea was signaling that this position comes from the highest authority and that Kim was putting himself behind denuclearization. 

Carlin said that there are clear similarities between these points and the 1992 joint denuclearization declaration between North Korea and South Korea and that the United States has met or generally agreed to meet the first four of the five North Korean demands. It is difficult to tell if North Korea’s offer will be completely abandoned or remain available for consideration after Pyongyang’s outrage about the sanctions dies down, Carlin said. 

IAEA Safeguards Report

Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last month completed his yearly report on the application of IAEA safeguards in North Korea for the agency’s General Conference and Board of Governors meetings.

IAEA inspectors have not been in North Korea since 2009, but the agency continues to monitor Pyongyang’s nuclear activities through such means as satellite imagery and submits a report on any developments ahead of the IAEA General Conference, which is scheduled for Sept. 26-30.

According to the Aug. 19 report, there were no indications that the reactor at Yongbyon was operating from mid-October to early December 2015. The report noted that this time period “is sufficient for the reactor to have been de-fuelled and subsequently re-fuelled.” 

North Korea shut down the reactor in 2007, but restarted it in 2013. In the past, North Korea separated plutonium from the spent reactor fuel to provide fissile material for its nuclear warheads. 

The IAEA report also said that, from early 2016 to July 2016, there were “multiple indications consistent with the Radiochemical Laboratory’s operation.” 

The Radiochemical Laboratory was used in the past to reprocess spent fuel from the reactor at Yongbyon. If a full load of spent fuel from the reactor was reprocessed, it could yield enough separated plutonium for two to four nuclear warheads. 

The IAEA report called on North Korea to cooperate with the agency and resume full implementation of its safeguards agreement.