North Korea: What Next?

Prepared Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball to the ICAS 2006 Fall Symposium on Korean Peninsula Issues, October 11, 2006

Good afternoon. I want to thank ICAS (Institute for Corean-American Studies) for the invitation to address its fall symposium. ICAS has a reputation for bringing together a wide variety of perspectives on inter-Korean relations and there is no better time than now for such a dialogue.

I have been asked to offer my perspectives on what steps should be taken to address the most recent and extremely troubling twist in the latest episode of recurring crises surrounding the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program: the October 9 announcement by the North that it has conducted a nuclear weapon test explosion.

Before I begin, I want to preface my remarks by clarifying that the Arms Control Association is a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization concerned about the security risks and dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons proliferation. We have been carefully reporting on and providing analysis on the North Korean nuclear program consistently since the early 1990s through our journal Arms Control Today, through our press briefings, and informal networks of experts and policymakers. While my views are based in large part on those of my Board of Directors, they are my own.

Events are fast moving and the situation is delicate. There are no simple and quick solutions. But there are some things that I believe all of us must come to grips with if the situation is to improve:

  • Pyongyang’s test announcement and statements this morning that it is prepared for “confrontation” if necessary are out of bounds and extremely counterproductive.
  • The test underscores that current U.S., Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and South Korean policies have failed to halt and reverse the North Korean program and advance the step-for-step, action-for-action implementation of the September 2005 Joint Statement. A reiteration of previous calls for North Korea to return to the six-party talks “or else” will not work, are not credible, and will not be effective.
  • North Korea’s apparent test and defiance of the international community merits appropriate and measured penalties authorized by the Security Council that are designed to increase the incentives for North Korea to return to the negotiating table and refrain from further nuclear or missile tests, and to increase the penalties of not doing so.

To sort out where we go from here, I think it is important to come to a common understanding about the answers to three fundamental questions:

First, what went wrong and what went right with the six-party process and what seems to have prompted the DPRK to announce and then conduct the test?

Second, what are the political and military implications of the test and of North Korea’s nuclear program? And what are the most serious nuclear-related security dangers that can and must be averted?

Third, what strategic objectives should the United States and the rest of the international community be seeking to achieve in order to mitigate the risks and help lead the DPRK to implement the obligations it agreed to in the September 2005 Joint Statement?

After addressing those issues, I’ll outline what I believe are some common sense “dos” and “don’ts” and describe several possible specific steps that could help break the current cycle of crisis escalation.

How Did We Get To This Stage?

Just over one year ago, on September 19, 2005, the fourth round of six-party talks yielded a Joint Statement, which was hailed as a significant diplomatic breakthrough. It was a product of 25 months of on-again, off-again talks, in the context of which the United States engaged in “direct” discussions with North Korean officials.

In the six-point September 2005 Joint Statement, Pyongyang agreed to abandon verifiably its existing plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear programs. The United States specifically reiterated that is has no intention to attack or invade North Korea. All parties agreed to respect North Korea’s sovereignty, work toward the normalization of relations, and help provide energy assistance. The statement even said that, at some future point, the five parties would consider allowing Pyongyang to acquire light-water nuclear reactors. The agreement unfortunately did not oblige Pyongyang to suspend plutonium separation operations, allowing it to continue to produce additional fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The September 2005 meeting was followed by another that was intended to work out how the step-by-step, action-for-action process should unfold. However, disagreements over the sequencing of the steps emerged. U.S. officials such as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made statements suggesting that the United States did not support the language regarding the light-water nuclear reactors. Those remarks were followed by a North Korean statement suggesting that Pyongyang would not meet its disarmament obligations until much later than implied by the joint statement.

The effort was further complicated by the U.S. Treasury Department designation in September 2005 of North Korean assets at a bank in Macau (Banco Delta Asia) as a "money laundering concern." The United States asserts that the bank provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in illicit activities, such as drug trafficking and distribution of counterfeit U.S. currency. Since the U.S. designation, the bank has frozen North Korea’s accounts. Under U.S. pressure, other financial institutions have also reportedly curtailed their dealings both with the bank and North Korea.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry later described the "financial sanctions" as “a stumbling-block lying in the way” of Pyongyang returning to the talks, as well as a “barometer judging whether the U.S. is willing” to alter its North Korea policy. Pyongyang has sought an end to the U.S. investigation of Banco Delta Asia so as to unfreeze approximately $24 million in North Korean funds.

North Korean and U.S. officials met in March 2006 to discuss the Banco Delta Asia matter, but no further discussions have taken place since then. At the time, North Korean officials made several suggestions for resolving U.S. concerns about the country’s illicit activities. South Korean and Chinese diplomats have publicly and privately urged the United States and North Korea to quickly resolve the issue.

The United States says that the financial measures were not imposed as a negotiating tactic but to prevent money laundering for illegal activities. Bush administration officials have dismissed Pyongyang’s criticisms as diplomatic bluster, aimed at providing a convenient excuse to avoid discussing its September 2005 pledges to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

While U.S. officials have publicly claimed that the Treasury Department’s financial sanctions are a separate law enforcement action, senior administration officials have told Arms Control Today that they believe that, in the long run, constraining these illegitimate activities will encourage North Korea to return to the bargaining table and follow through on its commitments. U.S. officials continued to reject the notion of direct negotiations with North Korea on nuclear matters.

Apparently in response, North Korea conducted in early July a series of ballistic missile launches, including a failed test of its Taepo Dong-2. This produced a clear negative response July 15 from the international community in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 1695, which condemned the missile tests and paves the way for other countries to put restrictions on North Korea’s weapons programs and financial transactions.

However, the limited response by China and South Korea to the missile tests may have signaled to Pyongyang that the costs of a nuclear test would be limited. The missile tests may also have been a sign that the “center of gravity” within Pyongyang has shifted to more hard-line elements increasingly skeptical of engagement with the United States. If this is the case, then it is not all that surprising that Pyongyang took the next step in the escalation ladder: declaring and probably conducting a nuclear test explosion.

What do we know about the apparent nuclear test explosion of October 9 and what are its political, diplomatic, and military implications?

Any nuclear test detonation allows a state to test the performance of its nuclear weapons technology against design goals and make adjustments. The fact that North Korea could explode a nuclear device was not surprising, given longtime suspicions about the advanced state of Pyongyang's nuclear program. It also was not all that surprising given the fact that North Korea has previously implied that it may do so. For example, its Foreign Ministry stated July 16 that Pyongyang intends to “bolster its war deterrent for self-defense in every way by all means and methods.”

Reports indicate that the U.S. intelligence community believes the test was below 1 kiloton in size and probably closer to .5 kilotons; far less than what one might expect from a first time test from an emerging nuclear-weapon state. Seismic data and air analysis aren't enough to determine whether North Korea is able to miniaturize a nuclear device to fit into a warhead on a missile, but it is highly unlikely that North Korea can do so. It is not clear at this point whether the test was nuclear, though I believe it probably was. The test's low yield could be the result of impure plutonium, a flawed design, or poor execution of a design.

Of the seven missiles tested by North Korea in July, one was previously believed to be a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States. It is not. That missile, the Taepo Dong-2, failed within a minute. So the good news is that North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities are not as advanced as they might be. But that could change over time and will unless a new and more effective approach is fashioned by the United States, its allies, and China.

What Should the Strategic Goals of the United States and the International Community be at this Stage in the Crisis?

The answer to this question may seem self evident, but given the differing concerns and priorities of the five parties involved in the talks with North Korea, as well as their differences on tactics, I think it is important for these states to reaffirm and reiterate common goals and agree to prioritize which are most important.

The starting point must be the September 2005 Joint Statement and Resolution 1695, which essentially means no further North Korean missile tests or nuclear tests and a resumption of the diplomatic process to implement the general goals outlined in the Joint Statement. Other matters should, for now, be pushed aside or dealt with in a manner that does not further complicate the task of addressing the nuclear and missile problems.

Furthermore, it is at this stage essential to recognize that time is on the side of North Korea in the sense that further delay toward the implementation of the Joint Framework allows Pyongyang to amass more plutonium and possibly highly enriched uranium for weapons. Stopping further nuclear testing and further fissile material production should now become the first priority for the international community in order to cap the size of North Korea’s arsenal and guard against the possible future transfer of fissile material to other states or non-state actors.

The test underscores the importance of halting further advances by pursuing a stepwise approach, rather than the current all or nothing approach that has allowed North Korea to continue to improve its arsenal.

Observations and Recommendations

So what conclusions can we draw about what should and should not be done to address the worsening situation?

First, the North Korean nuclear test is a setback from every angle that you look at it. It is a watershed moment in the long running crisis that underscores the failure of the current approach. Although it may be of some comfort to some policymakers that Security Council members now violently agree that the North Korean test and its nuclear problem represent a serious threat to international security, such agreement does not constitute success in dealing with the threat. In the world of nuclear proliferation, the right results matter more than being justifiably righteous.

While the apparent test is politically and diplomatically significant, it does not, for now, provide North Korea with a significant new military capability that it did not have a year or so ago. The test appears to have been something of a failure, though North Korea could test a nuclear device again. North Korea is highly unlikely to have the ability to mate a workable warhead on a ballistic missile. Nuclear-armed missiles are not about to start flying because North Korea does not have them and understands that doing so would likely unleash the full military might of U.S. and allied forces.

However, the continued production of plutonium by North Korea and possible additional nuclear test explosions could give it significant new capabilities to produce additional and more reliable nuclear devices and possibly more easily deliverable nuclear weapons.

We must recognize that no single set of tactics will by itself be effective. The proper combination must be developed and consistently pursued by key parties. It is also essential at this delicate moment to consider some practical but possibly dramatic steps that are designed simply for the purpose of diminishing the increasingly strident rhetoric from Pyongyang and similarly strong responses from Washington and other capitals.

Given the heated climate, leaders in Washington and Beijing must establish a direct line of communication with leaders in Pyongyang in order to clearly communicate official government positions and responses. It is vital to guard against misinterpretations or miscommunications that could lead to unintended consequences. Diplomacy conducted via press conferences, live CNN interviews, and hyperbolic KCNA news bulletins are a recipe for trouble.

In addition, a firm but measured response from the international community to the apparent nuclear test is now, for better or worse, essential to communicate that testing of nuclear weapons by North Korea (or any other state) carries a high cost. Punitive measures should be communicated and implemented in ways by Washington and other leading capitals so they can not be interpreted by North Korea as “acts of war” or “aggression.”

While further steps to prevent North Korean imports or exports of nuclear and missile related items should be explored, it must be recognized that there is no conceivable way to hermetically seal-off North Korea. But North Korea and other potential proliferators should think twice about providing terrorists with nuclear materials. In the event of a terrorist nuclear attack, nuclear forensics would enable the United States and the international community to trace the origin of the nuclear bomb or material to its source and hold the supplier accountable.

If punitive measures are implemented by all states, including China and South Korea, they may help persuade North Korea that it is in its own self interest to return to negotiations. Yet, they will not by themselves reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions and programs.

Therefore, as difficult as it may be to do so, getting North Korea back to the negotiating table—no matter what the shape of that table might need to be—is essential. While there may be advantages to the six-party format (and there are advantages), it is clear that the Bush administration’s stubborn insistence on talking with North Korea only through the six-party process has not led to positive results. Bilateral talks with North Korea are not a concession or reward for North Korea but are in the vital U.S. national security interest.

New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson has endorsed new, direct talks in which the United States would promise not to attack North Korea and give Pyongyang aid in exchange for its agreement to end its nuclear program. Former Secretary of State James Baker, in a television interview Sunday, said, "It's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."

Ambassador Robert Gallucci, an ACA Board member and former U.S. negotiator with North Korea during the 1990s recently said:

“The six-party negotiations have not worked because there have been no real negotiations. Bilateral talks were a good idea before North Korea's test threat and they could still help jumpstart the process and lead to a de-escalation of tensions. Concerns that this approach would undermine the role and influence of regional players, including South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, are misplaced because these states would be regularly consulted by Washington.”

The initiation of a strong bilateral dialogue between North Korea and the United States would strengthen what goes for moderates within North Korea and ease the situation in general. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that President Bush will agree to this approach. Why? Because the Bush administration incorrectly sees bilateral diplomacy as rewarding bad behavior and having failed in the past.

Finally, breaking the action-reaction cycle of escalation and actually making progress through negotiations—six party or two party—will not likely happen unless the United States is willing to further clarify the aims of U.S. policy and demonstrate its good faith intentions to fulfill its commitments in the September 2005 Joint Statement through tangible actions and specific negotiating proposals. At the same time, negotiations cannot succeed if North Korea maintains its threat to conduct additional tests. Further talks absent a willingness to negotiate through give and take will not produce results but lead to further frustration and escalation.

Policy Options and Tactics

Now, just as was the case before the North Korean test, the right combination of diplomacy and negotiations remain the only viable option. These would be the immediate next steps that I would recommend:

I. All concerned parties must agree to seek to halt further advances by North Korea by pursuing a stepwise, rather than all or nothing, approach.

II. Given that the situation could easily escalate through miscalculation or a lack of coordination, the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia must coordinate and calibrate their response in a way that does not provoke hardliners in Pyongyang to take even more bellicose and provocative actions, but instead increases the incentives to return to the negotiating table, while increasing the penalties for not doing so.

III. Offer bilateral talks to resolve problems relating to North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering in a business-like manner.

IV. To communicate the displeasure of the international community and signal that nuclear testing is inconsistent with near-universal norms, the UN Security Council should authorize “appropriate” punitive sanctions to go into effect if North Korea formally refuses to rejoin the six-party talks by a certain date or makes further statements threatening nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches. A number of ideas have been discussed at the Security Council, ranging from a trade ban on military and luxury items, the power to inspect all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, and freezing assets connected to its weapons program.

Such actions alone will not reverse North Korea’s course and could even harden its position, especially if China, South Korea, and Japan do not support and implement the proscribed actions and if the United States does not, in some other way, appear to try to meet North Korea half-way.

V. To change the tone for the better and show U.S. willingness to address North Korea’s concerns, President Bush should announce that senior U.S. officials are prepared to meet anywhere, anytime in a bilateral setting with North Korean officials to resolve issues of concern, including “financial sanctions,” so long as North Korea also agrees to return to the six-party talks and refrains from further nuclear or missile tests.

VI. To clarify the benefits of cooperation, a coordinated and detailed proposal should be jointly developed by the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea outlining which actions they would be prepared to take with respect to implementation of the September 2005 Joint Statement if North Korea agrees to verifiably suspend plutonium production.

VII. Because the current U.S. policy is flawed and not supported by both political parties, the president should form a bipartisan review panel on U.S. policy on North Korea led by a senior former official, such as Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski.

U.S. lawmakers must also try to refrain from purely partisan bickering about whether the Bush or Clinton administration is at fault for the North Korean situation. Fact-based critiques of current policy are certainly useful and allowable. However, Senator John McCain’s broadside on the Clinton administration and the 1994 Agreed Framework yesterday was unbecoming of a Senator and incorrect on the facts.

It also doesn’t help the president or the cause of denuclearization to say that negotiating with North Korea to create the Agreed Framework “didn’t work.” While that agreement was imperfect and not comprehensive, it did succeed in preventing North Korea from producing additional plutonium for eight years. That plutonium production cap was real. It was a success. It is something worth achieving again before the current situation worsens.


Finally, let me close with a few words about what the North Korean test and the crisis over its nuclear program means for the broader global nuclear nonproliferation effort and what must be done in response.

Some suggest the North Korean test is a failure of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In a way it is, but that is a narrow and improper way to think about how we successfully deal with nonproliferation and disarmament.

The NPT and the other elements of the nonproliferation system are tools that only work if all nations agree to comply with them. They also are not substitutes for effective regional diplomacy to address the tensions and fears that drive states to pursue the nuclear weapons options. The North Korean test is not an event that warrants a reconsideration of Japan’s or South Korea’s current non-nuclear weapon policies.

The North Korean nuclear situation is just one of several developments that make it clear that NPT needs to be strengthened and updated, not abandoned or ignored. Steps that could be taken include a global agreement to implement tougher international safeguards on civilian nuclear programs, better controls on the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, a global halt to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and tangible steps to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons.

For more information on the Arms Control Association’s plan to strengthen the nonproliferation system, please see our special Web site at

Thank you.