Press Contacts: Paul Kerr, (202) 463-8270 x102; Daryl G. Kimball, (202) 463-8270 x107
(Washington, D.C.) A day after North Korea's foreign ministry released a statement threatening that Pyongyang would conduct a nuclear test explosion at some point in the future, experts from the nonpartisan Arms Control Association called for more energetic U.S. and international diplomacy to prevent a further escalation of the long-running impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
"North Korea's threat of a nuclear weapon test explosion is out of bounds and extremely counterproductive," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
"At the same time, North Korea's nuclear test threat underscores that current policies designed to curb its nuclear weapons program have failed to achieve their potential and that a new and more energetic diplomatic approach is needed, and fast," Kimball said.
A little more than one year ago, six countries, including North Korea, agreed to a comprehensive joint statement stipulating goals and principles for a step-by-step, action-for-action plan to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in a verifiable manner and move toward normalized relations. Even before North Korea's nuclear test threat, the six-party process was near collapse due to inflexibility and inaction on the part of leaders in Pyongyang and in Washington. No follow-up talks are currently scheduled among the six participants: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States, and North Korea.
"A dangerous situation has been allowed to get worse. It is essential that top U.S. diplomats clarify Washington's willingness to negotiate directly with their North Korean counterparts in the context of the six-party process or other fora to implement the September 2005 Joint Framework Agreement for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," suggested Amb. Robert Gallucci, a member of the ACA Board of Directors.
Since November 2005, Washington and Pyongyang have been at odds over the substance and sequencing of the steps outlined in the Joint Framework. Pyongyang blames the breakdown mainly on U.S. efforts to crack down on illicit North Korean financial transactions and extract concessions in the six-party talks. The United States says it must take action against money laundering and that Pyongyang's complaints are but a cynical excuse to avoid returning to the six-party talks. In July, North Korea test-fired several ballistic missiles and the United States and Japan responded by pushing a resolution (1695) through the UN Security Council that, among other things, calls on North Korea to return to six-party talks.
"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," Gallucci said. "Concerns that this approach would undermine the role of regional players, including South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, are misplaced because these states would be regularly consulted by Washington," he noted.
Late last month, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow indicated a slight shift in the U.S. position on resuming talks. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency Vershbow said there was a possibility for a face-to-face meeting between U.S. and North Korean negotiators to resolve the nuclear crisis if North Korea would also agree to return to the six-party talks.
"Clearly, it is far less likely that talks on the nuclear issue will produce useful results if the North maintains its threat to test a nuclear weapon. At the same time, it is unlikely that the situation will improve if Washington insists the six-party process is the only path forward," added Gallucci, who was the U.S. negotiator during the first North Korean nuclear crisis from 1993-1994. That earlier crisis was resolved through direct talks with North Korea and led to the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea verifiably halted plutonium production through 2002.
"It is more important than ever for President Bush to speak directly with Chinese President Hu, as well as other leaders in the region, to urge them to use what influence they may have to persuade North Korea to temper its behavior and return to the negotiating table," said Lee Feinstein, ACA Board member and former Principal Deputy Director, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State. "To date, China has been unwilling to exert what economic or political leverage it may have over North Korea," Feinstein said.
Feinstein also suggested, "Secretary of State Rice should convene a meeting of the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia to work out a new joint strategy to break the impasse." After meeting on the North Korean issue today, the UN Security Council is reportedly divided about how to respond.
"Other states that have considered or pursued nuclear weapons but later foresaken them, such as Brazil, South Africa, and Ukraine, could also play a helpful role by urging North Korea to step back from the nuclear brink," Feinstein stated.
"It would also be useful for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet in a business-like fashion to resolve concerns about illegal conterfeiting of U.S. currency in order to help smooth the way for the resumption of more important talks on denuclearization," said Paul Kerr, ACA Research Analyst on the North Korean nuclear program.
The latest crisis began unfolding back in the fall of 2002 when the United States confronted North Korean diplomats about a covert uranium enrichment effort, which was a violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. In November 2002, fuel oil shipments to North Korea (as called for under the Agreed Framework) were terminated by Washington and its partners. North Korea retaliated by ejecting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from its nuclear complex, renewing plutonium production, and announcing that it was withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Today, North Korea continues to produce plutonium for its suspected nuclear weapons program and may have as much as 6-12 bombs worth of fissile material.
"U.S. leaders must interpret the latest North Korean threat as an opportunity for resuming constructive dialogue on the basis of the agreed principles for disarmament outlined last year," recommended Kerr. "If the President and Secretary of State fail to seize the diplomatic initiative now, a bad situation will get worse," Kerr said.
ACA recently held a press conference on the North Korean nuclear challenge, featuring Congressman Jim Leach (R-Iowa), James Kelly, and Dan Poneman. A full transcript of the event is available online. Other material and information on North Korea is available on ACA's North Korea country resources page.
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The Arms Control Association (ACA) is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting effective arms control policies. ACA publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.