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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 75, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 75, January/February 2004

In the News

North Korea: Six Party Nuclear Talks Delayed

After being delayed several times, the second round of six party talks on the nuclear weapons programme of the Democratic Peoples' Republic of North Korea (DPRK) has now been scheduled for February 25 in Beijing. The talks, involving governmental representatives from the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and DPRK, follow North Korea's announcement of its intention to withdraw from the NPT and develop its own 'nuclear deterrent'.

Following the first of the six-party talks, held in Beijing in August 2003, North Korea quashed initial media reports that a second round would be held in "early November", insisting that it had made no promise about future talks. In mid-October, the US proposed that, "security assurances might be provided within the multilateral context, conditioned on North Korea's progress in nuclear dismantlement." Shortly after this a Chinese state delegation to North Korea obtained North Korea's agreement "in principle" to pursue further six-party talks.1

The US has specified that it wants a clear commitment from North Korea to end its nuclear programme in an effective, verifiable and irreversible way, as an essential outcome from a second round of talks. North Korea has instead proposed a "freeze" on its nuclear activities in exchange for a range of economic and political "rewards" as the focus for the second session. The first round of talks was little more than an exchange of views, with the US and North Korea setting out their stated policy positions. The US argued for a clear and verifiable commitment to nuclear disarmament from North Korea, prior to any economic concessions, whilst North Korea demanded "simultaneous actions", and a package including a non-aggression pact and economic and trade benefits.

In November, Russia's Foreign Ministry reported that a second round of talks was "possible" in December.2 Shortly after, KCNA released a statement, which appeared to make a number of concessions, including being "ready to abandon in practice its nuclear program", although this would only happen "at the phase where [the US's] hostile policy is fundamentally dropped and its threat to us removed in practice." In addition, North Korea said that it was "willing to take into consideration 'written assurances of non-aggression'... instead of the non-aggression treaty" and suggested that it could "modify even the phraseology of the principle of simultaneous actions."3

The talks follow more than a decade of nuclear brinkmanship by the regime of Kim Jong Il. The Bush administration's characterisation of North Korea as one of the 'axis of evil' in January 2002 precipitated the most recent crisis and exacerbated the unravelling of the 1994 Agreed Framework. In accordance with this agreement, negotiated by the Clinton administration and Pyongyang, North Korea had promised to suspend operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and accept international inspections by the IAEA in exchange for a package of incentives. These arrangements started to break down in 2002, when the US accused North Korea of pursuing a uranium enrichment programme in breach of its IAEA safeguards obligations and its commitments under the Agreed Framework. North Korea then expelled IAEA officials in December 2002 and announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT in January 2003.

The future of six-party talks on North Korea depend on whether the Bush administration can overcome its internal divisions, demonstrate sufficient flexibility to keep its international partners on board and bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, and engage the support and involvement of the international community. While some incentives and compromises will need to be on the table, the final settlement, according to ElBaradei, must "carry a clear message: that while the international community is ready to address seriously North Korea's security concerns and other needs, it will not be blackmailed through nuclear intimidation, and it remains steadfast in its position of zero tolerance for nuclear proliferation."4

US, South Korea and Japan push for "coordinated steps"

In early December, following a visit by US envoy James Kelly to the region, the Bush administration reached agreement with South Korea and Japan on the text of a statement to form the basis for the second round of six-party talks, possibly to be issued at the end of the session. According to US media reports, the text, which has not been publicly released, called for "coordinated" steps to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programme,5 not "simultaneous" steps as the North Koreans have demanded.

The statement calls for North Korea to end its nuclear programme in an "effective, verifiable and irreversible way",6 but is "not explicit"7 about whether North Korea's demands for economic aid, normalising relations with the United States and removal from the State Department's list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, would be met.

According to South Korea newspaper Chosun Ilbo "coordinated steps" would require North Korea first to declare that it would abandon its nuclear weapons programme, after which the six parties at the talks would work out the follow-up steps.8

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said the draft statement would also "outline our readiness to prepare a statement on multilateral security assurances," and that the US was ready to return to six-party talks "without preconditions".9 Nonetheless, the statement was intended to ensure that the second round of talks achieved a clear outcome, before the parties committed themselves to convene.

US officials have reportedly not decided at what point security assurances would be offered to North Korea. They have also not decided on the level of verification to require from North Korea. According to Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, the US position is that security assurances "can only be provided... in the context of agreement and implementation of an effective verification regime" that would ensure North Korea does not restart its nuclear programs. 10

The idea of a joint statement to be issued from the second round of talks was originally proposed by China, which was keen to see tangible progress emerge, rather than another exchange of views. The US, however, rejected an earlier Chinese draft, which it viewed as too generous to North Korea. China has also proposed making six-party talks "regular", hoping to establish a pattern of regular diplomatic sessions as a forum to ease the standoff.11

China, which has taken the role of mediator and interlocutor between the US and North Korea, delivered the US-South Korea-Japan draft text to North Korea, but apparently not without reservations. According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told Colin Powell that China hopes that the US will "take a more flexible and practical attitude in preparation for the next round of six-party talks."12

DPRK proposes "words for words"

On December 9, North Korea publicly rejected the US plans and elaborated on its own counter-proposals for the second round of talks. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson pronounced the US-South Korea-Japan proposals "greatly disappointing" and rejected US plans to "completely eliminate our nuclear deterrent force" in exchange for "just a piece of paper called 'written security assurances'." "It is unthinkable for us to allow ourselves to be disarmed believing in the lukewarm commitment of the US, the hostile partner, under the present situation where the US forces are still present in south Korea,"13 the statement continues.

Instead North Korea announced that its stance (conveyed to the US on November 1) was to agree on "first-phase action by making 'words for words' commitments at the next round of the six-way talks" in December. What North Korea specifically proposed was that in exchange for a "freeze" of its nuclear activities, the US should de-list "the DPRK as a 'terrorism sponsor', lift... the political, economic and military sanctions and blockade and energy aid including the supply of heavy fuel oil and electricity by the US and neighbouring countries".14

The reaction of the Bush Administration to North Korea's proposal was uncompromising. In a December 9 press conference with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President Bush stated, "The goal of the United States is not for a freeze of the nuclear program; the goal is to dismantle a nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible way. And that is a clear message that we are sending to the North Koreans."15

A week later, North Korea's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun declared that "US delaying tactics" were "compelling" the country to "steadily increase its nuclear deterrent force."16 The same day, US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher announced that China had told the US that it would be impossible to convene talks in December. Boucher blamed North Korean insistence on "preconditions" for the postponement, saying that the US had "not set any preconditions for the talks and we don't think the North Koreans should either."17

In late December, China's Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju met in Pyongyang. According to KCNA, "both sides ... expressed their willingness to make appropriate preparations so that talks can resume at an early date next year".18 China has reportedly offered aid to North Korea, but strongly denies any link with the talks.

North Korea reiterated its proposal that the second round of talks should focus on a "nuclear freeze", specifying that it would "refrain from test and production of nuclear weapons and stop even operating nuclear power industry for a peaceful purpose as first-phase measures of the package solution," and repeating its demand to be rewarded.19

Although the text was very similar to earlier North Korean statements, US Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed it as a "positive step forward", saying that "even though we haven't had a six-party meeting for some time, I expect that the prospects of having one are improving".20 Powell also appeared more flexible on US demands for the outcome of the meeting, saying only that, "we really just don't want another set of talks that are the exchange of old positions. We want something that will result in a step forward."21

Although China and Russia have reportedly been working on a compromise, based on North Korea's call for a freeze as a first step toward resuming the talks,22 an unnamed Asian official told the New York Times that: "the Chinese have pretty much given up on holding a meeting with a pre-agreed outcome... They are now just trying to put a meeting together."23 Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has welcomed the North Korean offer to freeze its nuclear weapons program: "It is a step forward that provides a reason to hope for a constructive US answer."24

DPRK displays "nuclear deterrent"

In January, two groups of US citizens visited North Korea and were granted unprecedented access to the country's Yongbyon nuclear complex - the first visit by outsiders since North Korea terminated inspections by the IAEA in December 2002.

One group, led by John W. Lewis, a China expert affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, included Charles L. (Jack) Pritchard, a former State Department special envoy for North Korean negotiations, who resigned in August, and Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The second group consisted of two East Asia experts for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Republican aide Keith Luse (who works for Committee Chair Senator Richard Lugar) and Democratic colleague Frank Jannuzi (who works for Senator Joseph Biden, the Committee's Ranking Democrat).

The State Department was keen to emphasise that the visits were unofficial. State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli told reporters, "It's not our deal... We have nothing to do with this group or groups' reported plans to visit North Korea."25

North Korea declared that the delegations had been shown its "nuclear deterrent", and claimed that the visit was intended to demonstrate "transparency as speculative reports and ambiguous information about the its nuclear activities are throwing hurdles in the way of settling the pending nuclear issue."26 Though DPRK is keen to give the impression it has got a substantial programme, in his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Siegfried Hecker observed that there was, "nothing that we saw at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center that would allow me to assess whether or not the DPRK possessed a nuclear deterrent if that meant a nuclear device or nuclear weapon. We found that both in our visit and in previous declarations by the government of the DPRK that the term "deterrent" was used in a very ambiguous manner."27

The delegation was reportedly shown a substance described by the North Koreans as reprocessed plutonium. They were also shown an empty nuclear fuel pond, which the North Koreans said had been used to store the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that North Korea claims to be reprocessing. The reprocessing plant was apparently operating, whilst the delegation were there. However as Hecker reports:

"We were shown what was claimed to be a sample of plutonium metal product. I was not able to definitively confirm that what we saw was actually plutonium metal, but all observations I was able to make are consistent with the sample being plutonium metal. However, even if the sample were plutonium metal, I would not have been able to substantiate that it was plutonium from the most recent reprocessing campaign... At Yongbyon, they demonstrated that they most likely had the capability to make plutonium metal. However, I saw nothing and spoke to no one who could convince me that they could build a nuclear device with that metal, and that they could weaponise such a device into a delivery vehicle."28

There is some disagreement over whether DPRK has a clandestine programme to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, which North Korea is said to still deny.29 In October 2002, the US claimed that North Korean officials "acknowledged" the existence of "a program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons in violation of the Agreed Framework and other agreements" (see Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 67, October - November 2002). In January 2004, the Washington Post reported on Chinese diplomats' scepticism; at a meeting with South Korea and Japan, senior Chinese diplomat Fu Ying was reported as saying that China did not believe that North Korea had a uranium enrichment programme.30 Following the unofficial visits to North Korea, John Lewis has suggested that the question mark over uranium enrichment may have arisen from a problem in translating from Korean to English. Denying this possibility, US State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli said: "There was no doubt in the minds of the officials who were in the meeting or in the translations that were made of the comments, and subsequently analysed, about what was said and what was its import."31

Reporting back on the unofficial visit, Pritchard said that Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gae Gwan told the delegation that the DPRK was "willing to talk about" the issue "once the United States sat down with them" in negotiations. Pritchard said that CIA reluctance to share evidence with China, South Korea and Japan was a "huge disadvantage".32

Options and Commentary

The Bush administration is now caught between a rock and a hard place on North Korea's nuclear programme, as DPRK is making its participation in the six-party talks conditional on the US agreeing to address its proposals for a nuclear freeze in exchange for a reward.33 Casting the US position in terms of not rewarding bad behaviour, Secretary of State Colin Powell commented, "what we can't do is say, 'You have been doing things that are inconsistent with your obligations, and now we're going to pay you to stop doing it.' We have to begin with, 'We're not going to do it, and we're not going to do it in a verifiable manner.'"34

The US is also reluctant to agree to a nuclear freeze as it fears that North Korea may continue with clandestine nuclear activities, prevaricate on nuclear disarmament, and/or renege on a nuclear freeze at a future date. As Powell states, "We need a clear statement from the North Koreans that they are prepared to bring these programs to a verifiable end...That's the opening step, and that's what we're anxious to see in the next round of talks..."35

The US dilemma is echoed by others. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei writes, "After a decade of noncompliance, North Korea has simply walked away from the NPT, and now, it is obvious, believes that its alleged weapons capability can be used as a bargaining chip - for security guarantees, for humanitarian aid, and possibly for raising its stature as a regional power. But at this bargaining table, the stakes are high. In seeking to defuse a volatile situation, the international community must not inadvertently legitimise the possession of nuclear weapons as a currency of power for would-be proliferators - a precedent that could jeopardize the future of the nuclear-arms-control regime."36

The Bush administration is left with the uncomfortable choice of whether to compromise on its demands from North Korea, in order to get the next round of six-party talks off the ground. Pritchard has urged the Bush administration to "pocket their offer" of a freeze before the North Korean nuclear programme progresses any further. Pritchard says he was told by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, "Time is not on the US side. Lapses of time will result in quantitative and qualitative increases in our nuclear deterrent."37 Writing in the Korea Herald, Pritchard states, "It is urgently important that the United States stop the program now before Pyongyang becomes a limited nuclear weapons state."38

Although the US has worked hard to put pressure on North Korea by maintaining unity amongst the other participants in the talks, there are indications that consensus is breaking down over the Bush administration's hardline stance against a nuclear freeze. Russia has expressed support for a freeze, whilst China has voiced concerns about lack of flexibility on the part of the US. South Korea is also keen to maintain its "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with the North, whilst Japan has its own agenda, hoping to use the talks as an opportunity to raise the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. As the Washington Post suggests there is a danger that "the United States could find that it, rather than the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, is isolated in the 'six-party' talks".39

There are divisions within the Bush administration that remain to be overcome. The White House is noticeably more cautious about North Korea's recent statements than the State Department.40 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took the opportunity of a visit to South Korea in November to send a clear message to North Korea that the US is capable of "fighting simultaneous conflicts".41 Similarly, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton is developing the Proliferation Security Initiative as a method to confront North Korea's proliferation activities directly. The US is also actively pursuing missile defence arrangements with Japan and Australia that are clearly intended to deter North Korea's extensive ballistic missile programme.

Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment writes, "North Korea is the most difficult of all. The country's leadership is so mercurial that one almost expects to find it named in dictionary definitions of the term. Where North Korea is concerned, the administration... remains deeply divided on whether to negotiate with the Pyongyang regime or to overthrow it, with the pragmatist faction perhaps only temporarily having the upper hand."42

Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute writes, "The current Bush strategy of crime-and-punishment maximises the probability that the DPRK will continue to arm itself with nuclear weapons. It increases the probability of a huge war in Korea. It increases the eventual price to be paid for their nuclear capacities should they be willing to trade them in."43 Hayes calls for an alternative strategy that "puts diplomacy in the driver's seat", relying on "cooperative engagement and a meaningful combination of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral strategies to bring North Korea into compliance with its NPT/IAEA obligations."44

The US also has a problem with the issue of verification and the credibility of its intelligence sources, undermined its failures in relation to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Though the NPT and IAEA have not figured prominently in US statements on North Korea, extensive and intrusive verification would be required to resolve the problem. To be credible this will require the involvement of the international community. In an interview with Arms Control Today, Mohamed ElBaradei describes what would be needed to verify a North Korean nuclear freeze or nuclear dismantlement: "I think, with the new technology, the verification system is becoming much more powerful than, say, a decade ago. But we need the authority to apply that system, which means right of access, right of no-notice of inspection, right of getting all the information we need... at the minimum, I think we would need the additional protocol and possibly again, if we go back and discover that we need some additional authority, then we need to make North Korea understand that they should be as transparent as possible."45

In a Washington Post op-ed, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher also argues for international cooperation and involvement, "The issues of North Korea's nuclear arsenal and global terrorism remain... the gravest threats to our national security. These issues cannot be addressed without international cooperation, and the United Nations, imperfect though it may be, is a vital part of the solution."46


1. 'DPRK and China Discuss Nuclear Issue', Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK (KCNA), October 30, 2003.

2. 'Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Losyukov Answers a Question from Interfax News Agency Regarding the Date for the Second Round of Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Problem', November 12, 2003, http://www.russianembassy.org.

3. 'Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry on Next Round of Six-way Talks', KCNA, November 16, 2003.

4. Op Cit, Wall Street Journal.

5. Glenn Kessler, 'U.S. Agrees to Statement on North Korea Talks', Washington Post, December 8, 2003.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Paul Eckert, '"Coordinated Steps" Proposed to Disarm North Korea', Reuters, December 8, 2003.

9. Steve Holland, 'U.S. Working with Allies on Draft N.Korea Statement', Reuters, December 8, 2003.

10. Glenn Kessler, 'Run-Up to Talks on N. Korea Falters', Washington Post, December 3, 2003.

11. Glenn Kessler, 'U.S. Agrees to Statement on North Korea Talks', Washington Post, December 8, 2003.

12. Benjamin Kang Lim, 'China Urges U.S. to Be More Flexible on N.Korea', Reuters, December 15, 2003.

13. 'Spokesman of DPRK Foreign Ministry on Issue of Resumption of Six-Way Talks,' KCNA, December 9, 2003.

14. Ibid.

15. 'President Bush and Premier Wen Jiabao Remarks to the Press', Remarks by President Bush and Premier Wen Jiabao in Photo Opportunity, The White House, December 9, 2003.

16. 'U.S. Urged to Accept DPRK-Proposed Simultaneous Package Solution', KCNA, December 15, 2003.

17. 'State Department Briefing', State Department, Washington File, December 15, 2003.

18. 'DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Six-way Talks', KCNA, December 28, 2003.

19. 'KCNA Urges U.S. Not to Shun Core Issue at Six-way Talks', KCNA, January 6, 2004.

20. 'Powell Says North Korean Offer Is "Positive Step Forward"', State Department, Washington File, January 7, 2004.

21. Ibid.

22. Hans Greimel, 'N. Korea Urges U.S to Accept Nuke Freeze', Associated Press, January 11, 2004.

23. David E Sanger, 'Visitors See North Korea Nuclear Capacity', New York Times, January 11, 2004.

24. Hans Greimel, 'China, Russia Hopeful on N. Korea Crisis', Associated Press, January 13, 2004.

25. Glenn Kessler, 'U.S. Disavows Trip to North Korea: Experts' Possible Visit to Nuclear Facility Is Termed Unofficial', Washington Post, January 3, 2004.

26. David E Sanger, 'Visitors See North Korea Nuclear Capacity', New York Times, January 11, 2004.

27. 'An Update on North Korean Nuclear Developments', Siegfried S. Hecker Written Testimony , Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, January 21, 2004.

28. Ibid.

29. Glenn Kessler, 'N. Korea Still Denies Enriching Uranium', Washington Post, January 13, 2004.

30. Glenn Kessler, 'Chinese Not Convinced of North Korean Uranium Effort', Washington Post, January 7, 2004.

31. George Gedda, 'Expert Unconvinced on North Korea Nukes', Associated Press, January 21, 2004.

32. 'N.Korea Seen Building Nuclear Arms, Open to Deal', Reuters, January 15, 2004.

33. 'U.S. Urged to Properly Approach Six-way Talks', KCNA, January 5, 2004.

34. 'Powell Affirms Confidence in Decision To Wage Iraq War', State Department, Washington File, January 8, 2004.

35. Ibid.

36. Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, 'No Nuclear Blackmail', Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2003.

37. 'North Korea Says Time Not on U.S. Side', Associated Press, January 15, 2004.

38. Soo-Jeong Lee, 'Congressional Aides End N. Korean Visit', Associated Press, January 11, 2004.

39. Washington Post, "Wrong Lesson", January 14, 2004.

40. 'Press Briefing by Scott McClellan', The White House, January 6, 2004.

41. 'U.S. Capable of Fighting Multiple Conflicts,' Rumsfeld Says, DoD News Briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, November 18, 2003.

42. Joseph Cirincione, 'The World Just Got Safer. Give Diplomacy the Credit', Washington Post, January 11, 2004.

43. 'Seven Step Policy to Solve the North Korean Nuclear Problem', Peter Hayes, Nautilus Institute, November 18, 2003.

44. Ibid.

45. 'Transcript of the Director General's Interview on Curbing Nuclear Proliferation', Arms Control Today, November 2, 2003.

46. Warren Christopher, 'Get Foreign Policy Back On Course', Washington Post, November 27, 2003.

Researched and compiled by Nicola Butler

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