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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 32, November 1998

Suspect Underground Site Undermines Framework Agreement

Relations between the United States and North Korea have reached what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on 20 November a "critical juncture", created by concern over an underground facility in North Korea which the US fears forms part of a nuclear weapons development programme. The controversy is apparently serious enough to threaten the implementation or even survival of the 1994 Framework Agreement between the two States, under which North Korea's graphite-moderated nuclear plants have ceased operation pending their replacement with light-water reactors (LWRs) to be provided by an international consortium, the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Corporation (KEDO).

The US is insisting on being allowed to inspect the underground facility, at Kumchangni, close to the site of North Korea's frozen nuclear facilities at Yongbyon; North Korea is refusing to permit an inspection without agreement on 'compensation' to be paid by the US when, as the Government in Pyongyang insist will be the case, the facility is revealed as innocuous. It was clear from a 24 November Foreign Ministry statement, however, that North Korea is uneasy at the prospect of an inspection:

"If the US wants to break the Framework Agreement while having no idea of making compensation merely because we do not show the underground facility, we no longer need to observe the Agreement... Our implementation of the Agreement is unthinkable without considering sovereignty, our lifeblood. We have always thought of how to respond in case the Framework Agreement breaks down... Since the adoption of the [Agreement]...we have faithfully implemented it. Accordingly, there is no other underground nuclear facility in [North Korea]...than those frozen in the Yongbyon area... We do not conceal the fact that owing to the specific conditions of the situation in Korea, there are many underground facilities and tunnels... As for the underground facility suspected by the US side, it has nothing to do with nuclear activity..."

The US has indeed made it clear that it cannot but question its commitment to the Framework Agreement if the question of the suspect facility is not resolved. As President Clinton stated, visiting South Korea on 21 November: "I hope that the North Koreans will not do anything to force us to change policy... I want to make it clear that we have strong information that raises a suspicion, but no one yet knows for sure, at least in our camp, what the facility is and what its intended purpose is. It raises a strong suspicion. We need access to it."

On 25 November, a statement from State Department spokesperson James Rubin announced details of forthcoming discussions on the issue: "Talks with the DPRK on suspect underground construction will resume in New York 4 and 5 December. After a break on 6 December, the two sides will continue in Washington, DC 7 and 8 December. The US delegation will be led by US Special Envoy for the Korean Peace Talks, Ambassador Charles Kartman. The DPRK delegation will he headed by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan." Fruitless discussions on the Kumchangni site were held between the two delegations in Pyongyang, 16-18 November.

Speaking in Seoul on 19 November, Kartman made clear that one issue not up for discussion would be compensation: "The North Korean position is that they are not engaged in any nuclear related activities and that if they were to provide access to the site they should receive compensation for the insult that they will have incurred. We have absolutely rejected the concept of compensation so the question of the amount is sort of irrelevant."

On 12 November, President Clinton appointed former Defense Secretary Dr. William Perry as North Korea Policy Coordinator.

In New York on 9 November, KEDO's Executive Board approved the division of financial labour involved in the reactor-replacement programme. The estimated grand total of $4.6 billion will be shared as follows: South Korea will contribute $3.2 billion, or 70%; Japan will contribute $1 billion; over five years, the European Union (EU) will contribute $87.8 million. The US is meeting the costs of providing North Korea with heavy fuel oil until the replacement facilities are in operation. The LWRs are scheduled to enter into service in 2003.

Reports: N. Korea nuclear cost sharing OK'd, Associated Press, 10 November; North Korea ups ante in inspection row with US, Reuters, 12 November; Text - State Dept. 11/12 on new North Korea policy coordinator, United States Information Service, 12 November; Talks with DPRK on suspect underground construction, US State Department statement, 18 November; Transcript - Kartman 11/19 news conference on talks with N. Korea, United States Information Service, 19 November; US says ties with N. Korea at 'critical juncture', Reuters, 20 November; Clinton warns N. Korea not to force policy change, Reuters, 21 November; Clinton urges access to N. Korea nuke site, Reuters, 21 November; US brushes off N. Korean nuclear denials, Reuters, 24 November; North Korea threatens to scrap N-deal with US, Reuters, 24 November; Talks with DPRK on suspect underground construction resume, US State Department statement, 25 November.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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