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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999

Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations

On September 17, the United States announced a partial lifting of sanctions against North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK). The move followed intensive discussions between the two sides on nuclear and missile issues, and on the understanding - subsequently confirmed by Pyongyang - that North Korea would refrain from conducting any ballistic missile tests. See Documents and Sources for details of the easing of sanctions, and News Review in Disarmament Diplomacy 39 for speculation of an imminent North Korean test flight.

The US announcement was also the centrepiece of a major review of its policy towards North Korea, conducted by former US Defense Secretary William Perry. On October 12, an unclassified version of the review was released at a press conference in Washington where Perry - stressing that the Governments of Japan and South Korea had been fully involved in the review process and were fully in accord with its conclusions - outlined the review's six key findings:

"1. DPRK acquisition of nuclear weapons and continued development, testing, deployment, and export of long-range missiles would undermine the relative stability of deterrence on the Korean Peninsular... These activities... also have serious regional and global consequences adverse to vital US interests. The United States must, therefore, have as its objective ending these activities.

2. The United States and its allies would swiftly and surely win a second war on the Korean Peninsular, but the destruction of life and property would far surpass anything in recent American experience. The US must pursue its objectives with respect to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the DPRK without taking actions that could would weaken deterrence or increase the probability of a DPRK miscalculation.

3. If stability can be preserved through the co-operative ending of DPRK nuclear weapons and long-range missile-related activities, the US should be prepared to establish more normal diplomatic relations with the DPRK and join the ROK's [Republic of Korea] policy of engagement and peaceful coexistence.

4. Unfreezing Yongbyon [North Korea's heavy-water nuclear reactor facility, suspended under the terms of the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework] is North Korea's quickest and surest path to acquisition of nuclear weapons. The Agreed Framework, therefore, should be preserved and implemented by the United States and its allies. With the Agreed Framework, the DPRK's ability to produce plutonium at Yongbyon is verifiably frozen. Without the Agreed Framework, however, it is estimated that North Korea could reprocess enough plutonium to produce a significant number of nuclear weapons per year. The Agreed Framework's limitations, such as the fact that is does not cover ballistic missiles, are best addressed by supplementing rather than replacing the Agreed Framework.

5. No US policy toward the DPRK will succeed if the ROK and Japan do not actively support it and cooperate in its implementation. Securing such trilateral coordination should be possible, since the interests of the three parties, while not identical, overlap in significant and definable ways.

6. Considering the risks inherent in the situation and the isolation, suspicion, and negotiating style of the DPRK, a successful US policy will require steadiness and persistence even in the face of provocations. The approach adopted now must be sustained into the future, beyond the term of this Administration. It is, therefore, essential that the policy and its ongoing implementation have the broadest possible support and the continuing involvement of the Congress".

Regarding the last of these findings, many Republicans in Congress greeted the Perry Review, and the earlier easing of sanctions, either coldly or with outright hostility. On September 15, after listening to a private briefing by Perry, Representative Benjamin Gilman (New York), the Chair of the House International Relations Committee, asked: "What guarantees do we have that North Korea will abide by its promises? Will the Administration be willing to take tough measures in the name of national security if North Korea breaks its promises?" A month later [October 13], Gilman was sounding, if anything, even more concerned: "Five years after the advent of the... Agreed Framework... North Korea has become the largest recipient of US foreign aid in East Asia. ... Our nation is now arguably North Korea's main benefactor. ... My greatest fear is that this unpredictable regime... will combine its covert nuclear weapons program with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of striking the United States - and our policy will have failed to prevent it. ... [O]ur aid is sustaining a brutal regime. I also fear that the Clinton Administration has conditioned North Korea to believe that brinkmanship brings benefits". Representative Christopher Cox (Republican - California) was far harsher, claiming on October 13 that "US policy is conducting a one-sided love affair with the regime in North Korea".

North Korea itself has reacted to the developments with tentative satisfaction. On September 24, a Foreign Ministry statement read: "[We] will not launch a missile while the talks [with America] are underway... We think that the step helps create an atmosphere favourable for a negotiated solution to outstanding issues between the two countries... If the US actually stops pursuing a policy hostile to the DPRK and works hard to improve relations with it, the DPRK will respond with good faith and strive to remove the US suspicions and apprehensions in the interests of the two sides".

Reports: US, N. Korea negotiate tentative deal, Associated Press, 12 September; N. Korea appears to agree to missile freeze, Reuters, September 13; US, N. Korea reach tentative deal, Associated Press, September 13; Perry briefs Congress on North Korea report, Reuters, September 15; Normal N. Korea relations urged, Associated Press, September 15; North Korea says to freeze missile tests, Reuters, September 24; North Korea to halt missile tests, Associated Press, September 24; Perry recommends coexistence with N. Korea, Reuters, October 12; Text - Statement of William Perry on US North Korea policy, United States Information Service, October 12; Text - review of United States policy toward North Korea, United States Information Service, October 13; Text - Congressman Gilman statement on North Korean threat, United States Information Service, October 14; House GOP pushing N. Korea policy, Associated Press, October 14.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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