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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 52, November 2000

US-North Korea Talks Remain on Verge of Breakthrough

Hopes seem high that the US and North Korea will shortly reach agreement on the issue of Pyongyang' ballistic missile development and export programme. The outlines of a likely outline are becoming clearer in a flurry of talks and unprecedented high-level meetings, including a visit to North Korea by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on October 23-24. The US side is taking with increasing seriousness a proposition first made by President Kim Jong-il to President Putin in July for a termination of North Korea' missile programme in return for international assistance in launching the country' satellites.

The two sides held three days of discussions on missile issues in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 1-3. On November 3, US delegation leader Robert Einhorn, Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation, issued the following summation of content and progress:

"... The talks were detailed, constructive, and very substantive. They covered the full range of missile issues under consideration by the two countries, including North Korea' missile-related exports and its indigenous missile programmes. The delegations also explored in depth the idea of exchanging launches of DPRK satellites for serious missile restraint by the DPRK. The delegations further clarified their respective positions on the full range of missile issues and continued to expand areas of common ground, although significant issues remain to be resolved."

While the Kuala Lumpur talks were proceeding, Secretary of State Albright addressed the National Press Club in Washington (November 2) on her recent visit to Pyongyang. With reference to the possibility of a comprehensive missile-satellite deal being reached, Albright noted:

"[T]he North Koreans [have recently] hinted that they might agree to permanent missile restraint if arrangements could be made for others to launch their satellites. We discussed this possibility with representatives from Pyongyang on several occasions, but we didn' know for sure prior to my trip whether North Korea was truly serious about such an approach. Not surprisingly, this was a major topic in my discussions with Chairman Kim Jong-il, and we made a good start on an array of long-range missile issues... I returned from Pyongyang convinced that the possibilities for mutually acceptable arrangements on missiles are real and that this could enhance the safety of the American people, our allies in East Asia, and friends around the world. But we have to make sure. Twenty years ago, we used the prescription, ', but verify.' Our message to North Korea now is, '' test. That will verify the possibility of a new era of confidence between our two countries.' I can make no predictions about the outcome, nor can I speculate about how an understanding on missiles might relate to progress on other matters such as economic cooperation and diplomatic relations. But the bottom line is this: we are in no hurry. The substance of an agreement matters far more than the timing. But if prospects for further progress develop, we will pursue them. We would be irresponsible if we did didn' take advantage of a historic opportunity to move beyond 50 years of Cold War division and reduce the danger that the North Korean missiles pose to us and others around the globe."

Speculation is increasing that President Clinton will visit North Korea before leaving office. On November 6, White House spokesperson Jake Siewart cautioned that "it' just not feasible to pull together a trip at this point, both because the substance isn' there and...we' just not in a position now where we can make a decision... We' made some substantial progress in the discussions on missiles, and we' doing that in a systematic way... but there are gaps there." On November 14, President Clinton was asked for his assessment of "the prospect of a trip there", replying:

"Well, we' making some progress, but we haven' resolved it all. We think it' quite important to work out an arrangement with them in which...they stop the missile development and the sale of missiles. Now, they obviously need to earn some funds from some other places and we think there are ways they can do that... And we want to also continue the agreement with made them early in my term [October 1994] which ended the nuclear development programme, which, when I became President, I was told by my predecessors... was the most serious national security problem we were facing at the time. So I wouldn' rule out or in a trip... I just think the most important thing is that we' engaged with them and we' making constructive progress. And I hope we can make more before my tenure is over, because I think it will leave my successor an easier time."

A European Union delegation, led by former Commission President Jacques Santer, visited Pyongyang in early November. On November 4, telling reporters that compensation for revenue foregone in terminating missile exports was a major concern of the North Korean government, Santer quoted Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su-hon as telling him: "We have to import our rice because there is a shortage of rice. If we cannot export our missiles we have to have compensation. Someone has to pay for our rice."

Notes: on October 26, Leon S. Fuerth, chief foreign policy advisor to Vice President Gore, recalled the air of crisis and imminent confrontation in US-North Korea relations before the 1994 Agreed Framework was signed. Fuerth told a State Department seminar in Washington: "We had a close call... The [North] Korean nuclear programme was real. It was a threat to the security of our allies and a threat to our security. The ground was beginning to shift in the direction of a military confrontation... We were in the [White House] situation room, checking to be sure, if worse came to worse, the US was in a position to handle what might occur."

In an October interview with the US State Department' ' File' newswire service, John Holum, Under Secretary of State for International Security and Arms Control, cautioned against a rush to judgement on the link between a possible termination of North Korea' missile programme and the requirement for the continued development of a US national missile defence system:

"As a general matter, it is important to have in mind the near-term for a North Korean ICBM capability, and that is a large part of the rationale for the national missile defence architecture we' currently considering... We are five or six years away, at best, from having an operational national missile defence, and they are a matter of months away from a long-range ICBM. We can' stop NMD testing and development based on hopes... [I]f the threat were to abate, this would have an effect on the scope and pace of our pursuit of national missile defence. It is way too early to tell where this will lead."

Reports: START/ABM Issues - interview with John Holum, US State Department (Washington File), October 2000; Kim indicates he would halt missiles, Associated Press, October 24; Gore aid discusses North Korea, Associated Press, October 26; Transcript - Albright remarks at National Press Club on N. Korea, US State Department (Washington File), November 2; Text - Einhorn statement Nov. 3 on North Korea missile talks, US State Department (Washington File), November 3; US-North Korean missile talks end unresolved, Reuters, November 3; N. Korea US-N.Korea talks have '', Associated Press, November 6; Transcript - Clinton Nov. 14 interview with the Associated Press, US State Department (Washington Post), November 16.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.