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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

US Calls Time-Out on North Korea Talks

The Bush administration has announced it is reviewing policy towards North Korea and temporarily suspending discussions between the two states on issues of ballistic missile testing, development and export policy. Sometimes confusing signals have emanated from US leaders and officials concerning the scope, direction and duration of the review, and concern about a loss of diplomatic and political momentum in US-North Korea relations has been expressed domestically and internationally, including from South Korea. A degree of uncertainty also surrounds the new administration's commitment to the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea suspended operation of its nuclear power facilities in return for their replacement by non-proliferation-friendly, light-water reactors (LWRs). For its part, North Korea has expressed defiant dismay over the suspension of talks, warning that its moratorium on ballistic missile tests, and other unilateral measures of restraint, will themselves now be subject to review.

On March 6, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters: "We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off... Some promising elements were left on the table, and we'll be examining those elements. ... And so we are not avoiding North Korea; quite the contrary. We think we have a lot to offer that regime, if they will act in ways that we think are constructive - ways that reduce the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, and ways that help open their society... In due course, you'll hear about our plans..."

The following day, remarks from the President and senior administration officials, made during a visit to Washington by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, struck a more strident tone. Speaking to reporters, Bush said he had told President Kim "that we're looking forward to, at some time in the future, having a dialogue with the North Koreans, but any negotiations would require complete verification of the terms." Bush added: "I am concerned that the North Koreans are shipping weapons of mass destruction around the world...We want to make sure their ability to develop and spread weapons of mass destruction was in fact stopped." According to an unnamed senior official: "We are examining our policies toward North Korea... We made clear to the Clinton administration that it was their decision to go forward, and that we would then come back and take a fresh look at the entire policy... We don't have a policy yet on whether we want to restart those discussions. ... The official added: "We're not walking away from the Agreed Framework... [However,] implementation of the Framework has run into some difficulties so we have to take a look at whether we think it can be implemented, how to move it forward. ... You cannot rely on [North Korean President] Kim Jong-il's word to verify what would be an extremely important deal... This is a regime that has become the bazaar for missile sales to just about everybody else we're worried about."

In testimony to the Senate Budget Committee on March 8 (see Documents & Sources), Powell attempted to mesh his March 6 remarks with those of the President, noting that "as we look at the elements of the negotiation that the previous administration had left behind, there are some things there that are very promising. What was not there was a monitoring and verification regime of the kind that we would have to have in order to move forward in negotiations with such a regime. And so what the President was saying yesterday is that we are going to take our time, we're going to put together a comprehensive policy, and in due course, at a time and at a pace of our choosing, we will decide and determine how best to engage with the North Korean regime. ..." With regard to the Agreed Framework, Powell told Democratic Senator John Kerry that "we are monitoring the Agreed Framework, and we've continued to support the...Agreed Framework." Addressing the floor of the Senate later that day, Kerry expressed exasperation at the Bush administration's handling of the issue:

"The Clinton administration left a framework on the table which could, if pursued aggressively by the Bush administration, go a long way toward reducing the threat posed by North Korean missiles and missile exports. ... Two days ago Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that the Bush administration would 'pick up' where the Clinton administration left off. Apparently not. Yesterday, President Bush told...President Kim...that the administration would not resume missile talks with North Korea any time soon. I believe this is a serious mistake in judgment."

On March 14, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling Workers Party, accused the new administration of demonising North Korea in order to retain a rationale for its missile defence plans: "[North Korea] has closely followed the US attitude towards [it] after the emergence of the Bush administration...which has taken a provocative approach...The US can neither be justified nor tolerated in trying to establish the NMD for aggression under the absurd pretext of 'threat' from the DPRK..." On March 13, North Korea withdrew at the last minute from reconciliation talks with South Korea, citing "various circumstances" generally interpreted as referring to the new tone, and possibly substance, of US policy.

On March 3, a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement drew attention to the immediate economic consequences of further delays in implementing the Agreed Framework: "The prospect for provision of light-water reactors...is becoming more gloomy... This gravely threatens the DPRK's right to existence as it is suffering an acute shortage of electricity... Under this situation, it is self-evident that it is difficult for the DPRK to unilaterally and independently keep in force such measures as [a] moratorium of the launch of satellites and missiles taken by it with good faith for DPRK-US dialogue... It is none other than the DPRK which is exposed to threat[s] owing to the conservative hardline stand expressed by the US administration... We have neither [the] intention nor capacity to browbeat anyone." Earlier, on February 22, the Ministry had issued a similarly worded statement warning that North Korea would not "cling" to its commitments under the Framework if "the United States continues to fail to honour the agreement."

The relationship between North Korea's economic crisis and broader discussions with the United States and others was stressed by President Kim Dae-jung in a speech in Washington on March 8: "For North Korea, change is not a matter of choice but of survival... Without opening and reform to bring in outside assistance, it will be difficult for North Korea to overcome its economic difficulties." On February 23, South Korea's Ambassador to Washington, Yang Sung-chul, urged the Bush administration to build on the Clinton legacy of dialogue with North Korea on non-proliferation issues: "My government's position is that...there has been considerable progress made during the Clinton administration with regard to North Korea. So instead of going back to the drawing-board, they should start from that achievement..." The joint statement issued by Presidents Bush and Kim on March 7 briefly addressed the issue as follows: "Both Presidents reaffirmed their commitment to continue the 1994 Agreed Framework and called on North Korea to join in taking the needed steps for its successful implementation. They agreed to encourage North Korea to take actions to address the concerns of the international community. The Presidents agreed on the importance of maintaining close consultations and coordination on policy toward North Korea, both bilaterally and trilaterally with Japan."

Unsurprisingly, Congressional Democrats have been lobbying hard for a broad continuation of the Clinton agenda. On March 6, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and five other senior Democrats- Senators Joseph Biden and Carl Levin, and Representatives Richard Gephardt, Tom Lantos and Ike Skelton - wrote to President Bush setting out the case for engagement:

"Given North Korea's often far-reaching demands and record of disregarding international norms, we are under no illusions about the difficulty of getting comprehensive and verifiable agreements with North Korea that address our concerns about its current and future nuclear and ballistic missile activities. We believe, however, the stakes are high and the issues involved demand urgent attention, and it is evident to us that the continued engagement of the US government on this matter could serve to reduce a serious potential threat to our national security."

Speaking in the Senate on March 7, Senator Biden argued that "it would be irresponsible not to discover whether North Korea is prepared to abandon its pursuit of long-range missiles in response to a serious proposal from the United States, our friends, our allies. ... The United States should end our 'prevent defence' and go on the offensive to advance our national interests - particularly the dismantlement of North Korea's long-range missile programme. Now is not the time for lengthy policy reviews or foot-dragging on existing commitments. Now is the time to forge ahead and test North Korea's commitment to peace."

On March 13, Republican Representative Henry Hyde applauded the new administration's approach, and in particular its intense focus on the issue of verification. Addressing the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Hyde argued:

"[W]hat we need [from North Korea] is a signal of a genuine break with the past and a commitment to cooperation in the future. The best way for the North Korean government to send such a signal, perhaps the only way for it to do so, is to acknowledge the need for verification, to cease resisting its existing verification obligations, and to positively embrace the concept as a way of demonstrating to the world that it no longer has anything to hide. So long as the North Koreans view verification as a problem, as something to be resisted, we can only suspect that there has been no break with the past... And if there has been no break with the past, President Bush's insistence on verification will make it very unlikely that the nuclear reactors will ever be completed in North Korea."

In the New York Times on March 7, Wendy Sherman, Special Adviser on North Korea policy to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright, penned an impassioned defence of the previous administration's approach, arguing that the new President stands on the threshold of a major non-proliferation breakthrough:

"Although there is some logic in trying to construct a missile defence system, there is also logic in seizing every opportunity to reduce or eliminate the missile threats through the less costly means of arms control negotiations. In dealing with North Korea, President Bush has an opportunity to take this latter approach. The question now is whether he will seize it. We may know the answer after President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea meets with President Bush today. ... Because Mr. Kim knows that North Korea's long-range missile threat is uppermost among America's concerns, he will most likely want to know if President Bush will close the deal with North Korea that came tantalizingly close for President Bill Clinton in his final days in office. That agreement, when completed, would both halt North Korea's exports of missiles and related technology and stop further production, deployment and testing of long-range missiles. The clock ran out on the Clinton administration before it could nail down the final details. ... After a series of negotiations that led to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang in October 2000, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, appears ready to make landmark commitments about the missile programme. To ensure the survival of his regime, he has to improve the country's disastrous economy by reducing the burden of a vast missile programme and opening the doors to trade. ... Although President Bush has time to consider his approach to negotiations, North Korea, a country of immense pride, will not wait forever. Kim Jong-il is capable of creating a crisis absent a clear signal that negotiations are possible. ..."

Reports: N. Korea may restart missile tests, Associated Press, February 22; N. Korea threatens to scrap missile deal with US, Reuters, February 22; N. Korea threatens to drop accords, Associated Press, February 22; S. Korea to US - don't start over on N. Korea, Reuters, February 23; North Korea asks for US help with electricity, Reuters, March 4; How politics sank accord on missiles with North Korea, New York Times, March 5; Kim visits US as big power rivalry unfolds, Reuters, March 5; Powell - US has lot to offer N. Korea, Associated Press, March 6; Talking to the North Koreans, New York Times, March 7; US, S. Korea to discuss N. Korea, Associated Press, March 7; Bush to pick up Clinton talks on N. Korean missiles, Washington Post, March 7; US takes 'fresh look' at North Korea policy, Reuters, March 7; Bush - North Korea a threat to US, Associated Press, March 7; Powell says Bush administration supports' Agreed Framework' with North Korea, US State Department (Washington File), March 8; Text - Sen. Biden urges US engagement with N. Korea on missiles, US State Department (Washington File), March 8; US urged to resume N. Korea talks, Associated Press, March 9; Text - Sen. Kerry urges continued talks with Pyongyang on missiles, US State Department (Washington File), March 9; Text - Hyde says verification key to dealing with Pyongyang regime, US State Department (Washington File), March 13; N. Korea cancels talks with S. Korea, Associated Press, March 13; Texts - Senate, House Democratic Leaders send Bush letter on Korea, US State Department (Washington File), March 14; North Korea denounces Bush stance, Associated Press, March 14; North Korea lashes out over US missile shield, Reuters, March 14.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.