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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 74, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 74, December 2003

In the News

North Korea's Nuclear Brinkmanship

In an attempt to shore up the six-party talks on the self-declared nuclear weapons' programme of North Korea (formally known as the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, DPRK), the United States has controversially suggested offering security assurances as part of a multilayered plan for closing down North Korea's nuclear weapon programme to be discussed at the next round of talks, which are widely expected in December.1 Prospects for resolving the crisis remain fragile, exacerbated by several hostile exchanges of rhetoric between the communist regime and US officials, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during his visit to South Korea in November.

The first round of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons' programme took place on August 27-29 in Beijing, involving the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia (see Disarmament Diplomacy 73, October - November 2003). The parties set out their opening positions, showing little sign of flexibility. Since then, there has been intensive but often uncertain and contradictory diplomatic activity, during which the six-party talks process at times appeared to be at risk of stalling.

On September 13, Japanese news agency Kyodo reported that North Korea had agreed in principle to a second round of six-party talks in early November.2 Within weeks, however, a number of agencies reported a statement from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that "DPRK has not made any promise regarding the next round of six-way talks."3 This was followed by an announcement that the DPRK "would not allow Japan to participate in any form of negotiations for the settlement of the nuclear issue in the future," a suggestion that was firmly rejected by the United States and China.4

The US position has been to call for a clear commitment and concrete progress from North Korea on nuclear disarmament prior to any diplomatic or economic concessions, to insist that any talks must take place in a multilateral (six-party) setting, and to oppose any formal non-aggression agreement with North Korea. In contrast North Korea has demanded a "package solution", including a bilateral non-aggression pact with the US to be implemented on the principle of "simultaneous actions". The DPRK demand for "simultaneous action" is understood by many to refer not only to the non-aggression pact, but also to withdrawal of the US military presence in South Korea and/or inspections at US bases in the South to verify the absence of nuclear weapons, viewed as non-starters by the United States.

As part of a wider approach precipitated by the North Korean nuclear crisis, including its propensity to export its military technology to other states of concern, the US has supplemented its diplomatic effort with the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), led by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton. The PSI aims to develop a more "robust" approach to proliferators, including military exercises and interdiction of shipments suspected of being used for WMD proliferation. The US has also pressed for the North Korean nuclear problem to be referred to the UN Security Council for action.

The Bush administration has faced high-level criticism for its inflexible approach to North Korea. Former Bush administration official Jack Pritchard resigned from his position as the main State Department link to the DPRK on the eve of the first round of six-party talks, after widely reported differences of opinion with the administration. Pritchard criticised the US demand for talks to be held in a six-party context, saying that this forum was too unwieldy. He argued that more one-on-one talks were needed, a "sustained and serious dialogue between the US and North Korea".5

In November former President Bill Clinton joined the critics, saying that the US would have little to lose by signing a non-aggression pact. Speaking in Seoul, Clinton said, "I would include an agreement between the United States and North Korea on non-aggression because I don't think our country would ever be aggressive against anyone who did not violate an agreement first."6

The current nuclear crisis with North Korea has developed since the unravelling of the 1994 Agreed Framework, negotiated by the Clinton Administration, between the US and the DPRK. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea promised to suspend operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and accept international inspections by the IAEA in exchange for a package of incentives, including light-water reactors to be provided by a consortium of US, South Korean, Japanese and EU industries, which formed the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) for the purpose.

Following President Bush's characterisation of North Korea as one of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech in January 2002, and after a series of diplomatic accusations and exchanges with the Bush Administration, North Korea expelled IAEA officials in December 2002 and announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT in January 2003.

North Korea 'Nuclear Deterrent' Claims

Whilst procrastinating over the issue of six-party talks, North Korea has attempted to increase pressure in recent months by making a series of claims concerning its development of a "nuclear deterrent".

In early October KCNA repeated an earlier claim that North Korea had reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and later indicated that further fuel rods would be reprocessed and "churned out in an unbroken chain" from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.7 KCNA also claimed that North Korea had solved "all the technological matters" in switching plutonium to military use. On October 17, on the eve of inconclusive, bilateral talks between North and South Korea, KCNA stated that at an appropriate time the DPRK would "open its nuclear deterrent to the public as a physical force", a statement widely interpreted as hinting at the possibility of a nuclear test.8

In New York for the UN General Assembly and informal talks with the US, China, South Korea and Japan, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon told journalists, "One thing we can tell you is that we are in possession of nuclear deterrence and we're continuing to strengthen that deterrence." In an apparent attempt to address one of the international community's major fears, Choe also declared that North Korea had "no intention of transferring any means of that nuclear deterrence to other countries." Choe told the General Assembly that Pyongyang would only return to six-party talks if Washington took "simultaneous action" to diffuse the crisis.9

US Secretary of State Colin Powell described North Korea's statements as causing "serious concern", but said that the US had "no evidence to confirm" them. Powell told reporters, "The North Koreans go out of their way to make these statements from time to time, and we will continue to pursue diplomacy and not react to each and every one of their statements." South Korea's Vice Unification Minister, Cho Kun Shik also played down the significance of North Korea's claims, saying they were a "tactic to boost its negotiating power". North Korea was "not in a position to oppose talks", he said.10

It is hard to assess to what extent North Korea's claims to have actually manufactured nuclear weapons are accurate or whether they are exaggerations or indicators of a virtual deterrence policy, designed to increase its leverage in negotiations. An unclassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report to Congress published in November, contained only information that was already in the public domain, repeating that "in late April 2003, North Korea told U.S. officials that it possessed nuclear weapons, and signalled its intent to reprocess the 1994-canned spent fuel for more nuclear weapons."11 A report in the New York Times observed that following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the CIA is becoming increasingly cautious in its assessments, "insisting that the judgments be backed up by hard evidence, not supposition."12 In Questions for the Record submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee, obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, the CIA does offer a more substantive conclusion: "[W]e assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests."13 This would appear to be consistent with recent claims by North Korea.

Whether or not North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons at this stage, the IAEA's conclusion that North Korea "continues to pose a serious and immediate challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation regime" is widely shared, as is its view that any future settlement must ensure "the return of the DPRK to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and provide the Agency with the authority necessary for it to provide credible, comprehensive assurances regarding the nature of the nuclear programme in the DPRK."14

US Proposes Security Assurances

On October 19, as President Bush toured the Asia-Pacific region, including meetings with President Roh (South Korea) and President Hu Jintao (China), administration officials began setting out a new approach to North Korea on the issue of security. In a series of media interviews, Secretary of State Colin Powell described what the US was putting on the table - a "kind of security agreement that would contain the assurances that North Korea should find satisfactory".15

A joint statement by Presidents Bush and Roh summed it up: "security assurances might be provided within the multilateral context, conditioned on North Korea's progress in nuclear dismantlement."16 In a press briefing en route to Australia, Bush explained: "[W]hat we have now said is that in return for dismantling the [nuclear weapons] programs, we're all willing to sign some kind of document, not a treaty, but a piece of paper that says, we won't attack you."17

The exact nature of such an agreement remains undefined - a subject for consultations with US allies and negotiating partners. As a senior administration official described it: "Some form of assurance... I don't want to give it a proper noun descriptor yet, but if you use agreement with a small 'a,' some form of agreement."18

US Administration officials are keen to emphasise three key points about the security assurances proposal. First, that there is not going to be a "treaty or non-aggression pact that requires Senate ratification." Secondly, that the US will not entertain "a bilateral agreement" with North Korea19 - any discussion of security assurances would have to take place within the framework of six-party talks. And finally that any security assurance will be subject to "performance by the North Koreans", ie DPRK "being willing, able, and verifiably capable" of carrying out a commitment to the complete and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons.20

According to the Washington Post, the US will now involve allies in determining the specifics, with three different models under consideration. "The simplest version would be a presidential statement issued in Bush's name and co-signed by the other parties. A middle-ground approach would be modelled after a multilateral security agreement granted to Ukraine by the Clinton administration, along with Russia, Britain and France, when Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in the mid-1990s. Finally, the administration could negotiate a complex pact, with North Korean input, that would be formally signed by all the parties at the talks."21

In November US envoy James Kelly held individual talks with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, in which he put forward a US plan for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arms programme, intending this to be presented to the DPRK during the next round of talks. Reportedly, North Korea would first be required to make a declaration of all its nuclear activities and then rejoin the NPT and allow IAEA inspections. The five nuclear-weapon states would also be involved in expert monitoring of the DPRK's disarmament efforts. North Korea's compliance with the plan would be the prerequisite for security assurances to come into effect: "When they take concrete steps toward scrapping their nuclear program, the security assurance would become effective," a US official was quoted as saying.22

With regard to verifying DPRK compliance, however, US administration officials are described as "deeply divided", with those who favour a deal with North Korea suspecting that overly stringent or unilateral inspections or coercive verification are being demanded by opponents to ensure the negotiations fail.23 In particular, Bolton, although not involved in the six-party talks, is actively pursuing military approaches to counterproliferation: "Rogue states such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba...will learn that their covert programs will not escape either detection or consequences... while we will pursue diplomatic solutions whenever possible, the United States and its allies must be willing to deploy more robust techniques, such as the interdiction and seizure of illicit goods, the disruption of procurement networks, sanctions, or other means... we repeatedly caution that no option is off the table."24

As the New York Times notes, "In offering security guarantees to the North, Mr. Bush wisely overruled hawkish administration officials who preferred moving directly toward coercive economic and military steps."25

North Korea Responds

The initial response to Bush's announcement from the DPRK was dismissive. KCNA accused the US of "employing delaying tactics... with lip-service to the peaceful solution to the nuclear issue," and concluded, "The DPRK once again states explicitly that it is not interested in any talks where the U.S. refuses to make a switchover in its hostile policy toward the DPRK."26

Days later, North Korea gave a slightly more considered response, stating that "We are ready to consider Bush's remarks on the 'written assurances of non-aggression' if they are based on the intention to co-exist with the DPRK and aimed to play a positive role in realizing the proposal for a package solution on the principle of simultaneous actions... It is premature to talk about the six-way talks... unless the will to accept the principle of simultaneous actions is confirmed."27

On October 30, following a visit to Pyongyang by Wu Bangguo, leader of China's parliament, China announced that the DPRK had agreed "in principle" to further six-party talks.28 A statement from KCNA confirmed this position, but insisted that it wished to discuss "putting into practice the [DPRK's] proposal for a package solution based on the principle of simultaneous actions"29.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed China's role in obtaining North Korea's "apparent" agreement, but was distinctly cool about the prospect of simultaneous actions. "I would just point out 'simultaneity' is not a word that we have used," he said. Instead Boucher characterised the US proposal as a "series of steps" that "would have to be taken in order to achieve a verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program."30

Prospects for Successful 6-Party Talks Fragile

Despite the Bush administration's offer of security assurances (and intensive diplomatic efforts by several of the parties in recent months), prospects for six-party talks remain fragile.

On November 21, following pressure from Washington, KEDO announced that it would suspend construction of two light water reactors (which had been part of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea) for one year beginning on December 1. South Korea had opposed the suspension, reportedly reluctant to abandon its financial investments in the project and concerned about the impact on the six-party talks. The US has been under pressure to explain why it was backing construction of light water reactors in North Korea through KEDO, whilst opposing Russia's plans to construct a light water reactor in Iran. US Ambassador to Seoul Thomas Hubbard made clear that the US did not wish to see the reactors project revived, although the KEDO consortium could be involved in delivering a new aid or energy programme for North Korea if an agreement is achieved through the six-party talks.31

In November, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Japan and South Korea to press for greater financial and military support from these countries for US efforts to reconstruct Iraq, and to discuss US plans to move its troops back from the front line with North Korea as part of Pentagon plans to review its "worldwide military footprint". Rumsfeld told South Korea it was time for them "to set a goal for becoming somewhat more self-reliant", while emphasising that the US was not lessening its commitment to the South, but aimed to increase its capability to "impose lethal power, where needed, when needed".32

Rumsfeld also reportedly described North Korea as an "evil regime", which provoked a retaliatory stream of invective from KCNA, which called Rumsfeld a "kingpin of evil" and insisted that the Defense Secretary's comments "cast a doubt about the prospect of the six-way talks" and justified "our decision to increase our nuclear deterrent force".33

The exchange between Rumsfeld and KCNA underlines the fragility of the six-party talks process and the danger that US diplomatic efforts to resolve the North Korea crisis may be undermined by members of the Bush administration. The scene has now been set for the next round of six-party talks. The Bush administration must now demonstrate whether it is capable of coming to an agreement that brings North Korea back into verifiable compliance with the nonproliferation regime, as supported overwhelmingly by the international community.

Nicola Butler


1. At the time of writing, a date and venue for further six-party talks were still to be confirmed.

2. "DPRK Six-Way Talks", NAPSNet Daily Report, September 16, 2003, http://www.nautilus.org/napsnet/dr/0309/SEP16-03.htm.

3. "DPRK to Continue Increasing Its Nuclear Deterrent Force", KCNA, October 2, 2003.

4. "N Korea wants Japan out of nuclear talks, Tokyo refuses", Asia Pacific News, October 7, 2003.

5. "US Jack Pritchard on US-DPRK Diplomacy", NAPSNet Daily Report, September 8, 2003, http://www.nautilus.org/napsnet/dr/0309/SEP08-03.html.

6. Paul Eckert, "Clinton Calls for Comprehensive N. Korea Atomic Deal", Reuters, November 14, 2003.

7. See "North Korea Says 8,000 Fuel Rods Reprocessed", Global Security Newswire, October 2, 2003; and Paul Eckert, "Latest North Korean Nuclear Threat Fails to Impress", Reuters, October 17, 2003.

8. James Brooke, "North Korea Says It Is Using Plutonium to Make A-Bombs", New York Times, October 2, 2003.

9. Sources: James Brooke, "North Korea Says It Is Using Plutonium to Make A-Bombs", New York Times, October 2, 2003; and "Informal Korean Nuclear Talks Held in New York", Global Security Newswire, October 1, 2003.

10. Brooke, op. cit. "North Korea Says It Is Using Plutonium to Make A-Bombs".

11. 'Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January Through 30 June 2003', Central Intelligence Agency, November 10, 2003, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0311/doc14.htm.

12. Douglas Jehl, "U.S. Intelligence Is Softening Some Judgments on Illicit Arms", New York Times, November 18, 2003.

13. "Intel agencies answer Questions for the Record", Secrecy News, Volume 2003, Issue No. 95, October 31, 2003, http://www.fas.org/sgp/news/secrecy/2003/10/103103/html

14. 'Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei', Vienna, November 20, 2003, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0311/doc24.htm.

15. "Powell Says Bush Committed to Multilateral Diplomacy on North Korea", Interview with John King of CNN, October 19, 2003, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc11.htm.

16. "Joint Statement Between the United States and the Republic of Korea", October 20, 2003, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc16.htm

17. "Roundtable Interview of the President by the Press Pool", Aboard Air Force One, En Route Canberra, Australia, October 22, 2003, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc22.htm

18. "Security Assurances Must Come Through Multilateral Talks," Washington File, October 19, 2003, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc11.htm

19. Op Cit, "Powell Says Bush Committed to Multilateral Diplomacy on North Korea".

20. "Bush Ready to Move Forward with Six-Party Talks on North Korea", Press Briefing by National Security Adviser Dr. Condoleezza Rice, October 20, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc16.htm

21. Mike Allen and Glenn Kessler, "Questions Linger on Plan for N. Korea", Washington Post, October 21, 2003.

22. "U.S. Plan on N. Korea Involves 5 Nuke States - Kyodo", Reuters, November 25, 2003.

23. Op Cit, "Questions Linger on Plan for N. Korea".

24. 'The New World After Iraq: The Continuing Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction', John R. Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, October 30, 2003, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0310/doc18.htm

25. "Trying Diplomacy on North Korea", New York Times, October 21, 2003.

26. "DPRK's Stand on Talks with U.S. Clarified", KCNA, October 23, 2003.

27. "Spokesman for DPRK FM on U.S.-Proposed Written Assurances of Non-Aggression", KCNA, October 25, 2003.

28. Joseph Kahn, "North Korea Agrees to Nuclear Talks, China Says", New York Times, October 31, 2003.

29. "DPRK and China Discuss Nuclear Issue", KCNA, October 30, 2003.

30. Anthony Faiola, "N. Korea Agrees To Resume Nuclear Talks", Washington Post, October 31, 2003.

31. Andrew Ward, "Rift opens as N Korean power project is axed", Financial Times, November 22, 2003.

32. Thom Shanker, "Rumsfeld Offers South Korea Assurances on Deterrence", New York Times, November 17, 2003.

33. "KCNA Blasts Rumsfeld's Vituperation", KCNA, November 22, 2003.

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