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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 78, Cover design by Paul Aston Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 78, July/August 2004

In the News

One step Forward, Two steps Back: Six Party Talks on North Korea's Nuclear Programme

Report from Nicola Butler

The prospects for future six-party talks on the nuclear programme of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) are looking worse following a further deterioration in relations between the United States and North Korea. North Korea has threatened not to attend a working group meeting of six-party talks on its nuclear programme and both sides have traded insults, despite modest progress at the third plenary session of the talks.

The third plenary session took place in Beijing from June 23 to 26, attended by senior representatives of China, the United States, North Korea, Japan, South Korea and Russia.1 At the meeting the United States set out its most detailed proposals to date, including an indication of incentives that could be offered to North Korea in exchange for progress on nuclear disarmament.2

Following the meeting China, as host of the talks, issued a short Chair's statement (printed in full below) welcoming the submission of proposals and recommendations by the parties and reporting an "in principle" agreement to hold a fourth round of talks by the end of September.

The parties agreed that a lower-level working group should "convene at the earliest possible date to define the scope, duration and verification as well as corresponding measures for first steps for denuclearisation, and as appropriate, make recommendations to the Fourth Round of the Talks."3

During the third round of talks, both the United States and North Korea refrained from using antagonistic language and agreed to study each other's proposals in more detail. The meeting was followed by a number of short bilateral meetings between US and North Korean officials, although no substantive progress was made.

Whilst the third round of talks went further than previous sessions in setting out the parties' positions, and appeared to achieve some agreement on procedural issues, there was little progress on agreeing any issues of substance. Since the talks, the uneasy diplomatic truce between the United States and North Korea appears to have broken down, with both parties reasserting their earlier negotiating positions.

The US unveils "more tangible" proposal

As preparations for the third round of talks began in Beijing, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the US would enter the talks with a "spirit of flexibility".4 What this turned out to mean was the unveiling of what an administration official described as a "more tangible and more specific" proposal at the talks. It spelled out what North Korea needed to say in any commitment to disarm and for the first time gave details about what the North Korean regime could expect to receive as incentives.5

According to press reports, the US plan includes a proposal put forward by South Korea at the last round of talks that would allow Seoul and possibly others to begin providing heavy fuel oil to North Korea immediately, if DPRK leader Kim Jong Il made a commitment to dismantle the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. This provision of fuel is clearly intended as an incentive for North Korea to begin preparations to disarm.

Once North Korea began to display and secure its materials and weapons - and these measures had been verified by US intelligence agencies - the US along with other participants in the six-party talks would issue provisional security assurances, specifying that they had "no intention to invade or attack" North Korea. The United States would prepare a study of North Korea's non-nuclear energy needs and look at the option of discussions on lifting economic sanctions and removing North Korea from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

According to US officials quoted in the Washington Post, North Korea would be given three months to stop and disclose all of its nuclear activities, including a uranium enrichment programme (which North Korea denies having), and to begin securing and destroying nuclear materials under the supervision of international monitors. Otherwise, the preliminary benefits would be halted.6

US officials also softened their language during the talks, refraining from demanding the "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of Pyongyang's nuclear programmes. This has previously been the key US demand during six-party talks, but North Korea had claimed that the phrase was "culturally offensive". Instead US officials asked North Korea to dismantle its programmes in a "permanent, thorough and transparent manner subject to effective verification",7 and said that they would examine North Korea's proposals in more detail.

Differences of scope

North Korean officials also appeared to moderate their language during the talks, refraining from the usual level of rhetoric and insults (although they could not resist blaming the United States for its "hostile policy"). A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted that, "Unlike the previous talks each party advanced various proposals and ways and had a discussion on them in a sincere atmosphere at the talks. Some common elements helpful to making progress in the talks were found there."8

North Korea claimed that agreement was reached on its demands such as the proposal to take "simultaneous actions on the principle of 'words for words' and 'action for action'" and that the talks had discussed mainly the issue of "reward for freeze". However, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson regretted that the US proposal "only mentioned phased demands for disarming the DPRK", and he dismissed the three month time limit for preparations to disarm saying that it "totally lacked [any] scientific and realistic nature".9

Whilst the other parties generally gave an upbeat assessment of the third round of talks, it was clear that significant differences remained to be bridged. China's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi gave a positive assessment, claiming that the talks had reached "new consensus and made new steps towards denuclearisation". According to Wang Yi, all parties "agreed that to implement nuclear freezing and take corresponding measures is the first step toward nuclear abandonment". However he noted that the parties still had "quite a few differences, sometimes even confrontations, with regard to the scope and means of nuclear abandonment, nuclear freezing and corresponding measures."10

Russia, which has taken a negative view of prospects for the talks in the past due to inflexibility of the US negotiating position, also gave a positive assessment of the third round. A Foreign Ministry press statement noted that Moscow was "satisfied with the results of the meeting" and that "given a constructive approach of all the parties, it is quite possible to achieve the common objectives on the basis of the already agreed-upon principles and approaches".11

Japan noted "common ground" in the parties "understandings and proposals in the sense that focus is given to first steps towards nuclear dismantlement". However, a Japanese foreign ministry statement highlighted some clear differences in the parties' positions "concerning the scope of preliminary measures (whether or not to include uranium enrichment) and verification procedures". Japan also identified a more fundamental difference of approach that, "while the DPRK aims for an agreement on freezing of its nuclear programmes and compensatory measures, Japan, the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) seek an agreement on a framework towards 'dismantlement' of nuclear programs."12

Japan also announced that if the proposed nuclear 'freezing' by North Korea was defined as a first step towards dismantlement of its nuclear programs, it would be willing to join in energy assistance through the Six-Party Talks based on the following conditions: "(i) that the scope of 'freeze' covers all nuclear programmes, including the uranium enrichment programme; (ii) that the DPRK would declare all unclear programmes; and (iii) that freezing would be adequately verified." Japan also indicated that economic cooperation with North Korea could only be provided once its additional concerns about missile and abduction issues had been "comprehensively resolved".13

Symbolic steps, little substance

During the talks, US and North Korean officials met for a two and a half hour sidebar discussion - their longest to date. Afterwards, the United States insisted that these discussions were not negotiations and were not bilateral, on the grounds that their content was immediately reported to the other participants. According to a White House official, North Korean representatives acknowledged that the United States had made a "constructive proposal" during this session, but they also hinted at the possibility of conducting a nuclear test - a threat that was also made during the first round of six-party talks in August 2003.14

Following the talks a number of symbolic meetings have taken place, but little of substance has been achieved. On July 2, Secretary of State Colin Powell met his DPRK counterpart Paek Nam Sun on the fringes of a regional economic conference in Jakarta - the highest level meeting between the United States and North Korea since Washington confronted Pyongyang over its alleged uranium enrichment programme in October 2002. According to State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher, this meeting did not include negotiations, but the discussions were used to "clarify each side's proposals".15

Three weeks later, the Bush administration sanctioned a visit by Paek to Capitol Hill where he attended an all-day seminar with congressional officials, South Korean parliamentarians and Korean experts, followed by a press conference. Previously the Bush administration has refused to allow North Korean officials to travel to Washington.16 Although Paek welcomed the US administration's attempts to soften language in its recent proposal, he also said ominously that North Korea found "a lot of regrettable elements" in the US plan. "We concluded it was a roadmap to disarm [North Korea] step by step," he said.17

Flexibility or Repackaging?

As the third round of six-party talks drew to a close, question marks remained concerning whether the United States had actually demonstrated a more flexible negotiating position. Some media reports describe the US proposal to the third round of talks as the "first sign of real negotiations". However, one senior US administration official described the proposal merely as a "repackaging and elaboration of things we have said before" that was likely to be rejected by the North Koreans.18 Washington continues to refuse to give direct assistance to North Korea or to engage in bilateral negotiations.

The United States has clearly been under pressure from other participants in the six-party talks to adopt a more flexible approach. Russia and China have both directly criticised the Bush administration's stance, whilst South Korea has also urged a more conciliatory approach on the issues of economic assistance and North Korea's disputed uranium programme.

US relations with South Korea have also been affected in recent months by the US realignment of global forces, including the withdrawal of around 12,000 troops from South Korea. Whilst this withdrawal is driven primarily by the overstretch of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan than by any reassessment of security on the Korean peninsula, it has served to strain relations with South Korea, which has called for the withdrawal to be delayed.

The Bush administration has also been under increasing pressure to show that it has a viable strategy on North Korea from the John Kerry campaign, which has particularly criticised the administration's refusal to deal directly with Pyongyang. On the campaign trail, Kerry has accused Bush of doing "too little too late... for eighteen months, we've essentially negotiated over the shape of the table while the North Koreans allegedly have made enough new fuel to make six to nine nuclear bombs..." Kerry calls for the six party talks to be maintained but says that the US "must also be prepared to talk directly with North Korea... And we must be prepared to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that addresses the full range of issues of concern to us and our allies."19

There is ongoing disagreement within the Bush administration concerning how to approach the North Korean nuclear problem. According to the Washington Post, the State Department had proposed that the United States could offer security assurances to North Korea at the same time that fuel shipments were started by South Korea. This proposal was reportedly rejected by President Bush, following protests by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.20

Back to the Future

Following the modest progress made in June and July, relations between the United States and North Korea have deteriorated in recent weeks. In late July on a visit to the Far East, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton entered the fray using language guaranteed to antagonise the North Koreans. He reportedly ruled out a nuclear freeze as the first step, reasserting that the US aim was "the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programmes", and calling on North Korea to follow the Libyan example.21 This was quickly followed by a statement from the North Koreans citing statements by "high-ranking officials of the Bush administration" and denouncing the US proposal to the third round of talks as a "sham offer" that was "little worthy to be discussed any longer".22

In mid-August North Korea went further, announcing that it would not attend working-level talks, intended to take place in advance of the fourth plenary session. North Korea cited the US stance that "there can be no reward for the DPRK's freeze of its nuclear facilities" and the reassertion of the US demand for complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement.23

China moved quickly to try to repair the damage, downplaying "inevitable and natural" differences between the parties, stating its belief that all parties were still "willing to move forward the process of peace talks", and calling for a "calm, pragmatic and flexible attitude".24 However, on the campaign trail in Wisconsin President Bush dropped another rhetorical bombshell, telling his audience, that as a result of the six-party talks there were now "five countries saying to the tyrant in North Korea, disarm, disarm."25 North Korea immediately responded in kind, accusing Bush of being a "political imbecile bereft of even elementary morality" and a "tyrant that puts Hitler into the shade".26

Prospects for the fourth round of six-party talks due to be held in September now look bleak, with little chance of real progress this side of the US Presidential election.


1. The heads of delegations were Mr. Wang Yi, Vice Foreign Minister of China; Mr. Kim Gye Gwan, Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK; Ambassador Mitoji Yabunaka, Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan; Ambassador Lee Soo-hyuck, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of ROK; Ambassador Alexander Alekseyev, Special Envoy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; Mr. James A. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, US Department of State.

2. For details of previous US proposals, see "'Differences, difficulties and contradictions' at North Korean nuclear talks", Disarmament Diplomacy 76, (March/April 2004).

3. "Chairman's Statement of the Third Round of the Six-Party Talks", Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs website, June 26, 2004, http://www.russianembassy.org, reproduced below.

4. "Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Remarks to the press with Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Washington, DC", Washington File, June 21, 2004.

5. Philip P. Pan and Glenn Kessler, "U.S. Revises Proposal at North Korea Nuclear Talks: Fuel Aid, Security Statement Possible During 3-Month Test", Washington Post, June 24, 2004.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Six-Party Talks", Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK (KCNA), June 28, 2004.

9. Ibid.

10. "New Consensus and New Steps, Remarks on the Third Round of the Beijing Six-Party Talks by Wang Yi, June 26, 2004", China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng.

11. "Concerning Third Round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing, Russian Foreign Ministry press statement", June 26, 2004, http://www.russianembassy.org.

12. "Third Round of Six-Party Talks Concerning North Korean Nuclear Issues", Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 27, 2004, http://www.mofa.jp.

13. Ibid.

14. Glenn Kessler, "U.S. Meets With N. Korea Over Nuclear Program", Washington Post, June 25, 2004.

15. Glenn Kessler, "Powell, N. Korean Diplomat Meet, "Useful" Discussion Held on Nuclear Dismantlement Proposals", Washington Post, July 2, 2004.

16. Glenn Kessler, "North Korean U.N. Envoy Visits Capitol Hill, Visit, Which Bush Administration Approved, May Be First by One of Nation's Top Officials", Washington Post, July 21, 2004.

17. Ibid.

18. Op Cit, "U.S. Revises Proposal at North Korea Nuclear Talks: Fuel Aid, Security Statement Possible During 3-Month Test".

19. "New Strategies to Meet New Threats", Remarks of Senator John Kerry, June 1, 2004, http://www.johnkerry.com/pressroom/speeches/spc_2004_0601.html.

20. Op Cit, "U.S. Revises Proposal at North Korea Nuclear Talks: Fuel Aid, Security Statement Possible During 3-Month Test".

21. "Speedy North Korean Nuclear Dismantlement Possible, Bolton Says", Washington File, July 23, 2004.

22. "DPRK Foreign Ministry Dismisses U.S. Proposal", Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK (KCNA), July 24, 2004.

23. "Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry on Prospect of Six-Party Talks", Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK (KCNA), August 16, 2004.

24. "Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan's Remarks on the Next Round of the Working Group Meeting of the Six-Party Talks", August 18, 2004, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng.

25. "President's Remarks at Ask President Bush Event", August 18, 2004, http://www.whitehouse.gov.

26. "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman Blasts Bush's Reckless Remarks", Korean Central News Agency of the DPRK (KCNA), August 18, 2004.

Chair's Statement of the Third Round of the Six-Party Talks, June 26, 2004

1. The Third Round of the Six-Party Talks was held in Beijing among the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Russian Federation (Russia) and the United States of America (USA) from June 23 to 26, 2004.

2. The heads of delegations were Mr. Wang Yi, Vice Foreign Minister of China; Mr. Kim Gye Gwan, Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK; Ambassador Mitoji Yabunaka, Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan; Ambassador Lee Soo-hyuck, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of ROK; Ambassador Alexander Alekseyev, Special Envoy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia; Mr. James A. Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, United States Department of State.

3. In preparation of the Third Round of the Six-Party Talks, two sessions of the Working Group were held in Beijing from May 12 to 15 and from June 21 to 22, 2004. The Parties approved the Concept Paper on the Working Group in the plenary.

4. During the Third Round of the Talks, the Parties had constructive, pragmatic and substantive discussions. Based on the consensus reached at the Second Round of the Talks, as reflected in its Chairman's Statement, they reaffirmed their commitments to the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and stressed the need to take first steps toward that goal as soon as possible.

5. The Parties stressed the need for a step-by-step process of "words for words" and "action for action" in search for a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue.

6. In this context, proposals, suggestions and recommendations were put forward by all Parties. The Parties welcomed the submission of those proposals, suggestions and recommendations, and noted some common elements, which would provide a useful basis for future work, while differences among the Parties remained. The Parties believed that further discussions were needed to expand their common ground and reduce existing differences.

7. The Parties agreed in principle to hold the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing by the end of September 2004, at a date to be decided through diplomatic channels with due consideration to the proceedings of the Working Group. The Parties authorized the Working Group to convene at the earliest possible date to define the scope, duration and verification as well as corresponding measures for first steps for denuclearization, and as appropriate, make recommendations to the Fourth Round of the Talks.

8. The delegations of the DPRK, Japan, the ROK, Russia and the USA expressed their appreciations to the Chinese side for its efforts for the success of the Third Round of the Six-Party Talks.

Source: Russia Ministry for Foreign Affairs website, http://www.russianembassy.org.

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