Issue No. 79, April/May 2005
Slow Road to Nowhere:
North Korea and the Six Party Nuclear Talks
As the 2005 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review
conference approaches, many states parties will be preparing their
statements highlighting the challenge posed by North Korea's
nuclear programme. Many will say little more than that they support
the current six party talks as the
best forum to resolve the current crisis, despite a lack of
concrete progress so far.
Although the Bush administration has insisted on a six-party
format for talks, it has struggled to bring North Korea to the
table, let alone deliver any agreement or progress on nuclear
deproliferation or disarmament. And while the talks flounder, the
Kim Jong Il regime continues to flout the NPT.
Although there have been repeated pledges by President Bush on
tackling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,
Washington's hard line approach to North Korea has been widely
criticised for lacking the flexibility and strategy to do just
that. IAEA Director-General Dr Mohamed ElBaradei spoke for many
when he commented to the Washington Post, "I am very
concerned about the North Korea dialogue right now... The six-party
talks never really took off."
The current crisis was precipitated in October 2002 when US
officials accused the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)
of pursuing a uranium enrichment programme in violation of the 1994
Agreed Framework, which imposed a freeze on its nuclear programme.
Shortly afterwards, North Korea expelled IAEA officials and their
equipment from the country and in January 2003, announced its
withdrawal from the NPT.
Three plenary sessions of the six party talks have been held
since August 2003, but with few signs of meaningful diplomacy.
Instead, the US and North Korea reiterate their publicly stated
positions and make thinly-veiled insults against the other's
leaders - a dialogue of the deaf, rather than a real
In February 2005 North Korea announced that it was suspending
participation in six party talks. Pyongyang claimed to have
"manufactured nukes" for "self-defence to cope with the Bush
administration's ever more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle
the [North]". It remains unclear
whether North Korea has actually developed any deployable nuclear
weapons or whether its public statements are indicative of attempts
to exercise a form of "virtual nuclear deterrent".
In either case it is essential that the 2005 NPT Review
Conference act to address this issue effectively. Failure to do so
would send all the wrong signals, suggesting that withdrawal from
the NPT in pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme is a viable
strategy for disaffected states.
A new Bush administration with the same old policies
During the early years the first administration of George W.
Bush made little progress on North Korea's nuclear programme. In
his 'State of the Union' speech of 2002, President Bush
characterised North Korea as part of an "axis of evil", along with
Iran and Iraq. He followed this by making a number of personal
criticisms of Kim Jong Il describing him as the "tyrant in North
Korea". Unsurprisingly this has antagonised Kim, who appears to
have become fearful of US military action to effect regime
To the consternation of some of the parties such as China,
Russia and South Korea, the Bush administration has adopted a hard
line stance towards North Korea, opposing bilateral talks, while at
the same time pursuing the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI),
which permits a group of self-selected "Group of the Willing"
states to interdict and search ships and other means of transport
suspected of carrying proliferation-sensitive components or
With regard to DPRK, the United States publicly refuses to "take
any options off the table",
implying that it will not completely rule out military action. The
message is underlined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "With
our deterrent capability on the Korean peninsula... the United
States and its allies can deal with any potential threat from North
Korea. And North Korea, I think, understands that."
Although Bush did not mention North Korea by name in this year's
inauguration speech, he set out "the ultimate goal of ending
tyranny in our world." Pyongyang's
apparent perception that this was aimed at the DPRK was confirmed
when Dr Rice identified six "outposts of tyranny" in her
confirmation hearing: Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and
Zimbabwe. Rice also reaffirmed
that the US would be sticking to the proposal it outlined at the
third (and most recent) plenary session of the six party talks, despite remarks by then chief US
negotiator James Kelly, that the parties were "still far from
Under the US proposal North Korea would, as a first step, commit
to dismantle all of its nuclear programmes. This would be followed
by a supervised disabling, dismantlement and elimination of all
nuclear-related facilities and materials; the removal of all
nuclear weapons and weapons components, centrifuge and other
nuclear parts, fissile material and fuel rods; and a long-term
monitoring program. As implementation progressed, the other parties
to the talks would be expected to take "corresponding steps",
including the provision of heavy fuel oil by non-US parties;
multilateral security assurances; discussion of steps to lift
economic sanctions and remove North Korea from the List of State
Sponsors of Terrorism; and a study to determine how to meet North
Korea's energy needs by non-nuclear energy programmes.
North Korea procrastinates
North Korea's position during the talks has been to argue for a
"reward" in return for a freeze, in other words security, economic
or diplomatic benefits in exchange for a freeze on its nuclear
weapon-related activities. Following Bush administration comments
about "outposts of tyranny", North Korea claimed that it was
withdrawing from the talks because the United States had "disclosed
its attempt to topple the political system in (North Korea) at any
cost, threatening it with a nuclear stick." Hinting, nonetheless, that North Korea is
continuing to seek diplomatic or economic concessions from the
parties before re-joining the talks, the statement continued, "We
are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an
indefinite period till we have recognised that there is
justification for us to attend the talks".
As Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick notes, "I would be
careful about reading too much into the North Koreans' most recent
statement." The announcement "could have been, as they have done in
the past, sort of a demand to get additional compensation... It
could have been related to the fact that the Chinese were scheduled
to come, and they have played a key role in terms of economics and
South Korea's Foreign Minister, Ban Ki Moon, has reportedly told
Condoleezza Rice that he believes that the North may be bluffing.
Similarly Minister for Unification Chung Dong Young told South
Korea's National Assembly that North Korea had made similar
assertions on at least 10 previous occasions since 2003: "We see it
as a claim to own nuclear weapons, not an official statement of
being a nuclear weapons state."
Since the July 2004 announcement, North Korea has also
reiterated its call for bilateral talks with the US - something
that the Bush administration resolutely opposes. Deputy chief of
DPRK's UN mission Han Sung Ryol told South Korea's Hankyoreh
newspaper, "We will return to the six-nation talks when we see a
reason to do so and the conditions are ripe... If the United States
moves to have direct dialogue with us, we can take that as a signal
that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us."
Whither Six Party Talks?
Despite his rhetoric, President Bush has failed to make any
substantive progress on North Korea's nuclear programme -
undeniably one of the most pressing WMD challenges currently facing
the US and international community. The failures raise question
marks about whether the Bush administration is really committed to
finding a diplomatic solution to this crisis or whether it would be
politically expedient in the eyes of some of the administration for
the diplomatic track to be seen to fail. The administration has
spent valuable time and diplomatic effort insisting on a six party
format, despite the fact that some of the main areas of contention
are primarily bilateral, concerning US-North Korean relations. The
Bush administration argues that a six party format is needed
because otherwise North Korea would play off the relevant parties.
If this is really the case, then it doesn't say much for the
ability of the Bush administration to communicate effectively with
the other states in this region. If the purpose was to force China
and South Korea to play a greater part, perhaps in leaning more
heavily on the Pyongyang regime through trade sanctions, then the
Bush administration needs to ask itself why the strategy is going
Whilst it is useful to have engaged regional powers and allies
in finding a solution, the US attitude to the other parties seems
to be that their role is to back up and endorse the US negotiating
stance, but it seems to frown on their developing diplomatic
initiatives of their own that might help to bridge the gap between
the two main protagonists. In addition, representatives of the
wider international community that could have a vital role to play,
such as the IAEA and the United Nations, appear to have been
largely excluded from the process, perhaps because involving these
bodies more effectively would not play well with the ideologues
that support Bush.
US policy seems confused and on occasion contradictory. Any sign
of a more conciliatory negotiating stance is usually quickly
torpedoed by interventions from other administration officials who
prefer harder line options. For example, at the last plenary
session held in June 2004, the US negotiating team refrained from
repeating the demand for "complete, verifiable and irreversible
dismantlement" (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear programme - a phrase
to which Pyongyang objects strongly. While observers commended the
more diplomatic approach, within weeks it was reversed when US
Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International
Security, John Bolton, reasserted the contentious language and
announced naval exercises off the coast of Japan to practice and
support the Proliferation Security Initiative. The North Korean
response was, predictably, to withdraw from working-level talks
scheduled to take place over the summer.
Prior to the 2004 Presidential election, the US has appeared
happy to let the six party talks drag on, producing very little. As
one unnamed administration official described it, US policy
consisted of "no carrot, no stick and no talk." Since the November election, Washington has
shifted to a harder line stance. Whilst Secretary of State Colin
Powell had been at pains to assure that the US had "no hostile
intent" towards North Korea - a Clinton-era form of words, which
the North interprets as allowing for regime survival, this
phraseology has not passed the lips of Powell's successor. Instead,
Rice has indicated that if North Korea does not return to the
negotiating table she will consider "other options in the
international system", hinting
that the US may move to an aggressive campaign to further isolate
the regime, possibly using economic or political penalties and
referral of the issue to the UN Security Council - an option
consistently promoted by Bolton.
The challenge to the NPT regime
While the US continues to advocate six party talks as the only
diplomatic option to address North Korea's nuclear programme, their
failure to date has allowed Pyongyang to continue to flout the
international norms against nuclear proliferation and to make
further, increasingly dangerous progress towards nuclear weapons'
development. As Dr ElBaradei told the Washington Post, "Time
is not in favour of the international community. North Korea has
plutonium for sure - enough to make at least six to eight bombs."
Whether North Korea has actually developed any deployable
nuclear weapons or whether the regime in playing a dangerous poker
game of virtual nuclear deterrence, talking up its nuclear
capability in the hope of negotiating security, diplomatic or
economic concessions, remains unclear. Or perhaps, by emphasising
it has a "nuclear deterrent" the regime is seeking to deter an
attack similar to those witnessed in recent years on Iraq or
Serbia. Whatever the strategy, the underlying motivation for North
Korea's actions is regime survival.
In the absence of any international verification of its nuclear
facilities, any assessment of how far the nuclear weapons programme
may have actually developed remains the subject of speculation. But
what is clear, is that DPRK's self-declared withdrawal from the NPT
and its persistent non-compliance with safeguards over a long
period highlights major weaknesses in the nuclear non-proliferation
regime that must be addressed.
The UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Threats,
Challenges and Change notes that the "nuclear non-proliferation
regime is now at risk because of lack of compliance with existing
commitments, withdrawal or threats of withdrawal from the Treaty on
the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to escape those
commitments, a changing international security environment and the
diffusion of technology." The Panel recommended, "Those who
withdraw should be held responsible for violations committed while
still a party to the Treaty. A State's notice of withdrawal from
the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons should
prompt immediate verification of its compliance with the Treaty, if
necessary mandated by the Security Council."
Highlighting the failure of the UN Security Council to respond
to North Korea's expulsion of IAEA inspectors in 2002, Dr ElBaradei
noted, "This lack of timely action may have complicated finding a
solution, and may have conveyed the message that breaking the
non-proliferation norms with impunity is a doable proposition - or
worse, that acquiring a nuclear deterrent will bring with it a
special treatment." He called on
the UN Security Council "to act swiftly and decisively in the case
of any country that withdraws from the NPT".
The reality is dismal. While the Security Council has signally
failed to act swiftly or decisively since the DPRK's announced
withdrawal from the NPT early in 2003, NPT states parties have no
authority or powers to be able to take any meaningful action
concerning North Korea. As Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer notes,
"It is untenable in this day and age for the NPT member states to
have to wait five years before exercising their decision making
powers." Canada proposes that Preparatory Committee meetings are
replaced by annual conferences of states parties, and the
establishment of a standing bureau with the power to "convene
extraordinary sessions of the General Conference of states parties"
in circumstances such as the notification of intent to withdraw by
a state. However, there is
reluctance on the part of the nuclear-weapon states to give NPT
parties greater powers to ensure implementation and compliance with
the Treaty. This may be because, as Rebecca Johnson speculates,
"some of the weapon states will fear that strengthening the
implementation powers beyond the current (toothless) review process
could be uncomfortable if they themselves were to violate their
obligations... no state, however hegemonic or isolated, is immune
to all pressures from domestic or international opinion and
interests, so a high-level conference of NPT parties would
inevitably feed into a potential violator's political calculations
and could make all the difference." If the international community really wants to
take proliferation seriously, then it needs to insist on stronger
and more varied tools to tackle it.
It remains possible for the North Korean nuclear crisis to be
resolved by diplomatic means. Six party talks should not be allowed
to provide a convenient fig leaf for a lack of serious diplomacy by
the Bush administration and an excuse for inactivity by everyone
else. As with the many states that have joined the NPT as
non-nuclear-weapon states over the years, North Korea must be
persuaded that it is in its political and security interests to
rejoin and comply with this Treaty. As ElBaradei suggests, "Like
Iran, we should discuss their security concerns and their sense of
isolation and bring a generous offer, which would enable them to
give up their nuclear ambitions." However, this is an approach that
the current US administration is unlikely to take, however long the
current six party talks continue to wobble along.
As the 2005 NPT Review Conference approaches, states parties
should consider whether the six-party talks on North Korea are
actually working or whether a new diplomatic approach now needs to
be taken by the international community. They should consider what
decisions the Review Conference needs to take in order to
strengthen the Treaty, and in particular to enable states parties
to take meaningful action when faced with noncompliance. A strong
message needs to be sent to North Korea, and any others who may be
waiting on the sidelines, that it is not in any state's interests
to abuse the nonproliferation regime and remain in
 The six
parties are: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States
and North Korea, which is formally known as the Democratic Peoples'
Republic of Korea (DPRK).
 Dafna Linzer
and Glenn Kessler, 'IAEA Head Disputes Claims on Iran Arms',
Washington Post, February 16, 2005.
 'DPRK FM on
Its Stand to Suspend Its Participation in Six-party Talks for
Indefinite Period', KCNA, February 10, 2005.
Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice, With James Rosen of Fox News',
February 9, 2005.
Faiola, ' N. Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Power', Washington
Post, February 10, 2005.
 'Bush Sworn-In
to Second Term', The White House, January 20, 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/20050120-1.html.
Rice, National Security Adviser to President Bush and the U.S.
Secretary of State-designate Remarks before the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, January 18, 2005.
 Ibid. See also
'US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
James Kelly explains the US proposal to the third round of Six
Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear programme', July 15, 2004, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0407/doc15.htm.
 'U.S. Will
Accept "Nothing Less" than Total Nuclear Dismantlement in North
Korea, Kelly Says', US Department of State, Washington File,
July 15, 2004.
Cit, 'DPRK FM on Its Stand to Suspend Its Participation in
Six-party Talks for Indefinite Period'.
Brinkley, 'U.S. Official Says North Korea Could Be Bluffing on
Nuclear Arms', New York Times, February 16, 2005.
 Joel Brinkley
and James Brooke, 'Rice reassures Seoul her only lever on North is
diplomatic pressure', New York Times, February 16, 2005.
 Glenn Kessler
and Philip P. Pan, ' White House Dismisses Idea Of Direct Talks
With North Korea', Washington Post, February 12, 2005.
Gellman and Dafna Linzer, 'Unprecedented Peril Forces Tough Calls',
Washington Post, October 26, 2004.
Kessler, 'Rice: U.S. and Allies Discussed 'Options' Against N.
Korea', Washington Post, March 22, 2005.
Weymouth, ' Q&A: ElBaradei, Feeling the Nuclear Heat',
Washington Post, January 30, 2005.
 'A more
secure world: our shared responsibility', Report of the High-level
Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, December 1, 2004.
 'In Search of
Security: Finding An Alternative To Nuclear Deterrence by IAEA
Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei', Stanford, November 4,
 'Seven Steps
to Raise World Security by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed
ElBaradei', Oped in the Financial Times, February 2,
the Institutional Deficit of the NPT', Working Paper submitted by
Canada, NPT/CONF.2005/PC.III/WP.1, April 5, 2004.
Johnson, 'Is the NPT up to the challenge of proliferation?'
Disarmament Forum, 2005 NPT Review Conference Issue (UNIDIR,
Nicola Butler is an independent consultant on nuclear
issues and Deputy Director of the Acronym Institute, responsible
for the website.
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