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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 80, Cover design by Paul Aston and Calvert's Press

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 80, Autumn 2005

In the News

North Korea's Nuclear Programme: Continuing obstacles in Six Party Talks

After a delay of over one year, the fourth round of six party talks[1] on North Korea's nuclear programme were held from July 26 to August 7, 2005 in Beijing. Although the six parties reportedly made "positive progress", they went into recess in disagreement over the future of North Korea's "peaceful" nuclear programme.

Nevertheless, this first phase of the fourth round of six party talks was more productive than previous plenaries, with the parties for the first time beginning to negotiate on specific text - a draft two-page "agreement on principles" prepared by China, intended not as a final document, but as a way to pull together the elements that would form the basis of an eventual full agreement. As North Korea refrained from its usual invective against the United States, the US and South Korea praised "a businesslike approach to the talks from the North Korean delegation."

Despite this, the talks adjourned with no joint statement. A short Chair's statement from China, reaffirmed that "the goal of the Six-Party Talks is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner". Whilst all the parties agree that the goal is denuclearisation, not everybody shares the same definition of what this means. The major stumbling block is North Korea's demands to retain the right to develop commercial nuclear energy and have a light water reactor included as part of the agreement on principles. The US immediately ruled this out, pointing out that South Korea has offered to supply "exactly the equivalent energy" to the North.

Whilst North Korea's official news agency KCNA declared that the "DPRK will never waive its right to peaceful nuclear activity",[2] US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the New York Times, "I don't think anybody believes at this point in time that the North Koreans can be trusted with civilian nuclear power".[3]

Whilst the US has attempted to play down any divisions with the other parties over this issue, China, South Korea and Russia have all indicated that they do not share Washington's view. In response to questions on the subject, the Director-General of China's Foreign Ministry's Arms Control Department, Zhang Yan, stated: "If a country joins the treaty and accepts the supervision of safety guarantee by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has the right to use nuclear power peacefully."[4] Similarly South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon told the media that the North could be allowed a peaceful nuclear programme but only after complete dismantlement of its nuclear programmes and an agreement to return to the NPT and to implement IAEA safeguards.

Differences also remain over "sequencing" - the order in which the steps in any agreement would be undertaken. North Korea is pushing for early "rewards" for any disarmament commitment, and the US expects to see substantive progress on disarmament before significant economic assistance is given. As US Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill put it, the North Koreans "obviously would like to make sure they get everything they can from the dismantlement of these weapons. We see the dismantlement of these weapons leading to other things. They would like to see those other things leading to the dismantlement of the weapons."[5]

Another potentially difficult area is verification. Although verification is included in the agreement on principles, the question of how verification will take place and what exactly will be verified has been deferred for later meetings. The question of international access to North Korean nuclear sites is likely to be a sensitive subject.

Talks were expected to resume in the week of August 29, giving the parties time to consult with their capitals and to continue consultations in the interim. However, on August 29, North Korea announced that it was not willing to resume talks until the week beginning September 12. As reason for the delay, it cited with concern the joint US-South Korean military exercises, Ulji Focus Lens-05, and the appointment of a Presidential envoy for human rights in North Korea, claiming that this was a "foolish attempt to 'overthrow the system' of the DPRK".[6] The question, if the talks can be resumed, is whether they will be able to move forward and reach substantive agreement on the principles.


[1] 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). Reports published in Disarmament Diplomacy on the previous rounds of the Six Party Talks are available at: http://www.acronym.org.uk/wmd

[2] 'DPRK Will Never Waive Its Right to Peaceful Nuclear Activity', Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), September 6, 2005.

[3] 'Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Interview with The New York Times, Washington, D.C.', US Department of State, August 17, 2005.

[4] 'N.Korea entitled to nuclear power under NPT -China', Reuters, September 1, 2005.

[5] 'U.S. Hopes to Maintain Momentum of Reopened Six-Party Talks', US Department of State, Washington File, August 4, 2005.

[6] 'Six-Way Talks and "Overthrow of System" Are Incompatible: KCNA', KCNA, August 29, 2005.

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Nicola Butler

© 2005 The Acronym Institute.