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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 79, April/May 2005

Slow Road to Nowhere:
North Korea and the Six Party Nuclear Talks

Nicola Butler

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[1] 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."[2]

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 negotiation.

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]".[3] 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 change.

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 equipment.

With regard to DPRK, the United States publicly refuses to "take any options off the table",[4] 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."[5]

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."[6] 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.[7] 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,[8] despite remarks by then chief US negotiator James Kelly, that the parties were "still far from agreement".[9]

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.[10]

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."[11] 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".[12]

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 assistance."[13]

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."[14]

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."[15]

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 wrong.

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."[16] 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",[17] 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."[18]

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."[19]

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."[20] He called on the UN Security Council "to act swiftly and decisively in the case of any country that withdraws from the NPT".[21]

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.[22] 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."[23] 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 noncompliance.


[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).

[2] Dafna Linzer and Glenn Kessler, 'IAEA Head Disputes Claims on Iran Arms', Washington Post, February 16, 2005.

[3] 'DPRK FM on Its Stand to Suspend Its Participation in Six-party Talks for Indefinite Period', KCNA, February 10, 2005.

[4] 'INTERVIEW: Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice, With James Rosen of Fox News', February 9, 2005.

[5] Anthony Faiola, ' N. Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Power', Washington Post, February 10, 2005.

[6] 'Bush Sworn-In to Second Term', The White House, January 20, 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/20050120-1.html.

[7] Condoleezza 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 'U.S. Will Accept "Nothing Less" than Total Nuclear Dismantlement in North Korea, Kelly Says', US Department of State, Washington File, July 15, 2004.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Op Cit, 'DPRK FM on Its Stand to Suspend Its Participation in Six-party Talks for Indefinite Period'.

[13] Joel Brinkley, 'U.S. Official Says North Korea Could Be Bluffing on Nuclear Arms', New York Times, February 16, 2005.

[14] Joel Brinkley and James Brooke, 'Rice reassures Seoul her only lever on North is diplomatic pressure', New York Times, February 16, 2005.

[15] Glenn Kessler and Philip P. Pan, ' White House Dismisses Idea Of Direct Talks With North Korea', Washington Post, February 12, 2005.

[16] Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, 'Unprecedented Peril Forces Tough Calls', Washington Post, October 26, 2004.

[17] Glenn Kessler, 'Rice: U.S. and Allies Discussed 'Options' Against N. Korea', Washington Post, March 22, 2005.

[18] Lally Weymouth, ' Q&A: ElBaradei, Feeling the Nuclear Heat', Washington Post, January 30, 2005.

[19] 'A more secure world: our shared responsibility', Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, December 1, 2004.

[20] 'In Search of Security: Finding An Alternative To Nuclear Deterrence by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei', Stanford, November 4, 2004.

[21] 'Seven Steps to Raise World Security by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei', Oped in the Financial Times, February 2, 2005.

[22] 'Overcoming the Institutional Deficit of the NPT', Working Paper submitted by Canada, NPT/CONF.2005/PC.III/WP.1, April 5, 2004.

[23] Rebecca Johnson, 'Is the NPT up to the challenge of proliferation?' Disarmament Forum, 2005 NPT Review Conference Issue (UNIDIR, 2004:4).

Nicola Butler is an independent consultant on nuclear issues and Deputy Director of the Acronym Institute, responsible for the website.

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