|  This page with graphics | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports  |

 | Acronym Institute Home Page  | Calendar  | UN/CD  |  NPT/IAEA  | UK  | NATO  | US |

 | Space/BMD  | CTBT  | BWC  | CWC  | WMD Possessors  | About Acronym  | Links  | Glossary  | 

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 83, Winter 2006

In the News

North Korea's Nuclear Test: Assessing the Fallout

See also: UN Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006) on Non-proliferation

On October 9, 2006 the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced that it had conducted an underground nuclear test,[1] giving a further blow to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson claimed that the test was "a new measure for bolstering its war deterrent for self-defence", and added: "The DPRK is ready for both dialogue and confrontation."[2] The test marks the failure of six years of Bush administration policies that have served to provoke rather than curb nuclear proliferation.

Initial reports questioned whether North Korea had actually succeeded in carrying out a nuclear explosion, as opposed to a large conventional explosion similar to that carried out in September 2004. Early detection attempts by the US, China and South Korea failed to pick up any radiation. Later reports in the US media concluded that environmental sampling indicated that the test had indeed been a nuclear explosion, but very small - suggestion a yield of less than 1 kiloton (equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT).[3] A North Korean diplomat told the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh that the test was "smaller than expected."[4] While some have speculated that North Korea might have managed a sophisticated explosion for a small warhead, more credence is given to the theory that the fissile components of the device may have failed to detonate fully.

In the aftermath of the test, amidst international condemnation and the expression of some scientists' scepticism about the effectiveness of the explosion, North Korea's second most senior political figure, Kim Yong Nam told Kyodo News that the DPRK would carry out further nuclear tests if the United States did not change its "hostile attitude."[5]

The nuclear test followed a series of missile launches conducted by North Korea in early July, despite earlier moratoria on long-range missile test firing.[6] The missile test fires were swiftly followed by UN Security Council Resolution 1695, adopted on July 15. This demanded that "the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme, and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching". The resolution required all UN member states to "exercise vigilance and prevent missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology being transferred to DPRK's missile or WMD programmes".[7]

Prior to conducting the nuclear explosion, North Korea had previously hinted on a number of occasions that a test might be in the offing, most recently on October 3, 2006, when it announced its intention to test, whilst also claiming: "The DPRK will always sincerely implement its international commitment in the field of nuclear non-proliferation as a responsible nuclear weapons state".[8]

This announcement prompted a statement from the President of the UN Security Council warning that such a test "would represent a clear threat to international peace and security and that should the DPRK ignore calls of the international community, the Security Council will act consistent with its responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations."[9] But this appears to have held little sway with the North Korean regime, which proceeded with the test undeterred.

The Security Council Responds

The test finally galvanised the UN Security Council into action, with the United States and Japan at the forefront of efforts to get international agreement to impose sanctions. Japan's newly elected prime minister Shinzo Abe promised a tough response, saying he would "immediately consider taking stern measures."[10] Declaring that his country was "in the gravest danger", Abe moved quickly to ban imports from North Korea and to stop North Korean ships and citizens coming to Japan.[11]

South Korea also warned that it would "sternly deal" with the North. Though suggesting that he was not yet ready to give up on South Korea's "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North, President Roh Moo Hyun stated that a "reconsideration of our engagement policy is needed".[12]

Most significantly, China, which appeared on this occasion to have been caught by surprise by North Korea's defiance in conducting the test, responded angrily, in a political move that enabled agreement to be reached in the Security Council more quickly than many had thought possible. Following the test, China's Foreign Ministry issued an unusually strongly-worded statement demonstrating its displeasure, stating that Pyongyang had "defied the universal opposition of international society and flagrantly conducted the nuclear test".[13]

In a break from the past, China, which has previously protected North Korea from Security Council action, now indicated that it was willing to support "some punitive actions" against its ally. However, China, which together with South Korea provides much of North Korea's supplies of oil and food, made clear that it wanted the sanctions to be "specifically targeted toward the nuclear- and missile-related areas".[14]

As a result Resolution 1718 (see below), adopted by the Security Council on October 14, was able to impose an embargo on the North Korean regime's trade in weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, conventional heavy weapons and luxury goods. It also freezes North Korean financial assets and imposes a travel ban on individuals and entities with any connection to North Korea's weapons or missile programmes.

At US insistence the resolution invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which Washington views as essential because it makes economic and diplomatic sanctions mandatory for all states. Importantly, the resolution also refers to Article 41 of the Charter, which permits only "means not involving the use of military force" - a diplomatic work around that was necessary to secure Russian and Chinese support for the resolution.

During negotiations China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, pushed for the United States to include greater assurances that the resolution could not be used to justify the armed seizure of North Korean ships travelling in international waters, which China would view as a violation of international law. In response US Ambassador John Bolton described the resolution as "a kind of codification" of the Proliferation Security Initiative, and argued that there are existing international and national laws "that allow the boarding of ships in international waters".[15]

Russia and China also insisted that local authorities be allowed to cooperate in the inspection process, which covers shipments by land, air and sea. As both China and Russia share borders with North Korea, they were concerned by the possibility of the US attempting to inderdict ships near their coasts. This remains a sensitive area, with Wang making clear in his explanation of vote at the Security Council that, "China does not approve of the practice of inspecting cargo to and from the DPRK. We therefore have reservations about the relevant provisions of the resolution. China strongly urges the countries concerned to adopt prudent and responsible attitude in this regard and refrain from taking any provocative steps that may intensify the tension."[16]

South Korea has also expressed concerns about the implementation of the resolution. At a private meeting with President Bush before the Pacific Rim economic summit in November, President Roh reportedly told Bush that South Korea would not participate fully in the possible interception of North Korean nuclear shipments, since South Korean officials fear this could lead to increased tensions and possibly even military action in the region.[17]

Raising further concerns during negotiations that the ban on luxury goods was unnecessary and too vague, Ambassador Wang told the media, "I don't know what luxury goods means, because luxury goods can mean many things for different people."[18] Despite China's scepticism, the ban on luxury goods, which is clearly intended to target the North Korean elite, made it into the final text of the resolution with strong backing from the US, Japan and their European allies.

By contrast, any explicit mention of curbs on North Korea's activities in "counterfeiting, money-laundering or narcotics",[19] was dropped from the draft resolution prior to adoption, although widely viewed as a crucial source of hard currency used to fund the regime's weapons programmes. The US, which had pushed for this, was disappointed, but Bolton said that these activities were still covered by the resolution's freeze of North Korean assets, which includes those from "illicit means".[20]

Russia raised concerns that earlier drafts of the resolution failed to adequately define what weapons-related goods would be covered by the embargo. As a consequence, the final resolution specifies that it includes "any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms, or related materiel including spare parts, or items as determined by the Security Council or the Committee established by paragraph 12 below."[21] Resolution 1718 relies on all countries to implement the sanctions, but it also creates a committee comprising all 15 Security Council nations to monitor enforcement and report any violations to the council.

A series of Japanese proposals to ban all North Korean exports and to prohibit North Korean aircraft and ships from visiting foreign ports were also ruled out,[22] following objections not just from Russia and China, but also from US allies such as France, which voiced concern that the Japanese proposals could fuel a humanitarian crisis.

Reluctantly, the US also had to drop its proposal to give Pyongyang a 30-day deadline to suspend its nuclear activities or face additional penalties, with the resolution underlining that "that further decisions will be required, should additional measures be necessary."[23]

Six Party Talks fail to deliver

A few weeks after the Security Council resolution, following pressure from China and others, North Korea agreed to return to the Six Party Talks[24] on its nuclear programme, after more than a year of stalling. Involving China, Russia, Japan and the United States as well as North and South Korea, the Six Party Talks are hosted in Beijing.

They got off to an unpromising start on December 18, 2006, with North Korea's senior negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan claiming that the DPRK would not halt its nuclear programme until the US abandoned its "hostile" policy toward his country. He then took the opportunity to announce that as a nuclear power, the North would engage only in "arms control" negotiations.[25] Indicating that North Korea expected now to be treated as a nuclear weapon state, this raised the stakes and implied that denuclearisation and disarmament were not on its agenda.

The US went into the talks trying to keep the focus on implementation of the Joint Statement agreed at the fourth round of talks in September 2005, in which North Korea agreed to the objective of "verifiable denuclearisation" of its nuclear programme in return for a programme of economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment.[26] "The whole purpose is to take the September agreement and start getting it implemented," said Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and head of the US delegation.[27]

As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear, the US wanted to see positive, concrete action from North Korea. Rice told the media, "the first step is really for the North Koreans to do something that demonstrates that they're actually committed to denuclearisation."[28] Although the Secretary of State did not specify what this might entail, the New York Times reported that the US had offered a "detailed package of economic and energy assistance" in return for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and technology.[29] The offer is significant because to date, the US has resisted specifying what incentives it might offer to North Korea. Previously the idea of making an offer of this nature has been opposed by hawks in the Bush administration, most notably Vice President Cheney. Diplomats at the talks were reportedly focusing on the conditions under which North Korea might be persuaded to move towards dismantlement. One South Korean official was reported as saying that the North might be willing to halt the operation of its main nuclear reactor and allow international inspectors "under the right conditions".[30]

North Korea had other ideas. Asserting that it be given a nuclear reactor to generate power and assistance in meeting its energy needs until that reactor was operational, North Korea demanded that all sanctions already in place against it be lifted before any talks about scrapping its nuclear programme could take place. In response Rice made clear that the US would not "pause" on the sanctions agreed in Resolution 1718, even if the current round of Six Party Talks did make progress.[31] Japan also warned that it would maintain sanctions against North Korea unless there is progress not just on disarmament, but on the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

The biggest bone of contention, and a point to which North Korea repeatedly returned during the talks, was its demand that the US end financial restrictions imposed on its transactions at the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, which is believed to be used by the regime of Kim Jong-Il as a hub for money laundering and dollar counterfeiting.

The disagreement over its activities at the Banco Delta Asia has been used by North Korea for much of the past year as a block to reconvening of the Six Party Talks. Whilst the US refuses to discuss the restrictions as part of the Six Party Talks, it did agree on this occasion to address the issue in separate parallel talks in Beijing with a US delegation led by treasury officials.

Although there were rumours early on of some progress being made in the negotiations, with talk that China was developing a work plan for implementating the September 2005 agreement, the Six Party Talks broke up without reaching any substantive conclusions, failing even to set a date to reconvene in the New Year.

According to the statement read out by chief Chinese negotiator Wu Dawei, the parties agreed only to report to their capitals and to "reconvene at the earliest opportunity".[32] Blandly, this statement described little more than that the parties had "held useful discussions on measures to implement the joint statement and on actions to be taken by the parties in the first phase and put forward some ideas".

As the talks ended with little to show, Christopher Hill expressed frustration at North Korea's conduct. Questioning North Korea's commitment to denuclearisation, he complained: "One day it's financial issues, another day it's something they want but know they can't have, another day it was something that was said that hurt their feelings. It's one thing after the other."[33]

A Pivotal Moment

The North Korean nuclear test is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in the decades-long duel between the reclusive regime of Kim Jong-Il and the international community. Following the nuclear test, the blame game has begun. In the United States, some Republicans (some doubtless with an eye to the 2008 Presidential elections) are trying to pin the blame on Clinton administration policies, including the 1994 Agreed Framework in which the US agreed to support the building of light water reactors in North Korea in return for a freeze on its nuclear programme including its five megawatt plutonium reactor.

Democrats, on the other hand, point to Bush administration mistakes, notably the rhetorical branding of North Korea as part of an "axis of evil", which is widely thought to have precipitated the DPRK's withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accelerated its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Though big on rhetoric - early sessions of the Six Party Talks were characterised by the US and North Korea trading insults - the Bush administration has undermined the UN and NPT, and was slow to develop any serious political and diplomatic strategy. Its mixture of diplomatic neglect and bellicose accusations have had the effect of encouraging North Korea to pursue its nuclear programme.

Whilst the Agreed Framework was not perfect it at least put some limits on North Korea's activities. The Clinton administration went to some lengths to attempt to engage North Korea, with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visiting the reclusive country. The Agreed Framework finally broke down in 2002, when the Bush administration confronted North Korea with allegations that it was pursuing a clandestine uranium enrichment programme and terminated oil deliveries that had been promised under the Agreement. North Korea then evicted IAEA inspectors, restarted its plutonium reactor and retrieved weapons-grade plutonium from 8,000 fuel rods that had been kept in a cooling pond.

Following North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT, the UN Security Council was divided, unable to agree a common approach or send a clear message to Kim Jong-Il - or, for that matter, to other potential proliferators. Instead the lesson that risks being conveyed is that a regime like North Korea can get away with such behaviour if it is prepared to sit out international opprobrium - perhaps not such a difficult option for an already isolated regime.

There is also the danger that the longer North Korea is allowed to develop its nuclear programme, the greater the risk that other countries in the region will begin to reconsider their non-nuclear status. One of the features of the Bush administration's policies on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is an inconsistent approach to proliferators around the world. Just as the latest round of Six Party Talks were convening in Beijing, President Bush signed into law the US-India nuclear Co-operation Act, despite India's nuclear tests and long-standing refusal to join the NPT.

According to US intelligence estimates, North Korea is now believed to have enough plutonium for up to 12 nuclear warheads, depending on their level of sophistication, significantly more than the supplies for two warheads that were suspected during the Clinton era. The Bush administration continues to oppose direct talks with North Korea on principle, despite outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan adding his voice to the many calls for constructive bilateral engagement at least to be tried, as US security assurances and dialogue appear to be priorities for the DPRK.[34]

Whilst some, such as IAEA Director-General Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, have suggested in the past that "a generous offer" should be made to North Korea in order to "enable them to give up their nuclear ambitions", this type of approach has not previously been acceptable to the Bush administration. The continuation of the Six Party Talks might provide the Bush administration with a fig leaf for the absence of an effective diplomatic strategy, but it has also enabled North Korea effectively to manipulate the international community.

North Korea has proved itself adept in recent years at stringing along the Six Party process, whilst continuing full steam ahead with its nuclear programme. Although bringing North Korea to the table for the latest round of talks was initially seen as a diplomatic success for China, some might argue that it was also a calculated tactic to appease Beijing and the international community and avoid heavy penalties for the nuclear test by holding out the possibility of diplomatic engagement. Indeed, the Kim Jong-Il regime may well have calculated that such a concession would be useful to make to reduce the political fall-out from its nuclear test.

In that case, it was probably effective, since agreeing to demands to return to the Six Party Talks has enabled North Korea to keep China on side and perhaps even avoid or delay the enforcement of the sanctions imposed in Security Council Resolution 1718 by some of the more reluctant parties.

Their conduct in the talks is likewise instructive: not as overtly aggressive as in some of the previous rounds, but just as clever in the use of linkage tactics and stonewalling to avoid any substantive outcome, limitations or commitments. It is an example that will not go unnoticed in Tehran.

With the Six Party Talks once again in recess, there is now time for a reassessment of the direction of US nonproliferation policy in the region. With new faces in key Congressional and Administration roles, there is both the opportunity and necessity for a more pragmatic, and less rhetorical approach.


[1] 'DPRK Successfully Conducts Underground Nuclear Test', Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), October 9, 2006.

[2] 'DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on U.S. Moves Concerning Its Nuclear Test', KCNA, October 11, 2006.

[3]Dafna Linzer and Walter Pincus, 'U.S. Detects Signs of Radiation Consistent With Test', Washington Post, October 14, 2006.

[4]Dafna Linzer and Walter Pincus, 'U.S. Detects Signs of Radiation Consistent With Test', Washington Post, October 14, 2006.

[5]Anthony Faiola, 'N. Korea's No.2 Official Warns of Further Tests', Washington Post Foreign Service, October 12, 2006.

[6]DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman on Its Missile Launches, KCNA, July 6, 2006.

[7]Resolution 1695 (2006), Adopted by the Security Council at its 5490th meeting, on 15 July 2006, UN Security Council S/RES/1695 (2006).

[8]DPRK Foreign Ministry Clarifies Stand on New Measure to Bolster War Deterrent, KCNA, October 3, 2006.

[9]Statement by the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council, S/PRST/2006/41, October 6, 2006.

[10]Anthony Faiola and Maureen Fan, 'North Korea's Political, Economic Gamble', Washington Post Foreign Service, October 10, 2006.

[11]Anthony Faiola, 'N. Korea's No. 2 Official Warns of Further Tests', Washington Post Foreign Service, October 12, 2006.

[12]Norimitsu Onishi, 'Tough Talk from Seoul, if Little Will for a Fight', New York Times, October 10, 2006.

[13]Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch, 'U.S. urges sanctions on North Korea', Washington Post, October 10, 2006.

[14]Interview with Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya, as reported by Colum Lynch and Maureen Fan, 'China says it will back sanctions on N. Korea', Washington Post, October 11, 2006.

[15]Remarks by Ambassador John R. Bolton, U.S. Representative to the United Nations, on the draft resolution on North Korea, Georgia and other matters, at the Security Council stakeout, October 13, 2006.

[16]Explanatory Remarks by Ambassador Wang Guangya at the Security Council After Taking Vote On Draft Resolution on DPRK Nuclear Test, Permanent Mission of the Peoples' Republic of China to the United Nations, October 14, 2006.

[17]Michael A. Fletcher, 'Bush Fails to Persuade S. Korea on Sanctions', Washington Post, November 19, 2006.

[18]Edith M. Lederer, 'China, Russia May Delay U.N. Resolution', Associated Press, October 14, 2006.

[19]Warren Hoge, 'China and Russia stall sanctions on North Korea', New York Times, October 13, 2006.

[20]John O'Neil and Choe Sang-Hun, 'U.S. softens proposal on North Korea', New York Times, October 12, 2006.

[21]UN Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006), S/RES/1718 (2006). Adopted by the Security Council at its 5551st meeting, on October 14, 2006.

[22]Colum Lynch and Glenn Kessler, 'At U.N., U.S. Pushes For Vote on N. Korea', Washington Post, October 14, 2006.


[24]The Six Party Talks include China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. For coverage of previous rounds of the Six Party Talks see the Acronym Institute website at: http://www.acronym.org.uk/wmd.

[25]Joseph Kahn, 'U.S. Negotiator Notes an Improved Tone in Talks on North Korea', New York Times, December 21, 2006.

[26] 'Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks', Beijing, September 19, 2005.

[27]Joseph Kahn, 'U.S. Negotiator Notes an Improved Tone in Talks on North Korea', New York Times, December 21, 2006.

[28]Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Roundtable With the Press, Washington DC, December 19, 2006, State Department website, http://www.state.gov.

[29]Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, 'U.S. offers North Korea Aid for Dropping Nuclear Plans', New York Times, December 6, 2006.

[30]Burt Herman, 'North Korea not Budging on Sanctions', The Associated Press, December 21, 2006.

[31]Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Interview with Reuters, State Department website, December 16, 2006.

[32]Jack Kim, 'North Korea nuclear talks end with no deal', Reuters, December 22, 2006.


[34]Colum Lynch, 'Annan Presses For U.S. Talks With N. Korea', Washington Post, October 12, 2006.

Nicola Butler

See also: UN Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006) on Non-proliferation

Back to the top of page

© 2006 The Acronym Institute.