North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall

By Kerr, Paul | Arms Control Today, December 2005 | Go to article overview

North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall


Kerr, Paul, Arms Control Today


Participants in the Nov. 9-11 six-party talks in Beijing attempted to build on a September breakthrough in resolving the North Korea nuclear crisis, but they apparently made little headway. Differences between the United States and North Korea, especially regarding the proper sequencing of rewards and obligations, continue to block progress.

The participants have divided this round-the fifth since August 2003-into at least two phases. President George W. Bush told reporters Nov. 8 that the session was "really to prepare for the longer meetings" where more detailed discussions would take place. Chinese and South Korean diplomats made similar comments.

Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Dawei stated Nov. 11 that the participants have agreed to hold the second session "at the earliest possible date," but no date has yet been set. Japan and Russia are the other participants in the talks.

The November meeting was the parties' first attempt to discuss implementing the statement of principles, which was adopted in September to guide future talks. North Korea committed in that statement to abandon all of its nuclear programs and return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In return, the other parties pledged to respect Pyongyang's sovereignty, normalize their diplomatic relations, and provide North Korea with economic cooperation and energy assistance.

But since the talks ended, the United States and North Korea have accused each other of failing to take the negotiations seriously. secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in South Korea Nov. 16 that "the jury is out" on whether Pyongyang is willing "to get serious about dismantlement and verification."

North Korea continues to question Washington's commitment to respecting its sovereignty, arguing that the Bush administration remains intent on pursuing a policy of regime change, even while participating in the talks.

The current nuclear crisis began in October 2002 when Washington announced that North Korean officials had admitted to possessing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. That bilateral agreement froze Pyongyang's graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities located at Yongbyon. Both plutonium, which is obtained from spent reactor fuel, and highly enriched uranium can serve as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Since then, North Korea has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze, withdrawn from the NPT, and taken several steps that have likely enabled it to increase its fissile material stockpile (see page 35).

The Talks

Washington vs. Pyongyang

The United States and North Korea appear to agree that improved bilateral relations will remove the need for Pyongyang to have a nuclear weapons program. But the Bush administration argues that Pyongyang should first begin the process of eliminating its nuclear programs in order to pave the way for better relations. North Korea takes the opposite view.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill described these different perspectives while speaking to reporters Nov. 11. North Korea "is always urging that there be a good atmosphere in order to make progress," he said, adding "[m]y point is, if you make progress, there will be a good atmosphere."

Hill said the previous day that Washington is "prepared to live by" its commitments outlined in the joint statement. But Hill made it clear that the Bush administration wants the current round of talks to focus on devising a plan for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs quickly and verifiably.

The United States wants North Korea quickly to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, as well as prepare a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear weapons, materials, and facilities. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Washington will not promise rewards to Pyongyang for taking such a step. …

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