U.S. Pushes to Restart North Korea Talks

Article excerpt

After a fresh series of provocative North Korean actions, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill traveled to China, Japan, and South Korea late last month in another effort to restart six-party talks designed to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. The talks, which also include Russia, have been stalled for nearly a year.

A Bush administration official, as well as a congressional source familiar with the matter, told Arms Control Today that recent North Korean statements, along with a modest amount of new intelligence, have increased U.S. officials' concern that North Korea may test nuclear weapons. Pyongyang has not tested such weapons, although it has threatened to do so.

In addition, a senior North Korean diplomat said April 18 that Pyongyang had halted the operation of its five-megawatt nuclear reactor, an action that could permit it to obtain additional plutonium for use as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

The announcement came approximately two months after North Korea announced that it possesses nuclear weapons. The United States believes that North Korea possesses one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons and may possess enough fissile material for several more. Whether Pyongyang is in the process of augmenting its purported nuclear arsenal, however, remains unclear.


Administration and congressional sources confirmed an April 25 Wall Street Journal report that the United States sent an urgent diplomatic message to allies earlier in the month notifying them of U.S. concerns that North Korea might conduct a nuclear test. The message also asked at least certain talks participants, such as China and South Korea, to urge Pyongyang to refrain from provocative behavior.

The other participants have been more supportive of engaging North Korea than has the United States. Nevertheless, South Korean Foreign Minster Ban Ki-moon warned North Korea against testing April 25, stating that such an act would result in Pyongyang's "isolation."

The congressional source said the othercountries would likely follow suit, but perhaps not publicly.

Although conveying impatience with Pyongyang's behavior, U.S. officials continued to express support for the talks. Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli acknowledged April 25 that "the stalemate has gone on...longer than any of us would have liked" but "vehemently" denied that administration officials are "at the end of our rope on this."

In an April 28 news conference, President George W. Bush also indicated continued U.S. support for the talks, adding that other actions, such as involving the UN security Council in the matter, would depend on other participants' support. China, which has veto power on the security Council, and South Korea have resisted asking that body to take up the issue.

The duration of the current diplomatic track "is dependent upon our consensus amongst ourselves," Bush said.

For its part, North Korea continues to express a willingness to return to the talks, albeit under certain conditions.

Pyongyang says it wants the United States to end its "hostile policy" toward North Korea, express a willingness to accept peaceful coexistence with the current regime, and retract secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's reference to the government as one of several "outposts of tyranny" during her January 2005 confirmation hearings. (see ACT, April 2005.)

Perhaps significantly, North Korean officials have also hinted that Pyongyang may change its stance on discussing its suspected uranium-enrichment program. The congressional source, as well as a witness to at least one such discussion, told Arms Control Today that these officials have suggested to unofficial interlocutors within the past several months that Pyongyang is willing to discuss U.S. concerns about the program in private bilateral talks.

Suspicions that North Korea is pursuing the capability to enrich uranium have played a central role in the current nuclear crisis. …