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A Tightrope Walk in the Korean Peninsula

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 19, 2007

    Earlier speculations negating the possibility of one-on-one talks between the United States and North Korea after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test have proven wrong. Irrespective of the merits or the disappointments attached to the process, the negotiations that started between US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan in Berlin on January 16-18, 2007 made it possible for them to find common ground at the six-part talks held in Beijing on February 13, 2007. On that day, members of the six-party talks process signed a document titled “Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement [of September 19, 2005]. The ultimate goal of these talks had earlier been unanimously agreed upon in the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, which was “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In the September 2005 joint statement, North Korea had “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and returning to the NPT and to IAEA safeguards. Acknowledging North Korea's right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Washington had undertaken to respect its sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize bilateral relations subject to the two countries' respective policies.

    The significance of the latest agreement needs to be contextualised in the decade-old international effort to achieve de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The future, however, portends a tightrope walk, since both the US and North Korea need to match their words with action.

    Reinventing the Wheel

    The outcome of the fifth and latest round of six-party talks can be termed as a recommencement of the process of moving towards a nuclear-weapon free Korean peninsula started in the early 1990s. North Korea had agreed to a Joint Declaration with South Korea in 1992, pledging not to test, produce, receive, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons. Yet, it continued with its efforts to produce weapon grade plutonium. UN Security Council Resolution 825 of May 11, 1993 had expressed regret in the wake of the IAEA's findings on North Korean non-compliance with the safeguards agreement and its expression of concern over Pyongyang's intent to withdraw from the NPT. However, through diplomatic efforts, the US had forged an Agreed Framework with North Korea on October 21, 1994, in which Pyongyang gave the assurance that it would renounce its nuclear weapons ambition.

    Though, by that time, Pyongyang already had enough fissile material for one or two devices, both countries tried to resolve the issue through the Agreed Framework, which entailed significant time-lines for actions. They agreed to replace North Korea’s graphite-moderated reactors with a 2000 ME(e) light-water reactor (LWR) nuclear power plant, the target year for completing which was 2003. The freeze on North Korea’s graphite-moderated reactor and related facilities were to be fully implemented within one month. The US also agreed to organise under its leadership an international consortium – the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) – to finance and supply the Light Water Reactor to North Korea. Washington also undertook to deliver heavy oil within three months at a rate of 500,000 tons annually. And the two sides agreed to initiate expert level consultations for implementing the provisions laid down in the Agreed Framework.

    Despite the commitments made in the Agreed Framework, neither side could implement them in subsequent years because of continued political mistrust. The history of nuclear diplomacy between North Korea and the United States shows remarkable uncertainty with respect to their actions. The test of the Nodong missile in August 1998, which flew over Japanese territory, alarmed both Japan and the US. Since then, there have been various interpretations of the proliferation dimensions of North Korea’s secret missile and nuclear capabilities. President Bush called North Korea an axis of evil in January 2002. Citing Pyongyang’s failure to meet “the conditions necessary for continuing” KEDO, the US announced the suspension of the construction of the light-water nuclear reactors in November 2002. In response, North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors from the country in December 2002, which marked the end of the “freeze” on its nuclear activities agreed to under the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang was said to have an estimated stock of roughly 28 to 39 kilograms of plutonium by 2003 when it finally withdrew from the NPT. Even during the course of the so-called agreed “freeze,” North Korea was engaged in an undeclared centrifuge enrichment programme and it reportedly began large-scale construction of about 4,000 centrifuges in 2001. The current status of this programme remains largely unknown to the outside world.

    After conducting an underground test on October 9, 2006, North Korea announced its intent to rejoin the long stalled six-party talks. This was a throwback to the situation as it existed in the early 1990s though with one difference – North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme. The agreed document of February 2007, “Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement,” can bee seen as a major step in breaking the stalemate at the six-party talks, though its contents seem to be a recast of language and contents of the 1994 Agreed Framework with changed references and circumstances.

    Lack of Collective Effort

    While the US and North Korea failed miserably in delivering on what they had agreed upon and are together primarily responsibility for past failures, the other important actors – China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – have generally played safe and from a distance. Moreover, there has been a general lack of unanimity among the other principal actors in dealing with North Korea.

    While the 1992 Joint Declaration between the two Koreas on the denuclearisation of the Peninsula stated that the two sides “shall conduct inspections of particular subjects chosen by the other side and agreed upon between the two sides, in accordance with the procedures and methods to be determined by the South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission,” there was hardly any progress on this front. Moreover, South Korea and the US could not resolve the issue of sharing the financial burden for setting up reactors in North Korea as was agreed upon in the Agreed Framework. The South Korean media tended to project its own version of the country’s role in dealing with the North Korean issue, suggesting that “the realistic calculation forbids Seoul from taking even the slightest risks to intimidate North Korea.” Seoul thus continued with two major cross-border projects that benefit North Korea to the tune of almost US $1 billion. And it has also been reluctant to participate in Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) measures against North Korea, being advocated by the US and Japan.

    Japan, for its part, insists on continued sanctions and does not seem to be too enthusiastic about the latest compromise reached with North Korea at the six-party talks. Prime Minister Abe has been quoted as saying before the House of Representatives at a Budget Committee session on February 13, 2007 that “We have won the understanding of (other six-party) countries on our position… [and] (our insistence of first dealing with the abduction issue) has not damaged our national interests at all.” And the Japanese Foreign Minister has displayed reluctance to participate in fuel supply or financial assistance arrangements for North Korea.

    Even the Russian negotiator responded cautiously to the latest agreement by saying that the joint statement adopted “is not a solution to the problem of the Korean peninsula. But it is the first real step taken over the years of talks on the problems that can move forward the denuclearization process and have far-reaching positive consequences.

    Unclear China

    Interestingly, the Western media had reported in 1993 that during a meeting in February that year between Kim Il-Sung and Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader assured the former that he would protect North Korean interests by playing a mediatory role at the UN even if Pyongyang were to withdraw from the NPT. China’s intent thus was to obtain room for manoeuvre through the process of dialogue. It is likely that Beijing would continue to follow the same approach even now within the six-party framework.

    When North Korea conducted its nuclear test on October 9, 2006, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement on the same day urging “DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization” and to “stop all moves that may further worsen the situation and return to the Six-Party Talk.” China also called on all parties concerned “to be cool-headed in response” and “persist in seeking a peaceful solution through consultation and dialogue.”

    In the run-up to and during the fifth round of six-party talks, China played a crucial role in finding a diplomatic breakthrough. It even reportedly circulated a draft text for negotiations. It is not yet known as to how far the latest agreed document contains provisions proposed by China, though for now Pyongyang seems to have provided some space for Beijing to handle the international ire against North Korea. China obviously prefers a solution through the six-party framework instead of being forced to deal with North Korea in harsher ways as insisted upon by the US and Japan. But the level of progress, in reality, has remained abysmally low. It is interesting to note that during the course of negotiations, Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, who is also reported to be in-charge of North Korea’s military exports, stayed for three days (February 11 to 13) in China, though the purpose of his visit during the crucial period of international diplomatic parleys is not clear.

    Left Outs

    Even if the latest agreement calls on the parties to follow the principle of “action for action,” verification mechanisms have been left undefined in the document. Nor have the fallback arrangements been appropriately discussed. In such a circumstance, reciprocity in the fulfilment of commitments could become a major hurdle. US negotiator Christopher Hill has said that North Korea has to make the first move by shutting down and sealing the Yongbyon reactor, close the nuclear complex and allow the return of IAEA inspectors. Hill hopes that matters related to financial sanctions would be resolved in the next 30 days. Judging by North Korea’s past behaviour, it is difficult to expect a speedy response from Pyongyang. Similarly, US normalization of relations with North Korea would require Congressional approval.

    The February 13 agreement explicitly refers to the implementation of the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement and the reaffirmation of North Korea’s earlier commitment to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.” However, it seems less likely that North Korea would display adequate transparency in its dealings with the IAEA. The latest agreement also remains silent about North Korea’s controversial enrichment programme and related facilities, which have extensively benefited from the Pakistan based AQ Khan proliferation network. These would make it difficult for the IAEA to understand the full extent of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapon related locations.

    Against this background, one can assume that history would repeat again in terms of North Korean delays and deferments in fulfilling its international commitments in an effort to evade international pressure.


    The lack of a clear roadmap in dealing with North Korea reflects poorly on the enforcement of international treaty arrangements, which has far reaching implications for potential non-compliant states within the NPT. The nuclear row over North Korea’s deviations emerged in 2002 out of the disclosures about covert uranium enrichment related activities in that country. The issue of clandestine networks and their sources have not yet been subjected to appropriate international scrutiny.

    Even if the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula seems to be a case of ‘so near, yet so far,’ the way North Korean defiance is being tackled could have consequences for the Iranian case which is due to come up in the next few days. In this regard, one can speculate upon three likely scenarios. First, by following the North Korean example, Iran could continue with partial transparency for a considerably long period of time. Second, the Bush administration is likely to work more closely with Russia and China in order to replicate the temporary success achieved at the six-party talks. Third, the US may be under greater pressure now to go soft on Iran. In any event, it would be interesting to watch how the strategy of engagement contributes to the tackling of non-proliferation challenges.