Six Party Talks and the North Korean Nuclear Issue: A Staff Trip Report

Keith Luse and Frank Jannuzi, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Testimony to Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 14, 2003.


Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff members Keith Luse and Frank Jannuzi traveled to Northeast Asia August 21-September 2 to examine the prospects for a peaceful negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear issue and to follow-up on their earlier set of visits to North Korea designed to push for greater North Korean transparency and accountability on food aid and humanitarian relief. The delegation expresses its appreciation to U.S. diplomatic personnel at Embassies Beijing and Seoul who helped set up productive meetings and coped with the vagaries of arranging travel to and from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Over the course of three days in Pyongyang, the delegation held a variety of meetings with officials representing the DPRK, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations (see list of interlocutors, attached). The delegation told senior DPRK officials that the United States views North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a grave threat to international peace and stability and urged the DPRK to seek a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis through multilateral dialogue. The delegation visited select humanitarian relief operations, making the point that such efforts are tangible proof that the United States has no hostile intent toward North Korea. SFRC staff strongly advised DPRK officials that they should permit greater transparency for food aid deliveries under the auspices of the World Food Program and various non-governmental organizations. The delegation pressed DPRK officials to adhere to international standards of human rights, including respect for religious freedom, and emphasized that the United States' concern for the human rights situation in North Korea reflects the deeply held convictions of the American people.

Key Findings


North Korea isolated...

Over the course of three days in North Korea, the staff delegation found DPRK officials to be disappointed by the six party Beijing talks, which they described as "five against one." In both formal meetings and informal settings, DPRK officials described the Beijing talks as "pointless" and cast doubt upon whether the North would be willing to engage in future rounds of multiparty dialogue. DPRK officials were critical of the fact that they had only 40 minutes of "direct" dialogue with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly over the course of three days of talks in Beijing, and said they had been misled into believing the multilateral talks would provide a venue for substantive one-on-one discussions with the U.S. envoy.

In one particularly blunt exchange, DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan told the staff delegation that the Beijing talks had "confirmed" the North's assessment that the United States has no intention of changing its "hostile policy." Kim said the DPRK, "had no choice but to maintain and reinforce its nuclear deterrent."

The SFRC delegation conveyed their personal views that a North Korean decision to enhance its nuclear weapons capabilities would be viewed by the United States as a grave threat to international peace and security and would be interpreted by Americans as a hostile act. The delegation urged the DPRK to proceed with multiparty dialogue and to refrain from any provocative actions.

DPRK officials were non-committal with respect to any future dialogue, but after the staff delegation's departure, the DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that the North remains "equally prepared for dialogue and for war." This statement represented a slight softening of the stance articulated immediately after the Beijing talks, and certainly leaves the door open to another round of multi-party talks in Beijing or some other venue.

With strong encouragement from China (a senior delegation from China visited the DPRK in late September), the DPRK may agree to another round of six-party talks, if only to avoid being held directly responsible for a breakdown of the diplomatic process. It remains unclear what stance the DPRK will take at any future talks, and at what level they will be represented. Decision-making in the DPRK is highly centralized, with Kim Jong-il wielding the ultimate authority. Junior level DPRK officials such as Kim Yong-il, who represented the DPRK in Beijing in August, often are unable to engage in substantive dialogue, a fact which argues for the United States to try to elevate the talks to engage officials with real authority and the ear of Kim Jong-il.

...and wary of U.S. intentions

The difficulty of communicating with the North Koreans was evident throughout the staff delegation's visit to Pyongyang, highlighting the risk that conflict could arise from miscalculation or mis-communication. North Korean officials with whom we met had an imperfect understanding of United States security policy, especially the recently issued National Security Strategy and Nuclear Force Posture Review. They repeatedly expressed their belief that both documents called for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against North Korea, and said the North's own nuclear program was necessary to counter this United States "nuclear threat." Sometimes, confusion arose out of the imprecision of different English terms. DPRK officials asked the staff delegation to clarify the different meanings "simultaneous," "synchronous," "phased," and "reciprocal." Attention to such detail suggests the DPRK is actively studying how the nuclear issue might be resolved given what they characterized as the "zero trust" which exists between the two parties.

DPRK officials took note of recent U.S. efforts to curtail North Korean involvement in narcotics trafficking, counterfeiting, and other illicit activities. DPRK officials flatly denied North Korean involvement in such illicit activities, and alleged that the United States had trumped up the charges as part of a more general campaign to "stifle" the DPRK.

Food aid: slow progress on transparency and accountability

The staff delegation met with the Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee (FDRC) director Jong Yun-hyong, who oversees agricultural reconstruction as well as foreign food aid programs. The delegation explained to Yun that it was essential for the DPRK to enhance transparency for food aid, to open up counties currently off-limits, and to provide random access to WFP monitors seeking to verify food aid deliveries. The delegation told Yun that the level of monitoring requested by WFP was consistent with international norms, and that the DPRK could not expect donors and potential donors to contribute food aid if they did not have high confidence that the aid was reaching its intended recipients.

Yun said that security issues are paramount for the DPRK, and that the military would not permit international access to certain sensitive regions of the country. He also said that monitoring had greatly improved since food aid began to flow during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990's. Yun specifically cited the recent UN nutritional survey, and reported that "security officials" had initially objected to the survey, but that FDRC officials had prevailed in an inter-agency battle in order to permit the survey to be conducted. Yun argued that recent significant reductions in WFP food aid - just 300,000 metric tons in 2002, down from 811,000 tons in 2001 - had made it more difficult for him to push for greater numbers of monitors and greater access for international observers. Nonetheless, Yun promised progress on monitoring in the future, and invited the international community to shift its humanitarian aid strategy away from food donations and toward "sustainable development," including agricultural reforms, new seed varieties and planting techniques, and "food for work."

The delegation met with World Food Program country director Rick Corsino, who reported slow, but significant progress toward enhanced monitoring of food aid and ensuring that aid reaches those most in need. These are the highlights:

NGO's making contribution to welfare of average North Koreans

Although WFP is the largest humanitarian organization working in North Korea, they are not the only international organization operating in North Korea. The staff delegation made a point of visiting two humanitarian operations supported by U.S. non-governmental organizations; the Village Wind Power Pilot Project run by the Nautilus Institute (with significant financial support provided by the W. Alton Jones Foundation) and a tuberculosis treatment hospital and mobile van sponsored by the Eugene Bell Foundation. These initiatives have fostered good will on a "people-to-people" basis, and have measurably improved the quality of life for the North Korean beneficiaries.

Wind Power

The US-DPRK Village Wind Power Pilot Project was the first attempt by a United States NGO to work side-by-side with North Koreans in cooperative development. Previously, non-governmental organizations had been limited by both Washington and Pyongyang to delivering food aid to North Korea. The project installed seven technologically advanced wind turbine towers in a rural village on the west coast of North Korea near the port of Nampo. This region is known as a bread basket for North Korea, rich in arable land and other natural resources, including steady breezes off of the Korea Bay. The turbines provide clean, renewable energy to the village's medical clinic, kindergarten, and 67 households. In addition, a wind- powered water pump irrigates the village's fields, and has significantly boosted yields, according to villagers. The combined generating capacity of the turbines is 11.5kW.

Since the wind power project was completed in 1999, it has had its share of ups and downs. At present, the delegation found that the facility was not operating at full capacity due to maintenance problems with two inverters and damaged batteries. North Korea lacks adequately trained technicians to service the equipment, and the nuclear stand-off has disrupted visits by foreign experts needed to assess the maintenance requirements and make needed repairs.

Despite these difficulties, the DPRK participants in the project remain enthusiastic about it as a model for rural electrification, and hope to press ahead with a major wind power survey project along the west coast in coming months. DPRK authorities told the visiting Senate staff delegation that deciding to proceed with the wind power survey requires approval from military officials worried about the collection of militarily sensitive meteorological information. Notwithstanding the sensitive nature of the data to be collected, DPRK officials believe the project will move ahead. Wind power projects could alleviate severe shortages of power in rural areas, and have the advantage of not requiring major upgrades in North Korea's electric power grid - a grid that experts have found to be in need of major overhaul before it could accommodate the introduction of large new power plants such as the light water nuclear reactors contemplated under the Agreed Framework.

Tuberculosis Treatment

Since 1995, the Eugene Bell Foundation has been working inside North Korea to to fight deadly diseases like tuberculosis (TB). Eugene Bell Foundation currently coordinates the delivery of TB medication, diagnostic equipment, and supplies to 1/3 of the North Korean population and approximately 50 North Korean treatment facilities (hospitals and care centers). The staff delegation visited one such hospital in Pyongyang, and also inspected one of 17 mobile x-ray vehicles designed to navigate the North's antiquated road network.

The delegation found the Eugene Bell project to be characterized by high standards of transparency and efficiency. The foundation conducts regular site visits (more than 60 since 1995) and is able to donate goods directly to recipients rather than through third parties or government intermediaries. Staff at the hospital we visited appeared well trained and highly motivated. They were deeply appreciative of the support they receive from the United States, and recognized that this humanitarian outreach occurs even at a time when the two nations do not maintain normal diplomatic relations. The Eugene Bell Foundation supports 16 TB hospitals and 64 TB care centers in the DPRK. More than 200,000 patients have been treated. Moreover, serving as a conduit, the Eugene Bell Foundation is currently responsible for sending tuberculosis medicine, medical aid, and equipment for approximately 1/3 of the North Korean population.

Joint Recovery Operations

The staff delegation met with Sr. Col. Kwak Chol-hui of the Korean People's Army, the director of the Joint Recovery Operation searching for the remains of U.S. servicemen left behind after the Korean War. The United States estimates that as many as 8,000 remains of U.S. servicemen are on DPRK soil. So far, only 378 of these remains have been recovered. More than 200 remains were found as the result of unilateral DPRK searches and returned to the United States. Just over 170 sets of remains have been recovered through the joint recovery operation.

The recovery operations are laborious. Historical records can indicate likely search areas, but only eye witnesses can pinpoint the possible locations for remains. As the population ages and the terrain of North Korea is shaped by construction, erosion, flooding, and other forces, it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate remains. Even after likely sites are identified, time- consuming excavations and careful forensic work are necessary to find and identify remains. U.S. and North Korean military personnel work side by side in the field during the recovery operations. According to U.S. participants in the operation, this interaction in the field has been constructive, deepening our understanding of the Korean People's Army.

Colonel Kwak told the delegation that the DPRK would like to expand the joint recovery operation, employing as many as 2,700 investigators to scour the country to conduct interviews with those elderly North Korean who might have knowledge of the location of U.S. remains. He indicated that the DPRK's commitment to the recovery operations is independent of the nuclear issue, and, in his opinion, should remain so. It is unclear, however, what role the DPRK envisions for U.S. forces in such an expanded operation. The staff delegation believes that any expansion should be made contingent on greater U.S. access to those North Korean citizens claiming to have first-hand knowledge of the whereabouts of remains.

Staff Conclusions

List of Interlocutors

In Beijing, China

Michael Green
Director Asian Affairs
National Security Council

David Straub
Korea Desk
U.S. Department of State

Wang Yi
Vice Foreign Minister
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Fu Ying
Director General, Asian Department
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

He Yafei
Director General,
North American Department
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Liu Jinsong
First Secretary, Asian Department
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Piao Jianyi
Executive Director, Center for Korean Peninsula Issues
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Gu Guoliang
Director, Center for Arms Control and
Nonproliferation Studies
Deputy Director,
Institute of American Studies
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Wang Jisi
Institute of International Strategic Studies
Central Party School

Wu Baiyi
Deputy Director, Research Division
China Institute of Contemporary
International Relations

Yang Mingjie
Director, Division of Arms Control and
Security Studies
China Institute of Contemporary
International Relations

Wei Zonglei
Deputy Director,
Center of U.S.- European Studies
China Institute of Contemporary

Shi Yinhong
Director, Center for American Studies
People's University

Ruan Zongze
Vice President
China Institute of International Studies

Liu Xuecheng
Director of American Studies
China Institute of International Studies

Shen Dingli
Deputy Director,
Center for American Studies
Fudan University

Zhu Feng
Director of International Security Program
Beijing University

In North Korea

Kim Gye Gwan
Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

Jong Dong-hok
First Secretary, United States Department
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Lee Yong Chol and Kim Yong Nam
United States Department
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Jong Yun-hyong
Flood Damage Reconstruction Committee

Sr. Col. Kwak Chol-hui
Director, Joint Recovery Operation
Korean People's Army

Lt. Col. Li Jong Sop
Deputy Director, Joint Recovery Operation
Korean People's Army

Lt. Col. Byon Sol-hok
Joint Recovery Operation

Kim Song
Secretary General,
Korean National Peace Committee

Richard Corsino
Country Director, World Food Program

In South Korea

Wi Sung-lac
Director General, North American Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Park Joeong-nam
Deputy Director, North American Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Yang Chang-suk
Director of International Cooperation
Ministry of Unification

Park Ro-Byug
Chief, Policy Coordination Bureau
National Security Council
Blue House

Kim Taewoo
Nuclear Policy Specialist
Korea Institute for Defense Analyses

Pak Yeong-tae
Korea Institute for Defense Analyses