Policy Area: Multilateral Talks

The Six-Party Talks Can Succeed
Leon Sigal, Director, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Council, Social Science Research Council, February 3, 2004.

Six-party talks will resume February 25. The negotiations, if sustained, could succeed. Both Pyongyang and Washington seem ready to deal.

In the August round of six-party talks, North Korea's Kim Il Yong told other negotiators, "It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons." He no longer insisted on a non-aggression pact as a first step. Instead, Kim said, Pyongyang seeks an agreement in principle in which it would "clarify its will to dismantle its nuclear program if the United States makes clear its will to give up its hostile policy toward the DPRK."

Kim laid out a sequence of simultaneous steps Pyongyang would take. It "will allow the refreeze of our nuclear facility and nuclear substance and monitoring and inspection of them from the time the U.S. has concluded a non-aggression treaty with the DPRK and compensated for the loss of electricity." Non-aggression treaty is the North's infelicitous phrase for written assurances that the United States will not attack it, interfere in its internal affairs or impede its economic development by maintaining sanctions or discouraging aid and investment from South Korea and Japan. Next, it will settle the missile issue -- "put on ice its missile test-firing and stop its [missile] export" -- once the United States and Japan open diplomatic relations. Then, it "will dismantle [its] nuclear facility from the time the [light-water reactors promised under the Agreed Framework] are completed."

Since then it has gone further to satisfy the United States.

It moved to include the freeze as part of a first step, tying reciprocal action to an agreement in principle. On December 9 a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "Our stand is to agree upon the first-phase action by making a 'words for words' commitment at the next round of the six-way talks at least if the United States is not in a position to accept our proposal a package solution at one time. To this end, measures such as the U.S. delisting the DPRK as a 'terrorism sponsor,' lifting the political, economic, and military sanctions and blockade, and energy aid including the supply of heavy fuel oil and electricity by the U.S. and neighboring countries should be taken in exchange for the DPRK's freeze of nuclear activities." An authoritative signed commentary in the party organ Rodong Sinmun on December 15 added that as part of the package solution, the DPRK is ready to eliminate "all its nuclear weapons." On January 6 KCNA further elaborated the North's position: "The DPRK is set to refrain from test and production of nuclear weapons and to stop even [its] operating nuclear power industry for peaceful purpose as a first-phase measure of the package solution." On December 12 a Foreign Ministry spokesman restated the North's position: "If the Bush administration truly intends to resolve the nuclear issue with simultaneous actions in accordance with a package deal and is willing to agree on [not give] compensation in return for freezing as first-phase measures, we are also willing to freeze our nuclear activities based on graphite-moderated reactors as a starting point for denuclearization."

On January 10, 2004 a Foreign Ministry spokesman described a visit to Yongbyon by Siegfried Hecker, Jack Pritchard, and John Lewis as an "an opportunity to confirm the reality" and "ensure transparency." They saw the reactor in operation and the cooling pond empty of spent nuclear fuel. Even more significant, Hecker was handed a jar with some reprocessed plutonium, symbolizing readiness for U.S. inspections and eventual handover -- not just of its plutonium. Kim Gye Gwan was explicit about that. After denying the existence of the uranium program, he expressed willingness to negotiate about it.

Does Pyongyang mean what it says? The surest way to find out is diplomatic give-and-take when six-party talks resume February 25. That's why Tokyo and Seoul urged the United States to make a counteroffer. That requires the Bush administration to do something it has not yet done, decide what it wants most and what it will offer in return.

U.S. agreement in principle to end enmity and improve political and economic relations makes sense if North Korea halts its plutonium and uranium programs while negotiations proceed.

Pyongyang must put all the 1994 plutonium, in whatever form it is now, back under inspection soon. Some electricity from South Korea is not too much to provide in return.

U.S. intelligence can monitor a freeze of the reactor and reprocessing plant there by satellites and other technical means.

That is not so for enrichment sites whose location is unknown. As desirable as they are, inspections at these sites will take time to arrange. They can wait. U.S. intelligence estimates North Korea will not be ready to produce much highly enriched uranium until "mid-decade," allowing time to arrange for access.

Dismantling comes next. The United States initially demanded that the North eliminate its enrichment program before it would even hold talks, but that made no sense: the last thing we would want is for dismantling to take place without inspectors to witness it, as happened in Iraq.

Pyongyang's missile program can be dealt with in parallel. The first priority is what the North offered in Beijing -- a ban on missile test launches and exports of missile technology. The next step is to negotiate the dismantling of missiles and production sites.

Pyongyang is not alone in pursuing a deal. President Bush has also decided to try negotiating with Kim Jong Il for a change. "He wanted a security agreement," the president told reporters on October 19, 2003, "and we're willing to advance a multiparty security agreement, assuming that he is willing to abandon his nuclear weapons designs and programs." At Japan's and South Korea's urging, the United States has drafted its own version of an agreement in principle. Reaching accommodation with North Korea on that could open the way to a deal to end nuclear arming for good.

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