Insights and Analysis

North Korea’s Nuclear Disclosures and the Six Party Talks

July 9, 2008

By Scott Snyder

This week in Beijing, the Six Party Talks are set to reconvene after a nine month hiatus. The hiatus began October 3, 2007 with China’s release of a joint statement that anticipated a series of concrete measures that would be completed by the end of 2007 to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. During the hiatus, the U.S. and North Korea negotiated bilaterally over how to implement the commitments outlined in that statement. North Korea’s measures included disabling its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon; “reaffirming its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, and know-how” and making a “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. In return, North Korea would receive the following: one million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent energy supplies; the removal of North Korea from the U.S. terrorism list, repeal of the Trading With the Enemy Act; and seeing the improvement of Japan-DPRK relations through implementation of the Pyongyang Declaration.

North Korea’s formal submission of its declaration to the six party talks on June 26, 2008 — and the accompanying announcement by President Bush that he was notifying the U.S. Congress of his Administration’s intent to remove North Korea from the terrorism list and repeal the Trading With the Enemy Act — marked a significant step in the direction of implementing on the steps laid out in the October 3, 2007 statement. In particular, disabling Yongbyon has removed the immediate threat that North Korea would expand its nuclear arsenal through the production of more fissile material without facing significant time and financial costs to restore those facilities to working order. Completing these steps marks tangible progress toward implementation of prior six-party agreements, which see to the normalization of relations with the U.S. and Japan and tangible commitments to North Korea’s economic development, in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization on the principle of “action for action.” However, a close examination of progress-to-date reveals several worrisome shortcomings that have stimulated opposition and frustration in Washington.

The main issues of concern include the following:

1) The June 26th DPRK declaration submitted to China is not “complete and correct.” Although the text of the declaration has not yet been released, the programs, facilities and materials outlined under the declaration exclude information regarding North Korea’s weaponization, non-Yongbyon based facilities, and suspected uranium enrichment program. These significant omissions mean the North Korean declaration is a “limited declaration” rather than a “complete and correct declaration,” raising questions in some quarters as to whether the U.S. corresponding actions can be justified.

As a practical matter, it should be expected that the DPRK might want to withhold information regarding weaponization to a later stage in the talks focused on “denuclearization” rather than “disablement” or “dismantlement.” Likewise, an apparent secret understanding between the U.S. and North Korea has set aside questions regarding the DPRK’s uranium enrichment efforts for the time being.

The most serious limitation of the North’s declaration is related to the failure of the DPRK to declare non-Yongbyon based facilities, since it continues to show a failure by the North to acknowledge that its previous commitments to dismantle “all” facilities must include those undeclared facilities to which the IAEA and the international community have not achieved access since the early 1990s. In particular, international access to the sites related to North Korea’s October 2006 test of a nuclear device is a critical litmus test of North Korea’s will to fully denuclearize.

2) The implementation of U.S. terrorism de-listing and repeal of the Trading With the Enemy Act anticipated under the October 2007 six-party talks joint statement are corresponding actions that were to be undertaken in response to the submission of a “complete and correct” declaration, but those steps have now been undertaken in response to North Korea’s submission of a limited declaration. This U.S. concession is of particular concern given that there is not yet a record of performance that might yield confidence in the ability of either side to implement the agreement according to expectations.

On the U.S. side, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have emphasized the importance of building concrete verification measures into the process as the U.S. begins to implement its obligations. A major focus of the six party talks will be to secure concrete understandings regarding those verification measures, including the establishment of a verification working group. However, it would have been more appropriate to secure understandings regarding concrete methods of verification prior to acceptance of North Korea’s declaration and the corresponding initiation of the process of de-listing North Korea from the terrorism list and repeal of the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Likewise, the slow pace of implementation of six-party pledges to provide North Korea with energy supplies has provided North Korea with a pretext for slowing down performance of its own corresponding commitments. The decision to deal separately with the enriched uranium and proliferation aspects of North Korea’s nuclear-related behavior has also come under criticism, especially since revelations made separate from the six party process regarding North Korea’s activities in these two areas make it increasingly difficult to ignore these areas of concern.

3) While the negotiation of technical aspects related to implementing the October 3, 2007, six party joint statement has required arduous and intensive contacts that have yielded tangible results, the process has not sufficiently engaged the six parties outside of the U.S.-DPRK bilateral context. The way the agreement has been implemented leaves the impression that the U.S. and North Korea are operating virtually independently of the other parties and that the six party process is a fig leaf for U.S.-DPRK contact rather than the main venue for negotiation.

The submission of North Korea’s declaration provides an opportunity to take tangible steps in verifying North Korean submissions, especially in the area of accounting for North Korea’s past plutonium production. This step forward opens the door to potentially significant future progress in North Korea’s denuclearization, but that task is likely to be inherited by the next U.S. administration. Given the U.S. domestic political transition, it is important for a new administration to recognize that progress made thus far effectively contains the prospect of an immediate crisis, the need to complete North Korea’s denuclearization is no less urgent when a new administration takes power than it is today.

In addition to implementing an effective verification process, another likely task of the six parties as part of their review of previous commitments made under the February 13, 2007 and October 3, 2007 joint statements will be to determine the timing for a Six-Party Ministerial meeting to affirm progress made thus far and to identify clearly the remaining tasks on the road to denuclearization. The limited progress made so far illustrates just how difficult the remaining challenges are likely to be. As a result, tenacity and continued high-level attention are required if the process is to achieve its objectives of North Korea’s full denuclearization in tandem with normalization of North Korea’s political relations and fuller political and economic integration with its neighbors.

Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation’s office in Washington, DC. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea


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