19.12.2017 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

USA-DPRK: a Period of Constructive Communication


After the United States torpedoed the results of the 2005 Joint Statement, the negotiation process rose again. Under these conditions, the North Koreans went all-in: Kim Jong Il intended to force the United States to perceive itself as a member of equal status in the nuclear club, so that America would once again move from imitating negotiations that are actually pressures to a genuine negotiation process that seeks solutions on the basis of mutual concessions.

The so-called DPRK missile crisis began with the fact that on July 4, 2006, the DPRK launched a series of short and medium range missiles (according to various sources from seven to ten). Most missiles fell into neutral waters, and the square in which they fell, the northerners either did not warn at all, or warned at the last moment. Although no one was hurt, this caused a rather harsh reaction from the international community, including Russia and China, which took a series of demonstrative steps aimed at in the future preventing such incidents.

One of the missiles fell on the territory of the 200-mile Russian economic zone, which was the reason for the appearance of falsehoods presented by the Japanese right-conservative newspaper “Sankei Shimbun” and propagated by the Russian liberal media that do not understand the difference between the economic zone and territorial waters. As a result, the author repeatedly had to refute the allegation that the rocket debris fell near Nakhodka, almost provoking an ecological catastrophe due to toxic rocket fuel

After that, the DPRK was immediately accused of violating the 1999 commitment to not conduct test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, although the said moratorium:

  • Concerned the launch and development of ballistic missiles, rather than short- and medium-range missiles,
  • Was a gentleman’s agreement, not a formally ratified and signed document,
  • Northerners have repeatedly said that the moratorium will work, as long as constructive dialogue with the United States is under way.

On October 3, 2006, the DPRK Foreign Ministry announced North Korea’s intention to “conduct a nuclear test provided that its security is reliably guaranteed.” As a justification, it was stated about the threat of USA nuclear war and economic sanctions aimed at strangling the DPRK. The test itself took place on October 9, 2006, but the power of the explosion was small and amounted to about 0.5 kt. Because of this, it was suspected that the explosion was either not nuclear at all or something went wrong during the test, and it could be a question not of a ready-made bomb, but of a device, the level of which was still very far from being used for military purposes. But on October 25, 2006, experts from the Republic of Korea recorded in the atmosphere in the region of the demilitarized zone the presence of traces of xenon gas released during explosions of this kind and the fact of the test was documented. Also in the open came a seismogram that confirmed that the explosion was indeed nuclear.

The effect of the explosion was twofold. On the one hand, on October 14, 2006, UN Security Council Resolution 1718 was adopted, from which it is possible to count the beginning of the sanctions regime aimed at eliminating the North Korean nuclear missile program. From the North, they demanded that “the DPRK not make any new nuclear tests or launches of ballistic missiles” after returning to the announced moratorium, and “immediately withdrew its statement on withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” and would generally go for the American terms for a full, irreversible and verified abandonment of the nuclear program, as well as “of all other existing weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missile program.”

The author pays special attention to the ban on the launching of ballistic missiles – such a broad formulation blocked the possibility of the North launching missiles of any type, not only military, but also peaceful purposes, while the UN guarantees all countries the right to peaceful exploration of outer space.

On the other side, the DPRK, which “confirmed” its nuclear status, demonstrated the counterproductive nature of the policy of threats against it. The USA and the People’s Republic of China increased their activity in the negotiations, and up to the end of 2008 they developed very constructively. Added to this were changes in the domestic political situation in the USA, where hawks such as Defense Minister D. Rumsfeld and USA Representative to the United Nations J. Bolton left their posts. Christopher Hill, who had previously complained that he was “twisted by the instructions from the Center,” received much more freedom of action. One cannot but note the efforts of Russian and Chinese diplomats, as well as the actions of South Korea, whose experts conducted an independent investigation into the frozen North Korean accounts, and its result showed that 16 million dollars out of 24 were unconditionally obtained legally.

The second stage of the fifth round of the six-party talks was held on December 18-23, 2006 and ended in vain, on the issue of resolving the problem of USA financial sanctions against North Korea. The round was preceded by bilateral and multilateral contacts of the representatives of the participating countries, but, despite the demonstrated desire to negotiate, the North Koreans declared, that as long as the unjust sanctions are lifted, the talks are meaningless.

On January 16 – 18, 2007, in Berlin, Korean-American negotiations took place in a positive atmosphere, the participants of which developed a Plan of Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005. The parties agreed that the DPRK in a short time would stop and seal nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, including a reprocessing plant for spent fuel rods, and invites IAEA staff to perform the necessary checks and monitoring. In addition, the DPRK has committed itself to discuss with other parties a list of all its nuclear programs.

The third stage of the fifth round of the six-party was held on February 8-13, 2007 in Beijing and was marked by the confirmation of the DPRK of its obligations, given at the bilateral talks above. In return, the DPRK was to receive economic, energy and humanitarian assistance equivalent to one million tons of heating oil, including the first deliveries in the equivalent of 50,000 tons. It was also agreed to establish five working groups: on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; economic and energy cooperation; a mechanism for peace and security in Northeast Asia; on the normalization of bilateral relations between the DPRK and the United States and Japan.

On March 19-22, 2007, the first stage of the sixth round of negotiations was held. The dialogue was interrupted again, but for technical reasons. Although formally frozen money ceased to be considered criminal, no bank would decide to take it back and transfer it to the DPRK for fear of being black listed. The problem was solved by Russia through its banking structures.

The second stage of the sixth round was held on September 27-30, 2007. The document ‘On the second stage of implementation of the Joint Statement’ (dated September 19, 2005) was approved. According to the document, the DPRK was to disable its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon – an operating 5 MW nuclear reactor, a radiochemical laboratory and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant – before December 31, 2007.

The only problem was the current position of Japan, which has refused to fulfill its part of the fuel supply, referring to the unresolved “kidnapping problem”, which has nothing to do with the nuclear issue. Although such obstructive behavior was frank disruption of arrangements and drew criticism not only from North Korea, as a whole got away from the hands of Japan.

This step, however, was not perceived only as an irreversible action, illustrating North Korea’s desire to solve the problem and make concessions. The view was widely exaggerated that the reactor was decided to be dismantled under the supervision of foreign specialists not out of goodwill, but because, due to unstable work (in the conditions of the changing political situation, the reactor was either started or stopped), the risk of a technological catastrophe.

On July 10-12, 2008, at a meeting between the heads of delegations, a verification scheme was confirmed, which would include visits to nuclear facilities, examination of documents, and consultations with technical personnel. By the end of 2008, the DPRK committed to complete the dismantling of facilities in Yongbyon under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and American experts, and the remaining parties to the process – to supply North Korea with 1 million tons of fuel for a thermal power plant and provide other economic assistance.

Fuel oil, however, did not fully deliver. Completely fulfilled their obligations (for 200 thousand tons), only Russia, China and the United States. Japan, as noted above, refused to participate in this program at all under the pretext of the unresolved “kidnapping problem”, and the new administration of the ROK, where the conservatives came to power, conditioned the completion of the supply of its own share of fuel oil with additional requirements.

However, the United States has a tendency to put forward new demands that go beyond the agreements reached. For example, in the summer of 2008, Washington began to stipulate its own obligations included in the program of the second stage of denuclearization (such as excluding the DPRK from the list of countries supporting international terrorism) as additional requirements for Pyongyang. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul began insisting on inspections and inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities immediately; although verification issues were not included in the second stage, because in accordance with a mutual understanding earlier reached it was believed that the verification dossier would become the subject of the third stage of denuclearization. However, as a result, the USA fulfilled its part of its obligations.

On December 8-11, 2008, the next round of talks between the heads of the six delegations was held in Beijing, the main theme of which was again the verification of the curtailing of North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the main problem is the disagreements between Pyongyang and Washington over the specifics. The USA insists that the verification process include taking samples at the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, but the DPRK stated that since there was no such point in previous agreements, it will not fulfill this condition. Pyongyang has repeatedly indicated that it is ahead of other negotiators in schedule with the fulfillment of its own obligations and, if such a lag remains, it will also slow down the pace of implementation of its own program for disabling nuclear facilities.

Concluding the conversation about this stage of the negotiations, I would like to note the important: although (running ahead) the crisis was not resolved, at this stage, the parties most closely approached the possibility of its settlement. And it happened exactly when the USA for a time gave up the policy of pressure and took a number of steps to meet what the DPRK has done in a similar way, making irreversible and verifiable actions that do not at all look like an insidious deception or ignoring just demands.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (Hist.), Leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”