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About Face on North Korea

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated March 7, 2007


As the United States hosted North Korea for talks about normalizing a tempestuous relationship, questions swirled around Washington’s suddenly softer approach to Pyongyang. After years of refusing bilateral talks with the Hermit Kingdom—one of the three members of the “Axis of Evil”—the Bush administration switched tactics. Christopher Hill, the State Department’s senior diplomat for East Asian affairs, sat down in New York this week for direct negotiations with Kim Kye-Gwan to hammer out next steps on an agreement reached during February Six-Party Talks. Under the pact, North Korea will receive fuel oil, economic assistance, and humanitarian aid in return for shutting down and sealing its nuclear facilities within sixty days.

In a new interview with's Bernard Gwertzman, North Korea expert Donald Oberdorfer, who made an official visit to Pyongyang in 2002, says negotions represent important progress. Still, he warns, “[L]ike anything with North Korea, nothing is simple. There are a lot of moving parts of this agreement that are going to have to be addressed before reduction or abolition of their nuclear weapons program.” The administration has suggested it may halt financial sanctions against a Macao-based bank where North Korea has laundered counterfeit dollars. This Crisis Guide provides a complete look at the issues behind North Korea’s nuclear program.

The return of inspectors to North Korea’s facilities could test the Bush administration’s 2002 assertions that Pyongyang had procured the necessary equipment required for a uranium enrichment program (LAT). The charge led to the suspension of the Agreed Framework negotiated during the Clinton presidency. In an interview with National Public Radio after the bilateral talks in New York, Hill said North Korea will need to come clean on its uranium enrichment program for normalization to move ahead.

In an article for the Nautilus Institute, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), compares the Bush administration’s 2002 intelligence on Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program to that on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program from the same period. He writes that a large enrichment plant “likely does not exist; perhaps it never did.” In an ISIS report on North Korea’s plutonium stock, Albright says that since the breakdown in the Agreed Framework in 2002, North Korea produced the “vast majority” of its plutonium.

The New York Times reports that inserting doubt about North Korea’s uranium program gives Pyongyang “a face-saving way to surrender its nuclear equipment.” But the reinterpretation of the 2002 data has raised questions in Congress. In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked for clarification about whether intelligence on the program was reassessed since 2002.

John Negroponte, U.S. deputy secretary of state, insisted during a trip to Seoul this week that he has “no doubt” (Korea Times) Pyongyang has had a highly enriched uranium program. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton writes there has been no suggestion internally “that the intelligence from 2002 and earlier has been contradicted or discredited.” Bolton also insists the United States should not give in to pressures for compromising on its policy, saying North Korea is a country needing one of “the most transparent, most intrusive, most pervasive verification systems.”

Washington’s suggestion that it may drop North Korea from its state sponsors of terrorism list if negotiations go well has raised concern with Tokyo. Japan had planned to hold bilateral talks with North Korea in Hanoi this week, though the talks were abruptly cancelled (AP), leaving the status of negotiations in question. Japanese officials have urged the United States not to remove North Korea from the list until it provides an explanation for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents during the 1970s and 1980s. Japan insists it will not participate in the Six-Party Talk aid package to North Korea until the abduction issue is resolved (Japan Times). Axel Berkofsky of the European Policy Center argues in ISN Security Watch that “Japan and North Korea will remain very uneasy neighbors with relations based on mutual distrust and megaphone diplomacy.”

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