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NORTH KOREA: U.S. Negotiations

June 17, 2003

Is the United States willing to negotiate with North Korea?

Administration officials appear interested in another round of talks aimed at stopping North Korea's advancing nuclear weapons program. What is unclear is whether the United States is willing to engage in the give-and-take that typically is part of a negotiated resolution. So far, some experts say, the U.S. strategy on North Korea has been to try to pressure it into giving up its nuclear program first, while promising nothing concrete in return.

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What's happened recently?

President Bush's foreign policy advisers held a meeting July 17 to discuss strategy in light of North Korea's most recent claim: that it has finished reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel. If true, this might yield enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons. Administration officials have not been able to verify this claim. There are also reports that the Central Intelligence Agency has said North Korea had enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, but Pyongyang has never tested a weapon.

Will there be another meeting with North Korea and the United States?

Probably, but the United States is insisting it take place in the context of a multilateral discussion that will include China, and preferably, South Korea and Japan. China has been actively working to help set up another meeting; a previous meeting in April among the three countries ended with no progress.

What is China's role?

China, a longtime trading partner with North Korea and once its close ally, will likely serve as a mediator in the talks. The Bush administration has refused one-on-one discussions with the North, which North Korea has demanded as a precondition for negotiating an end to its nuclear program. China is reportedly arranging a meeting that could satisfy both countries' conditions; the formal discussions would include China, but North Korea and the United States could meet privately on the side.

Why has the Bush administration resisted negotiating with North Korea?

In part, it's because of a view held by President Bush and other influential administration officials that Kim Jong Il, the North's leader, is an unreliable, brutal dictator who cannot be trusted. "My theory is the reason we don't have a policy on this, and we aren't negotiating, is the president himself," said William Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, in widely published comments this week. "I think he has come to the conclusion that Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and it is immoral to negotiate with him."

What does North Korea want?

The crisis erupted in October 2002 when Pyongyang revealed it had a secret nuclear weapons program and withdrew from a 1994 agreement--known as the Agreed Framework--with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Since then, North Korea has said that it wants a guarantee from the United States that it will not be invaded or attacked, which in diplomatic terms would be a "nonaggression" pact. Presumably, it would also like to secure more economic aid. In exchange, it says it would address all U.S. security concerns, suggesting that it might halt its nuclear weapons program.

What would the outlines of a deal be?

According to Eric Heginbotham, a senior fellow in Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the director of a Council-sponsored independent task force report on North Korea, any deal would likely require North Korea to dismantle its existing nuclear reactors, hand over its spent fuel rods and other material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons--and agree to unannounced spot inspections by international monitors anywhere in North Korea. The United States and other nations would likely have to agree to some kind of security guarantee and increased aid to the regime. The Bush administration has resisted making concessions, saying it won't give in to "nuclear blackmail."

Why does the United States want multilateral and not bilateral talks?

In part, it's because the Bush administration does not trust Kim and wants other countries to be included as guarantors of any pact. Administration officials may also believe that there would be domestic political resistance to a deal that required the United States to finance economic assistance to North Korea. As a result, they may try share the cost with allies. South Korea, among other countries, wants to be included in talks, but would rather have bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks than no talks at all, Heginbotham says.

What options are there other than negotiating?

The United States has tried to further isolate North Korea by asking its neighbors and trading partners--China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia--to curtail trade and other forms of contact with Kim's regime. The United States has also been leading an international effort to persuade countries to interdict North Korean ships that could be carrying missiles, illegal narcotics, or other contraband that could be a source of revenue for the North Korean regime. The general idea behind these strategies is that they will eventually force Kim to give up his nuclear weapons rather than lose control of his country. "It's a mixed strategy that they hope will either result in successful coercion, or regime change," Heginbotham says.

What has this strategy achieved?

It has not been notably successful so far, experts say. Japan has cut back on North Korean trade and stepped up its searches of North Korean ships. But China, which supplies North Korea with 70 percent or more of its fuel oil, has not significantly curtailed trade or aid. North Korea may be under some pressure, but so far there are no signs that the North will simply capitulate. Indeed, North Korea claims to be escalating its nuclear program, though that is difficult to verify.

Have there been humanitarian consequences to this strategy?

The United States and other countries have continued to provide food aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster in what is already one of the world's most impoverished nations. However, aid groups say that donations have fallen since the crisis began, and that the country will soon face shortfalls in food and medical supplies. Also, the suspension of heavy fuel oil shipments by the United States, Japan, and South Korea since last November may have a detrimental impact on the North's agricultural production in the months ahead.

What were the terms of the Agreed Framework?

Under the 1994 agreement, the United States, South Korea, and Japan offered foreign aid--including agreeing to finance the construction of two nuclear reactors that were ill-suited for weapons production and to supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil a year until the reactors were completed. In return, North Korea promised to freeze and ultimately dismantle or surrender its existing nuclear facilities and materials that could be used for weapons production. It also agreed in more general terms not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. North Korea has since violated the agreement and pulled out of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, announcing its intention to become a nuclear weapons state.

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