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News analysis
US Tries to Coax North Korea Back to Talks
By Douglas F Ramsey
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is surrounded by a group of students from Ewha Women's University at Seoul Airport (K-16 Air Base of US Army) in Seoul March 19, 2005. Photo Courtesy Yonhap

As anticipated, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent tour of Asia focused on security issues and attempts by the United States and its partners to coax the North Koreans to return to six-party talks on defusing Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program. After touring South Asia, Rice visited Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing for talks on security and trade issues. The common thread that ran through all of these meetings was the ongoing overtures to the North Koreans to return to the six-party disarmament talks. Contrary to some expectations, there was no blockbuster announcement, no shift in tactics, no major shift to the right.

During her visit to Tokyo last Saturday, Rice reiterated the United States' position that "the six-party talks offer the best framework for dealing with this problem." Rice urged the North to return to talks "immediately, if it is serious about exploring the path forward that we and the other parties have proposed."

This message was repeated in Seoul and Beijing, where Rice met with her South Korean and Chinese counterparts to discuss the current crisis and potential options to persuade North Korea back to the talks. While in Beijing, Rice stressed the crucial role played by China in swaying the North to return to the multilateral forum.

The six-party talks were established to find a peaceful solution to the current nuclear crisis, which was precipitated by the North's expulsion of nuclear inspectors from Yongbyon in late 2002. The forum includes North and South Korea, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US.

Condoleezza Rice — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited a command post in South Korea, greeting U.S. Marines and South Korean soldiers while acknowledging they face a close-in threat every day from the North.
Photo Courtesy Getty Images

The talks have been stalled since June 2004, when the North refused to resume talks in September, citing the administration of US President George W Bush's continued "hostile" policy toward the North and its leadership. The North continues to seek a blanket security guarantee from the US in the form of a non-aggression pact and has repeatedly requested bilateral talks.The Bush administration has consistently declined requests for US-North Korea bilateral talks, in favor of continued negotiations in a multilateral forum. Some bilateral discussions have been held, however, on the sidelines of the six-party talks.

The current crisis heated up again on February 10, when North Korea announced it had manufactured several nuclear weapons and would suspend its participation in the six-party talks indefinitely. Since then, the North has gradually softened its stance on participation in continued talks and sent Premier Pak Pong-ju to Beijing immediately following Secretary Rice's visit. Pak was quoted by the Chinese media as having informed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that, "The Korean side does not oppose the six-party talks, nor has it given up on the talks. If conditions are mature, the North Korean side is prepared to join the six-party talks at any time."

However, like most North Korean diplomatic missions, Pak's overall message was obscured with suggestions that the North has taken steps to increase its current nuclear arsenal in an effort to counter a potential US strike. On the same day as Pak's visit to Beijing, the Korean Central Broadcasting Station, the North's official news service, posted a message stating, "We have taken a serious measure by increasing our nuclear-arms arsenal in preparation for any invasion by enemies." The statement did not elaborate on how the North had increased its arsenal.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (left) is holding a press conference with Minister Ban Ki-Moon of Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry at the ministry building on March 20, 2005.

In an official statement on March 5, North Korea's official news agency posted a memorandum that outlined the North's current stance on continued talks and missile testing. In the statement, the North insisted that the US was responsible for rebuilding the groundwork for six-party talks. The statement explained that the North was continuing to adhere to "the principle of 'words for words' and 'actions for action' and the principle of 'reward for freeze.'" According to the North, these principles had been agreed to by all parties in June 2004, but the US has failed to uphold this agreement by continuing to demand the dismantling of the North's nuclear program as a precondition for increased aid packages or energy assistance.

During the last round of talks, the US submitted a seven-page proposal to the North that included security assurances and energy aid conditional on North Korean steps to dismantle its current program.

Over the past several months, changes within the Bush administration and the US State Department led to speculation that US policy toward the North might undergo a significant shift to the right. However, this has proved to be unfounded.

These rumors were fueled by the departure of former secretary of state Colin Powell and deputy secretary Richard Armitage. Both had long been seen as moderates in favor of a continuation of the multilateral talks process. The picture was further complicated by the departure of under secretary John Bolton and his appointment as UN ambassador, replacing outgoing envoy John Negroponte.

In his role as under secretary for arms control and international security, Bolton presided over an aggressive escalation of unilateral US sanctions on Chinese and North Korean entities suspected of trafficking in dual-use technologies and other controlled items. Bolton's departure left a significant gap on the issue of North Korean involvement in illicit arms deals and potential consistency in US policy toward the North. Rice's visit and firm stance on continuing to advocate a return to the talks demonstrated that a second Bush administration seems set to continue the engagement strategies developed since early 2003 via six-party talks.

During her visit to the region, Rice is purported to have discussed possible options to respond to the current crisis if the North fails to return to the talks. Among these reported options is the possibility that the US and its partners may refer the matter to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution and possible sanctions; China, one of the five veto-wielding members on the council, could play a key role in abstaining - and letting the resolution pass - if it is sufficiently angered by North Korea's obstinacy. However, it seems likely that the US will not rely solely on this possible solution — UN Security Council sanctions — and will seek potential unilateral or multilateral options to apply increased pressure on the North, as the need arises.

According to officials within the current administration, the US is likely to strengthen efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). PSI is an international interdiction regime designed to detain and confiscate illegal shipments of dual-use items that could be used in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.

PSI is widely viewed as a coalition of the willing and has been roundly criticized by China and North Korea. However, the initiative has been embraced and expanded by the participating nations since its launch in May 2003. Moreover, the initiative has resulted in numerous successful interdictions on controlled items originating in or destined for North Korea.

Proliferation concerns now seem to be the key complicating factor in bringing the North back to the six-party talks. In May 2004 the UN International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in a restricted distribution report that Libya had received approximately 1.7 tons of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) from an unspecified "nuclear-weapons state"; observers generally agree that this unspecified state is North Korea. Additionally, US intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have suggested that through a process of elimination it seems likely that North Korea is the most probable supplier. If these suspicions are confirmed, it would recast the current crisis and significantly raise the stakes for the US and its partners.


Douglas Ramsey is a Washington-based defense and security consultant with DFI International. He can be contacted at douglas.ramsey@dfi-intl.com



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