Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym
Disarmament Diplomacy, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

Belated, Uncertain Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations

US-North Korea talks on nuclear, missile and related security issues finally seem set - if not certain - to resume, following a 15-minute, informal meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum Meeting in Brunei on July 31. The meeting was the highest-level contact between the two sides since President Bush took office. In March 2001, the White House formally suspended contacts pending the completion of a policy review. A few months later (June 6), Bush announced his administration was prepared to resume discussions without preconditions. North Korea has since been prevaricating, claiming that Washington has in fact rewritten the agenda for the talks, notably to include the issue of Pyongyang's conventional military posture.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting with Powell, Paek stated: "We agreed with the United States to reopen the dialogue". A senior State Department official confirmed (July 31): "The message from the North Koreans is that they would welcome a proposal for further discussions". The same day, US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher noted that Secretary Powell had "reaffirmed the President's policy and said that, in any future discussions, we would want to emphasize a variety of matters, including proliferation...and conventional forces".

The first formal step in the process has been agreed - a visit to Pyongyang, at a date still to be confirmed, by James Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Affairs. Kelly had already been scheduled to visit North Korea on July 10-12. The visit was postponed by the White House on July 2, following a June 29 naval clash between North and South Korea. Tension over the incident, in which five South Korean sailors were killed, eased significantly after a conciliatory statement from Pyongyang on July 25: "Feeling regretful for the unforeseen armed clash that occurred in the west sea recently, we are of the view that both sides should make joint efforts to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents in the future".

The barren period of diplomacy since January 2001 has cast a pall over the already-troubled US-North Korea Agreed Framework. Under the terms of the 1994 accord, North Korea suspended operation of its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors - widely suspected of being employed to produce weapons-grade fissile material - in return for a US pledge to provide proliferation-resistant light-water reactors (LWRs), plus interim fuel supplies to compensate for the lost power-generation capacity. To Pyongyang's annoyance, the $4.6 billion project - being implemented by the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organisation (KEDO), an international consortium based in New York - is currently running behind schedule, with an initial target date of 2003 for the entry into service of the first of the two reactors likely to slip to 2007 or beyond. For its part, Washington is insisting that North Korea open up all its former nuclear facilities to full inspection by the IAEA. The Agency currently conducts inspections to confirm the continuing freeze of the country's nuclear programme, but has not been able to verify Pyongyang's declaration of the nuclear material in its possession.

On August 7, a 'concrete pouring' ceremony was held at the LWR site in North Korea. According to a KEDO press release, the "pouring of 'first concrete' for the foundations of the main power plant buildings" marks "an important milestone in the construction of the...LWR project at the construction site in Kumho district, South Hamgyong province..." The release continues: "The ceremony highlights the important contribution made by KEDO's prime contractor, the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO). Since March 1996, KEPCO has been responsible for implementing the KEDO-KEPCO Turnkey Contract for the construction of two 1,000 MW(e) light-water reactors."

The ceremony was attended by officials and diplomats from North Korea, KEDO's Executive Board (the US, Japan, South Korea and the European Union), eight other KEDO member states (Argentina, Australia, Chile, Czech Republic, Indonesia, New Zealand, Poland and Uzbekistan), plus three 'contributing states' (Germany, Thailand and the UK). The general tone of speeches at the event was upbeat. Chang Seung-sup, South Korea's representative on the Organisation's Executive Board, enthused: "Today's concrete-pouring is a milestone which shows that this project, essential to establishing peace on the Korean peninsular, is firmly set on its course, despite having faced many difficulties and setbacks. ... The concrete pouring means that the construction can never be stopped from now on. Thus, it is a very significant ceremony." KEDO's Executive Director, Ambassador Charles Kartman of the US, urged his audience, and perhaps also American sceptics of the deal: "Let's not forget that in 1994 the two sides were drifting in the direction of a bloody war".

Taking a harder line, Ambassador Jack Pritchard, US representative on the Executive Board, warned Pyongyang: "It is now time for us to see the same tangible progress by the DPRK in meeting its commitments." Pritchard pointed out that, under the terms of the Agreed Framework, KEDO could not proceed with delivery of key reactor components - scheduled to start in 2005 - until the IAEA had completed its full inspection of North Korean nuclear facilities and stocks, a task the Agency has cautioned may take three years or more. As the Ambassador argued, that "means the DPRK must start meaningful cooperation now. This is vital for the health of the project. It makes no sense, for KEDO or for the DPRK, to push forward to completion of the first reactor just to stop work for years as the DPRK only then begins to deliver in their safeguard obligations under the Agreed Framework."

On August 13, reportedly in response to Pritchard's remarks, a spokesperson for North Korea's Foreign Ministry noted sharply: "The reality is pushing us to the phase where we should make a final decision to go our own way. ... By delaying construction...the US has caused a huge loss of electricity to the DPRK and created grave difficulties in its economy as a whole." The spokesperson added that Washington should consider providing compensation for this economic damage "whether it likes it or not".

Notes: on July 19, KEDO announced agreement with the North Korean government on the opening of an air link designed to provide support for the LWR project. According to a KEDO statement, an "inaugural flight between Sondok Airport in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Yangyang Airport in the Republic of Korea on July 20, 2002...[will be] a first step toward opening direct air service between those two airports. The chartered service will operate irregularly, and only upon the request of KEDO as the demand occurs. ... This air route will be used on a contingency basis, including for emergency medical evacuation, and will complement the current sea route between Sokcho (ROK) and Yangwha (DPRK) ports used to transport KEDO personnel and materials to and from the LWR project site in Kumho."

Speaking in Tokyo on August 8, Vann H. Van Diepen, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation, urged North Korea to clarify its intent to maintain a moratorium on ballistic missile test flights. The moratorium, declared in 1999 after a controversial test flight over Japanese territory the previous year, is currently scheduled to continue at least until 2003. As Van Diepen noted, however, "they didn't say when in 2003, so whether it's literally the end of this year or something else I don't know if anybody knows". The official added that the US fully expected the moratorium to be extended: "The North Koreans hopefully realize that it's very much in their interest to maintain that moratorium and maintain it indefinitely... Certainly, they saw the reaction of the world when in 1998 they flew a Taepo Dong missile over Japan, and I don't think they can believe that anything good would come of them breaking the moratorium and testing a long-range missile".

Reports: US wants to send envoy to North Korea, Reuters, June 14; US proposes talks with N. Korea, Associated Press, June 28; US prods N. Korea to explain naval clash, Reuters, July 1; North Korea - delegation studies nuclear safety in South Korea, Global Security Newswire, July 2; US withdraws N. Korea talks offer, Associated Press, July 2; US puts high-level North Korea trip on hold, Reuters, July 2; Text - US will not send delegation to North Korea July 10, Washington File, July 2; US puts high-level North Korea trip on hold, Reuters, July 2; KEDO and DPRK conduct commercial flight, KEDO Press Release, June 19; North Korean plane flies to South, Associated Press, July 20; S. Korea welcomes North's regret over sea clash, Reuters, July 25; Asian security forum opens with Powell meeting North Korean minister, Associated Press, July 31; Powell meets Paek of N. Korea, 'axis of evil' member, Reuters, July 31; N. Korean minister says US envoy will visit, Reuters, August 1; North Korean minister says US will send envoy as contacts resume, Associated Press, August 1; KEDO marks 'first concrete' pouring milestone, KEDO Press Release (http://www.kedo.org), August 7; First concrete poured for N. Korea nuclear reactor, Reuters, August 7; N. Korea warned over nuclear deal, BBC News Online, August 7; N. Korea warned as atomic project enters new phase, Reuters, August 7.; N. Korea marks nuclear reactor phase, Associated Press, August 7; N. Korea should keep missile moratorium - US official, Reuters, August 8; N. Korea threatens to ditch nuclear freeze deal, Reuters, August 13.

Back to the Top of the Page

© 2002 The Acronym Institute.