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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Outreach to North Korea Continues

Peter Crail

High-level UN and Chinese envoys met with key North Korean leaders in early February to discuss the prospects for resuming multilateral talks on that country’s nuclear weapons program.

Despite Pyongyang’s willingness to continue discussions on the possibility of returning to negotiations it abandoned last year, it appears to be sending mixed messages to the international community. Those six-party talks involved the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Although few details of the Chinese outreach to North Korea have been made public, reports from China’s official press have suggested that Pyongyang is receptive to engaging in denuclearization talks. The state-run Xinhua news agency reported Feb. 9 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, that North Korea’s goal is still the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In a 1992 “denuclearization” pact, North and South Korea agreed to forswear nuclear weapons and the means to develop them. The report quoted Kim as saying that “the sincerity of relevant parties to resume the six-party talks is very important.”

Wang met with Kim Feb. 8 and, on his return to Beijing Feb. 9, was accompanied by Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, for further discussions.

The Chinese reports contrast with the assessment of B. Lynn Pascoe, UN undersecretary-general for political affairs and a former U.S. diplomat, who visited North Korea Feb. 9-12. Describing his discussions during a Feb. 12 press conference in Beijing, Pascoe said that the North Koreans were “certainly not eager to return to the six-party talks,” although they have not ruled out a return.

Pascoe was the most senior UN official to visit the country in six years. The trip included a meeting with Pyongyang’s second-highest ranking official, Kim Yong Nam.

The outreach by China and the United Nations follows North Korean claims that it would be willing to return to talks and pursue denuclearization only after a peace treaty formally concluding the Korean War was agreed and international sanctions were lifted.

In a Jan. 11 Foreign Ministry statement, Pyongyang proposed talks beginning this year on a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which continues to serve as a ceasefire but not a permanent end to the Korean War. “The conclusion of the peace treaty will help terminate the hostile relations between [North Korea and the United States] and positively promote the denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula at a rapid tempo,” read the statement.

The statement also said that the removal of sanctions was necessary to pave the way for the resumption of talks. Sin Son Ho, North Korea’s permanent representative to the UN, repeated this position Jan. 12, telling reporters, “We will return to the talks if the sanctions are lifted.”

Japan, South Korea, and the United States have maintained, however, that Pyongyang must make progress on denuclearization before peace talks could begin or sanctions could be removed. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters in Seoul Feb. 3 that until North Korea agrees once again to abide by its commitments in the six-party talks, “the United States will not be prepared either to ease sanctions [or] begin discussions on other issues like the establishment of a peace regime.”

Those talks, which were carried out intermittently between 2003 and 2009, arrived at two sets of agreements. A September 2005 joint statement outlined a broad framework for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, as well as steps toward a peace agreement and normalization of relations between the conflicting parties. That was followed by a February 2007 agreement in which the parties agreed on steps to implement the 2005 accord. Those steps were in the process of being carried out when Pyongyang backed away from the talks in April 2009 following the UN Security Council’s censure of a North Korean rocket launch earlier that month. (See ACT, May 2009.)

A diplomatic source from one of the six parties said in a Jan. 26 e-mail that if North Korea begins discussions on denuclearization again, “other issues can be dealt with at a quite early stage.” The diplomat stressed, however, that North Korea must first demonstrate that it is sincere in dealing with the primary issue of denuclearization before the other parties can exhibit such flexibility.