For North Korea, Verifying Requires Reconciling: The Lesson from A Troubled Past—Part II

This article is a continuation of Leon Sigal’s “For North Korea, Verifying Requires Reconciling: The Lesson from a Troubled Past—Part I.

During the Bush years, as it had done previously, Pyongyang showed some willingness to accept verification when it saw Washington moving away from enmity but balked when it did not.

In September 2005, a US commitment to reconciliation with the DPRK would open the way to verification—only to be stalled by US failure to follow through.

The 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement

Pyongyang grudgingly accepted a Six-Party joint statement incorporating the main goal Washington was seeking, a pledge to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In return, Pyongyang insisted on phased reciprocal steps by Washington to reconcile—end enmity—as it eliminated its nuclear programs. The September 19, 2005, joint statement exemplified that aspect: “The six parties agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the aforementioned consensus in a phased manner in line with the principle ‘commitment for commitment’ and ‘action for action.’”

In the joint statement, the United States undertook to “respect [the DPRK’s] sovereignty,” diplomatic code for not attempting to overthrow its government, and said it “has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.” It pledged to “take steps to normalize their relations subject to their bilateral policies.” It committed to “respecting” Pyongyang’s right to nuclear power and “agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactors [LWRs] to the DPRK.”

Yet the accord was still on the negotiating table when Washington began backtracking. In a closing plenary statement on September 19, US negotiator Christopher Hill announced the US decision to “terminate” the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the international consortium set up to provide the light water reactors (LWRs).[1] Later that day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice implied that the “appropriate time” for discussion of replacement reactors was when hell froze over: “When the North Koreans have dismantled their nuclear weapons and other nuclear programs verifiably and are indeed nuclear-free…I suppose we can discuss anything.” Pyongyang responded strongly. Calling the LWRs “a physical guarantee for confidence-building,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “The basis of finding a solution to the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the US is to wipe out the distrust historically created between the two countries and a physical groundwork for building bilateral confidence is none other than the US provision of LWRs to the DPRK.”[2] Even worse, having asserted in the September 19 accord that the US had “no intention” of attacking the North “with conventional or nuclear weapons” and having pledged to “respect [DPRK] sovereignty” and renounce military attack and regime change, Hill undercut those commitments in prepared testimony to Congress days later. He echoed an old refrain, “All options remain on the table.”

Worst of all, the administration started taking action under the Illicit Activities Initiative (IAI) to put a roadblock in the way of negotiations. On September 15, the day that the Six Party accord was reached but two days before it was made public, the US Treasury Department capitalized on an investigation of money-laundering at the Banco Delta Asia in Macao to convince banks around the globe to freeze North Korean hard currency accounts—some with ill-gotten gains from illicit activities, but many with proceeds from legitimate foreign trade. A senior US administration official described its sanctions strategy this way: “Squeeze them, but keep the negotiations going.” In the words of Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph, “We believe that they will reinforce the prospect for success of those talks.” What did success imply? A senior State Department official put it differently: IAI turned Six Party talks into nothing more than “a surrender mechanism.”

Far from giving Washington leverage, the financial sanctions provoked Pyongyang to retaliate. On July 4, 2006. it conducted seven missile test-launches including one of a longer-range rocket, the Taepodong-2. The launches spurred China to vote for a US-backed resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the tests and threatening sanctions. Undaunted, North Korea immediately undertook preparations for a nuclear test, which it carried out on October 9, 2006. In announcing the nuclear test three days before conducting it, the DPRK Foreign Ministry denounced the UN Security Council resolution as “a de facto ‘declaration of war’ against the DPRK,” and added, “The US extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering [our] nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense.” Nevertheless, the North insisted that its aim of negotiated denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remained unchanged. As did its price—an end to enmity: “The ultimate goal of the DPRK is not ‘denuclearization’ to be followed by its unilateral disarmament but one aimed at settling the hostile relations between the DPRK and the US and removing the very source of all nuclear threats from the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity.”[3]

On October 31, three weeks after the nuclear test, President Bush reopened negotiations. He authorized Ambassador Hill to meet with his DPRK counterpart and offer a compromise on the frozen North Korean accounts in the Banco Delta Asia, opening the way to diplomacy to implement the September 2005 joint statement. The result was a first-phase agreement on February 13, 2007, to suspend nuclear testing and shut down the North’s reactor and reprocessing facility at Yongbyon under IAEA monitoring. A second phase agreement concluded on October 3, 2007, required the North to turn over “a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs” and to disable the plutonium facilities at Yongbyon, making it more time-consuming and costly to restart them. That would also reduce Pyongyang’s nuclear leverage. In return, the United States agreed to ease sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and delist the DPRK as a “state-sponor of terrorism.” In addition, other parties pledged to supply North Korea with energy aid.[4] The second-phase agreement contained no mention of verifying the North’s declaration, and was left to a successive phase of implementation.

A willingness to move away from enmity had reopened the way to accommodation.

Seoul and Tokyo Question Verification

The Bush administration, however, failed to sustain this promising course because of pressure from South Korea and Japan. On June 26, 2008, as required under the October 2007 accord, the DPRK turned over a written declaration of its plutonium program worked out in bilateral talks with the United States. Reportedly, North Korea declared that it had separated 38 kilograms of plutonium—at the low end of US estimates. In a side agreement with Washington, Pyongyang committed to disclose enrichment and proliferation activities, including help given to Syria to build a nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007. Many questioned whether the declaration met the requirement of being “complete and correct” as prescribed in the October 2007 agreement. The dispute once again turned on how much plutonium the North had reprocessed before the end of 1991, as well as its help for Syria’s reactor.

Washington shifted gears and demanded arrangements to verify Pyongyang’s declaration before the disabling of Yongbyon was completed, contrary to the October 2007 agreement that did not provide for verification in the second phase of denuclearization. On the day that Pyongyang handed over its declaration, the White House announced the relaxation of sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and delisted the North as a “state-sponsor of terrorism”—but with an important caveat. “[B]efore those actions go into effect, we would continue to assess the level of North Korean cooperation in helping to verify the accuracy and completeness of its declaration,” Secretary of State Rice announced at the Heritage Foundation on June 18. “And if that cooperation is insufficient, we will respond accordingly.” Rice recognized that Washington was moving the goalposts: “What we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into phase two.”[5]

The DPRK agreed in talks with the United States to a Six-Party verification mechanism and visits to its declared nuclear facilities, a review of documents, and interviews with technical personnel. These commitments were made public later but, undisclosed at the time, the DPRK also orally promised to cooperate on verification during the dismantlement phase.

These pledges failed to placate new hardline governments in South Korea and Japan who demanded a written verification protocol. President Bush went along. After US officials gave the North Koreans a draft with demands for highly intrusive monitoring, the White House announced in late July that it was delaying the delisting of the DPRK as a “state-sponsor of terrorism” until they accepted.

North Korea was predictably swift in reacting to what it viewed as the US reneging on the October 2007 accord. It suspended disabling on August 14 and began to restore the Yongbyon plutonium facilities. The North also attempted to airlift WMD equipment to Iran in a transparent threat to resume the proliferation activities that it had forsworn under the October 2007 accord.[6] On August 26, citing the failure to delist the DPRK as a “state-sponsor of terrorism,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the United States of an “outright violation” of the October agreement and threatened to resume plutonium production at Yongbyon. Verification was to be fulfilled in the final phase of denuclearization, the spokesman noted. Adding that the September 2005 agreement had called for denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, he demanded verification to ensure that no nuclear weapons had been reintroduced “in and around South Korea.”[7] Subsequently, the North barred IAEA inspectors from the Yongbyon facility.

Reconciliation Succeeds Again, Momentarily

US negotiator Hill, armed with a revised draft protocol, went to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Kye Gwan on October 1-3 in order to salvage the freeze and ongoing disablement at Yongbyon. Kim stopped short of accepting his proposal but did agree to “full access” for the IAEA and “experts of the six parties” to “provide consultancy and assistance” for “safeguards appropriate to non-nuclear-weapons states.” He included access to “personal notebooks” and records, “interviews with technical personnel,” “forensic measurements of nuclear materials and equipment,” and “environmental samples and samples of nuclear waste” at the three declared sites at Yongbyon—the 5 MWe reactor, reprocessing plant and fuel fabrication facility. That could have been enough to determine how much plutonium North Korea had produced. If those measures did not suffice, Kim also accepted “access, based on mutual consent, to undeclared sites,” according to a Department of State October 11 briefing. It also disclosed that “[t]he US-North Korea agreement on these verification measures has been codified in a joint document between the United States and North Korea and certain other understandings, and has been reaffirmed through intensive consultations.” These measures “will serve as the baseline for a verification protocol,” which came in the third phase of implementation.

That day, President Bush overrode objections by Japan and South Korea to the lack of a formal verification protocol and delisted the DPRK as a “state-sponsor of terrorism.” In the first week of December, Tokyo and Seoul signaled their intent to raise objections in Six-Party Talks. The North, in turn, backed away from inclusion of environmental sampling in the list of verification measures stating publicly: “The agreement includes no paragraph referring to the collection of samples. To demand what is not mentioned in the written agreement…is an infringement upon sovereignty as it is little short of seeking a house search.”

The topic was discussed at a December 8-11, 2008, meeting of the Six-Party Talks. China tried to paper over the differences in its chairman’s statement, but there was no disguising the threat to suspend energy aid by South Korea, Japan and the United States unless the DPRK accepted a written verification protocol. Departing from the talks, DPRK envoy Kim Kye Gwan made it clear the North would retaliate for any backtracking from previous commitments and if energy aid was “suspended” by adjusting “the speed of disablement work at nuclear facilities.” Tokyo and Seoul insisted on halting energy aid, and Washington went along. Pyongyang then retaliated by expelling the IAEA inspectors and advancing its weapons programs.

Once again, when US reconciliation with the DPRK faltered, so did verification.


Past performance, as they say on Wall Street, is no guarantee of future results. Yet, if there is one takeaway from this history of verification in North Korea, it is that cooperation begets cooperation. The test of that proposition will come prior to a North Korean declaration of its fissile material and nuclear weapons stocks when the United States seeks access to the North’s nuclear test sites, uranium mines, facilities to refine the ore into metal and turn it into a gas to run through centrifuges, and enrichment plants and reactors, to determine how much fissile material it could have produced.

Any attempt to secure access to its nuclear facilities, not to mention its nuclear materials and weapons, will require a sustained US effort to end enmity with North Korea. The message from Pyongyang seems clear: no verification without reconciliation.

  1. [1]

    Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, “Statement at the Closing Plenary,” Six-Party Talks, September 19, 2005.

  2. [2]

    “Spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry on Six-Party Talks,” KCNA, September 20, 2005.

  3. [3]

    “DPRK Foreign Minister Clarifies Stand on New Measures to Bolster War Deterrent,” KCNA, October 3, 2006.

  4. [4]

    Second Phase Agreement for Implementation of the Joint Statement, October 3, 2007.

  5. [5]

    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Address at the Heritage Foundation, “US Policy towards Asia,” June 18, 2008.

  6. [6]

    Jay Solomon, Krishna Pokharel, and Peter Wonacott, “North Korea Plane Was Grounded at U.S. Request,” Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2008.

  7. [7]

    “Foreign Ministry Spokesman on DPRK’s Decision to Suspend Activities to Disable Nuclear Facilities,” KCNA, August 26, 2008.

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