North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Pyongyang as Modern Sphinx

Kim Jong-Il
Korean leader Kim Jong-Il on a wall of TV screens in Seoul (Photo: AFP).

There was something mystical about the six-party negotiations on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program, which ended last Friday in Beijing. To everyone’s astonishment, diplomats involved in the three-day conference were interpreting each other’s words in totally different ways. Numerous journalists covering the event gave opposing accounts, without forgetting to cite “reliable” and “well-informed” sources at the same time.

The Russian experts, for example, are convinced that Pyongyang is not in possession of nuclear weapons, even though it can develop the technology to manufacture them as a result of ongoing research projects. At the worst, Moscow assumes that North Korea has a “nuclear device,” which “cannot be called a nuclear weapon in the true sense of the word.”

By contrast, U.S. intelligence services believe that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has at least one nuclear bomb or a warhead as well as a delivery system.

What North Korean representatives said about the DPRK program turned out to be enveloped in thick fog. According to one of the Russian sources, DPRK Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il stated in his speech that his country “does not possess nuclear weapons nor does it have any intention of developing them.” A little later, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksander Losyukov clarified this statement. According to him, his North Korean counterpart stated: “The DPRK is interested in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and does not want to possess nuclear weapons.”

The Americans heard something different, however. The Associated Press quoted a U.S. administration representative who wished to remain anonymous as saying that DPRK representatives informed the negotiation participants of Pyongyang’s intention to announce officially that it is in possession of nuclear weapons and that it plans to carry out nuclear tests. According to this source, Kim Jong Il notified the official representatives of the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan that Pyongyang possesses a system for the delivery of nuclear weapons.

Most likely, this discrepancy is not due to a case of bad hearing but rather reflects the different positions taken by different countries.

Both Russia and China, which are, in essence, presenting a united front, are not at all interested in aggravating a situation so close to their borders. Similarly, South Korea does not want any complications; in the event of a nuclear strike on Seoul by the North Koreans, up to 300,000 people could be killed. Japan, too, joined the moderate group.

The delegations of  Washington and Pyongyang, however, took opposing positions, as was expected.

The DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would only accept a solution to the nuclear problem that involved mutual concessions on the part of both countries. Pyongyang de-manded that a nonaggression pact be signed, diplomatic relations between the United States and the DPRK be established, economic cooperation with Japan and South Korea be ensured, and light-water nuclear reactors meeting power requirements of North Korea be provided.

In response, the U.S. representative, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, insisted to North Korea that its nuclear program be shut down “in an irreversible and verifiable manner” as a condition for the discussion of normalizing bilateral relations. After the DPRK shuts down its nuclear program, the United States intends to bring up the issue of stopping manufacture and export of missiles, as well as the curtailment of conventional weapons and the observance of human rights. Only after solving these problems is Washington prepared to start a discussion about improving relations between the two countries.

Pyongyang perceived these conditions as a demand for full-scale disarmament with no guarantees on the part of the United States. “This only goes to show that Washington has no intention of normalizing relations between our countries nor does it have a desire to reconsider its hostile foreign policy toward the DPRK,” stressed the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We are forced to strengthen our nuclear forces of containment to protect our sovereignty,” the ministry threatened.

The last day of the negotiations was the most tense. Several news agencies issued an urgent news report that the main North Korean representative allegedly left the meeting hall swiftly, thus interrupting the negotiations. But a senior Russian diplomat later said that nothing of that sort had ever happened, and everything had gone according to plan.

The arduous negotiations are over, but no document was signed or released by the participants. Still, as the Chinese hosting the event stated, general agreement was voiced for continuing the dialogue, possibly in two months, again in Beijing.

Russia is determined to go through a lengthy process in an attempt to settle Pyongyang’s nuclear problem, said Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov before returning to Moscow. “No one is expecting dramatic outcomes from the North Korean situation,” he said, reassuring the journalists. “Most likely a lot of hard and tedious work will be required.” The diplomat went on to note: “But there is no choice....The alternative is confrontation, a military solution by force, which is not acceptable to anyone.”