On the Brink. Prospects for US-DPRK Settlement Dim, Yet Again

Every time it looks as if US-DPRK negotiations are on the verge of a breakthrough someone in Washington throws a spanner in the works. This is what happened in 2005 as the Chinese were forcing through the Joint Statement of 19 September which seemed to put the negotiations, under the aegis of the Six Party Talks, on a course for a successful resolution. The US Treasury designated the Macau bank used by North Korean entities (and British companies and joint ventures in DPRK), Banco Delta Asia, as a "Primary Money Laundering Concern under USA PATRIOT Act". [1] Although the allegations were subsequently discredited, partly through the investigative reporting of the US chain McClatchy Newspapers, the action put the Six Party Talks in limbo for over a year, as well as having a serious impact on DPRK foreign trade, and hence on the economy itself, which reportedly shrank 1.1% in 2006. [2] Negotiations between US Under Secretary of State Christopher Hill and DPRK Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan resulted in a couple of agreements in 2007, one in February the other in October, which seemed to offer a way forward.[3]These hopes have been dashed and prospects at the moment look dim.

Under the agreements, by the end of 2007 the United States was to remove the DPRK from its Terrorism List and the Trading with the Enemy Act, both of which erect considerable barriers against North Korea’s exports, participation in international bodies such as the World Bank, and ability to attract foreign investment. The US was also to provide its share of ‘economic, energy and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent of’ one million tons of heavy fuel oil. For its part the DPRK was to ‘dismantle’ its Yongbyon reactor and associated facilities — the source for the plutonium for its nuclear weapons — and ‘provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs.’ It also ‘reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how.’ [4]

According to American reports, the DPRK moved with such alacrity to disable the Yongbyon reactor that there were concerns for safety and the Koreans were asked to slow down. [5] American officials also expressed satisfaction with the high level of cooperation they were receiving from the Koreans.

Deadline of 31 December 2007

However, 31 December came and went. The deliveries of heavy fuel oil were way behind schedule. As late as 6 February 2008, Hill admitted that only one fifth of the oil had been delivered. [6] More ominously, the US made no moves to honor its commitment on the sanctions legislation. [7] In response the DPRK slowed down the disablement of Yongbyon. Washington put it about that Pyongyang had not provided the promised declaration, a line which is frequently echoed in the media to this day. [8] On 4 January 2008, the DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a statement "on Issue of Implementation of October 3 Agreement" in which it said, inter alia:

"As far as the nuclear declaration on which wrong opinion is being built up by some quarters is concerned, the DPRK has done what it should do.

"The DPRK worked out a report on the nuclear declaration in November last year and notified the U.S. side of its contents.

"It had a sufficient consultation with the U.S. side after receiving a request from it to have further discussion on the contents of the report.

"When the U.S. side raised ‘suspicion’ about uranium enrichment, the DPRK allowed it to visit some military facilities in which imported aluminum tubes were used as an exception and offered its samples as requested by it, clarifying with sincerity that the controversial aluminum tubes had nothing to do with the uranium enrichment.

"As far as the fiction about nuclear cooperation with Syria is concerned, the DPRK stipulated in the October 3 agreement that ‘it does not transfer nuclear weapons, technology and knowledge.’ This is our answer to this question.

"This was also done in line with the prior discussion with the U.S. side." [9]

Little attention was paid in the media to the claim that the declaration, drafted ‘in discussion with the US side (i.e. Hill) had been submitted in November, long before the deadline. Hill himself, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 6 February, surely went beyond being economical with the truth when he said, "While we have had discussions of a declaration with the DPRK, the DPRK did not meet the December 31, 2007 deadline for this commitment, and we have still not received such a declaration." [10]

The DPRK position was clarified and confirmed by the visit of a high-level, non-official US group to the DPRK 12-16 February 2008. The group was composed of Siegfried S. Hecker, a nuclear scientist who is a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and currently co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Joel Witt, a former State Department official who had been part of the team negotiating the Agreed Framework back in 1994, and W. Keith Luse, an assistant to Senator. Richard L. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. [11] Not Bush’s men, but representative of the mainstream, midstream, elite. They reported that disablement had been slowed down because of the delay in providing oil, and the failure to remove DPRK from the Terrorism List, and Trading with the Enemy Act. [12] They also reported that the Koreans were embittered that they had given American officials special access to a missile factory and allowed them to take away aluminum tubes that the US claimed were for uranium enrichment, but that the Americans had not accepted this as definitive evidence that they had no such program. Indeed, US scientists were to claim that they had found ‘traces of enriched uranium on the samples’. [13]

This was rather curious. Why had the Koreans given those samples to the Americans if they had been used for uranium enrichment? One obvious explanation is that they had so used them but thought they had removed the evidence. It is likely that the Americans have much more sensitive equipment than the Koreans and may have picked up things which escaped the Koreans. However, doubts remain. There seems to have been no independent testing and the samples were not handed over to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for verification. Significantly as we shall see, the IAEA was prevented from investigating the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor until the public release of the CIA video seven months after the Israeli bombing made it impossible to keep them out any longer. Scientific tests carried out under conditions of political pressure, and the reporting of them, are always dubious. One instance is particularly relevant. In 2004 the Japanese government claimed that DNA tests on a corpse claimed by North Korea to be that of the abducted Yokota Megumi proved that they were not her remains. The British scientific journal Nature subsequently revealed that the tests were inconclusive. [14] In addition the US has a poor track record in these matters; it has repeatedly lied not merely about Iraq but also about North Korea.. In 2005, for instance, the Washington Post disclosed that Washington had misled Japan and South Korea with claims that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. [15]

The aluminum tubes story has an added twist to it. Christopher Hill said that the samples had been brought out from Pyongyang in the suitcases of American diplomats. [16] Would they really have been so cavalier if they strongly suspected enriched uranium?

The Hecker visit confirmed that, despite media reports, Pyongyang had submitted its declaration, but there remained three issues of contention between the two sides — the amount of plutonium the Koreans had extracted from the Yongbyon reactor, the question of nuclear cooperation with Syria, and enriched uranium. The declaration has not been made public and Hecker’s report is the best thing we have in the public domain on the issues, although he is, of course, coming at it from an American perspective. [17] He has no doubts that the US has a god-given right to nuclear weapons but that this indulgence does not extend to North Koreans.

Hecker is not alone in this, of course, and it is useful to set this assumption of American exceptionalism in context. Despite the rhetoric about ‘making the world a safer place’, ‘upholding international law’, and, in the words of Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, removing the ‘danger it [North Korea] poses not only to its population but to the entire civilized world,’ US policy is based on old-fashioned realpolitik. [18] As the People’s Daily has recently pointed out, ‘the U.S. is still the owner of the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal, nor do they change "the capability to incinerate all of our enemies on 15 minutes’ notice". [19] The article decried ‘the U.S. nuclear ambition to dominate the world’ and called for it to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT):

"The U.S., as a dominant nuclear power, could be truly beneficial for world peace and security if it dismantles nuclear weapons in large scale, stops the missile defense system, and ratifies the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." [20]

The US is unlikely to follow this Chinese advice because it wants to preserve, to the extent possible, its superiority in nuclear terror, irrespective of its commitments under the NPT. It can be argued that the US, given its huge superiority in conventional arms, would be better off implementing its NPT obligations, and by so doing bringing the other nuclear powers, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, into the fold. But that is another story.

At the moment the US is insisting on its right to possess nuclear weapons and support the nuclear weapons status of friends such as Britain, India, and Israel, while denying that right to countries such as North Korea and Iran. This is in contravention of natural justice, the charter of the United Nations (which recognizes the equal right of sovereign states to self-defense), and in some cases (India, Israel) the NPT. However, it is unusual to admit such realpolitik openly. Fortunately for the US government, its rhetoric is seldom challenged. Seldom, but sometimes. There was an interesting, if inconclusive, exchange between Christopher Hill and an unnamed Associated Press reporter at an interview in Jakarta in April:

"QUESTION: Talk to us more generally. The United States also has nuclear weapons. Has that been ever brought up in your talks? Does it make it hard for you to argue that North Korea and Iran can’t have nuclear weapons while the United States has so many?

"ASSISTANT SECRETARY HILL: Well, I mean — Frankly, you cannot begin to talk about the differences in the history and the country. So, no, in answer to you, it does not come up. What does come up from time is the North Koreans say, ‘Well, country X has nuclear weapons, why can’t we?’ Well, the fact is, if you look at you look at Northeast Asia, if you look at the Korean Peninsula, you can pretty quickly — I think within a few seconds, frankly — understand why it’s very dangerous, very destabilizing for North Korea to be holding on to nuclear weapons. So, what of the thinking that country X or country Y or country Z has nuclear weapons, and why can’t they? The fact of the matter is, it’s very destabilizing, and frankly it is hurting North Korea profoundly. And I hope that they will come to understand that and give this thing up and get on with life.

"QUESTION: But the United States would never give up theirs. Why is that?

"ASSISTANT SECRETARY HILL: Well, I think it’s a broad question. But the whole issue of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the role of nuclear states under Article VI to begin a process of reducing arsenals, this is something we actually worked on with the Soviet Union and then with the Russians. So, you know, there has been some build-down in arsenals, and I am sure in the future as we continue to work with other nuclear states, there’ll also be build-down.

"But I would really caution you in thinking this is somehow related to the fact that we have a country, North Korea, that has a myriad of problems and yet here they are trying to develop nuclear weapons. [21]

Perhaps in despair at not getting a straight answer, but more likely in deference to power, the reporter pursued the issue no further but turned instead to the subject of rising rice prices.

The three issues that are imperiling progress on US-DPRK negotiations are quite different in their nature and their ramifications.


The Koreans have declared a certain amount of plutonium but it is reported to be below US estimates. How far below? Former US weapons inspector David Albright suggests not very far:

"According to media reports, this declaration stated that North Korea had a separated plutonium stockpile of 30 kilograms and denied that it had a uranium enrichment program."

Does this quantity of separated plutonium make sense? Yes. In short, 30 kilograms is at the lower end of the range of plutonium that we have assessed North Korea could have separated. This estimate is based on what we know about how long its reactor operated to build up plutonium in the fuel rods and how much plutonium was chemically extracted from this fuel at the nearby reprocessing plant. [22]

This is not a numbers game which is susceptible to conclusive proof. Neither side can prove its case, although the Koreans have come close to that by agreeing to release thousands of pages of documents stretching back to 1990 which covers the period preceding the signing of the Agreed Framework. [23] Critics of the Agreed Framework have long argued that whilst it stopped further generation of plutonium it did not address the issue of existing stock. [24] This was sufficient, it was claimed, for one or two bombs. [25] If there was an undeclared stock, the amount was small and Albright estimates that ‘The vast majority of North Korea’s separated plutonium — at least 80 percent but perhaps as much as 99 percent — was produced since the North Korea’s freeze on production and reprocessing ended in late 2002′, that is since the Bush administration killed off the Agreed Framework with its uranium allegations. [26] However, if there is still a discrepancy between what the Koreas admit and what they have it is small, measured in a few kilograms and dwarfed not merely by the US holdings, but also by Japan’s 45 tons. [27]

The Syrian affair

Then there is the very strange case of the alleged nuclear cooperation with Syria. On 6 September 2007 the Israeli Air Force bombed a building in Syria. Initially neither country, nor the US, said much about the event, but stories were leaked to the press that the Israelis claimed the target had been a nuclear reactor, and one constructed with North Korean help. [28] There was a plethora of stories, often contradictory, over the coming weeks but little in the way of officials statements from Israel, Syria or the United States. President Bashar al-Assad broke silence in a BBC interview on 1 October when he said the Israelis had hit an ‘unused military building’. [29] The Israelis followed with a statement the next day which made no mention of a nuclear facility, merely saying that they had attacked a ‘military target’.[30]

Although the ‘Syrian issue’ surfaced in reports of US-DPRK negotiations over the following months, it appeared as if the State Department was not particularly concerned and did not want it to disturb more substantive matters. Indeed, Hill went ahead and signed the Six Party agreement of 3 October 2007 which did not mention the word Syria but merely gave a general DPRK assurance on non-proliferation — ‘The DPRK reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how.’ [31]

In February 2008 the New Yorker published a lengthy piece by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh which concluded that the target had not been a nuclear facility but more probably (but not certainly) a missile factory built with North Korean assistance. The raid, he argued, was not only aimed at Syria, but also Iran –’There is evidence that the preemptive raid on Syria was also meant as a warning about — and a model for — a preemptive attack on Iran’. [32] Elsewhere Hersh has argued that the Bush administration wanted a settlement with the DPRK to ‘clear the decks’ for an attack on Iran. [33]

From the date of the raid in September 2007 up to April 2008 the US government said little of substance about the affair. On 15 April Ed Royce, the senior Republican on the House foreign affairs subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation and trade was reported as complaining ‘that the administration had not provided Congress with sufficient information about those allegations.’[that North Korea had helped Syria construct a nuclear reactor]. [34] Then on 23 April it was announced that the CIA would hold ‘closed, classified briefings for members of several congressional committees’ the following day. [35] In the event the video which was shown at the briefing was publicly released. [36] The White House also issued a statement which demanded that ‘The Syrian regime must come clean before the world regarding its illicit nuclear activities’ and claimed ‘We have long been seriously concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities. North Korea’s clandestine nuclear cooperation with Syria is a dangerous manifestation of those activities.’ [37]

The video, and its release, inevitably raised questions. Why the long delay? Why now? [38] Although White House statements denied that the event would impact on the Six Party Talks, and President Bush even claimed that it was designed to advance them, it was clear that this was not so and it was widely considered that the video would hamper negotiations, and was designed to do so. . Some papers attempted to skirt round this; the Washington Post, for instance, stated that ‘the discovery (sic) of North Korean ties to the facility has complicated U.S. efforts to get the country to give up nuclear weapons.’ [39] This implies that that the US was compelled release fresh information in April even though it would unfortunately ‘complicate’ things. But the United States had not ‘discovered’ anything new in April 2008 it merely publicly disclosed what it claimed to have know since September 2007, if not before.

"We also wanted to advance certain policy objectives through the disclosures, and one would be to the North Koreans to make it abundantly clear that we, we may know more about you than you think," Mr. Bush claimed. [40] But if the Americans really had robust evidence of DPRK nuclear assistance to Syria why wait seven months before confronting the Koreans? Why sign the agreement of 3 October 2007? Why hadn’t they privately briefed the other members of the Six Party Talks and Congress? And, in particular, why hadn’t they (and Israel) not informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as the United States, at least, was legally bound to do? The Washington Post pointed out that ‘as a member of the U.N. Security Council, the United States is obligated to report evidence that other states are violating international law against nuclear proliferation.’ [41] It might have added that the US has seldom been loathe to make accusations before, so why in this case? One result of the failure to report to the IAEA was that verification has become difficult if not impossible. [42] Which, if Hersh is right and the building was not a reactor, might be a good reason for delay in reporting until the building was destroyed and the Syrians had cleared away the debris.

The hapless Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has so often been caught between US policy and his duty to the United Nations, issued a statement in which he deplored ‘the fact that this information was not provided to the Agency in a timely manner’ and lamely declared that ‘in light of the above, the Director General views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime.’ [43] This was tame language indeed considering that Israeli’s bombing of a neighboring sovereign state was illegal and that Israel, with its unacknowledged but barely concealed nuclear weapons has long cocked a snoot at the NPT and the IAEA. [44] Another former US weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, does think the building was a reactor, but for peaceful purposes. He has argued that while Israel’s action was illegal and the US endorsement of it displayed the Bush administration’s customary disregard of ‘truth and adherence to international law’, Syria was in compliance with its obligations to the IAEA. [45]

Commentators who cared to look usually saw Vice President Cheney as the architect of the video showing. Jang Jungsoo Executive editor of the Liberal Seoul daily Hankyoreh observed:

"American neocons like Vice President Dick Cheney and Israeli hawks like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, do not want to see Golan returned to Syria. They are even opposed to reconciliation with Syria. American neocons and Israeli hawks are belligerent in their thinking, as they want to topple Syria with military force and use an air strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"It needs to be remembered that the accusations about a connection between Pyongyang and Damascus came right when serious progress was being made on peace between Israel and Syria, and right after the tentative agreement between the United States and North Korea was reached in Singapore.

"It was immediately after an agreement was reached at the six-party talks in 2005 that elements associated with Cheney in the U.S. Treasury Department froze North Korean money in Macao’s Banco Delta Asia, and the agreement fell apart." [46]

Certainly the decision to release the video was made by the White House and the CIA, while the State Department, and specifically Hill, was at pains to play it down, saying that the deal with Pyongyang would go ahead. [47] Just as last year there was an open battle in Washington between the Treasury and the State Department, now it would seem that, not for the first time, there is a struggle between the White House, principally Cheney, and the State Department, or at least those who want to negotiate:

"The timing of the administration’s decision to declassify information about the Syrian project has raised widespread suspicions, especially in the State Department, that Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration hawks were hoping that releasing the information might undermine a potential deal with North Korea that would take it off an American list of state sponsors of terrorism." [48]

One of the reasons for Cheney’s resurgence has been the perceived success of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and the lack of any real criticism of the administration’s foreign policy by the Democratic presidential contenders. It just so happened that a few days before the Syria video the New York Times published a long article, the culmination of years of research, exposing the way the Pentagon corruptly and with calculation used the ‘military analysts’ who pontificate on American TV to mislead the public.

"To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as ‘military analysts’ whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

"Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

"The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air." [49]

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