Solution for the Nuclear Issue of North Korea Hopeful But Still Uncertain

von Pan Zhenqiang

On the Conclusion of the Second Round of the Six-Party Talks

Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 3/2004

Six months after the first round of the six-party talks was concluded, the six nations -the DPRK, the United States, China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan- had their second round of talks in Beijing from February 25-28, struggling to continue their effort to resolve the nuclear impasse of the DPRK. In contrast to the rather acrimonious atmosphere in the first round, the second round was marked by a much more conciliatory and businesslike tone of all the delegations towards the negotiation. The talks ended up with an agreed pledge by all the parties to keep the exploration going for a peaceful and diplomatic solution of the issue. On the other hand, the second round of the talks seemed still unable to resolve major differences between the two chief antagonists -the DPRK and the United States. The road ahead seems still long, zigzag and bumpy.

Progress and differences

The meetings started with profuse demonstration of good will by all the parties for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula at the very beginning. As the host of the talks, Wang Yi, head of the Chinese delegation and Deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs, PRC urged all the participants to define a solution towards denuclearization of the Peninsula in a cooperative spirit. He stressed in his remarks at the opening ceremony of the talks:

"We, the six parties, gather here, reflecting the strong political aspiration for peace of the six governments and peoples. We come to the talks to expand our common ground rather than to highlight our differences. We come here to solve rather than to worsen problems. The Chinese side believes that the parties, all aware of the responsibilities on their shoulders to seek peace, will adopt a constructive stance, act in a cooperative and accommodating spirit, respect each other, display flexibility and narrow the gap in their positions (1)."

Wang Yi's call was echoed by all the other five representatives. Particularly noticeable was the conciliatory statement by Kim Kye-gwan, head of the DPRK delegation and Deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs, promising that Pyongyang would show flexibility while adhering to principle in the six-party talks. Kim emphasized that the six-party talks were providing "an important opportunity" to chart the course for resolving the nuclear issue. He also hoped that sincere efforts made by all sides could produce "a positive result" in the second round of talks (2). In response, Jim Kelly, head of the U.S. delegation and Assistant Secretary of State, made equally accommodating remarks by stressing that "the United States and other parties concerned will provide security guarantee to the DPRK and that the U.S. has no intention to invade or attack the DPRK". Kelly also said "the settlement of the nuclear issue would open the door to all bilateral issues among all sides, and open up the prospects for peace in northeast Asia and the whole world", a hint that the U.S. would agree to meet the requests of the DPRK after all its nuclear programs are dismantled. He expressed his belief that "the six-party talks are the most reliable diplomatic channel to promote the stability of the Korean Peninsula and to realize its denuclearization (3)." Other delegations also stressed similar views in the hope of achieving positive results through cooperation.

It is against this backdrop of demonstrating willingness of constructive interactions by all parties; the second round of the six-party talks was characterized by three major developments. according to Wang Yi in his briefing at the press conference after the conclusion of the talks on February 28. They are: 1) It started the discussion on substantive issues, indicating the negotiation process had moved one important step forward; 2) all the parties maintained calm and constructive attitudes, indicating the talks had become increasingly mature; 3) the modality of the talks became more open and flexible, indicating that all parties had increased their confidence in the talks (4).

The talks spent one more day than scheduled for the intense discussions, which itself was an indication of the intensity of the debates among delegations. They ended up with a Chairman's Statement, which is the first ever produced by this international endeavor. While candidly acknowledging that differences remained among various parties, the Statement stressed that "the discussion on substantive issues was beneficial and positive, and that the attitudes of all parties were serious in the discussion". It highlighted the commitment of all the parties "to a nuclear-weapon-free Korean Peninsula, and to resolving the nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue in a spirit of mutual respect and consultations on an equal basis, so as to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the region at large". The Statement also conveyed the party's willingness "to coexist peacefully, and to take coordinated steps to address the nuclear issue and address the related concerns". Finally, the Statement confirmed the decision by the parties to continue the process of the talks and agreed in principle to hold the third round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing no later than the end of the second quarter of 2004. A working group will be set up in preparation for the plenary (5).

All the six parties expressed satisfaction about the progress achieved through the second round of the talks. The Chinese side cited specific progress in five areas: 1) It has successfully promoted the discussions on substantive issues; 2) it has defined the way of solving the nuclear issue in a coordinated manner; 3) it has issued the first document in the process of the talks; 4) it has confirmed the date and place for the third round of the talks; 5) it has agreed to set up working groups to facilitate the institutionalization of the talks. It was also pointed out that despite differences and contradictions among the parties, what was more important was that differences were narrowing, common ground growing, and hope for peace increased (6).

But of course, the second round of the talks has also revealed major differences still persist between the DPRK and the United States. As details of the reflections in the talks are still kept as confidential, we are yet to learn more of the specifics of these differences. But from what has already been reported by the media, it seems that substantive rift between the two countries at the second round of the talks mainly centered on three fundamental issues:

The first is about the overall format in which the nuclear issue is to be solved. The DPRK stressed that it was willing to give up its nuclear option, but that it would do so only when the U.S. gave up its hostility policy and gave compensation for its sacrifice. To that end, Pyongyang called for a package deal, implemented by stages. The essence of the solution proposed by Pyongyang is that both sides should act simultaneously or in parallel at each of all these stages till reaching the eventual objective of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. side on its part, however, stressed that it would meet the requests of the DPRK, including providing security assurance only when the DPRK first dismantled all its nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner (called CVID). Thus, the issue of timing, namely, who should do what at what time continued to be the central bone of contention during the debate.

The second issue is related to the definition and scope of denuclearization. In the view of the U.S. delegation, denuclearization meant CVID, which should include all the DPRK nuclear programs, no matter whether they are for weapons or peaceful purpose. The U.S. side also strongly insisted that the DPRK should candidly acknowledge and give up its secrete highly enriched uranium program (HEU) in addition to its plutonium program for the development of nuclear weapons. Officials in Washington liked to point out that North Korean officials had admitted they had a clandestine program during a meeting in October 2002. "As long as they continue to deny the existence of the highly enriched uranium program, it is guaranteed the talks will fail," they said.. "We cannot have a long-term solution to the problem if we cannot agree on the facts (7)." The DPRK, however, stressed that it would retain the right of developing peaceful nuclear energy program. Pyongyang also angrily denied it had any HEU program (8).

The third issue is about measures to be taken at the first stage of the proposed solution. The DPRK offered what it was referring as a "bold proposal", which suggested that the DPRK freeze all its nuclear activities in exchange for the compensations from the U.S. and other parties. According to the DPRK, these compensations should include the U.S. verbal security assurance, removing the DPRK from the list of terrorist states, and economic assistance. All the other parties welcomed the DPRK initiative. In support of the positive action of Pyongyang, South Korea voluntarily expressed its willingness to provide fuel oil to the DPRK on the condition the DPRK nuclear activities were verifiably freezed, and the freeze would lead to the eventual dismantling of all the DPRK nuclear programs at later stages. China and Russia both said they would join in South Korea's effort, while Japan insisted that it would be unable to provide any kind of assistance before the two countries achieved normalization. The U.S. repeated its position of not giving any "reward" to Pyongyang till the goal of CVID materialized. However, both said they understood and supported the actions of other countries to give compensations if the DPRK freezes its nuclear activities at the first stage.

The U.S. intransigency had evidently angered the DPRK delegation. On the second day of the discussion, the delegation issued a statement at a hastily arranged press conference outside its Embassy in Beijing, strongly criticizing the U.S. for its continuing "hostility" towards the DPRK. The statement stressed "despite our flexible position, the United States continues with its stale demand that we give up nuclear programs first. It is because of this that there has not been a breakthrough in the solution of the problems (9)." In its bitter disappointment, the DPRK had once even "refused to attend a working-level meeting Thursday to draft a possible joint declaration to close the conference (10)." It is obviously thanks to the great persuasive effort by China, the DPRK finally continued its cooperative stance during the subsequent discussions but not without apparent displeasure.

Future Prospect

For all the differences remaining, the significance of the progress through the second round of the six-party talks will go a long way towards enhancing further international efforts for a future peaceful and negotiated solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. To take stock of what has been achieved through this unique exercise of solving the international disputes in East Asia, one can find indeed greater common ground achieved among the various parties. They include:

1) The nuclear issue of the DPRK must be solved by peaceful means.

2) The six-party talks are the most appropriate and indeed perhaps the only viable venue for the peaceful solution of the issue.

3) Any feasible solution to the nuclear issue must be based on achieving the overarching objective of denuclearization of the Peninsula as well as meeting the security concerns of the DPRK.

4) A Solution may best be achieved by a package deal but implemented by stages.

5) Owing to the complexity of the nuclear issue in nature, the six-party talks are going to be a long process. And in order to facilitate the negotiations during the process, it is essential to engage all the nations involved in the future rounds of the talks as well as deliberations in working groups. In short, the six-party talks should be institutionalized.

The above consensuses seem to serve to put the future talks on a more solid track, and pave the way for the peaceful solution of the nuclear issue in the end.

What makes many analysts even a little more optimistic about the future prospect is that they see a genuine desire on the part of the DPRK to use the nuclear card to trade for its better security and a more propitious international environment so that it is able to concentrate on its domestic economic development (11). According to this view, there seems a significant transformation in the structure of the leadership in the DPRK. A great number of young and pragmatic professionals came to important posts to replace aged and traditionally conservative diehards. They seem more enthusiastic on domestic reforms and economic development than an endless confrontation with the United States, resulting in increasing isolation from the outside world. They are therefore more inclined to compromise in the nuclear issue, willing to make a deal for its nuclear programs. That explains the clear reversal of its very harsh attitude at the beginning of the nuclear crisis to a more accommodating position before the second round of the six-party talks (12).

Indeed, if one takes a careful look at the diplomacy of Pyongyang in recent months, it is not difficult to observe quite a few flexibilities in its position aimed at creating conditions in its favor to striking a deal at the talks.

1) It has stressed denuclearization on the Koran Peninsula as the final goal of the solution to the nuclear issue.

2) It has backed off from its position of demanding a non-aggression pact with the U.S. as the primary condition for its abandoning nuclear weapons programs.

3) Before the second round of the talks started, it had offered voluntarily "a bold concession" by agreeing to freeze all its nuclear activities in exchange for compensation. These activities included not testing and manufacturing nuclear bombs, and not transporting nuclear material or expertise. It had also at least once promised to freeze its peaceful use of nuclear energy although it has no such a program in existence (13).

4) It has agreed to the institutionalization of the six-party talks by joining the work in the working groups, a sign that it will continue to join the international effort for the solution of the issue.

5) To further strengthening its position at the negotiation table, the DPRK has also made effort to improve its relations with other parties at the talks. The DPRK is discussing with the ROK to further promote bilateral economic cooperation. As to its relations with Japan, the DPRK has also taken a flexible attitude to temporarily put aside their disputes over the hostage issue. At the second round of the talks, the DPRK delegation even held bilateral consultation with the Japanese delegation on the issue.

All this does not suggest that the DPRK will cancel its nuclear weapons program unconditionally. As was said above, serious differences do persist. On some occasions, Pyongyang's position seemed unclear and even reversed. The issue of whether denuclearization should include the peaceful use of nuclear energy, for example, seems fussy. Obviously, it backed off at the second round of talks. One interpretation of this change of position seems a desire to keep the issue as a valuable bargaining chip in the future negotiation (14). Others take it as one more trick of the DPRK to hide its weapons program into those allegedly for peaceful purpose.

For all these ambiguities, there is no denial the flexibilities on the part of the DPRK have created a window of good opportunity for all the parties to narrow the gap of their differences and promote mutual trust, which is so essential for a solution acceptable to all the parties. It is in this sense, future progress appears to hinge more on the actions of the Bush administration. The ball now seems in Washington's court.

Unfortunately the Bush administration does not seem in the mood of making corresponding concessions. The neocons have never believed the sincerity of Pyongyang in its motivation towards the nuclear issue. In their perspective, as this is the evil regime, all the DPRK does is only lying and buying time for its acquisition of nuclear capability to ensure its survival. Thus, the U.S. strategy should be nothing less than the firm request of CVID before it can reward Pyongyang for its better behavior. The fact that Libya has recently offered to unconditionally give up all its programs of WMD has obviously strengthened the view of these neocons that hard-line policy is working. Against this background what the Bush administration is intent on currently seems, building on the experience with Libya, to increase pressure on those states like North Korea and Iran for unconditional capitulation rather than making concession on its own part. On February 11, President George W. Bush gave an impressive speech at the National Defense University in Washington, focusing on strengthening the international regime of nonproliferation. His remarks exactly reflect this mindset. He criticized North Korea for its defying the world by testing long-range ballistic missiles, admitting its possession of nuclear weapons, and threatening to build more. He referred to the illegally transferring of nuclear technology by Pakistan's A.Q. Khan to North Korea. And he called on all the problem states, including North Korea, which wished to acquire WMD capability to learn from Libya's example.

"Abandoning the pursuit of illegal weapons can lead to better relations with the United States, and other free nations. Continuing to seek those weapons will not bring security or international prestige, but only political isolation, economic hardship and other unwelcome consequences (15)," he declared.

But whether Libya's mode could apply to the case of North Korea is highly questionable. In the first place, what Libya has actually given up is its intention rather than capability of WDM as the country has virtually no such a capability to dismantle whereas the DPRK has allegedly real weapons. Secondly, the DPRK case is much more complex than the case of Libya as the former has consistently argued that the root cause of the nuclear crisis is the hostile policy of Washington, which had put its security at high risk, and therefore, it is highly unlikely Pyongyang will agree to unilaterally dismantling its nuclear weapons program unless Washington changes its policy and the DPRK is able to trade denuclearization for something to ensure its security. Thirdly, there isn't broad international solidarity behind Washington to support the intransigent position of the Bush administration towards the nuclear issue of the DPRK as in the Libya case. China and Russia, for example, do not always agree with Washington on its tactics at the six-party talks. Even South Korea - one of the U.S. principle allies in the region - admonished that "Washington should 'ease its stance' for the momentum of dialogue (16)."

By exhorting an unrealistic price from the DPRK, Washington is thus running a risk of losing an opportunity of making a deal with Pyongyang, leading to the eventual denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula - the very goal the Bush administration is seeking to achieve. Worse, the U.S. hard-line policy may well generate new tension and mutual hostility between the U.S. and the DPRK. The familiar pattern, characterizing the Peninsula for over half a century, of a vicious cycle of actions and counteractions will again emerge. Anything could then happen. As the head of the Russian delegation to the talks was worried when he said on his way back from Beijing to Moscow that the meeting had produced no concrete or practical movement toward resolution of the row:

"If this goes on, mistrust will grow on the Korean peninsula. The situation could be aggravated and military intervention is possible," he said. "There could be attempts to blockade or limit North Korea's relations with other countries. All this could seriously worsen the situation (17)."

China's role in the six-party talks

All the five nations at the six-party talks have expressed their genuine thanks to the Chinese delegation for its unique role to ensure the success of the international effort to seek the way of reconciliation in the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. All agreed that China's role was indeed irreplaceable.

China of course does not mean to do anybody a favor by playing such a proactive role in the solution of the nuclear issue. It is doing itself favor as the unfolding of the nuclear crisis will undoubtedly affect China's core security interests if unchecked. Thus, China has been consistently reaffirming its positions on the issue, which can be summarized as: 1) peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula must be preserved; 2) the peninsula must remain nuclear-free; 3) the dispute must be resolved through diplomatic and political methods. These positions form the core of Chinese approach to the resolution of the nuclear issue (18).

China's positions have won broad echoes from the international community as they indeed reflect the common wishes of world nations to see a peaceful settlement of the crisis. On the other hand, China also enjoys an advantageous position in that it maintains good relations with and subsequently has important influence on all the nations involved in the region. Naturally, with the encouragement of the international community, China has been doing all it can, to help bring the nuclear crisis into a peaceful resolution. In light of its above said basic principles, China called on all the parties involved not to act in a way that will escalate the tension and further complicate the situation. China also urged the DPRK and the United States to conduct dialogue as it believed any solutions would have to be based on the contact and negotiations between the various players. As for the forms of this contact and negotiations, China remains flexible, stressing it will support dialogue in whatever forms as long as they are conducive to the solution of the issue. Given the fact that the DPRK and the U.S. were rigidly locked in their difference as to whether there should be bilateral talks (this is what North Korea strongly asked) or multilateral talks (this is what the U.S. insisted on) as the best venue for the dialogue, China succeeded in setting a multilateral stage for the convenience of the two parties' actual direct contact, so as skillfully solve the dilemma. Thus, there were the trilateral talks in April, 2003 and the follow-on six-party talks. During the process, China has taken great care to act as an honest and impartial mediator as well as a constructive participant, encouraging the exploration of a solution through international cooperation, based on mutual respect and benefit, equality and mutual compromise. China is therefore strongly against any coercive measures like sanctions or even military pressures on any party. Finally, while playing a proactive and bridging role, China has deliberately kept itself in low profile, believing that international disputes could best be solved through quiet diplomacy.

But there are still a few uncertainties from both Washington and Pyongyang that might jeopardize China's efforts in the future. The Bush administration has been so far pushing China to play a more significant role in the crisis on the ground that China shares the same objective with the U.S. of a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, and that no other countries than China can have more impact on North Korea's policy. That may be true. But it should also be noticed that China does not necessarily agree with the Bush administration on anything about the crisis. If the Bush administration, for example, were to wish to use China only for the sake of exercising pressure on North Korea, and bringing about the eventual regime change, instead of seeking a solution acceptable to all parties, the cooperation between China and the U.S. cannot be sustained. On the other hand, if North Korea were to be obstinately intent on acquiring nuclear weapons regardless of whatever cost, China's efforts for the peaceful solution will also be bound to fall apart in the end. In short, China's positive effort cannot be the substitute of the two countries' sincere efforts to have a peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis, aimed at peace and stability in the peninsula and free of nuclear weapons. Only through honest cooperation with the U.S. and the DPRK, can China's effort be successful in the future.


(1) Wang Yi, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister, remarks at the opening ceremony of the second round of six-party talks, Beijing, February. 25, Xinhuanet, www.chinaview.cn.

(2) "DPRK to observe principles while showing flexibility: chief negotiator", Xinhuanet, Beijing, February 25, www.chinaview.cn.

(3) "US has no intention to attack DPRK: Kelly", Xinhuanet, Beijing, February 25, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2004-02/25/content_1330781.htm.

(4) Wang Yi, "on Six-Party Talks in Beijing", The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, Beijing, February 28, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/chn/zxxx/t69598.htm.

(5) For details of the Chairman's Statement, see its full text, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, Beijing, February 28, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t69590.htm.

(6) Wang Yi, "on Six-Party Talks in Beijing", The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, Beijing, February 28, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/chn/zxxx/t69598.htm.

(7) See Glenn Kessler, "Not Convinced of North Korean Uranium Effort", Washington Post, January 7, 2004; http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A60332-2004Jan6¬Found=true.

(8) Kim Gye-gwan was reportedly stressing "we have neither equipment nor experts bearing any relation to the uranium-enrichment technology,", nor did he acknowledge any connection with Pakistan in terms of the illegal transfer of the uranium enrichment technology. He declared North Korea and Pakistan are developing relations in different spheres and conduct their missile technologies trade for the sake of hard money. However, "these relations have nothing to do with uranium enrichment", see "North Korea not to give up peaceful nuclear program", Pravda, Moscow, February 28, 2004, http://newsfromrussia.com/world/2004/02/28/52551.html.

(9) Philip P. Pan and Glenn Kessler, "North Korea Blames U.S. for Blocking Nuclear Talks", Washington Post, February 26, 2004.

(10) ibid.

(11) For the detailed study of this view, see, for example, Pan Zhenqiang, "Approach to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis", Konrad-Adenauer Stiffung, KAS-Schriftenreihe China, No. 22, Beijing 2003, p. 24.

(12) For discussion on this subject, see, for example, a report on the structural change in members of the DPRK Supreme People's Congress. Central New, Seoul, September 3 2003, www:nk.joins.com.

(13) "Our Package Proposal should Be Accepted", Rodong News, Pyongyang, December 15, 2003.

(14) See, for example, Joseph Kahn, "North Korea Nuclear Talks Wind Down With Little Progress", New York Times, February 27, 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/27/international/asia/27CND-KORE.html. The author reported that "Analysts speculated that the North's insistence on retaining a civilian program was mainly a bargaining chip, allowing it to demand compensation for potential losses it would suffer by giving up a source of energy".

(15) Remarks by President George W. Bush on Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., Fact Sheet, White House, February 11, 2004, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/02/20040211-4.html.

(16) Paul Kerr, "U.S. and North Korea at Impasse Over Talks", Arms Control Today, January-February, 2004,


(17) "RUSSIA WARNS OF WORSENING N.KOREA SITUATION", Reuters, Moscow, February 29, 2004. The report quoted remarks by Alexander Losyukov, the Russia's representative at the six-party talks on the DPRK's nuclear program that the impasse could aggravate the situation and ultimately lead to military intervention on his return from the second round of talks as saying.

(18) Jing-dong Yuan, China and the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, Monterey Institute for International Studies, January 22, 2003, http://cns.miis.edu/research/korea/index.htm. For more details of China's position on the nuclear crisis in North Korea, see also Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's Press Conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, on June 24, 2003, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/51794.html.

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies.

Frühere Ausgaben des Online Info-Dienstes siehe unter:

China's Security Agenda in 2004 (Nr. 2)

China's Non-Proliferation Policy and Practices (Nr. 1)