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The North Korean Nuclear Crisis_ The US Response by hcj


									The North Korean Nuclear Crisis: Situational Awareness and a Proposed US Response

The Nuclear Crisis of 1993 The question of a nuclear North Korea has roots dating back to the 1980‟s. Initial concerns arose in the mid-1980‟s, with intelligence reports proposing the potential for North Korean nuclear ambitions. Reports cite the construction of a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium1. The reactor in question, located in Yongbyon, was the focus of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993. The Clinton administration proceeded with diplomatic efforts, forging an agreement by 1994 that effectually ended the crisis. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to: (1) halt operation and construction of nuclear reactors, (2) freeze reprocessing of spent fuel (from which plutonium can be derived to make nuclear weapons), and (3) allow IAEA inspectors to monitor nuclear facilities. In return, the US agreed to: (1) lead an international consortium in the construction of two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors (LWR), and (2) supply fuel oil until the first reactor is deemed operational2.

The Current Crisis in Brief The current crisis officially began in October 2002, when a visiting US delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, confronted North Korean officials with evidence of a nuclear weapons program (using enriched uranium, as opposed to the plutonium used in its first weapons program). Pyongyang admitted to the program‟s existence, stating, “We will meet the sword with the sword. 3” The US, South Korea, and


Japan subsequently halted all shipment of fuel oil to North Korea, in November, on the grounds that the once covert nuclear program was in violation of the Agreed Framework. In December, North Korea announced the reactivation of its nuclear reactors at Yongbyon and followed by kicking IAEA inspectors out of the country4. By January 2003, North Korea had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

North Korea’s Cause for Concern The crisis has been largely framed as a bilateral dispute between the United States and North Korea. North Korea has repeatedly defended their nuclear weapons program, by claiming the need for “nuclear deterrence” is a result of the United State‟s “hostile policy.”5 Pyongyang‟s cause for concern can be seen upon consideration of the noticeable shift in US policy that took place when the Bush Administration took office.

In reaction to the North Korea-Japan controversy in August 1998, when North Korea testfired a missile over the main island of Japan, President Clinton sent Former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, to Pyongyang to deliver a US disarmament proposal. By September 1999, North Korea had agreed to stop conducting long-range missile tests, and, in turn, President Clinton eased economic sanctions on the country. The situation is used as an example of the Clinton administration‟s approach to dealing with North Korea – a willingness to engage in dialogue that was presumably perceived by North Korea as a necessary step towards normalizing relations with the United States.


The Bush Administration sought to make their policy towards North Korea clear, even before taking office, as the foreign policy team “blasted the Clinton Administration for being soft on Pyongyang6” during the presidential campaign. North Korea‟s disapproval of the new hard-line approach was made clear soon after the Bush Administration took office, with Pyongyang threatening to reconsider the freeze on long-range missile testing previously mentioned7.

In contradiction to Secretary of State, Colon Powell‟s assertions that the new Administration would be picking up where Clinton left off in relation to North Korea, President Bush set the new tone for dealing with North Korea, in March 2001, after visiting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. In a press conference, President Bush essentially condemned North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as untrustworthy, questioning whether Pyongyang was “keeping all terms of all agreements.8” The President told reporters that he “look[s] forward to, at some point in the future, having a dialogue with the North Koreans, but that any negotiation would require complete verification of the terms of a potential agreement.9”

Pyongyang reacted to Bush‟s statements by canceling scheduled meetings with South Korean officials, and claiming that the Bush Administration was attempting to disrupt dialogue between North and South Korea10. It was in this instance that North Korea initially described Washington‟s policies as “hostile” – the claim that would later be the basis on which the country‟s nuclear weapons program would be defended.


US-North Korea tensions steadily mounted during 2002, as the Bush Administration applied pressure on the country through a number of different means. On January 29, 2002, President Bush delivered the State of the Union Speech in which he labeled North Korea as a part of the “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. Pyongyang reacted to Bush‟s remarks, arguing that they were “tantamount to a declaration of war.11” Around the same time, North Korea had more cause for concern after a leaked US document cited the country as one against whom the United States should be prepared to use nuclear weapons. In addition, compounding US pressure on North Korea, the US Nuclear Posture Review indicated the possible development of new mini-nuclear weapons, with a feasibility study to be conducted over the next two to three years12.

The US-led war in Iraq has also encouraged North Korea‟s defensive posture. In December 2001, President Bush simultaneously warned Iraq and North Korea that they would be “held accountable” if they developed weapons of mass destruction13. The aggressive US policy towards Iraq, and subsequent invasion of the country, has been used by Pyongyang as an example of what will not be tolerated by North Korea. In a

statement issued by the Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang declared "The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation, it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force only.14" North Korean officials look at US policy towards Iraq as grounds on which their need for nuclear deterrence can be justified.


A nuclear North Korea: Implications for the US

*John Cole, Durham NC, The Herald Sun. Retrieved from

Despite North Korean assertions that its nuclear weapons are for deterrence purposes only, the possession of such weapons poses an unacceptable risk to United States national security. US officials suggest that the danger comes, not from a direct nuclear attack on the continental United States, but rather from North Korea‟s willingness to sell nuclear weapons or fissile materials to terrorist organizations, who would consequently attempt a nuclear attack in US cities15. Following President Bush‟s State of the Union speech in January 2001, National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice elaborated on the danger of North Korea by naming the country, “the world‟s number-one merchant for ballistic missiles, open for business with anyone, no matter how malign the buyer‟s intentions.16” The fear is that Pyongyang would behave identically in regard to its nuclear weapons.


Addressing the North Korean Crisis Though the crisis has been largely framed as a bilateral dispute, as previously mentioned, between the United States and North Korea, the resolution will be pursued in a multilateral context.

The choice to use diplomatic means, rather than exercising a military option, was announced by President Bush, in late October 2002, at an Asian-Pacific Regional Summit, alongside Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung17. However, from early October 2002, when Pyongyang first confirmed the existence of their second covert nuclear weapons program, until April 2003, North Korea and the United States were locked in a stalemate – engaging in no dialogue. The stalemate was the result of a bilateral disagreement on how dialogue would take place. Pyongyang pushed for bilateral negotiations. US officials refused bilateral negotiations, stressing the multinational character of the crisis. Furthermore, the Bush Administration sought not to reward “blackmail and bad behavior,” as stated by various US officials18.

With the aide of China, a country proving critical in the Administration‟s strategy thus far, trilateral talks were set for April 2003. The format was a compromise between the bilateral and multilateral negotiations that North Korea and the US, respectively, insisted on. Both countries attempted to make it appear as though the other had conceded more upon agreeing on a trilateral format. The North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson


stated that, “the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the US,” and that Chinese officials were merely hosts19. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher had a slightly different take on China‟s role, after the talks had taken place, stating that the participation of the Chinese government “played a very productive role” and a “very helpful role.20”

Characterized as an “exchange of views rather than serious negotiations,21” the talks provided a forum for both countries to clarify their main objectives.

For the United States, the trilateral talks provided an opportunity to stress three important points to North Korea. As Colon Powell laid out for an audience at the U.S. Asia Pacific Council Symposium, on April 24, 2002, the three points are as follows: (1) “Pyongyang's possible possession of nuclear weapons is a multinational problem; (2) the country should not fear denuclearization; and (3) threatening behavior will not be rewarded by the international community.22” The US delegation further insisted that North Korea proceed with “the irrevocable dismantling of its nuclear weapons program,23” as well as allowing inspectors back into the country, before other issues were to be considered24.

During the talks, North Korea outlined its demands, which included: (1) a US non-aggression treaty, (2) normalized bilateral relations, and


(3) a pledge not to disrupt economic relations25. North Korean officials agreed to meet Washington‟s demands only after the US met their own.

The status of North Korea’s Weapons Program: Nukes or Not? A senior official in the Bush Administration reported that, during April‟s trilateral talks, North Korea‟s representative, Li Gun, told US representative James Kelly that the weapons program has produced “at least one nuclear weapon26”. President Bush downplayed the statement, saying that Pyongyang was "back to the old blackmail game.27" The question remains, however, what exactly is the status of North Korea‟s nuclear weapons program? Accordingly, is Pyongyang already in possession of nuclear
*Picture retrieved from

weapons, as Li Gun claims?

North Korea is known to have a nuclear reactor, located in Yongbyon, capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium (the reactor frozen by the Agreed


Framework). US intelligence reports have estimated that North Korea is already in possession of one to two nuclear bombs – the fissile material for the bombs being plutonium from the Yongbyon facilities28.

There has been controversy over some 8,000 spent fuel rods also located at the Yongbyon facilities, from which plutonium could be extracted to make another estimated six to twelve nuclear warheads29. On April 18, 2003, a statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson was published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that asserted that North Korea was “successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase…” The KCNA corrected their English translation of the statement on April 21st which then read “We are

successfully going forward to reprocess work of more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase…30” Colon Powell has responded to statements concerning the

Spent fuel rods at Yongbyon

*Picture retrieved from 04/18/nkorea.fuelrods/index.html

spent fuel rods, saying, “This is the third time they have told us they finished reprocessing the rods…we have no evidence to confirm that.31” The actual state of these 8,000 spent fuel rods still remains in question.


In regard to North Korea‟s second covert nuclear program, using enriched uranium (the program made public in October 2002, which was later denied by North Korean officials), the CIA estimates that the program could “be producing „two or more‟ bombs each year by the middle of this decade.32” The definite status of this program, too, is still in question.
*Picture retrieved from

“Suspected Uranium Enrichment Sites”

The Monterrey Institute of International Studies has created a table which outlines the potential for nuclear weapons development in North Korea, given the current absence of IAEA inspectors in the country:

Time Span

Material Source[7]

Number of Additional Weapons

Total Number


 Plutonium from 1989 extraction (material for 1 to 2 --



(Jan 2003) plus 1 to 3 months (April 2003) plus 1 year (2004) plus 2 years (2005)

weapons)  Reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods in s torage (estimated material for 5 weapons) 5 6-7

 5MW(e) Experimental Reactor: 5.5 kg plutonium per year (approximately enough for 1 weapon)  5MW(e) Experimental Reactor: 5.5 kg plutonium per year  HEU program: approximately 100 kg HEU per year[8]






plus 3 years (2006)

 5MW(e) Experimental Reactor: 5.5 kg plutonium per year  HEU program: approximately 100 kg HEU per year  Completed 50MW(e) Nuclear Power Plant in Yongbyon-kun: 55 kg of plutonium per year (7-10 bombs)[9]





plus 4 years[10] (2007)

 5MW(e) Experimental Reactor: 5.5 kg plutonium per year  HEU program: approximately 100 kg HEU per year  Completed 50MW(e) Nuclear Power Plant in Yongbyon-kun: 55 kg of plutonium per year






 200MW(e) Nuclear Power Plant located in T'aech'on: 220 kg of plutonium per year [11]


*Table retrieved from:

The Multinational Response: Key Players, Objectives and Incentives A nuclear North Korea is of international concern, and particularly great concern to neighboring countries. Following the trilateral talks in April 2003, between China North Korea and the United States, an expanded round of talks was set for August 2003. The multilateral efforts to resolve the crisis have been spearheaded by China, but also included South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

The three positions that Beijing has stated on the North Korean crisis are jointly held by all those participating in dialogues. The positions are as follows: (1) peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula should be preserved; (2) the peninsula should remain nuclearfree; and (3) the dispute should be resolved through diplomatic and political methods33.

All nations involved in ongoing diplomatic efforts, too, have individual objectives and incentives for their participation.

South Korea North Korea‟s asserted right to build nuclear weapons and subsequent actions taken to do so, are in direct violation of the Korean Denuclearization Agreement, signed by North and South Korea. In dealing with the current crisis, South Korea walks a tightrope in some sense, being an ally of the United States and North Korea‟s second biggest aid


donor. Under President Kim‟s “Sunshine Policy” North and South Korea worked towards normalizing relations. In December of 2002, however, Kim‟s term was finished, and South Korea held presidential elections. The elections were critical to the North Korea issue, since the two presidential candidates, Lee Hoe Ch‟ang and Roh Moo Hyun, held different positions on what steps South Korea should take to resolve the crisis.

During his campaign, Lee Hoe Ch‟ang was critical of President Kim‟s “Sunshine Policy” and insisted on “strict reciprocity” from North Korea34. The presidential candidate also suggested that, if elected, further economic aid to North Korea would be contingent on resolution of the nuclear crisis35. Lee actually visited the United States during his campaign, suggesting that if elected, he would adopt a harder line towards the North; much like that the Bush Administration was leaning towards36.

In contrast, Roh Moo Hyun, not only supported Kim‟s “Sunshine Policy”, but was in favor of increasing North-South cooperation. His declaration not to “kowtow” to the US boosted his popularity during the elections, and helped define what future US-South Korea policies may look like, much to the approval of the South Korean public37. Roh won the election, and has since been in support of the multilateral approach the Bush Administration has pushed for in addressing the North Korean crisis.

Given the Roh Administration‟s priorities concerning its neighbor to the North, there‟s a great chance the administration will pressure the United States to pursue a diplomatic


remedy, possibly allowing economic sanctions, but standing firmly against any military action.

Japan Bilateral tensions between North Korea and Japan have existed for years. As previously mentioned, North Korea‟s test-firing of a long-range missile over the main island of Japan caused international controversy and demonstrated Japan‟s vulnerability. National security issues, therefore, are a prominent concern for Japan and motivating factor behind Japan‟s push for a diplomatic remedy to the crisis.

The issue of remaining Japanese abductees, and their children, in North Korea has also been a focus of Japanese officials participating in the six-nation talks of August 2003. The bilateral dispute dates back from the 1970‟s and 1980‟s when North Korean spies abducted Japanese citizens, taking them back to North Korea and forcing them to teach Japanese38. Addressing “extraneous demands39”, while important for normalizing relations between Japan and North Korea, ultimately distract attention away from the pressing crisis at hand – the North‟s nuclear weapons program. The prospects for a second round of six-nation talks were hampered when North Korea‟s Foreign Ministry reacted to Japanese delegates bringing up the abduction issue by saying it, “would not allow Japan to participate in any form of negotiations for the settlement of the nuclear issue in the future"40.


Despite these complications, Japan can play a useful role in a compromise coming to fruition. The country has legitimate security concerns, which require its involvement. Japan also stands as a potential financial donor.

Russia Russia has long been one of the few allies of North Korea. President Putin reportedly enjoys a “close rapport” with Kim Jong Il41 that could possibly give the country some leverage in dealing with North Korea.

Russia has attempted to foster a compromise between Pyongyang and Washington, by proposing a “package solution” in which North Korea would be given security assurances and aid, in return for abandoning any nuclear weapons programs42. The “package solution” has not satisfied those in the United States, however, it demonstrates Russia‟s desire to mediate the situation. A resolution would be in the country‟s interest due to economic ambitions that an unstable Korean peninsula could easily disrupt.

China The Chinese government has played the most critical role in the United States strategy thus far. Beijing has considerable leverage over Pyongyang, and a strong interest in maintaining regional stability.

China has arguably the most economic leverage over North Korea than any of the other participating nations. Ninety percent of North Korea‟s fuel and 40% of the country‟s


food come from China 43– North Korea‟s largest aid donor. This leverage was exercised in March 2003, when China halted energy shipments temporarily44 – pressuring Pyongyang to agree to the multilateral format that Washington insisted any dialogue must take. The approach proved successful, as Beijing hosted trilateral talks the following month.

China has numerous interests at stake in the crisis which make, in a sense, spearheading the diplomatic effort to find a resolution worthwhile. The desire for peace and stability, and accordingly avoidance of a military confrontation, has roots in China‟s economic concern. As the country becomes increasingly involved in international trade, stability will remain crucial to success, due to the need to appeal to foreign investors. A military confrontation has the potential to cause great economic disruption, resulting from the geographic location of China and North Korea. Given military action, the likelihood of thousands of North Korean refugees flooding over the border into China, is near certain.

National security, too, is a major concern for China. In what has been determined to be the worst case scenario, a nuclear North Korea could spark a nuclear arms race with the potential to result in a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan45.

The First Round of Six-Nation Talks Representatives from the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia, all convened in Beijing, in August 2003, for the first round of expanded multilateral talks addressing the crisis. While no conclusion was reached, the talks


provided the possibility for all countries involved to, again, clarify their positions, and this time put forward potential resolutions.

During the talks, North Korean delegates proposed a plan to resolve the crisis, which included the following: (1) a formal “nonaggression treaty”; (2) normalized relations with the US; (3) the completion of reactors promised under the Agreed Framework; and (4) resumption of suspended fuel oil shipments46.

The United States has yet to put forth its own proposal to resolve the crisis, but, during the talks, the US delegation reportedly stated that, “(the US and North Korea) can sincerely discuss security concerns in the context of nuclear dismantlement, and...(the US is) willing to discuss a sequence of denuclearization measures with corresponding measures on both sides.47”

The shift in US tone, and seemingly newfound flexibility, is most likely a direct result of pressure put on the Bush Administration by the other participating countries searching for a peaceful solution. Since the six-nation talks in August, President Bush has indicated his willingness to provide Pyongyang with a written security guarantee, signed by the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan.


Additionally, a second round of six-nation talks has been tentatively set for December 2003.

Where does the US go from here?

*Dan Wasserman, The Boston Globe. Retrieved from US officials have found it difficult to put forth a clarified proposal to deal with the crisis, because of the ambiguity surrounding North Korea‟s true intentions. While Pyongyang has repeatedly declared its need for nuclear weapons as a deterrent, it remains to be seen whether or not this is the country‟s ultimate objective. Analysts have illustrated a number of different scenarios that may help to explain the unpredictable and often shifting behavior and rhetoric of North Korea. Attempting to assess Pyongyang‟s intentions remains critical, for the US, in developing a successful plan.


There are two predominant theories, discussed amongst analysts, which attempt to rationalize North Korean intentions. The first assumes that Pyongyang is telling the truth, and has resumed its nuclear weapons program in the name of national security. The second suggests that the current North Korean crisis, much like that of 1993, is merely a ploy for international aid and an attempt to normalize relations with the United States.

Nukes as Deterrence Assuming that North Korea is solely reacting to, what officials refer to as, Washington‟s “hostile policy” in their efforts to build a nuclear arsenal, analysts suggest that there is little the international community can do to stymie Pyongyang‟s efforts. In the absence of North Korea officials changing their minds, as suggested by Phillip Saunders, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterrey Institute for International Studies, the US and the rest of the international community will be left with no choice but to accept and deal with a nuclear North Korea or take military action48.

The US and its allies have stated numerous times that a nuclear North Korea would not be tolerated. Military strikes against North Korea‟s nuclear facilities would almost certainly spark a full-scale war between North Korea and the United States. The effects of which would spill over to South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia causing a humanitarian crisis, and devastating economic disruption.


Nukes as a Bargaining Chip The US and allies have some leverage if North Korea is willing to give up its weapons programs for various forms of aid and diplomatic privileges. The Clinton Administration took this approach in 1994 under the Agreed Framework. Critics have used the current nuclear crisis to highlight the risks associated with taking this approach, as clearly it has failed in the past to solve the problem.

Proposal The Bush Administration seems to be taking the right approach in offering a new sense of flexibility in its dealings with North Korea. The President has offered Kim Jong Il a multilateral written security guarantee, promising “we will not attack you” if all nuclear ambitions are abandoned49. The administration should also make good on its proposition to agree on a system in which “corresponding measures” are taken on both sides to resolve the crisis. It will be imperative to develop a verifiable means of dismantling Pyongyang‟s weapons program. Furthermore, the focus of future dialogues should be on the issue of nuclear dismantlement, straying from the topic as sparingly as possible.

As President Bush and other administration officials have reminded the international community, and in particular North Korea, ultimately “all options are on the table.” Given the current status of dialogues and continued willingness of countries in the region to proceed with diplomatic efforts, however, the option for military action is effectively taken off the table for the US for the time being.
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