Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
Briefing / Asia 3 minutes

North Korea’s Nuclear Test: The Fallout

The North Korean nuclear standoff entered an even more troubling phase with Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device on 9 October 2006. Condemnation was nearly universal, and the UN Security Council moved quickly to pass Resolution 1718 unanimously less than a week later.

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I. Overview

The North Korean nuclear standoff entered an even more troubling phase with Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear device on 9 October 2006. Condemnation was nearly universal, and the UN Security Council moved quickly to pass Resolution 1718 unanimously less than a week later. The test stirred China to take an unusually strong line against its ally, joining UN sanctions and dispatching a senior envoy to Pyongyang. On 31 October, after talks in Beijing with the U.S. and China, Pyongyang agreed to return to the six-party talks. The resumption of a diplomatic process is welcome but will likely face the same pitfalls as earlier rounds in which progress was undermined by a lack of clear understandings between North Korea and the U.S. While the six-party talks are a useful forum, resolving the nuclear issue will also require committed bilateral negotiations that address in detail North Korea’s security concerns and U.S. demands for complete disarmament and intrusive verification. China’s strong response may prove to be a major new factor pressing North Korea to offer more concessions in the talks, but only if the U.S. is prepared to set the table with a far more specific and appetizing menu than it has thus far.

Although the Security Council was quick to impose sanctions on North Korea, differences immediately appeared in the interpretation of the resolution, with China, Russia and South Korea favouring more limited action and the U.S. and Japan pushing for tough enforcement. This exposed the weakness of the six-party structure; each government supposedly arrayed against North Korea has different interests and varying assessments of the urgency of the situation. South Korea and China view North Korea’s stability as their paramount concern. The U.S. and Japan worry about nuclear and ballistic missiles as well as nuclear proliferation, human rights and kidnappings. Russia has generally sided with South Korea and China, preferring the issue be resolved between Washington and Pyongyang directly.

North Korea’s major security concern is the U.S. Unless this concern, whatever its origins, is addressed, the regime is not likely to give up its nuclear weapons. President George W. Bush has said that bilateral talks with North Korea did not work in his predecessor’s administration. In fact, they achieved a welcome delay of some years in the nuclear program and are a significant tool for dealing with Pyongyang. The six-party talks can provide an essential umbrella for bilateral discussions and a mechanism through which to establish broad international backing for an eventual agreement but they should not be the only channel for dealing with the North Koreans.

The meeting in Beijing that led to the planned resumption of the six-party talks in effect demonstrated the utility of direct talks. It remains to be seen, however, whether the U.S. is prepared to alter its stance significantly so as to demonstrate persuasively to its partners that it is going the extra mile to offer North Korea both a substantive and a face-saving basis for reversing its decision to defy the international community by developing nuclear weapons.

The U.S. should:

  • appoint a full-time senior envoy for North Korea, as suggested by Congress, who should be empowered to oversee all issues relating to that country and to negotiate both at the six-party talks and bilaterally;
  • agree with the Security Council a timetable to ease sanctions if North Korea meets requirements to freeze its nuclear program and readmit international inspectors;
  • focus on the nuclear issue, even if this means postponing other important concerns including human rights, drugs, counterfeiting and missiles, since priority must be placed on the most serious risk;
  • provide North Korea with a detailed plan of the steps it must take to end its weapons program and what benefits it will receive in return, including a response to North Korea’s basic security and regime preservation concerns; and
  • discuss proliferation risks in the region with key powers, especially China, with whom a broad dialogue on nuclear and other security issues is required, and ensure an understanding among them about the implementation of Resolution 1718 sufficient to keep pressure on North Korea, without causing splits among those involved in the renewed six-party talks.

Without more flexibility from Washington and Pyongyang, a breakthrough is likely to prove elusive whatever forum is used. The North may not be willing to forego nuclear weapons regardless of the incentives and disincentives presented to it. It may be dragging out the talks to have time to develop more and better weapons. However, we will not know unless Washington sits down with the North to address the regime’s deep-seated security anxieties. Crisis Group outlined a plan in 2003-2004 containing a series of steps by North Korea to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program, with each phase followed by increasing security guarantees, diplomatic recognition and financial aid. This remains the best way forward.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°61, North Korea: A Phased Negotiation Strategy, 1 August 2003, and Crisis Group Asia Report N°87, North Korea: Where Next for the Nuclear Talks, 15 November 2004.Hide Footnote

Seoul/Brussels, 13 November 2006

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