COMMENT China should take lead on North Korea
By Joseph R DeTrani
A decade ago, in April 2003, China hosted trilateral talks in Beijing between the US, North Korea and China. China intervened at that time because the situation on the Korean Peninsula was tense and deteriorating quickly. The current situation is potentially explosive; it requires China's intervention.
Just before China's intervention in 2003, North Korea in January that year withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the only country to withdraw from the NPT, and the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO) suspended shipment of heavy fuel oil to North Korea and ceased further work on the construction of two light water reactors there, pursuant to commitments made
in the 1994 Agreed Framework.
North Korea then threatened to abandon the 1953 Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War and in February permitted a North Korean jet fighter to enter South Korean airspace. In March, North Korea intercepted a US reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace and, one week later, fired a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan. In three months, the situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorated quickly, all because the US accused North Korea of having a clandestine uranium enrichment program, which North Korea denied having. (North Korea in 2010 permitted a US scientist to tour a 2000 centrifuge state-of-the art uranium enrichment centrifuge facility at the nuclear site in Yongbyon).
China's decision to intervene and host trilateral talks in 2003 was prudent and timely. The North Korean representative at these talks made some provocative statements, claiming that North Korea had nuclear weapons and was prepared to build more nuclear weapons and test them. It became clear to the US and China that the nuclear issue with North Korea had to be resolved. An agreement was reached to establish the six-party talks, with South Korea, Japan and Russia joining the US and North Korea, with China agreeing to host and chair these talks.
The first meeting of the was in August 2003. The last meeting of the six-party talk was in December 2008, when North Korea would not agree to a denuclearization verification protocol, pursuant to the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement that committed North Korea to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization in exchange for security assurances, economic assistance, the eventual provision of a light water reactor (for civilian nuclear energy) and ultimate normalization of relations with the US.
During the September 2005 negotiations, which resulted in a successful Joint Statement, when the US would not agree to North Korea's demand for light water reactors for civilian nuclear energy, China's lead negotiator had late night meetings with the US and North Korea negotiators so as to resolve this issue, knowing that there was agreement on all other issues and that disagreement on the provision of a light water reactor was a deal-breaker and two weeks of intensive negotiations would again prove futile.
With China's encouragement and support, the US, working with South Korea, Japan and Russia, eventually negotiated language with North Korea that resolved this issue and resulted, for the first time, in a Joint Statement that committed North Korea to complete and verifiable denuclearization. North Korea had insisted that it had a "sovereign right" to have civilian nuclear power. The US had insisted that North Korea's clandestine uranium enrichment program dictated that North Korea could not be trusted with any type of nuclear program. The issue was formally resolved, after considerable discussion, with China mediating, when the US and North Korea agreed to language that stated:
When North Korea returns to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, we would discuss the provision of a light water reactor to North Korea (for civilian nuclear power).
The issue we now have with North Korea is not too dissimilar to the September 2005 impasse regarding light water reactors and civilian nuclear energy. North Korea now claims that it has a "sovereign right" to put a satellite in orbit, and that no country or international organization can deny it this sovereign right, despite two UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit North Korea from launching any type of missile.
North Korea's April 2012 missile launch resulted in international condemnation. Indeed, it was in breach of the February 29, 2012, Leap Day Agreement with the US that, in exchange for significant nutritional assistance, North Korea would implement a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests. North Korea's indignant response to UN condemnation was that it had a "sovereign right" to put a satellite in orbit and, moreover, the April missile launch was in compliance with international protocols: transparent to the international community and registered with relevant UN organizations, with international monitors, journalists and diplomats invited to the launch.
North Korea's apparent unhappiness with the UN and international community's condemnation of their April 2012 missile launch apparently motivated it to launch another missile in December 2012, which this time succeeded in putting a satellite in orbit. The UN again condemned North Korea and imposed additional sanctions, with a third UN Security Council Resolution.
What followed this month was North Korea's third nuclear test, considerably larger than two previous tests and an act of defiance to the US, China, the UN and the international community. Given the recent hostile and ugly rhetoric emanating from North Korea, it's likely it will continue to escalate tension and move forward with additional missile launches and nuclear tests, aspiring to acquire a nuclear weapon that could be mated to a missile delivery system.
It's time for China to intervene, to show leadership, and convene four-party talks soonest between the US, North Korea, South Korea and China. As China did in April 2003 when tension with North Korea was intense, Beijing should convene the talks as soon as possible to permit North Korea to discuss its so-called "sovereign right" to put a satellite in orbit, an issue that appears central to the recent escalation of tension. It would also permit the US to make the case that a so-called satellite launch is a convenient cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile launch.
A meeting of this type, convened by China, the only country North Korea may listen to at this time, will determine quickly if a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issues with North Korea, pursuant to the September 2005 Joint Statement, is achievable and the six-party talks process still viable.
Joseph R DeTrani, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit organization, was the Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea from 2003-2006. He was the ODNI North Korea Mission Manager from 2006-2010 and until January 2012, Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not representative of any US government department, agency or office.