North and South Korean diplomats held informal talks during the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting last week in Indonesia and declared they would work together to “re-start the Six-Party Talks as soon as possible.” Wi Sung-lac (Wi Sŏng-nak), the ROK representative to the talks, and his DPRK counterpart Ri Yong-ho (Yi Yong-ho) described their meeting on 22 July as “frank, serious and constructive” and both reaffirmed their commitments to implement the September 2005 Joint Declaration to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (Kim Sŏng-hwan) and DPRK Foreign Minister Park Ui-chun (Pak Ŭi-ch’un) also met briefly the following day.
After the North-South meetings in Bali, media reported that DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan will visit New York around 28 July. If Kim visits the U.S., the first two-steps of China’s long-standing three-step proposal to recommence the Six-Party Talks nominally will have been completed. Beijing’s proposal has been on the table since 2009 and includes a North-South bilateral meeting, a U.S.-DPRK bilateral meeting, and a preparatory Six-Party meeting before a full plenary. However, a few significant obstacles remain.
Real progress in North Korean denuclearization will require an improvement in inter-Korean relations. While Seoul no longer insists that Pyongyang take responsibility and apologize for the 2010 attacks against the ROKS Ch’ŏnan and Yŏnp’yŏng Island before going back to the Six-Party Talks, the Ministry of Unification reiterated on 25 July that an apology must precede inter-Korean reconciliation. Foreign Minister Kim on 25 July said Washington consulted with Seoul before deciding to issue a visa to Kim Kye-gwan, and although a bilateral U.S.-DPRK meeting is a necessary step to re-start the Six-Party Talks, the minister said it is not sufficient. Kim said the DPRK will have to take actions such as freezing its current nuclear activities and accepting IAEA inspectors before talks can resume.
While the DPRK government has said on numerous occasions it will return to the talks “without preconditions,” Seoul has insisted that the North show “sincerity” and the Obama administration has maintained that Pyongyang must “bargain in good faith” to implement the September 2005 Statement of Principles. In sum, Washington and Seoul have been waiting for DPRK actions, not just words, before returning to the bargaining table.
If the DPRK is serious about returning to the Six-Party Talks, there are four steps it could take to make it politically acceptable for Washington and Seoul to return to the talks. First, Pyongyang could inform the UN of its intention to comply with its obligations under UNSC Resolution 1540, which is binding on all member states and requires them to prevent the transfer of WMD to non-state actors. Resolution 1540 was adopted in 2004, and although the DPRK has not renounced it, Pyongyang simply has ignored it. The committee is prepared to assist the DPRK come into compliance, and since the DPRK asserts it is a “responsible nuclear state,” this step is long overdue.
Second, Pyongyang could announce a unilateral freeze of all nuclear facilities pending a safety review. Nuclear regulatory agencies are reviewing nuclear safety around the world following Japan’s nuclear disaster in March, and North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers probably have been reviewing their safety standards anyway, poor as they might be. A freeze can be lifted at any time, and the nuclear accident at Fukushima gives Pyongyang a face-saving pretext to halt its nuclear activities.
Although North Korea is not operating a nuclear reactor now, the uranium enrichment plant in Yŏngbyŏng disclosed last November could produce fissile material for a nuclear bomb. North Korea has invited IAEA inspectors to the site, but this arguably would contravene the IAEA mission of “verifying through its inspection system that States comply with their commitments, under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other non-proliferation agreements, to use nuclear material and facilities only for peaceful purposes.”
The DPRK withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and has violated the safeguards agreement it ratified in 1992. Therefore, Pyongyang’s third step could be a proposal for an alternative monitoring arrangement with American, Chinese and Russian inspectors to verify the freeze in the spirit of “nuclear safety.” The freeze could then be extended and remain in place once the Six-Party Talks reconvene. China, Russia and the U.S. are nuclear weapons states and eventually could form a trilateral group to dismantle DPRK nuclear weapons—if Pyongyang disarms. Furthermore, a trilateral inspection team, although difficult to coordinate, would make Beijing a stakeholder in this process. China could no longer deny the existence of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program, and if the DPRK were to renege on its denuclearization commitments and restart its uranium enrichment activities, Pyongyang would have to expel Chinese, Russian and American inspectors.
The fourth step could be renewed inter-Korean talks to transfer North Korea’s 12,000 fresh fuel rods out of the country as soon as possible. These fuels rods can yield up to about eight bombs worth of plutonium, but North Korea does not have a reactor to irradiate the fuel rods. The rods were fabricated for the T’aech’ŏn reactor that was under construction when the Agreed Framework was struck in 1994, but the reactor is in such disrepair that it would take years for North Korea to build a new reactor, irradiate the fuel rods and extract the plutonium from the spent fuel. The South had offered to buy the fuel rods and convert them for use in South Korean power reactors before the Six-Party Talks collapsed, and cash-strapped Pyongyang could use the money as it ramps up to celebrate next year’s arrival as a “strong and prosperous country.”
These steps are not costly for North Korea and easily could be reversed. However, they would be viewed as positive measures and as signs that Pyongyang is prepared to bargain in good faith and fulfill its denuclearization commitments. The inter-Korean talks in Indonesia are a positive step, and hopefully Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan will deliver more positive news in New York.
 “The IAEA Mission Statement,” http://www.iaea.org/About/mission.html.