This past July, the Six Party Talks, held between the United States, North
Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, restarted after a one-year hiatus
during which North Korea walked away from the table. Since that time, North
Korea has continued its nuclear weapons program. Over the summer, I had the
opportunity to visit South Korea and even a few places in North Korea as part
of an educational program for congressional staff. During my visit, I met with
South Korean officials as well as ordinary citizens and gained a different perspective
the South Korean perspective of their neighbor to the north.
More than a decade ago, the United States confronted North Korea with evidence of its nuclear reprocessing program. North Koreas reprocessed plutonium was ready-made for nuclear weapons, but the crisis appeared to be defused in 1994, when the United States and North Korea reached the so-called Agreed Framework. Under the framework, North Korea agreed to stop reprocessing plutonium in return for economic and humanitarian assistance. In addition, North Korea was to receive light-water nuclear reactors for civil power, which are more proliferation resistant, reducing the possibility of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material.
The Agreed Framework, however, derailed shortly after President George W. Bush was elected. The United States once again confronted North Korea with evidence of its nuclear activities in 2002, this time regarding a covert uranium-enrichment program. Like reprocessed plutonium, enriched uranium can also be used in nuclear weapons. The North Korean response quickly brought an end to diplomatic relations with the United States. In 2002, North Korea asked all international inspectors to leave, and in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The country resumed its nuclear reprocessing program, and this past February announced that it had nuclear weapons.
Ever since, the United States has enlisted the aid of four other countries South Korea, China, Russia and Japan to urge North Korea to renounce its nuclear program and rejoin the international nonproliferation regime. The Six Party Talks, however, hit a major stumbling block last February when North Korea walked out.
Only this past July did North Korea finally agree to return to the Six Party Talks. After several weeks of intense negotiations, again the talks broke off with no resolution but with an agreement to meet at the end of August. As of Sept. 15, no resolution had taken place.
This hiatus coincided with my own trip to North Korea, which yielded some interesting observations. I visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is a 4-kilometer swath that separates North Korea from South Korea, with 2 kilometers in each country, and which is only 40 minutes north of Seoul. I visited a base operated by the United Nations located right on the border in the DMZ, where meetings take place, with half of the building lying in North Korea and the other half in South Korea. Here, armed soldiers on both sides face each other on a daily basis. Before disembarking from the bus, I was warned that North Korean soldiers could appear and be within 30 feet of where I stood. Often they stand fiercely as a form of intimidation. That day, however, none showed up.
The second time I went to the DMZ, I was on the eastern side of the Korean peninsula. That time I actually crossed the DMZ into North Korea, allowed there as part of South Koreas recent initiative to slowly introduce capitalism to North Korea. I visited one of two sites South Korea has developed in North Korea. The eastern site is now a resort area in the mountains just north of the border Mount Kumgang. (The other site is an industrial site in the west where household items are manufactured.)
After spending two hours crossing the border into North Korea, I found myself hiking in the most spectacular granitic mountains. The peninsula of Korea is 70 percent mountainous and mostly granitic. Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, has become an expert at tunneling into granite, supposedly to hide his covert activities from the detection of satellites.
Even though the border between North and South Korea is the most heavily militarized border on the planet, South Koreans do not perceive North Korea as the military threat that Americans do. In fact, younger generations who are far removed from the Korean War see no threat from North Korea, despite the fact that North Korea has several conventional missiles aimed at and well within striking range of Seoul. It also may come as a surprise that the Korean War never officially ended; only a ceasefire is in place.
Yet South Koreans do not view North Korea as their enemy; perhaps the 50 years of living with North Korean missiles aimed at them has muted this threat. Rather, South Koreans are acutely aware of what might happen to their country should the regime of Kim Jong-il in North Korea suddenly collapse the influx from the north could devastate the thriving South Korean economy.
South Korea is not alone in having a different perspective than the United States about North Korea. Even though the other countries involved in the Six Party Talks have vested interests in a denuclearized Korean peninsula, each sees the problem of North Korea in a different light with different solutions. In the past, North Korea has used this to its advantage, appealing to one country to offset the demands of another.
One area where disagreement remains is whether North Korea should be allowed to have any type of civil nuclear power. Given North Koreas poor track record, the United States is not likely to agree to any deal that involves North Korea maintaining any nuclear power capabilities. In fact, in the recently passed energy bill, a provision originally offered by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) prohibits the transfer of any nuclear equipment or technology to North Korea, with exceptions for monitoring activities or responses to an accident. The provision goes one step further, preventing any other country that has received nuclear equipment or technology from the United States from retransferring or reselling it to North Korea.
The other big hurdle that will have to be overcome is to what extent North Korea will be required to disarm. Will they have to dismantle any nuclear weapons they have, and how will dismantlement be verified?
What the outcome will be of the Six Party Talks is too early to tell, but a resolution will be difficult to achieve without consensus on key baseline requirements among the five other participating countries. Given the alternative, the United States needs to work hard to reach this consensus.