On April 23, 2003, China, at the request of the U.S., hosted three party talks with North Korea and the U.S. Early that month, when bilateral relations with North Korea were tense, Secretary of State Colin Powell asked China to intercede with North Korea to convene direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea. China complied and got North Korea to the negotiation table.
This request to China came after North Korea, during an October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, admitted to having a Uranium Enrichment Program, a violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea’s Plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyan, in return for the construction of two Light Water Reactors and the provision of heavy fuel oil in the interim, while the reactors were under construction.
Given this North Korean violation, in November 2002, the U.S. ceased providing heavy fuel oil to North Korea and suspended construction of the two Light Water Reactors at Kumho, North Korea.
North Korea’s reaction was swift. In December 2002, they restarted the plutonium nuclear reactor and were making preparations to remove over 8000 spent nuclear fuel rods, stored in cooling ponds, to reprocess them for fissile material for nuclear weapons. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the only country to withdraw from the NPT. This was a tense period; it motivated the U.S. to reach out to China to intercede with North Korea.
The three party talks China hosted in April 2003 resulted in the establishment of Six Party Talks (6PT), that also included South Korea, Japan and Russia. The first meeting of the 6PT was in August 2003, convened by China’s Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing.
China, as the host, organized the three party talks in April 2003, followed by six Plenary sessions of the 6PT, through 2008. On Sept. 19, 2005 there was a moment of success with a Joint Statement that committed North Korea to complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs, in return for economic development assistance, a peace treaty, security assurances and the provision of Light Water Reactors when North Korea returned to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state.
The guiding principle of this agreement was action for action; as North Korea commenced with the dismantlement of its nuclear programs, the economic and security deliverables would be provided. When North Korea in late 2008 refused to sign a verification and monitoring agreement that permitted monitors to leave Yongbyon to inspect and take samples from other areas in North Korea, all progress with the Joint Statement ended and official talks with North Korea ceased.
Since that time, North Korea has built a sizable number of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, to include the July 28 and July 4, 2017 successful launches of intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), with estimated ranges of 7000 and 10,000 kilometers. Preparations appear underway for the North’s sixth nuclear test, following an estimated 30 kiloton nuclear test in 2016.
In addition to claiming the ability to miniaturize their nuclear warheads, North Korea in 2017 also successfully launched an Intermediate Ballistic Missile (IRBM) with a range of 4000 kilometers and a Submarine-launched Ballistic Missile (SLBL).
Our policy of Strategic Patience, since 2010, as a strategy for dealing with North Korea, obviously wasn’t successful. While additional sanctions were imposed and North Korea was further isolated in the international community, the Kim Jong-un governments raced to acquire formidable nuclear and missile capabilities. We are now, unfortunately, at an inflection point.
Permitting North Korea to further enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities, ensuring that it becomes an existential nuclear threat to the U.S., is not in our interest. Nor is acquiescing to North Korea’s demand that they be recognized as a nuclear weapons state, possibly even being amenable to accepting a cap on the number of nuclear weapons it can retain. Indeed, permitting North Korea to retain even a small number of nuclear weapons would be a mistake. It would lead to a nuclear arms race in the region, with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and others also seeking their own nuclear weapons capability.
Also, the accidental use of a nuclear weapon, through error or miscalculation, is always a possibility, as is the prospect that a nuclear weapon or fissile material finds its way to a rogue state or a non-state terrorist actor.
China alone cannot or will not resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea. It’s likely China will, however, as they did from 2003 to 2008, work with the U.S. to get North Korea to the negotiation table to discuss halting its nuclear and missile programs, as the first step in a dialogue that hopefully will succeed in convincing Kim Jong-un that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will benefit North Korea, with economic development assistance, a peace treaty, security assurances and progress toward a normal relationship with the U.S.
Since Chairman Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978, strategic cooperation between the U.S. and China has been noteworthy. Cooperation to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan was a seminal success story, as are bilateral cooperation on counter proliferation, Cyber security and piracy on the sea.
Given the good meetings between Presidents Trump and Xi, at Mar-a-Largo and the G-20, and the recently established economic dialogue, to discuss trade and Foreign Direct Investment and other related issues, and the prospect that military to military relations will be enhanced, to deal with the South China Sea and other issues, it’s important now that we seize this momentum and ensure that cooperation with China in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue is our primary objective.
Given my decades of work with China, I’m confident Beijing could get North Korea to sit down with the U.S. for official three party talks, similar to April 2003, to determine if North Korea would be willing to halt its nuclear and missile programs, in return for a discussion of issues important to them, like security assurances, peace treaty, joint military exercises and sanctions.
There should be time lines established for these exploratory talks, with verification protocols established to ensure compliance with any agreement. Indeed, if we get this far, then a continued discussion of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be pursued, similar to what all agreed to in the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement, with the added prospect that interest sections or liaison offices could be established in our respective capitals.
If North Korea refuses any Chinese request for talks with the U.S., or if the actual talks are unsuccessful, then the U.S., working primarily with our South Korean and Japanese allies, should pursue a policy of greater missile defense deployments, enhanced sanctions, expanded joint military exercises with South Korea, and greater trilateral intelligence and military cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
Ideally, China can get North Korea to the table for talks with the U.S. and China on an immediate halt to North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches, in return for a discussion of security assurances and sanctions relief of concern to North Korea. This process could defuse current tension and lead to a more permanent peaceful resolution of issues with North Korea.
• Joseph R. DeTrani, was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea.