By Gong Shaopeng
In the latest round of six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue,
the parties involved have expressed optimism on the outcome. The
thinking is that the main players the United States and North Korea
could return to the Agreed Framework signed in 1994.
With the current talks in Beijing, which began on February 8,
it's time to recap the long and twisting road that's already been
After the emergence of the so-called Korean nuclear crisis in
1993, the US and North Korea reached an agreement known as the
US-North Korea Framework on Nuclear Issues on October 21, 1994.
At that time, North Korea insisted its nuclear program was aimed
at ending its power shortage. Therefore the Agreed Framework
demands that North Korea freeze its graphite reactor and all
related facilities in exchange for two light-water reactors with a
combined annual capacity of 2,000 megawatts per hour to be built by
2003 by an international consortium led by the US.
Before the first of the two reactors goes online, the US would
supply 500,000 tons of heavy oil annually to North Korea for
heating and power generation. On its part, North Korea would
completely dismantle its graphite-moderated reactor related
facilities. The two sides would also move toward full normalization
of political and economic relations, opening liaison offices in
each other's capitals, eventually upgrading bilateral ties to the
level of ambassador.
In 1995, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization
(KEDO), formed and led by the US, signed an agreement with North
Korea government. Construction of the two light-water reactors
Despite numerous twists and turns in the process of implementing
the agreement, ties between North Korea and South Korea and between
North Korea and the US made considerable progress.
In June 2000, then South Korean President Kim Dae-chong visited
Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, for talks with his counterpart,
Kim Jong-il. That October, Marshal Jo Myong-rok, vice-chairman of
North Korea's defense committee, visited Washington and met with US
President Bill Clinton. Later that month, then US Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright paid a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang and
conferred with Kim Jong-il.
If the Democrats had won the presidential election later that
year, Clinton's successor might have been the first US president to
set foot on North Korea soil.
However, when the Republican administration took power in
January 2001, it soon labeled North Korea a "rogue state" and one
of the three countries it termed the "axis of evil".
Bilateral relations between North Korea and the US took a nosedive.
A US government spokesman claimed that North Korea admitted to US
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly during his visit to
Pyongyang that it had been working on another nuclear project after
suspending the graphite-moderated reactor program.
The US then announced sanctions against North Korea for
violating the 1994 Agreed Framework. The sanctions included
suspension of the heavy oil supply. North Korea came back with the
statement that its nuclear program was in response to the military
threat posed by the Bush administration. It also announced on
December 22, 2002 it would unfreeze its nuclear program and pull
out of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. These
events triggered the second Korean nuclear crisis.
Following China's persuasive efforts, the first round of the
six-party talks to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue was
convened in Beijing in August 2003. The talks were attended by
China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the US.
The ultimate goal of the talks is "abandoning the nuclear
program in exchange for national security", meaning North Korea
would abandon its nuclear activities while the US would promise it
would not threaten North Korea's national security. Eventually, the
parties signed a joint statement at the end of the Fourth Round of
the six-party talks held in Beijing in September 2005.
North Korea committed to abandoning all future development of
nuclear weapons as well as the existing nuclear program. It also
agreed to rejoin the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear
Weapons at an early date. The US affirmed that it has no nuclear
weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack
The joint statement also included the light-water nuclear
reactors. North Korea stated it has the right to the peaceful use
of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect for
this position and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the
provision of light-water reactors to North Korea.
China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US stated their
willingness to provide energy assistance to North Korea. South
Korea also reaffirmed its July 12, 2005 proposal to provide 2
million kilowatt hours of electricity to North Korea. Though they
were not the focus of the six-party talks, the light-water reactors
played an important role in addressing the Korean nuclear
Regrettably, the implementation of the joint statement was cut
short by US financial sanctions on a Macao-based bank accused of
laundering and counterfeiting money for North Korea. North Korea
conducted several missile tests on July 6, 2006 and an underground
nuclear explosion on October 9. The situation on the Korean
Peninsula immediately turned tense once again.
Hopes for the resumption of the six-party talks were rekindled
after a meeting in Berlin between US Assistant Secretary of State
Christopher Hill and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim
Kye-gwan in January.
According to news reports, North Korea agreed, as the first step
in "abandoning its nuclear program", to freeze its nuclear
facilities in Yongbyong in exchange for resumed heavy oil supplies
from the US. In other words, North Korea and to a certain extent
the US agreed to use the 1994 Agreed Framework as the first step in
implementing a joint statement.
It should be acknowledged that the denuclearization of the
Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved in a single leap. It is
pragmatic to address the issue step by step, beginning with the
1994 Agreed Framework and "freezing certain nuclear facilities in
exchange for oil supply". This first step of real significance is
not easily accomplished.
The first stumbling block is who should supply the heavy oil
North Korea demanded.
According to the 1994 Agreed Framework, it is the job of the
KEDO. However, the US-led group was disbanded without ceremony in
December 2005 and has not seen a multinational replacement.
Many people believe South Korea should take the lead in
supplying energy and electricity to North Korea, but the Roh
Moo-hyun administration is currently in trouble over the supply of
heavy oil to North Korea. The opposition parties have been accusing
Roh's government of being too generous in its efforts to improve
relations with the north.
More recently, Roh's administration lost majority backing in
Parliament after dozens of legislators quit the ruling party. It
will now be very difficult for South Korea to supply heavy oil to
Another problem is the uncertain fate of the two light-water
reactors to replace North Korea's own contraption as required by
the 1994 Agreed Framework. They are expected to end North Korea's
power shortage since the agreement on "freezing nuclear facilities
in exchange for oil" is only a temporary measure.
It is quite possible that some countries involved in "freezing
nuclear facilities in exchange for oil" deal may have second
thoughts on providing North Korea with light-water reactors. They
may demand the formulation of some follow-up solutions. As the KEDO
no longer exists, even formulating a preliminary proposal could be
Finally, since "abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for
national security" is the focus of the six-party talks, returning
to the 1994 Agreed Framework can only be seen as a temporary step.
The US is highly unlikely to see "freezing certain nuclear
facilities in exchange for oil" as the first step toward
"abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for national security"
without concrete follow-up measures.
In short, the current six-party talks appear bound for a very
bumpy ride, though there is more than one reason to be optimistic.
It would be a cause to celebrate if this round of talks succeeds in
returning North Korea and the US to the 1994 Agreed Framework as
the first step toward "abandoning nuclear programs in exchange for
If the six parties only manage to form a few working groups on
detailed plans, there is no reason for pessimism. Movement is being
made toward the ultimate goal of the six-party talks "abandoning
nuclear programs in exchange for national security". Just remember
the ancient Chinese saying: Slow progress is better than none.
Gong Shaopeng is professor of international relations at the
Beijing-based Foreign Affairs University's Institute of
(China Daily February 13, 2007)