U.S.-North Korea Talks

Report Asia

U.S.-North Korea Talks

April 23, 2003 4 min read
Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Balbina is a former Senior Policy Analyst

This week in Beijing, on April 23-25, U.S. officials meet and talk with their North Korean and Chinese counterparts, ostensibly to resolve the current standoff over the North Korean regime's nuclear proliferation. This meeting can be an important initial step toward a peaceful solution to a serious global threat. The Bush Administration should use these meetings as a short-term opportunity to communicate clearly and unequivocally its principled stance that North Korea must act to reduce its full array of threats, both conventional and nuclear. In the long term, North Korea must agree to return to its previous nuclear status, adopt a multilateral framework to verify its compliance with international agreements, initiate a comprehensive plan to reduce or reposition its forces, curtail its missile and arms sales, and pursue domestic reforms to alleviate the hardships suffered by the North Korean people.

The Bush Administration should back this position with a comprehensive plan that combines muscular diplomacy, security measures, and economic sanctions and inducements that are well-coordinated with regional players.

Recent North Korean Provocations

The trilateral meeting in Beijing will be the first meeting between the United States and North Korea since October 2002, when North Korea admitted that it had been conducting a major clandestine nuclear weapons development program for the past several years. North Korea then violated several international agreements[1] in quick succession by unfreezing its plutonium facility in Yongbyon, expelling International Atomic Energy Agency monitors, and pulling out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Since initiating these provocative actions, North Korea has consistently demanded face-to-face meetings with the United States, despite the Bush Administration's principled stance that it would address North Korea only within a multilateral setting and not give in to nuclear blackmail. Now, in an about-face, North Korea has agreed to meet the United States in a non-bilateral setting. Entering these meetings, the United States has retained its negotiating strength because it did not cave in to North Korean threats and demands.

More important, U.S. insistence on a multilateral resolution to North Korea's nuclear proliferation is necessary because it is not a bilateral issue; North Korea's provocations threaten the stability not only of the region and countries in the region, but also of the entire global community. Any framework to address the North's nuclear program will require, at a minimum, the participation and cooperation of regional neighbors to ensure Pyongyang's compliance in the future.

Goals for the Bush Administration in Beijing

As officials from the Bush Administration work through this and any subsequent meetings, they should consider the following goals:

  • Ensure that any formal negotiations that may ensue from these talks extend beyond nuclear weapons to address North Korea's comprehensive security threats to the region. North Korea maintains over 1.1 million active duty personnel, with a reserve force of 6 million. Currently, 70 percent of its military forces are deployed within 90 miles of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The United States and its allies should urge North Korea to withdraw significant portions of its conventional forces from the vicinity of the DMZ. In return, the United States and its allies could agree to similar confidence-building measures by reducing commensurate capabilities for surprise, first-strike attacks.
  • Prevent North Korea from dividing the interests of America and its allies, South Korea and Japan. Although representatives from South Korea, Japan, and Russia-the other major powers in the region with direct interests in reducing tensions with North Korea-are not included in these meetings, the United States should make clear to North Korea and China that any permanent solution must include the active participation of the other regional players. No country has a greater interest in a peaceful resolution to tensions on the Korean peninsula than South Korea, and it must take the lead on issues that relate to inter-Korean reconciliation. One of the great flaws of the 1994 Agreed Framework was the exclusion of South Korea from the negotiation process despite the instrumental responsibility that both South Korea and Japan were required to bear in its implementation. Indeed, this fact is now often cited as an example of American indifference and disrespect in anti-American rhetoric in South Korea. Russia, an ally of North Korea, also has strong interests in a peaceful outcome.
  • Encourage North Korea to reverse its "military first" policy and institute substantive domestic reforms that include economic and political liberalization. Kim Jong Il's brutal domestic policies are conditioned by his fear that his regime will lose control if he relaxes his totalitarian grip on his society. He should be made to understand that such policies are ultimately unsustainable. As economic failure, mass starvation, and dependence on outside sources for food and energy reveal, the only viable solution for his regime is to begin reforms. Further isolation from the international economy and community will only lead to greater instability and illegitimacy.


This week's meetings in Beijing are an important but preliminary step toward resolving North Korea's nuclear problem peacefully. The United States should approach the road ahead with cautious optimism. If history is any indicator of the future, North Korea will continue its provocations while simultaneously making conciliatory gestures. Such behavior is to be expected and should not be used as the short-term measure of the Bush Administration's steadfast approach to North Korea. Regardless of Pyongyang's machinations to obfuscate and confuse the issues, the Bush Administration should remain focused on the long-term goal of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and the region.

- Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]North Korea's development of nuclear weapons violates the 1994 Geneva Accords (or Agreed Framework), the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement.


Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst