Reprinted with permission of the Research Institute of International Affairs.
On October 25, 2002, three weeks after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Koreans in Pyongyang with evidence that they were pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program, a spokesman for the DPRK’s foreign ministry said the DPRK was ready “with the greatest magnanimity” to seek a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue if the United States recognized the DPRK’s sovereignty, provided an assurance of non-aggression, and ceased hindering the DPRK’s economic development.2 The United States responded that no negotiations would take place until the DPRK ended its forbidden nuclear programs.
No further talks were scheduled, and on January 10, 2003, the North Koreans announced their withdrawal (once again) from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. On April 18, 2003, they issued a statement claiming to have almost completed reprocessing their stored nuclear fuel.3 Despite the DPRK’s insistence that the nuclear issue was a matter to be discussed only with the United States, and the U.S. insistence that the nuclear issue should be discussed in a multilateral forum, both sides compromised on dialogue format by accepting an invitation from the Chinese to meet in Beijing on April 23, 2003 for three-party talks, during which the North Koreans claimed that they already possessed nuclear weapons and would not dismantle them.4 If North Korea’s announcements and disclosures about its nuclear program were intended to put the United States in a mood to bargain, they failed. The U.S. side refused to compromise on its demand that the DPRK unconditionally end its nuclear weapons programs.
More months passed, and the DPRK agreed to participate in six-party talks in Beijing in late August 2003, with the understanding that the U.S. delegation would meet bilaterally with DPRK representatives within the framework of the talks. Just before the six-party talks, the DPRK reiterated that the existence of “hostile” relations between the DPRK and the United States was the only factor creating tension on the Korean peninsula, and suggested that if the United States “legally committed itself to non-aggression involving non-use of nuclear weapons against the DPRK,” the DPRK in turn would make a “bold decision to dispel the U.S. concerns about its security.”5 This offer was reminiscent of North Korea’s promise in 1993 that “If the United States accepts the DPRK-proposed formula of a package solution, all problems related to the nuclear issue including the compliance with the [IAEA] safeguards agreement will be solved and it will not take much time.”6 The package solution touted by the North Koreans in 1993 became the 1994 Agreed Framework, which notably failed to resolve the nuclear issue.
[South Korean President Moon Jae-in]’s been pursuing a parallel diplomatic policy. Basically, it’s like having two partners, and you have to constantly dance with both of them, while at the same time not losing your own stance and your own posture.
[On the inter-Korean talks] It remains to be seen if the more civil atmosphere prior to the Olympics can address the much deeper divide over major substantive issues - in particular, North Korea's nuclear and missile development (which Pyongyang insists is none of Seoul's business) and the almost certain North Korean demands in any future discussions to weaken or dismantle outright the workings of the U.S.-ROK alliance. The critical issue here is whether the ROK is prepared to say 'no' to the inevitable demands from the DPRK, despite the Moon administration's clear desire to improve inter-Korean relations.