North Korea Nuclear Deal Hinges on 60-Day Timetable, Hill Says

By Vince Crawley
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The six-party agreement to end North Korea’s nuclear program uses a step-by-step approach that combines a series of short deadlines with increasingly significant goals that could lead eventually to a peace treaty and normalized relations, the senior U.S. negotiator says.

If all parties meet the 60-day timetable for their first round of agreements, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is likely to attend a six-nation ministerial meeting in Beijing in April to discuss the next phase of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, Ambassador Christopher Hill said February 22 at the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington. Hill is assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

On February 13, diplomats from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the United States, announced in Beijing that they had reached an agreement for North Korea to shut down its main nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon and allow international inspectors to verify the process as a first step toward disclosing and dismantling its entire nuclear infrastructure. In exchange, North Korea will receive international economic, humanitarian and energy assistance. (See related article.)

Rather than a comprehensive agreement, Hill said, the six parties were able to commit to a 60-day deadline known as the Initial Action Agreement.

Goals for the first 60 days include:

• North Korea shutting down its Yongbyon reactor and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who left the country in 2002, to return;

• North Korea compiling a list of its declared nuclear sites;

• Bilateral groups of the various parties meeting to begin discussions on a range of regional issues; and

• North Korea receiving its first shipment of 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

Several working groups also are holding initial meetings to discuss issues related to eliminating nuclear programs, North Korea’s energy needs and Northeast Asia’s regional peace and security issues. 

Bilateral meetings are taking place with North Korea and Japan to discuss the issue of at least 13 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (See related article.)

The United States also is developing a working group to discuss bilateral U.S.-North Korean relations. If nuclear programs are eliminated from the Korean Peninsula, Hill said, then the United States has agreed to pursue normalized relations with North Korea for the first time since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The United States’ goal is a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. But convincing North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs “is going to require a step-by-step process,” Hill said. “As they move one step, they will look back and say, this is a better place than we were in yesterday. And that will encourage them to take still another step.”

If the six parties meet their agreements, “our plan is to then have a ministerial U.S. Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice will go out to Beijing, and she will meet with her other five counterparts, including the North Korean minister for foreign affairs, and review the first 60 days,” Hill said. The April meeting, if it takes place, also would address the next phase of the agreement.

The next phase of the agreement includes the five parties providing North Korea another 950,000 tons of fuel oil, in stages that will correspond to actions taken by the North Korea. To receive the fuel aid, North Korea has agreed to provide a complete list of its nuclear programs and to disable all existing nuclear reactors.  The cost for the oil, valued at $220 million, will be shared among the parties.

“It is our hope that through the progress in the six parties, this can spawn the creation of a group of countries … to try to sit down and end the armistice and replace the armistice with a peace mechanism on the Korean Peninsula,” Hill said. The group of countries involved in a permanent peace settlement would likely include China, the United States, and North and South Korea.

Hill said the long-term presence of U.S. troops in South Korea is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

“U.S. troops have been an extremely stabilizing presence, and I think they have really helped maintain peace and security on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “And so I’m kind of disinclined to … change things that aren’t a problem.”

Hill said a Korean peace treaty would not be a six-party activity. It likely would involve both Koreas, the United States and China.

"The issue of replacing the armistice with a peace mechanism needs to be done by the directly relevant parties, and that's not necessarily the six parties,” he said. “I think one could safely assume those [relevant parties] would be China and the U.S., but especially the two Koreas. And I would anticipate that they would meet together and begin to plan out a work plan, and we would like to do it in a reasonable amount of time."

Since 2003, the United States has reconfigured its military presence in South Korea, reducing troop levels from 37,000 to 25,000.