| Backgrounder: The Six-Party Talks on North Korea's Nuclear Program

The Six-Party Talks are aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program through a negotiating process involving China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Since the talks began in August 2003, the negotiations have been bedeviled by diplomatic standoffs among individual Six-Party member states--particularly between the United States and North Korea. In April 2009, North Korea quit the talks and announced that it would reverse the ongoing disablement process called for under the Six-Party agreements and restart its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Because Pyongyang appears intent on maintaining its nuclear program, some experts are pessimistic the talks can achieve anything beyond managing the North Korean threat. The Obama administration has been pursuing talks with the other four countries in the process to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiation table. Alongside the United Nations' effort to sanction North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, "this regional partnership between the United States and the countries of Northeast Asia remains the best vehicle ... for building stable relationships on and around the Korean peninsula," writes CFR's Sheila Smith.

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Co-authored by Jayshree Bajoria and Carin Zissis | Pying-Pyong Diplomacy

The Bush administration’s policy of no direct talks with Pyongyang is no more. Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. envoy in North Korean denuclearization talks, made a surprise visit (KTimes) to the isolated country Thursday. With this trip, Hill aimed to breathe life into a February denuclearization deal that gave Pyongyang sixty days to shut down its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and allow inspectors to return to the country. In exchange, Pyongyang would receive desperately needed food and energy supplies from members of the Six-Party Talks. But the April deadline came and went with Pyongyang refusing to hold up its part of the bargain until it received $25 million in funds, which the United States says were connected to North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering, frozen in a Macao bank. After meetings in Pyongyang, Hill said North Korean officials were prepared to move past the funds issue and shut down Yongbyon (BBC).

Read the full text. | Waiting for Pyongyang

North Korea failed to meet its weekend deadline to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, although South Korea officials say activities detected near the reactor may indicate Pyongyong intends to close down Yongbyon (AP). U.S. officials said they will give Pyongyang a few more days to meet its end of a tentative denuclearization deal, signed two months ago by Six-Party Talk members. That agreement set an April 14 deadline for North Korea to shut down the main reactor at its facility at Yongbyon. At stake are millions of dollars in energy and humanitarian aid, not to mention progress toward denuclearization and renewed inspections. A dispute over $25 million in frozen North Korean funds in a Macao bank imperils the deal.

Read the full text. | Stalled Again at Six-Party Talks

Even as a path is cleared to meet the requirements of the North Korean denuclearization agreement reached in February, another round of Six-Party Talks has stalled. The February deal, which requires Pyongyang to shut down its main nuclear reactor within sixty days in exchange for fuel oil, involves a series of bilateral talks, including U.S.-North Korea negotiations aimed at normalizing relations. On March 14, Washington broke through on one of the biggest obstacles in its relations with Pyongyang with a decision that allows the release of $25 million (LAT) in North Korean funds from a Macao-based bank. | About Face on North Korea

As the United States hosted North Korea for talks about normalizing a tempestuous relationship, questions swirled around Washington’s suddenly softer approach to Pyongyang. After years of refusing bilateral talks with the Hermit Kingdom—one of the three members of the “Axis of Evil”—the Bush administration switched tactics. Christopher Hill, the State Department’s senior diplomat for East Asian affairs, sat down in New York this week for direct negotiations with Kim Kye-Gwan to hammer out next steps on an agreement reached during February Six-Party Talks. Under the pact, North Korea will receive fuel oil, economic assistance, and humanitarian aid in return for shutting down and sealing its nuclear facilities within sixty days.

Read the full text. | Dim Prospects for Six-Party Deal

As Six-Party Talks resumed in Beijing on December 18, North Korea maintained its defiance (Korea Times), going so far as to demand mutual disarmament talks with the United States. But Pyongyang's real objective, which its delegates have made a precondition for any other negotiations, is the lifting of U.S. financial sanctions (Asia Times). On Tuesday, finance officials from both countries met on the sidelines to discuss the U.S. restrictions (BBC), including those imposed on a Macao-based bank linked to North Korean money laundering. Ahead of the meeting, Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man on North Korea, said he hoped for “significant progress” in the first round, though experts say that is unlikely. 

Read the full text. | Samore: China 'Most Important Asset' for U.S. in Handling North Korean Threat

The United States responded sternly this week to the Pyongyang nuclear test threat, saying a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. But Gary S. Samore, CFR’s director of studies, says Kim Jung-Il sees Washington in a vulnerable position because of U.S. preoccupation with events in the Middle East. Samore, a former National Security Council staffer and nonproliferation expert, says “the most important asset the United States has is to work with China” to defuse the crisis and Pyongyang considers Beijing and Seoul the bigger players in negotiations because their aid sustains an increasingly isolated North Korea.

North Korea this week upped the ante by saying that it will conduct nuclear tests on an undisclosed date in the future. During the Clinton administration you helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework with the goal of reigning in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Do you think similar negotiations could work to end the current standoff?

I don’t think North Korea’s prepared to give up its nuclear capabilities under any conditions, so the best you could do through a negotiation would be to limit North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, in terms of the number of nuclear weapons it has, and perhaps some limits on its delivery capability. But in terms of actually achieving disarmament, I think that’s no longer possible.

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