North Korea's nuclear weapons program remains a key problem for the international community. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the North Korea question and discusses some of the options facing the world community.
The United States has been saying since October 2002 that North Korea has a secret nuclear weapons program. Since then, Pyongyang has pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled United Nations monitors, re-opened a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994 and announced that it has developed some nuclear devices.
Daryl Kimball heads the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization. He says North Korea is manufacturing nuclear weapons, though it is unclear how many warheads it may have.
"What North Korea has, right now, is the capability to continue to produce enough plutonium for some six nuclear bombs a year," he explained. "They have a large number of spent fuel rods already at a facility near a town called Yongbyon that provides enough material to extract about six bombs worth of plutonium a year. So that work goes on right now. It is also possible, and suspected by many, that North Korea has been seeking the capability to enrich uranium. It's not clear how advanced that capability might be. There is no known uranium enrichment facility. So the main concern right now is that North Korea has enough nuclear bomb material for some three to nine nuclear weapons and is separating plutonium as we speak that could be used to make more."
For the past several years, the United States has been trying to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. That effort has been conducted through the negotiating forum known as the six-party talks, bringing together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
After a 13-month hiatus, the six-party talks resumed last July. And Mr. Kimball says the parties reached an agreement several months later, during another round of talks.
"In September, the six parties reached agreement on what is being referred to as a 'joint statement of principles,'" added Mr. Kimball. "It is more or less a 'terms of reference' for further negotiations to resolve this crisis. And what the 'joint statement of principles' does, is it says that North Korea pledges to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. It also pledges the United States not to attack North Korea and it opens up the possibility for the normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea."
The agreement was seen as a breakthrough. But Dan Pinkston, North Korea expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says the accord was vague.
"The agreement was certainly open to interpretation, depending on how you looked at it," he explained. "It appeared to be very broad and to include what everybody wanted and so it appeared to be a good agreement on the surface that would make everyone better off. But of course, the details are open to interpretation."
Analysts say in addition to being vague and being open to various interpretations, the accord had another drawback. David Arasé is an expert on North Korea with Pomona College.
"The problem was that the timing of the concessions was not made clear," said Mr. Arasé. "And so in November, when they held another round of six-party talks to work on those details of actual implementation of the principle, the talks fell apart, because the North wanted a guarantee of a nuclear reactor to provide electricity for the North before it would give up completely, verifiably, irreversibly, its nuclear weapons. Technically, the issue is the timing of the implementation of the principle signed in September."
But experts say other issues having little to do with nuclear weapons have come up in the six-party talks. Dan Pinkston from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says the North Koreans have reacted negatively to those issues being brought up.
"They are dissatisfied with the fact that the U.S. is applying pressure in other areas, including naming a number of firms as having violated U.S. non-proliferation laws," added Mr. Pinkston. "And they have been placed on a sanctions list. There was a bank in Macao that was blacklisted or had its assets frozen by the U.S., which caused a run on the bank, for allegedly handling North Korean transfers, financial transfers related to the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] trade. So they are unhappy about that. There has been some discussion about counterfeiting and other illegal activities."
North Korea has denied involvement in such activities. But it has also decided to suspend its involvement in the six-party talks indefinitely because of the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the United States.
Mr. Pinkston says the talks are at a standstill.
"All of the parties are dissatisfied," said Mr. Pinkston. "Everyone is dissatisfied, but the realization is that it could deteriorate and become much worse and everyone wants to avoid that. That's why we are kind of sitting in this stalemate."
Mr. Pinkston and others believe the six-party talks must resume early in the new year. But they say that would involve compromises from both sides, and it appears no one is willing to be the first to move in that direction.