Center for Arms Control

by Leonor Tomero [contact information]

Will Ill Kim Jong-Il Derail Disarmament?

October 6, 2008
By Leonor Tomero and Adam Ptacin

U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill, right, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Kim Sook on October 3, 2008. (AP)


February 13, 2007 marked an important day for the Six Party Talks, the process used by six countries – the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia – since 2003 to try and negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korea agreed on February 13 to disassemble its nuclear programs in exchange for fuel aid and the normalization of diplomatic and trade relations. In the ensuing months, optimism about the nuclear disarmament process grew as U.S. aid to North Korea began flowing and North Korea stopped work on its reactors. As International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections began, North Korea finally provided a list of its nuclear activities on June 26, 2008. A highly visible and symbolic demolition of the Yongbyon reactor cooling tower occurred the next day.

After the dramatic events at Yongbyon, the Bush administration provided the 45-day notice of intent to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list – a major condition for North Korea’s willingness to relinquish its nuclear program. North Korea was added to the list in 1988 after its agents blew up a South Korean passenger plane, killing all 115 people aboard. Being on the list limited both aid shipments and business transactions with North Korea.

Congressional concerns about verification mechanisms delayed action, however, and the deadline for taking North Korea off the terrorism list passed on August 11, 2008. Soon after, North Korea halted its reactor disablement program in protest. In September, Pyongyang asked the IAEA to remove the seals from its Yongbyon plant that are part of the verification effort to ensure that nuclear work does not resume.

Washington maintains that North Korea has not been removed from the list of state-sponsors of terrorism because verification mechanisms which meet “international standards” have not yet been put in place. The United States is seeking unlimited inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, soil sampling tests, and interviews with key scientists involved in the nuclear program.

The North Koreans regard these measures as an encroachment on their national sovereignty, a view supported by independent nongovernmental experts. As David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, said recently, “The United States was demanding verification measures of North Korea no state would accept unless it was defeated in war.”

The week of September 29, the top U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, traveled to Pyongyang to start work on resolving the dispute. Hill has proven himself a shrewd and skillful diplomat, but he faces a difficult task. He must simultaneously steer North Korea back on track while deflecting criticism from American conservatives like former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who oppose negotiations with North Korea.


Kim Jong-Il’s reported stroke and subsequent surgery in mid-August has led to many questions. Who made the decision to stop reactor disablement? What will happen to the Six Party Talks in the event Kim, with a history of ill health, becomes incapacitated or dies? The North’s tightly controlled system means that there are no clear answers to these questions.

Understanding the derailment of North Korean disarmament is difficult given the reclusive nature of the “Hermit Kingdom.” One possible explanation is that the North’s suspension of its de-nuclearization activities may be nothing more than mere brinksmanship – a final push for concessions before the Bush administration leaves office. If this is indeed the case, this recent derailment may be viewed as nothing more than another hiccup in what has been a challenging Six Party process over the last several years.

Despite much frustration, now is not the time to abandon continued engagement with North Korea, especially given its danger of reopening its reprocessing facility and producing additional nuclear weapons material. The alternative to engagement is the potential resumption of nuclear weapons production by North Korea, an outcome that poses a grave threat to international security.

Leonor Tomero

Leonor Tomero is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where her work focuses on nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, nuclear reprocessing, North Korea, and nuclear terrorism. Tomero is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of International Law and Politics at Georgetown University. She has published letters and articles in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy,, and Hartford Courant and is frequently quoted in national print, TV, and radio media.

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