The Six-Party Talks and President Obama’s North Korea Policy

The Six-Party Talks and President Obama’s North Korea Policy

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Insook Kim

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The Six-Party Talks — multilateral negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program —lost momentum during the last few months of the Bush administration. The latest round of the Talks, which closed on December 11, 2008, failed to produce any results, with the representatives from the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia unable to reach an agreement on the details of a verification protocol. [1] During this time, North Korea appeared to be sending mixed signals in what can be interpreted as Pyongyang's attempt to vie for the new U.S. administration's attention. In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of President Obama, North Korea revved up its rhetoric asserting its status as a nuclear weapons power and demanding that normalization of relations between the two countries must be achieved before North Korea will fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program. [2] Despite the rhetoric and posturing, on January 23, 2009, only days after the official swearing in of President Obama, North Korea's dear leader Kim Jong-il pledged his country's commitment to the "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" during a meeting with Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. [3]

There is widespread expectation that once the Obama administration settles in, the United States will be able to not only jump-start the Six-Party Talks, but that it will take these negotiations to a whole new level. While the new administration has yet to clearly pronounce its North Korea policy, there have been indications that it will pursue a dual-track diplomacy of continuing multilateral negotiations within the framework of the Six-Party Talks, while at the same time directly engaging North Korea in bilateral talks. It remains to be seen what kind of opportunities and challenges the change in administration in the United States will present for the multilateral efforts to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability.


The Six-Party Talks, since their inception in August 2003, have shown mixed results over the years. However, in more recent years, the six parties involved in the negotiations have reached several milestone agreements that have led North Korea to shut down, seal, and disable key production facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, submit a declaration of its nuclear materials and activities, and destroy the cooling tower of its 5 Mw(e) experimental reactor at Yongbyon.

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better…

Although hailed as a major breakthrough, the implementation of the "Statement of Principles" adopted at the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks in September 2005, almost immediately hit major stumbling blocks. [4] [For background on the results of the fourth session of the Six-Party Talks and the Joint Statement, see "North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program and the Six Party Talks," NTI Issue Brief, April 2006.] Shortly after the agreement was signed, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it was sanctioning Banco Delta Asia (BDA), a Macao-based bank, for assisting North Korea with illegal activities including counterfeiting U.S. currency. In response, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Six-Party Talks unless the United States reversed these actions asserting that "sanctions and dialogue cannot go together." [5] As a result, the Six- Party Talks were deadlocked for over 18 months with neither Washington nor Pyongyang willing to compromise. The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula deepened when North Korea conducted a nuclear explosive test on October 9, 2006. [6] In response, the UN Security Council passed a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter imposing sanctions on North Korea. [7]

Adoption of "Action Plans" to the September 19, 2005 "Statement of Principles"

This resulting crisis on the Korean peninsula prompted the participants of the Six-Party Talks to resume negotiations. On February 13, 2007, the Six-Party Talks adopted an "action plan" for the implementation of the September 19, 2005 "Joint Statement." [8] The agreement, officially titled "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement," called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear weapon programs, and return to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and IAEA safeguards in exchange for a package of incentives that included the provision of economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance equivalent to one million tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO). [9] The agreement also established a 60-day deadline by which North Korea was to shut down and seal (for the purpose of eventual abandonment) its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. [10]

Accordingly, in its first contact with the IAEA since expelling inspectors in December 2002, the North Koreans extended an invitation to IAEA officials raising expectations that this would be the first step toward re-establishing ties with the Agency. In March 2007, an IAEA delegation headed by Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei visited Pyongyang and met with North Korean officials to discuss the denuclearization process. [11] In July 2007, North Korea began shutting down and sealing its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon under IAEA supervision. [12] The IAEA team confirmed that North Korea, on July 14, 2007, shut down the following five facilities: the 5 MWe Yongbyon experimental reactor, the Radiochemical Laboratory, the Yongbyon Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Plant, the 50 MWe reactor at Yongbyon, and the 200 Mwe reactor at Taechon. [13] The team applied the necessary seals and other necessary surveillance and monitoring equipment. [14]

A second-phase "action plan" was adopted by the Six-Party Talks on October 3, 2007 whereby North Korea agreed to disable its key plutonium production facilities at Yongbyon which had been shut down and sealed under the February 2007 agreement — the 5 MWe experimental reactor, the Radiochemical Laboratory, and the Fuel Fabrication Plant. [15] Under the agreement, Pyongyang also committed to provide a "complete and correct" declaration of its nuclear program by the end of 2007 while Washington pledged to remove North Korea from the U.S. government's list of state sponsors of terrorism and to abort the Trading with the Enemy Act with North Korea. [16]

While disablement activities at Yongbyon advanced, North Korea failed to meet the end- of-year deadline and only submitted its declaration on June 26, 2008, almost six months overdue. In response, President Bush notified Congress that he was removing North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (although it only came into effect on October 11, 2008 [17]) and also issued a proclamation lifting some sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The following day, in a grand symbolic gesture, North Korea demolished the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor.

Outgoing Bush Administration and Pyongyang's Waiting Game

It had been mostly downhill for the Six-Party Talks in the last few months of the Bush administration with North Korea once again resorting to its stalling tactics in what appeared to be a strategy to wait out the outgoing Bush administration. Pyongyang slowed the disablement process at its Yongbyon facilities, citing dissatisfaction at the slow rate at which it was receiving the promised energy aid as the reason. On the other hand, Washington expressed discontent that the 60-page declaration of North Korea's nuclear accounting did not adequately address the controversial issues regarding North Korea's past procurement efforts that may support the development of a uranium enrichment capability and its suspected proliferation activities with countries such as Syria. In addition, according to reports, North Korea declared its plutonium stockpile as 30.8kg, which fell significantly short of U.S. estimates of 40-50 kg. [18]

As of the end of 2008, the negotiations have been deadlocked over the issue of verifying North Korea's nuclear activities and holdings. The biggest sticking point in mapping out a verification plan has been North Korea's unwillingness to allow for on-site inspections and sampling. While the United States claims that it had received a verbal pledge on these issues from North Korea, North Korea has announced that it has not agreed to allow the collection of nuclear samples as part of the verification agreement arguing that sampling should only come during the last phase of dismantlement. [19] According to a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, verification activities would be allowed only at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and would consist solely of site inspections, document confirmation, and discussions with technical employees. [20] Both Washington and Seoul have indicated that they will not compromise on this issue. These differences ultimately led to the collapse of the latest round of the Six-Party Talks, held December 8-11, 2008. [21]

New U.S. Administration, New Chapter?

Pyongyang's Gambit

At the beginning of 2009 and in anticipation of the new U.S. administration taking office, North Korea has been sending mixed messages in what appears to be Pyongyang's attempt to position itself in relation to the Obama team. On January 13, 2009, North Korea's Foreign Ministry released a statement asserting that normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea should take precedence over denuclearization. [22] When U.S. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, during her confirmation hearing, stated that normalized relations will not be possible without complete and verifiable denuclearization, North Korea released another statement on January 17, 2009, claiming that normalization and denuclearization are two separate issues and that North Korea's "status as nuclear weapons state will remain unchanged as long as it is exposed even to the slightest U.S. nuclear threat." [23] In a similar vein, Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, at the conclusion of his trip to Pyongyang, January 12-17, 2009, told reporters that North Korea's slogan is "denuclearization through normalization, not normalization through denuclearization." [24] Harrison met with North Korean officials, including Li Gun, director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's American Affairs Bureau during his visit to Pyongyang. [25] While North Korean officials expressed hopes to foster better relations with the new U.S. government, Harrison says that North Korea also claims to have "weaponized" the officially declared 31 kilograms of plutonium, which could provide enough fissile material for four or five warheads. [26]

Notwithstanding this flurry of harsh rhetoric, on January 23, 2009, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama was sworn into office, Kim Jong-il pledged that North Korea "will commit itself to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and hopes to co-exist peacefully with other involved parties." [27] His statement was made at a meeting held in Pyongyang with Wang Jiarui, a senior official with the Chinese Communist Party marking Kim's first such meeting with a foreign official since he reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2007. [28] Judging by its timing, the meeting may have been Kim Jong-il's intention to signal to Obama that he is in good physical condition and is open and eager to engage in direct negotiations with the United States over his country's nuclear weapons program.

In addition, North Korea's recent rash of hostile statements have not been translated into real action, lending credibility to the interpretation that Pyongyang's true intention is to draw Obama's attention and perhaps to raise the bar as a strategy to elevate its bargaining position vis-à-vis the new U.S. administration. While the negotiations at the Six-Party Talks have been stalemated at the official level, the disablement process has continued, albeit at a slower pace, according to South Korea's senior diplomat, Hwang Joon-gook. [29] In a rare trip to North Korea that took place January 15-19, 2009, Hwang Joon-gook led a team of experts to inspect unused fuel rods at Yongbyon for possible purchase. [30] In his briefing, Hwang said that 8 out of the 11 disablement measures have been completed and that approximately 6000 of the 8000 of the spent fuel rods have been removed. [31] South Korea is looking into purchasing the 14,800 unused fuel rods which contain approximately 101.9 tons of uranium if they can be converted for use in South Korea's nuclear power reactors. [32]

Washington's Predicament

Although the broad strokes of U.S. President Obama's North Korea policy have been outlined, it seems premature to discern exactly how these policy objectives will manifest themselves. The new administration has indicated that it will pursue a dual-track course of diplomacy. While inheriting the Bush administration's policy in its last two years in office to work within the Six-Party Talks framework, the new Obama administration has signaled that it will be more aggressive in engaging the North Korean regime directly in bilateral talks. During her Senate confirmation hearing, Hillary Clinton expressed support for the continuation of the Six-Party Talks saying that it is an "important vehicle to exert pressure on North Korea in a way that is more likely to alter their behavior." [33] President Obama also expressed support for the Six-Party Talks. In a phone conversation with South Korea president Lee Myung Bak, Obama "stressed the importance of close cooperation in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-nation talks forum." [34]

The White House also vowed to pursue "tough and direct" diplomacy in addressing the challenges posed by the North Korean nuclear weapons program. [35] During his campaign, Obama supported "sustained, direct and aggressive" engagement with North Korea, which sparked speculation that Obama may be willing to hold a summit with Kim Jong-il. [36] At the same time, the Obama administration has indicated its intention to use both carrots and sticks in dealing with the Kim Jong-il regime. Newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the Obama administration's goal is to put an end to both the plutonium- and uranium-based nuclear programs and to get answers to questions regarding North Korea's involvement in proliferation to Syria. [37] Furthermore, Clinton warned that the Obama administration will not shy away from imposing sanctions if North Korea were to back-pedal on its commitment. [38]

In a significant departure from the previous administration's policy, the new U.S. administration has placed renewed emphasis on the important role of international laws and regimes. The Obama administration pledged to "crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions." [39] Against this backdrop, one can reasonably expect that Obama may emphasize the importance of bringing North Korea back into the NPT and IAEA safeguards regime. The IAEA's role has been marginalized during the disablement process, but at this present juncture, it is critical that the IAEA is brought back to the center of the verification activities. Instead of the ad-hoc basis under which the IAEA has been working on, a proper and enduring safeguards arrangement with the IAEA needs to be re-enacted to verify the declared nuclear materials and activities as well as to provide assurance as to the absence of undeclared nuclear activities in North Korea.

Challenges Ahead


The most immediate challenge for the Six-Party Talks is to devise a robust verification regime that meets international standards. The verification plan must be thorough and leave no room for ambiguities given North Korea's tendency to backtrack on previously reached agreements. While there has not been concrete evidence of the existence of North Korea's alleged uranium enrichment program, it is important that verification also quell any suspicions of the disavowed enrichment program to restore confidence. Verification activities aimed at resolving any and all outstanding issues with respect to North Korea's nuclear program — past and present — will most likely be a time-consuming and arduous process. Therefore this process should not be hastily implemented and must be conducted under the auspices of the IAEA in order to ensure objectivity and build confidence.

Third & Final Phase of Denuclearization

All the steps that have been taken thus far, while significant, do not address the issue of preventing North Korea's future nuclear capability. Put differently, the disablement measures that have been implemented make it difficult for North Korea to reconstitute its plutonium-based nuclear program, but not entirely impossible. Therefore, the importance of moving forward to the third phase of irreversibly dismantling North Korea's nuclear program cannot be stressed enough. In the third and final stage of dismantlement, while demanding that North Korea completely, verifiably, and irreversibly disarm─a process that would include the removal of all fissile material and explosive devices from the country─political incentives must be offered in addition to the economic incentives that have been promised to North Korea. The North Korean nuclear issue is a complex and multi-dimensional problem that has deeper roots than meets the eye. In order to fundamentally resolve this issue, North Korea's threat perception must be properly addressed and the United States is in a unique position to do just that. As long as North Korea believes that nuclear weapons are the only means of guaranteeing its survival against the threat it believes to be facing from the United States, there is a very slim chance that it will relinquish its nuclear weapons capability. Therefore, a durable solution to the acute security dilemma on the Korean peninsula can only be achieved when the United States sincerely engages in talks with North Korea to work towards normalizing ties between the two countries and establishing a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula. In other words, efforts to permanently strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability — past, present, and future — must be pursued in tandem with normalization talks in order to ensure positive results. In this respect, there has been good reason to believe that the Obama administration is on the right track with its comprehensive approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. During her trip to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that "if North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula's long-standing armistice agreement with a permanent peace treaty and assist in meeting the energy and other economic and humanitarian needs of the (North) Korean people." [40] Given that Pyongyang attaches tremendous value and significance to normalizing relations with Washington, the Obama adminstration's willingness to engage in normalization talks is likely to serve as a major incentive for North Korea to cooperate in denuclearization efforts.

Coordinated Approach

Equally crucial to the success of the multilateral efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear efforts is close coordination among the parties involved. In order for the Six-Party Talks to succeed in stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons capability, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia must be on the same page and present a united front to North Korea. Given the differing national interests of the parties involved, taking a well-coordinated approach to the North Korean nuclear issue has proven to be a grave challenge that has undermined the effectiveness of the Six-Party Talks process. Pyongyang has also been trying to drive a wedge between the other parties by cleverly exploiting the policy discordance among the five countries. In charting the next course of action, the five parties must first agree that the ultimate objective of the Talks is to put an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and that they must refrain from resorting to issue-linkages that only serve to distract from the denuclearization efforts. With this clearly defined, and agreed-upon objective in mind, the parties must map out concrete and practical steps toward arriving at this ultimate goal. In implementing these steps, clear benchmarks to measure progress should be devised with corresponding incentives and disincentives to reward/punish North Korean action.


Progress at the Six-Party Talks has been painstakingly slow and uneven over the years. Despite this, the multilateral negotiations have led North Korea to take incremental and concrete steps toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization. With sustained political will and close coordination amongst the parties involved, this multilateral framework can be strengthened to yield concrete and powerful results. President Barack Obama's proposed comprehensive diplomacy that combines the strengths of multilateral negotiations with the unique benefits of direct bilateral engagement presents a sensible and practical approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. The change in administration in the United States provides a rare opportunity to provide a fresh impetus to the denuclearization process. It is up to Washington and Pyongyang, in close cooperation with the other capitals, to seize upon this opportunity to proactively engage in negotiations that can successfully overcome not only the immediate obstacles but also the longer-term challenges posed by the North Korean nuclear weapons program.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, "The Heads of Delegation Meeting of the Six-Party Talks Closes and It Is Agreed to Convene the Next Meeting at an Early Date," December 12, 2008, Jin Dae-woong, "Nuke Talks End without Deal," Korea Herald, 12 December 2008, in Lexis-Nexis,; Yonhap News Agency, "South Korean, Japanese Leaders Express 'Regret' at Six-Way Talks' Failure," in BBC Monitoring, 13 December 2008, in Lexis-Nexis,
[2] "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dismisses U.S. Wrong Assertion," Korean Central News Agency, 13 January 2008 and 17 January 2008,
[3] "Top DPRK Leader Kim Jong Il Meets with Visiting CPA Official," Xinhua News Agency, 23 January 2008,; Jae-Soon Chang and Jean H. Lee, "N Korea's Kim Jong Il Meets Chinese Official," Associated Press, 23 January 2008,
[4] "Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks," 19 September 2005,
[5] "Sanctions and dialogue can never go together: Rodong Shinmun," Korean Central News Agency, 2 November 2005,
[6] "DPRK Successfully Conducts Underground Nuclear Test," Korean Central News Agency, 9 October, 2006,; Yonhap News Agency, "UN Security Council 'Strongly Condemns' North Korea Nuclear Test," in BBC Monitoring, 9 October 2006, in Lexis-Nexis,
[7] Warren Hoge, "Security Council Supports Sanctions on North Korea," New York Times, 15 October 2006,
[8] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement," 13 February 2007,
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] "IAEA Director General Concludes Trip to DPRK," IAEA Top Stories, 15 March 2007,
[12] "IAEA Team Confirms Shutdown of DPRK Nuclear Facilities," IAEA Press Release, 18 July 2007,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, "Second-Phase Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement," 3 October 2007,
[16] Ibid.
[17] "U.S. lifts N.K. from terrorism blacklist," Korea Herald, 13 October 2008, in Lexis-Nexis,
[18] US experts' estimates of North Korea's plutonium holdings vary. See: Siegfried S. Hecker, "Denuclearizing North Korea," May/June 2008, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,; Yoshiharu Asano, "'2 kg of plutonium used in N-test' N. Korea's report to China shows that 30 kilograms were extracted," Daily Yomiuri, 3 July 2008, in Lexis-Nexis.
[19] Yonhap News Agency, "North Korea said to reach verbal nuclear sampling agreement — Yonhap," in BBC Monitoring, 19 November 2008, in Lexis-Nexis,
[20] "KCNA Dismisses Misinformation About Verification Issue," Korean Central News Agency, 24 November 2008,
[21] See Source in [1]
[22] Choe Sang-Hun, "North Korea Maintains Its Tough Stance," New York Times, 15 January 2008,; "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dismisses U.S. Wrong Assertion," Korean Central News Agency, 13 January 2008,
[23] "DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman Dismisses U.S. Wrong Assertion," Korean Central News Agency, 17 January 2008,
[24] Alison Klayman, "US Expert Says North Korea Has 'Weaponized' Plutonium," Voice of America, 17 January 2009,
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Top DPRK Leader Kim Jong Il Meets with Visiting CPA Official, Xinhua News Agency, 23 January 2008,; Jae-Soon Chang and Jean H. Lee, "N Korea's Kim Jong Il Meets Chinese Official," Associated Press, 23 January 2008,
[28] Ibid.
[29] "North Korea Not Ready for Nuclear Disarmament," 13 January 2009, Global Security Newswire,; Jae-Soon Chang, "S Korea Sends Nuke Envoy on Rare Trip to North," 15 January 2009, Associated Press,
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] David Goullist, "Clinton Backs Six-Party Talks for Ending North Korean Nuclear Program," Voice of America, 14 January 2008,
[34] Heejin Koo, "Obama, South Korea's Lee Discuss North Korea, Trade," Bloomberg, 3 February 2008,
[35] White House,
[36] Jung Sung-ki, "Obama Vows Tough Diplomacy for N. Korea's Denuclearization," Korea Times, 22 January 2009,
[37] David Goullist, "Clinton Backs Six-Party Talks for Ending North Korean Nuclear Program," Voice of America, 14 January 2008,; Tong Kim, "Obama Can Disarm Nuclear North Korea," Korea Times, 23 January 2009,
[38] Ibid.
[39] White House,
[40] "U.S. Selects North Korea Envoy," 20 February 2009, Global Security Newswire,

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