Korean Peninsula Politics in the Context of North Korean Nuclear Disarmament: A Change of Paradigm



North Korea has pursued a nuclear weapons program, assembled and exported ballistic missiles, sponsored terrorist acts, and posed a continuous threat to the US allies and interests, resulting in the stationing of American forces in South Korea and Japan. Events on the Korean Peninsula, including the questions of denuclearization, peace, and reconciliation, have the potential to endanger the interests of the largest powers in the world. How has an isolated and small state repeatedly influenced much more powerful states, shaped international security, and influenced the choices of the United States and other regional powers? Famine, war, refugee and migration crises all threaten the region’s stability, making North Korea’s neighbors quite nervous about what could happen should that country collapse. The US appeal at the United Nations for "full enforcement" of sanctions against North Korea underscored the difficulty of attaining real progress on denuclearization. This blog post intends to cover the politics of North Korea, especially concerning its nuclear development policy, as the security environment of the Korean Peninsula has been deeply affected by the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. North Korea, the only state ever to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, is one of the poorest in the world, and yet armed with nuclear facilities. Despite repeated calls for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the behavior of North Korea suggests the opposite. The repeated diplomatic failure of the past reveals the intense hindrance to definitive denuclearization. North Korea has made a calculated move to advance its nuclear and missile program. The first successful missile test occurred in 1993, and the first nuclear test, in 2006. Thus, three successive US Presidents - Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama - have dealt with the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons tests. The DPRK has walked away from every denuclearization commitment made during tenure of various US Presidents. A short overview is in order.

President Bill Clinton: The Agreed Framework In 1994, during Clinton’s presidency, North Korea threatened to abandon its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, leading to direct negotiations. Former President Jimmy Carter was sent to Pyongyang to pave the way for a diplomatic agreement. Clinton’s administration successfully established a deal known as the Joint Framework Agreement which offered $4 billion worth of nuclear energy and economic and diplomatic benefits in exchange for the halting of North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994. The International Atomic Energy Agency was set to do routine inspections.

President George W. Bush: The Axis of Evil President Bush named North Korea as one part of the “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran in his State of the Union speech in 2002. To quote him, “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.” North Korea admitted it had been conducting a nuclear-weapons program and proceeded to withdraw from its agreement with the Clinton administration. “The Six-Party Talks” comprising China, North Korea, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US began in 2003 and continued until 2009 under President Obama. In 2005, they proposed energy and economic assistance if North Korea would give up its efforts to build up nuclear program, which Pyongyang tentatively agreed to. North Korea said it had successfully completed a nuclear test in 2006. In 2007, an agreement was reached to send $400 million worth of fuel, food and other aid in exchange for North Korea shutting down its main nuclear reactor.

President Barack Obama: Strategic Patience President Barack Obama’s ‘smart power’ diplomacy, which stressed dialogue with countries with which US had long had difficulties, did not work for Pyongyang, which responded by testing a nuclear weapon in mid-2009. The UN Security Council adopted sanctions banning arms transfers to and from the country. Some progress was made in 2012 when leader Kim Jong Un agreed to halt nuclear tests in exchange for food aid. However, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons continued. Jong Un’s regime went as far as to threaten the “military might” of the US in 2014.

President Donald Trump: Unconventional or Deterministic Approach North Korea's decision to restart nuclear installations at Yongbyon that had been shut down under the US-North Korean Agreed Framework of 1994 created an acute foreign policy problem for the United States. The year 2017 marked a phase of acute tensions from both sides. The President said the “era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed.” President Trump's more aggressive approach of missile testing and increasing military presence on the Korean Peninsula sparked speculation of a nuclear conflict. A détente began on March 8, 2018, when the White House confirmed that President Trump would accept a meeting invitation from Kim Jong-Un. On May 15, 2018, North Korea cut off talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the planned US-North Korea summit. On June 12, 2018, Trump and Kim met at the summit in Singapore, the first summit between the two leaders. The North Korean leader "reaffirmed his commitment" to the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." In the meantime, Kim carried out the promises showing a substantive political willingness for peace and reconciliation, including dismantling North Korea’s nuclear test site.

For more than two decades since the conclusion of the US-DPRK Agreed Framework in 1994, US policy towards North Korea has had a consistent purpose, i.e., elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Tactics have varied, leadership has changed, enthusiasm for direct dialogue with Pyongyang has reached ups and downs. But each American administration has sought the same goal of denuclearization. The US has pursued a variety of policy responses to the proliferation challenges posed by North Korea including military cooperation with its allies, different sanctions, export controls, etc. Its engagement policy can be separated into different categories - enhancement of regional stability; prevention of weapons proliferation; encouragement of North-South dialogue; maintaining US-South Korea cooperation; a Negotiating Model. It is important to leave the door open to dialogue with North Korea as a way of reducing tension and conveying warnings. The possibility of failure has probably made the US hesitant to pursue such a course. Progressive and concurrent implementation is the key to making the whole denuclearization process practically feasible and verifiable. The DPRK’s continued refusal to give up its nuclear program, its future success in developing that program, and the fears that this success will generate among its neighbors and competition from other powers may complicate the conduct of US diplomacy.

The Role of Regional Powers China has been willing to cooperate with the US in trying to ease tensions on the peninsula, although Beijing has yet to seriously consider America’s future role on the peninsula. China’s first priority in dealing with North Korea remains stability, not denuclearization. If China determines that the North Korean nuclear issue will not lead to any serious insecurity directly affecting China, it is very likely that China will choose the method of managing the North Korean nuclear issue from a long-term perspective. While Russia may be able to offer some tangible assistance for North Korea’s industrial infrastructure, that assistance will be limited by Russia’s economic difficulties. Although the European Union’s role has increased through its membership on the Executive Board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and substantial humanitarian assistance, its political interests will remain limited. Japan has the means and the interest to play an influential role, but it is limited by the difficult domestic politics of engagement. Kim Jong Il’s diplomatic moves were spectacular—a moratorium on long-range missile tests, two visits to China, the first-ever South-North summit, a visit by his special envoy to Washington and by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang, and normalization of relations with an increasing number of countries, particularly among western nations. From family reunions to fielding a joint sports team, the two Koreas are moving forward. In January 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jung Un declared the country’s nuclear arsenal ‘complete’ and offered to discuss North Korea’s participation in the South Korean Olympics. North Korean motivations are recovering the economy, legitimizing the government, and engaging the outside world.

New Phase of Diplomacy between USA and North Korea In the current phase, both positive and negative actions were initiated by the US towards North Korea and vice-versa. In 2013 and 2016 North Korea added new precondition to end nuclear program i.e., withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. America urged for a complete shutdown of all ties with North Korea after the country’s latest missile test and banned all travel by Americans to North Korea. In 2018, the US President harshly criticized North Korean leader while his adviser John Bolton threatened to impose a Libyan model policy on North Korea which was dismissed by President Trump. The USA also introduced nuclear capable warplanes into South Korea. Pyongyang, in turn, threatened the United States with nuclear annihilation if Trump did not come to the negotiating table while installing mines along Demilitarized Zone and conducting 24 missile tests. The North Korean leader declared denuclearization impossible and threatened to launch missiles towards Guam. It developed 17 medium range missiles, 2 over Japan and tested 3 ICBMs, one with a range that might hit the East Coast of the US. North Korea canceled talks with South Korea, rejected US ‘blackmail’ and their Libyan model, attacking the US vice president as a ‘dummy’.

Simultaneously, some positive moves were also made on the part of North Korea. In 2013, North Korea released American citizens and called for a peace treaty with USA. In 2015, the DPRK offered to suspend nuclear tests, in 2016 North Korea agreed to talk about denuclearization, and in 2017 promised no nuclear war with Japan and South Korea. The DPRK promised to freeze its missile and nuclear tests if the US stops war games, stopping missile/nuclear tests for 74 days. The two Korean leaders crossed the military demarcation line and sent a message to the world that they were initiating peace on the Korean Peninsula. Chairman Kim Jong Un even offered to meet President Trump and signed the Singapore declaration. The issue of denuclearization is the central goal of US but ending the Korean war is not easy. The US administration insisted on the "urgency" of denuclearization, which made North Korea angry. Pyongyang proposed a "phased" and "synchronous" approach, the shortest way to realize a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. On September 29, 2018, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho claimed that North Korea will not disarm. He has yet to see corresponding measures from the US to match the steps that North Korea has taken towards disarmament. According to Prof. Charles E. Olson, "This is a perfect game-theoretic situation," where the central players are United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. In game theory, you choose your moves based on how you expect your competitors to respond to your moves.

Conclusion Demands for North Korea's denuclearization in the absence of preparations to withdraw US forces from Korea, to remove the nuclear umbrella, and to end the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance can only be termed unrealistic. North Korea scares the world with a weapons test or a threat to attack the South, and then demands some kind of concession in exchange for backing down. The latest tactics were partly an attempt to simply try different strategies; to see whether being bad or good would better advance North Korea’s strategic position. One thing experts agree on, whether their assessment of Trump’s North Korean policy is positive or negative, is that it is increasing the risk of conflict with the North. The Korean Peninsula and the region have lived with the threat and reality of violence for too long. The need of the hour is to describe a roadmap to find better relations with the DPRK if Pyongyang is prepared to pursue a serious denuclearization dialogue. Positive engagement is the best way forward until conditions in North Korea change.


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

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