Denuclearization talks have come to the forefront of the Trump administration’s foreign policy concerns and now even tops the list of international issues. Negotiations with North Korea have been pursued for many years and over numerous administrations with varying success. Some of the most in-depth and involved discussions took place during the Six-Party talks in China from 2003 to 2009. While the talks ended with no comprehensive denuclearization deal, recent calls from many countries to resume talks may indicate that there is an increased willingness internationally to resolve this issue.
The Six-Party talks were held in Beijing and included many world and regional powers; including the United States, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and South Korea. They were proposed as military and diplomatic tensions worsened and North Korea increased its nuclear capabilities and military rhetoric. The United States policy towards North Korea was one of non-engagement since the Korean War and diplomats from the two countries did not directly meet and negotiate. However, as the North’s nuclear technology grew, the United States realized that nonengagement would not give them control over the situation and needed to directly communicate and bargain with North Korea.
North Korea built its first nuclear reactor in 1979 with assistance from the Soviet Union, China, and even Pakistan. They were intent on creating a nuclear state possessing both weapons and using reactors for civil projects and energy production. In 1985, despite their pursuit of nuclear weapons, North Korea signed the Nonproliferation Treaty; but did not allow for inspections to verify their compliance until the United States removed all nuclear weapons from South Korea. This was accomplished in 1991, and inspectors were allowed to visit North Korean nuclear plants. However, they found that North Korea had been secretly producing weapon-grade plutonium. North Korea did not allow any future visits and pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty.
To calm tensions, representatives facilitated more talks, which culminated in the Agreed Framework in 1994 which would lead to the freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program and stop the construction of new reactors in exchange for fuel shipments and the construction of two light-water reactors. This agreement broke down over alleged violations by both countries; North Korea would not allow experts into the country to verify their denuclearization and the United States were slow to provide aid and construct the reactors. Military tensions rose as well after a US helicopter was shot down, North Korea started long-range missile testing, and evidence surfaced that North Korea started a uranium enrichment program in the years following the deal.
Under the Bush administration, formal talks ended and the United States and North Korea became more confrontational. In the State of the Union, Bush identified North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and Iran. In 2002, after further disagreements about the uranium enrichment program, the United States declared that North Korea violated the 1994 Agreement. North Korea followed suit and rebuilt its nuclear program intent on creating a deterrent force against the United States.
Talks began in 2003, primarily between the United States, China, and North Korea, partially because Japan refused to normalize relations with North Korea until the Japanese abductee issue was resolved. However, over time, Russia, South Korea, and Japan came to the negotiating table as well.
The first major breakthrough occurred in 2005 when North Korea agreed to the denuclearization of the peninsula in exchange for light-water reactors, the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, and energy aid. Unfortunately, this agreement broke down when the United States froze North Korean assets in Macao banks for money laundering and therefore enabling North Korea’s illegal activities. North Korea declared they were a nuclear state and continued missile testing, setting off its first nuclear weapon in 2006.
2007 brought a new agreement that involved the United States unfreezing the assets if North Korea continued moving towards removing its nuclear capabilities. These talks broke down because the allies could not provide a united front. Japan was adamant that the return of the abductees was included in the deal while at the same time a more conservative South Korean government took us a more confrontational position towards North Korea. The United States did reduce sanctions and remove North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. In return, North Korea visible destroyed parts of its reactors to show it was cooperating with the stated agreements. However, they still did not allow inspectors to come in and hid information about their nuclear program.
While the talks stalled, North Korea continued testing, this time focused on launching satellites into orbit. North Korea claimed these launches did not violate international regulations, but when they launched a satellite in 2008, the world thought differently. International condemnation and strict sanctions quickly followed. North Korea declared the end of any further discussion and organized Six-Party talks ceased.
Further interactions have been spotty at best. China has consistently called for further talks, but North Korea has had little desire to talk with the United States. They see the United States as an oppressive player in the region who wants to orchestrate a regime change in North Korea. The United States, in return, has little reason to trust the North. Despite multiple agreements to shut down nuclear plants and denuclearize the country, the North has consistently hidden information and lied about the extent of their denuclearization.
One major weakness of the Six-Party talks was that each country had its own motivations and goals and found it difficult to provide a united vision for denuclearization. The “complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization” of Korea has been the primary goal for the United States. North Korea is looking for aid, but also a guarantee of security from the United States. The United States has military stationed right across the border and North Korea values the continuation of the regime more than anything else.
South Korea also wants the denuclearization of the North, which would eliminate a very real existential threat, as well as the reunification of the two Koreas. That possibility seems very distant, especially if both sides are set on keeping their form of government. South Korea is not going to agree to fall under the authoritarian Kim regime, and North Korean leaders are not going to give up their power.
Japan wants an end to missile testing as well. Many missiles have already flown over and around the country, and Japan has a target on its back due to historical conflicts. In addition, Japan wants the return of the Japanese abducted by North Korea throughout the years. This has been a complication in negotiations that involve Japan and make it almost impossible to make a deal with North Korea. The North has already said that there are no living abductees for them to return. This issue, while important to the Japanese, may need to be put aside from denuclearization negotiations.
Russia has little to fear from North Korea, but the talks are a significant opportunity to increase its influence in the region and strengthen its alliance with North Korea, which gives it bargaining power with the United States.
China is also a close ally with North Korea. China strives to show the world that it can be a great regional facilitator and bring peace to the area and its relationship with North Korea gives China influence with the United States. China does have a significant issue to resolve, however. There are North Korean refugees that have come into China and it is in China’s interest to stem the flow of migrants to dampen their economic impact.
During the Obama administration, President Obama and Secretary Clinton followed a policy of “strategic patience” that would wait for North Korea to initiate dialogue and show their sincerity by implementing the changes they had already agreed to, as well as increasing pressure and sanctions in response to “bad behavior” on the part of North Korea. While this policy did lead to increased sanctions against North Korea, it did not lead to further dialogue or curb North Korean nuclear testing. North Korean military aggression permeated 2010; including the sinking of a South Korean ship and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Islands. Testing has continued through 2017, when experts measured an explosion of 200 kilotons, which gives evidence that North Korea possesses a hydrogen bomb.
The Trump administration has taken a different approach than that of the Obama administration. Trump’s maximum pressure policies ramp up sanctions on North Korea, pressures countries such as China and Russia to increase their own pressure on North Korea, and threatens military action to initiate change. Military demonstrations have been coupled with threats to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea and Kim threatening to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” This strategy has been aided as China and Russia have become more supportive of denuclearization efforts as North Korea’s capabilities have progressed and rhetoric has caused concern even for its allies. Rhetoric toned down in 2018, and this approach of maximum pressure has led to several US-Korea summits discussing denuclearization and a historic event as Trump became the first US president to cross the DMZ.
While this may look like progress, these talks have not gotten any farther than the earlier Six-Party talks. North Korea has agreed to move towards denuclearization but has made no definitive agreements or timetable. They have also been deceitful in declaring where nuclear facilities are located. North Korea has long played tough and made false concessions in order to get economic relief and aid; They have survived without giving up anything meaningful. North Korea clearly has a plan and has implemented it quite nicely. Regional players have been inconsistent; partially from international and political rivalry, and partially because the governments and leaders of democratic regimes change every few years.
Despite it’s concessions, North Korea has shown they are unwilling to give up nuclear capabilities for any reason, especially now that they have the real capability to make military strikes. Their main goal is security and the continuation of the regime and they believe that military might is the only way to accomplish that goal. They do not want to end up like Libya, where there was a revolution and a regime change after they gave up their weapons to the United States. The possession of nuclear weapons, no matter the economic sanctions may be the only means of survival. Being a nuclear state is so ingrained into their sense of identity that perhaps they cannot be “North Korean” without nuclear weapons.
While regional powers have more frequently made efforts to restart the Six-Party talks as of late, leaders need to consider a change of course in these talks. Negotiations have accomplished little in the 25 years since they started and complete, verifiable, irreversible, denuclearization may be a term that North Korea cannot agree to. Resuming negotiations would be beneficial to resolving international conflict and building regional unity, but an understanding of the history of the Six-Party talks will show the trends and patterns of false promises that have been followed throughout the years. Instead of reimplementing foreign policies that have had little effect, the United States can weigh its decisions against past experiences and attempt new approaches at negotiating with North Korea.
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