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North Korea in Context: A Brief Overview of Denuclearization Efforts

Article by Minsoo Kim

North Korean propaganda. The scarecrow’s shirt reads “International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)”. The caption at the bottom reads “strict punishment for American imperialism and its minions.” Picture by: Kamil Antosiewicz Monika Powalisz

East Asian International Relations (IR) is a paradox; in the wake of rising nationalism and territorial disputes, instability has marked these relations despite increasing economic interdependence. Northeast Asia lacks an effective institution for multilateral security cooperation, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the post-World War II period, the United States (US) created a hub-and-spoke security framework of US-centered bilateral relationships.

From 2003 to 2007, the six-party talks between the US, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, and Japan, created an ad-hoc multilateral security cooperation aimed to address security concerns raised by the North Korean nuclear weapons program. However, it is quite clear that such efforts failed to produce the desired compliance with international norms. A brief inquiry into the history of international nuclear nonproliferation norms and North Korea’s refusal to abide by them, as well as the various foreign policy strategies both suggested and critiqued, will better equip us to think critically about the North Korean nuclear issue.

Multilateral Treaties on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) aims to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.”The NPT entered into force in 1970, and in 1995 was extended indefinitely. 191 States have ratified this binding treaty, more than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responsible for a safeguards system, which is used to verify compliance through IAEA-led inspections. There have been other multilateral treaties established with the goal of nuclear nonproliferation, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which opened for signatures in 2017 but has not yet taken force.

North Korea and Nuclear Nonproliferation

North Korea has long viewed nuclear weapons as a solution to their geopolitical insecurities. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea struggled to adjust to the new international political situation. Economic difficulties weakened its conventional military weapons systems, forcing Kim Il-Sung to turn to nuclear weapons to survive. North Korea had already been developing nuclear technology with its own mines and reactors when it signed the NPT in 1985. The IAEA began inspections in 1992, but it found inconsistencies with North Korea’s initial declaration regarding the existence of undeclared plutonium. North Korea subsequently blocked inspectors and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. The US resumed negotiations with North Korea, leading to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under this agreement, North Korea was to freeze its nuclear facilities in return for US provision of conventional fuel and two light-water reactors incapable of producing potential weapons-grade fuel.

In 2002, North Korea confirmed a secret “programme to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons,” and the US subsequently withdrew from the Agreed Framework. North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors, and in 2003, withdrew from the NPT. The Bush Administration sought a multilateral approach and established the Six-Party Talks in order to utilize Chinese influence on North Korea to rack up regional pressure. There was not much progress until the 2005 Agreement, in which North Korea agreed to denuclearize, return to the NPT, and allow IAEA inspections. The other five parties agreed to take steps for diplomatic and economic normalization and to provide energy. Implementation floundered after the US froze North Korean accounts at Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, accusing them of money laundering.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, which set off United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718 imposing sanctions. The US responded with their first bilateral negotiations with North Korea, leading to a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. North Korea agreed to disable its nuclear facilities, report nuclear activities, and allow verification. However, conflict over verification methods led to a breakdown in the talks in 2008. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009 at the start of the Obama Administration, prompting additional sanctions under UNSCR 1874.

Amidst increasing tension, bilateral contacts between the US and North Korea in 2011 led to the 2012 Agreement, in which North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity, and allowed international inspections, all in return for US food aid. However, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in the spring of 2013, prompting further sanctions under UNSCR 2094. North Korea continued its aggressive nuclear development strategy, conducting its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in 2016, and its sixth test in 2017. The 2016 tests led to UNSCR 2270 and UNSCR 2321, while the 2017 test prompted UNSCR 2375. The latter UNSCR strengthen oil sanctions, banned overseas sales of North Korean textiles, and further restricted North Korean labor exports.

Foreign Policy toward North Korea

The United States

The US has employed the various foreign policy strategies throughout its 25 years of bipartisan failure on improvement of US-North Korea relations. Although President Trump’s foreign policy has been difficult to label besides as isolationist, some have called it “realist,” while others have called that assignment an error. A little easier to ascertain is the fact that that President Trump groundshis foreign policy heavily on his self-confidence as a “master negotiator who can strike deals where his predecessors failed.” This potentially ill-founded commitment to personal negotiations premised on whether he could “look into his eyes and see if we have a deal” is a marked departure from the neoconservative moralistic approach of withholding negotiations and wielding sanctions and military threats to force regime change. There are concerns, however, that President Trump’s confidence in his personal relationship with Kim Jong Un risks ignoring recent history replete with instances of failed negotiations and North Korean refusal to abide by its own commitments. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether further talks will produce workable, concrete terms and deadlines or whether it will end with the nebulous Singapore Summit alarmingly reminiscent of the failed agreements of the past. Victor Cha, a  prominent scholar and former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, has called on the Trump Administration to include human rights issues in negotiations over denuclearization, as he suggests that North Korean efforts to improve human rights conditions would evince a strong commitment to reform and join the international community, and that “this could make more credible any actions they take on the denuclearization front (with outside verification).”

South Korea

According to Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Hwa, South Korea might consider lifting some of its own sanctions to incentivize North Korea to denuclearize. President Moon is a firm believer in the more liberal approach of engaging with North Korea on different fronts while using sanctions to bring them to the negotiating table. Professor Young Kwan Yoon, former Foreign Minister of South Korea, has described President Moon’s foreign policy as some form of the “Sunshine Policy” or South Korean Ostpolitik, a variation of West Germany’s policy of direct engagement with East Germany. Trust-building measures such as inviting a North Korean economic mission to the US would be an important gesture to promote political reconciliation and would not detract from US leverage in economic sanctions. Critics of this approach have pointed to its detrimental effects on sanctions credibility and its passive stance on demanding “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID).


China’s foreign policy centers around its core interests of state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development, among others as laid out in its 2011 whitepaper. Accordingly, China views North Korea as an important buffer state against American and Japanese influence. Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that Chinese policy aims to “use American power to peacefully defeat American hegemony, but without unleashing any latent Japanese regional aspirations.” Although North Korea’s increasingly brazen nuclear tests created internal discomfort within China, especially as the third nuclear test coincided with the beginning of Xi Jinping’s first term, China has abandoned “maximum pressure” and has increasingly aligned more closely with North Korea and Russia. The US trade war with China is not helping. Recently, tough Chinese enforcement of sanctions had significantly dampened North Korea’s economy. However, a mix of North Korea’s reconciliatory 2018 New Year’s speech and unprecedented summits with Xi, Trump, and Moon, have led to a loosening of sanctions. Cross-border trade with China is picking up, and China and South Korea have promised large scale economic assistance.


North Korea continues to violate international norms and mandates. It has violated the aforementioned bans on oil and textiles. We must not forget that denuclearization is an obligation for North Korea; it is a member state of the UN under binding directions from the Security Council to completely denuclearize in a verifiable and irreversible way.

In  light of its frequent past defections from international agreements, current mistrust of North Korea is understandable. Although President Moon, based on his assessment of North Korea’s economy as desperately weak, has recently reiterated his confidence in Kim Jong Un to follow through with his pledge to denuclearize, establishing a framework leading to CVID of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains a daunting task for Mike Pompeo and Stephen Biegun. There seems to be no clear-cut answer to this problem, but international cooperation and coordination between the US, China, South Korea, and Japan, is necessary to bring North Korea into compliance with international treaties and norms.



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