STUART HARRIS. The US and North Korea: the importance of history.

Oct 23, 2017

North Korea’s belligerent missile tests have given rise to fears that the hardening rhetoric on both sides will lead to military conflict involving nuclear weapons.  These fears have resulted in moves to moderate this tension by some of the players, with US Secretary of State Tillerson seeking to communicate with the North, and South Korea’s  President Moon seeking dialogue with the North. 

Australia’s Foreign Secretary, Julie Bishop, has called for diplomacy arguing that the increased sanctions are to compel North Korea to come to the negotiating table.  While this may seem a step forward, it raises a number of questions including what we mean by diplomacy in this context and what problems the various options available would face in application.  Since the North Korean nuclear issue re-emerged under George H.W. Bush (Bush 1) in the late 1990s, the US position toward North Korea has varied between ‘negotiating for compliance’ or, particularly since George W. Bush (Bush 2), seeking ‘compliance before negotiating’ – in practice close to a surrender mechanism and the situation we seem now to be in.

Despite considerable scepticism about North Korea’s willingness to enter into negotiations, past experience is worth re-examining since it does not support such scepticism.  The history indicates that, when negotiations were under way, North Korea held back further developments on its nuclear pathway and resumed them when threatened or subjected to sanctions.  We are now, certainly, in a different situation: North Korea now has a nuclear capability and a growing if still limited missile capacity. It also has a new and largely unknown leader, Kim Jong-un, although there are grounds for thinking he would negotiate and wishes to be less dependent on China.

The Bush 1 concern was that North Korea was breaching the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it probably was.  Clinton followed the Bush approach initially by maintaining an aggressive stance towards North Korea, arousing fears at the time of a nuclear conflict until reluctantly he accepted an agreement brokered by ex-President Carter and Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang that led to the bilateral Agreed Framework between the two countries in 1994 and the establishment of the Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) in 1995.  Hardliners in the US, however, were able to delay progress under the Agreed Framework which gave Pyongyang grounds to claim US breaches of the agreed conditions.

Nevertheless, in 1998, Pyongyang offered to cut its missile exports and development of new missiles in return for a peace agreement.  Under Clinton, US Defence Secretary Perry and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang to further negotiations.  Agreement was apparently close when, in 2001, Bush 2 became president. US opposition  became stronger under Bush 2 especially after North Korea was labelled part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and communications with North Korea were closed down.  In 2002, Bush reopened communications but only in order to confront North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.  North Korea, however, in that process made a further offer to curtail its nuclear programs but the offer was ignored by the US. (Reportedly, Obama did the same in response to a similar North Korean approach in 2015.)  Yet, under strong pressure from other regional states,  the US moved towards what became the four and later six party multilateral talks.

These led in 2005 to a joint statement by the six parties, including the US, agreeing  to respect NK’s sovereignty and recognising NK’s right to nuclear power; in return, NK pledged to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing missile programs. Shortly after, however, in evidence to Congress on the statement,  a hardliner-influenced presentation by the leading US negotiator to Congress undercut the agreement, stating that all options remained on the table, obviously including the option of a nuclear attack.  The US  also announced that it was shutting down KEDO.

Under regional pressure, however, another negotiated statement was issued in 2007, which denied any intention of the US to attack NK with conventional or nuclear weapons, disavowed regime change, and promised to negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.  This agreement, too, was not supported in Washington nor subsequently in Japan or in South Korea, reflecting their own  domestic pressures.

This history is important because by and large, while the negotiations for compliance were underway, they achieved success for a decade or so in suspending the progress of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs;  North Korea shut down a small reactor and its reprocessing capacity, stopped building two larger reactors and allowed in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.  Eventually, due to faults on both sides, the negotiations were not successful but largely because the US failed to improve relations as agreed and North Korea resumed its nuclear and missile programs, with a successful nuclear test in 2002.  Similarly it indicates that although this time could be different, sanctions have not worked in the past, nor has pressure on North Korea directly or through China.

It also indicates that North Korea’s objectives have basically stayed the same: security assurances, regime survival, and respect and status.  Constructions of two Light Water Reactors for electricity generation were, in the past, seen as signifying this.  Pyongyang’s concern has been essentially focussed on the US and it has continually sought bilateral talks with the US – the Armistice Agreement was with the US – and Pyongyang has been consistent in seeking to replace what was the Armistice Agreement with a Peace Agreement.  It views the US as the source of insecurity having repeatedly been threatened directly by the US with military action involving nuclear weapons as well as indirectly with its repeated ‘all  options are on the table’ mantra.

The North Korean objectives variously included a peace agreement, a credible assurance of no regime change; stopping or modifying the annual military exercises with South Korea; avoiding military threats; removing sanctions; and perhaps some economic assistance.  In return, given that for obvious self-preservation reasons, North Korea is unlikely to use its nuclear weapons unless attacked,  knowledgeable observers suggest that, in today’s circumstances, the diplomatic objectives for the US could not now realistically include getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.  North Korea would, however, be expected to accept a moratorium on nuclear and missile development to be monitored by the IAEA and return to membership and be fully compliant with the NPT.

Whether or not a peace treaty is feasible is an open question.  A treaty would have to be passed by Congress, difficult given the undoubtedly ruthless and brutal regime involved, despite the fact that dealings have been pursued with other ruthless and brutal states such as Pinochet’s Chile and Saudi Arabia.  On the other hand a presidential agreement could easily be changed; the lesson of the US/Iran deal will not have gone unnoticed in Pyongyang.  Hopes for the stated US objective of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula were lost in the past.   The best achievement from any negotiation is likely to be a moratorium on further development and acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state within the NPT and under IAEA inspections.  That would of course be a lot for either side, but particularly the US, to swallow but pragmatism instead of ideology in the past would have reduced the considerable anxiety of today.

Stuart Harris was Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs 1987-88.  He is currently Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

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