North Korea

Key Problems

  • The controversy that surrounded North Korea’s incipient nuclear capacity had the fortuitous outcome of engaging the U.S. in direct and fruitful dialogue with the DPRK.
  • The “Agreed Framework” of 1994 met both U.S. and North Korean objectives.
  • International incidents in the past few years demonstrate the fragility of peace in Korea and the need for South and North Korea to engage in a genuine dialogue for peace.

The end of the cold war impacted politics on the Korean peninsula and set U.S. relations with the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) on a new, propitious course. In1991, the year following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the following events marked the dawning of detente:

  • The DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) became members of the United Nations.
  • The ROK and Russia reestablished diplomatic relations.
  • President Bush announced the withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea.
  • North and South Korea signed a historic agreement to improve their relations while declaring their intentions to denuclearize Korea.

This hopeful beginning was aborted in early 1992 when the CIA stated that it had evidence that, despite declarations to the contrary, North Korea appeared to be developing one or more nuclear weapon devices. Yet the controversy that surrounded North Korea’s incipient nuclear capacity had a fortuitous outcome. The U.S. concern about the DPRK’s nuclear plans nudged the Clinton administration toward a policy of direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea. The two years (1993-94) of negotiations over the status of the DPRK’s nuclear program were marked by ups and downs. In the process, U.S. officials gained a better understanding of the little-known country of North Korea.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, the rejection of state socialism as an alternative to capitalism, and the unification of Germany had unsettled North Korea. The end of the cold war and the sudden shrinking of the “socialist” market worsened the DPRK’s already serious economic problems, while the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European “socialist” bloc intensified North Korea’s diplomatic isolation. In addition, South Korea’s increasing economic, political, and military strength heightened the DPRK’s sense of uneasiness at the beginning of the post-cold war era.

Rather than turn inward, the DPRK began exploring ways to reduce its isolation and thereby improve its chances of survival. Diplomatically, it moved to normalize relations with countries formerly considered enemies. Economically, it attempted to strengthen its own faltering economy by slowly opening its doors to global capitalism.

In this context, the Geneva accord (officially known as the Agreed Framework), which North Korea and the U.S. signed on October 21, 1994, in Geneva, was an important step forward in establishing the DPRK’s place in the post-cold war world. For the DPRK, the Geneva accord offered access to international support for its nuclear energy program. More importantly, it opened the door to full diplomatic relations and economic ties with the capitalist world. The agreement also had the effect of reassuring the DPRK that the U.S. was not seeking its demise.

For the U.S. the accord, while criticized by hardliners at home, was an important step toward meeting the goal of halting any further development of a DPRK nuclear weapons program. It also had the effect of establishing the U.S. as the mutually recognized broker of future talks between North and South Korea. While progress is being made in negotiations over the KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) and the exchange of liaison offices, long-held stereotypes about the U.S. and the DPRK have obstructed a speedy implementation of the Agreed Framework.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • U.S. policymakers tend to revert to persistent stereotypes about North Korea in their attempts to understand this isolated nation.
  • U.S. policymakers commonly underestimate the degree and rapidity of changes in North Korea.
  • U.S. credibility is diminished by its own failure to delegitimize nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The message is: “Do as we say, not as we do.”
  • Given the widespread acceptance of the U.S. military presence in Asia, the U.S. can play a critical role in shaping a new collective security agreement in Northeast Asia.

Events in the past few years have underscored uncertainties about the course of U.S.-North Korea relations and highlight the fragility of the uneasy peace on the Korean peninsula:

  • In 1994 President Kim Il Sung (who had ruled the DPRK since 1948) died, leaving the regime in hands of his 52 year-old son, Kim Jong Il. While there is little evidence of a chaotic power struggle, questions remain as to whether Kim Jong Il will be able to successfully drive the agenda of engaging the U.S. and opening the DPRK economy.
  • In 1995 North Korea fell victim to devastating floods that displaced a half million people and caused severe food shortages in much of the country.
  • In 1996 a North Korean spy submarine that became grounded off the South Korean coast sparked a crisis that heightened tensions to cold war levels.

As Clinton begins his second term, it is unclear how seriously his administration will pursue better relations with North Korea. The logic that the U.S. needs to establish a post-cold war relationship with the Koreas, accepted to some degree by the Clinton team, has been challenged by congressional members and conservative think tanks. Instead of following the track established by the 1994 Agreed Framework, they insist that relations with North Korea simply be an extension of our relations with South Korea and see no reason for entertaining talks with or extending assistance to a regime considered moribund.

U.S. policymakers tend to revert to persistent stereotypes about North Korea in their attempts to understand this isolated nation. Despite some breakthrough policy initiatives since 1991, there is an underlying belief among policymakers that North Korea cannot, will not, and does not change. For U.S. policymakers, North Korea is largely regarded as a rogue state ruled by unpredictable and illegitimate despots who have recently gained nuclear weapons.

These stereotypes, while harboring some truth, do not serve well the task at hand of easing cold war tensions and establishing a new foundation for peace, security, and economic cooperation in Northeast Asia. U.S. policymakers commonly underestimate the degree and rapidity of changes in North Korea. As a result, Washington may be missing valuable opportunities to coax broader political changes in the DPRK, and, in general, to formulate a more effective set of policies toward North Korea.

Although slightly diminished, the demonization of North Korea by U.S. policymakers continues, breeding a lack of self-criticism and reflection about U.S. policy approaches. For four decades the U.S. government has threatened North Korea—a nation without nuclear weapons—with nuclear annihilation. Since the Korean War, in almost every crisis involving North Korea, the U.S. threatened to use its nuclear arsenal to chastise the DPRK regime. Recently, Washington has denounced the suspected newly acquired nuclear capability of North Korea. But U.S. credibility in this regard is diminished by its own failure to delegitimize nuclear weapons as a deterrent. The message is: “Do as we say, not as we do.”

The Clinton administration deserves credit, however, for recognizing the patent need for a new Northeast Asia framework for collective security. Historically, Asian nations have recognized the need for a U.S. military presence in Asia. And in the post-cold war era, despite blustery propaganda from China, a U.S. military presence is considered necessary and vital for maintaining the status quo stability of the region. Even China regards it as a deterrent to the re-emergence of Japanese military power, and some DPRK scholars have suggested that a U.S. military presence on the peninsula may serve as a buffer between North and South Korea.

The U.S., then, can—if it demonstrates more conviction—play a critical leadership role in shaping a new regional structure for peace and security. If South and North Korea are to break the cycle of mistrust and begin a serious peace dialogue, a reconceptualization of the terms and character of regional security is essential.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Implement the Agreed Framework and maintain a policy of direct engagement with the DPRK.
  • Place normalization of relations with the DPRK on the fast track, lift economic sanctions, and provide humanitarian assistance, thereby establishing a basis of trust.
  • Work to create a post-cold war policy toward Korea within a Northeast Asia regional framework of collective security and common interests.

Given the willingness of North Korean leaders to alter these policies, the second Clinton administration has an unprecedented opportunity to provide leadership in the building of a new framework for peace in Korea and Northeast Asia. To make the most of this opportunity, the following steps should be taken:

  • The U.S. government should make the Geneva Accord of 1994 the cornerstone of a new U.S. policy toward North Korea. The Agreed Framework represented the first time that the U.S. officially recognized the validity of the DPRK’s security interests and economic motivations.
  • The U.S. should place the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with the DPRK on a fast track. A normalized relationship would provide Washington with more leverage to press for changes from the North Koreans.
  • As the normalization process begins, the U.S. government should work with the DPRK to:
  1. Transform the armistice agreement into a peace treaty.
  2. Reduce levels of conventional troops near the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
  3. End DPRK exports of Scud B and C missiles and missile technology.
  4. Repatriate the remains of U.S. MIA soldiers.
  • Washington should gradually lift economic sanctions (in place since 1953) to facilitate North Korea’s goal of ending its isolation, improving socioeconomic conditions, and slowly opening sectors of its economy to the international market. Both countries still tightly control travel, financial transactions, and trade. It is now time for the U.S. to use the carrot of improved economic and diplomatic relations to help shape better relations between North and South Korea.
  • The U.S. should recognize that noncompliance with its previous commitments to lift economic sanctions would only give DPRK hardliners an excuse to revoke the Geneva accord, which, for all its shortcomings, is a good and appropriate cornerstone for future U.S.-DPRK relations.
  • In the interests of regional stability and of the welfare of the North Korean people, U.S. support for a “soft landing” for the tottering DPRK economy is preferable to a hardline policy that aims to careen North Korea toward total economic and political collapse.
  • Washington should clarify that any further normalization of relations with Pyongyang does not mean that the U.S. is changing partners in Korea. Instead Washington should explain to the South Korean government that bilateral relations with North Korea will be necessary if the U.S. is to broker improved relations between the two Koreas.
  • Together with the nongovernmental community, the U.S. government should provide generous assistance for flood victims. This would not only ease conditions of malnutrition and starvation but would also build new trust between the two nations. But the U.S. should insist on clear and verifiable distribution monitoring mechanisms.
  • Washington should use its influence to help South and North Korea move beyond a dysfunctional cold war relationship, starting with full implementation of the 1991 South-North Agreement for Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation, which could serve as the foundation of new relations between the two Koreas.
  • In addition to pursuing regional economic integration through initiatives like APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), the U.S. should work to establish a new framework for political and military relations in Northeast Asia that will build mutual trust among the nations and peoples of this region.
  • Washington should play an important role in building a comprehensive peace structure in Northeast Asia by helping to forge a regional consensus on the need to stop the arms race, to forswear the use of military force to settle political conflicts, and to move toward the creation of a nuclear-free zone.

By taking these steps the U.S. can promote an orderly and peaceful reunification process in Korea. By recognizing the shortcomings of its own past policies toward the two Koreas and by building on its recent initiatives, the U.S. can play a pivotal role in helping Koreans overcome their past animosities and construct a common future.

Written by Rev. Paul Kim, Director of the Korean American Peace Institute.