APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest Third Place Winner
North Korea and the Issue of Denuclearization: Lessons Learned from Peaceful Negotiations
By Fiona Hye-min CHO
On July 10, Kim Yo-jong, North Korea’s Deputy Director of the United Front Department and younger sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, declared that North Korea will not denuclearize for the time being. She then qualifiedthis statement by adding that denuclearization was a possibility in the future,just not possible “at this point in time.” Kim’s vague message echoes the stance that North Korea has presented for the past few decades, a wildly fluctuating series of concessions and retractions that has culminated in uncertainty over what to do about the nation’s nuclear arsenal. In other words,the international community remains locked in a stalemate with North Korea overa conclusive deal regarding denuclearization.
To truly understand this current stalemate, it is imperative toexamine the past history of negotiations. While it is true that North Korea first began to experiment with nuclear weapons in the 1950s, it was in the 1980s that its dealings first became an international issue. On December12, 1985, North Korea agreed to the terms of the Treaty on theNon-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, citing concerns regardingUS nuclear weapons positioned in South Korea, the regime refused to sign theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s safeguards agreement, a mandatorycondition within the NPT.
What followed was the first significant series of negotiations with North Korea on nuclear weapons. President George H.W. Bush declared plans to withdraw all USnuclear weapons positioned abroad, and President Roh Tae-woo supported thisaction by declaring that South Korea will not store or possess nuclear weapons.The bilateral move worked—Pyongyang, convinced by the promises, proceeded withthe safeguards agreement with the IAEA and even collaborated with the South tosign the “South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the KoreanPeninsula” in 1992. South Korea and the US had reduced the number of nuclearweapons on the Korean peninsula, and North Korea had signed onto two major agreementsdedicated to limiting nuclear weapons. It was a victory for non-proliferation.
Whilepeaceful negotiation worked, officials had less success with aggressivebargaining and imposing sanctions. In 1994, when IAEA inspectors found evidenceto suspect North Korea’s duplicity in adhering to the terms of the NPT, theydemanded that Pyongyang allow for special inspections to take place, which wasfollowed by firm refusal in response. However, rather than initiatingdiplomatic negotiations to reach a compromise, the organization pushed backeven harder and aggressively urged Kim’s regime to permit the inspections. Hadthe IAEA reached out to North Korea in a less threatening, more diplomaticmanner, Pyongyang might have chosento comply, or at the bare minimum, offer a set of demands or a compromise. Butinstead, by applyingpressure without carefully analyzing the reasons behind the regime’s behaviorand giving Pyongyang a chance to explain itself, the IAEA reversed the progressmade with North Korea in the preceding years. North Korea would withdraw fromthe IAEA altogether a month later.
Thereason why these historical events are key to understanding the currentstalemate is because they provide three important lessons to handling thisissue. Firstly, peaceful negotiations are key to continuing down the path todenuclearization. The reason is the success of past peaceful negotiations,which set a clear precedent for future such endeavors. For instance, in 1993,Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres successfully negotiated with Pyongyang inpreventing the sale of missiles to Pakistan. The deal was almost sealed whenthe US intervened, and discussions came to an abrupt halt. The diplomatic,non-threatening approach of the Israelis was able to secure progress, while thehostile, demanding attitude of the US reversed whatever progress had been made.
Second,the events of the 1980s and 1990s suggest that sanctions should not be part ofthe solution. Rather than countering North Korea’s power, sanctions are likelyto expand its power by agitating the regime and causing it to test and developmore weapons in retaliation.
Furthermore, sanctions provide North Korea with an excuse to notcomply with the international community’s demands. In 1998, Pyongyang famouslydeclared that it would stop exporting missiles only if the US madecompensations for the financial damage caused by sanctions.
Haltingsanctions altogether will force North Korea to be unable to turn to suchexcuses and focus on discussing the more important issues.
Lastly,international leaders must build on the momentum created by successful negotiations.Far too many times have leaders hastily abandoned efforts to reduce NorthKorea’s nuclear arsenal and reach a deal after gaining some momentum inprevious discussions. Most notably, the
Clintonadministration’s attempts to reach a deal with the North and persuade it tosign the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines fell apart afterthe two countries’ inability to compromise and the termination of Clinton’sleadership. Because the subsequent Bush administration did not continue thesediscussions, what could have been successful negotiations were left in thedust. The same applies to the more recent series of summits between PresidentMoon Jae-in, President Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un. While there was someprogress made, ultimately, the talks fell apart after none of the leaders wereable to build on the momentum and actively push for more dialogue.
Insummation, we must continue pursuing peaceful negotiations with North Korea,building on the momentum every time we make even a sliver of progress. We mustalso reject the possibility of using sanctions as a tool against North Koreaand its development of nuclear weapons. That being said, there is still a needto be wary. Given North Korea’s track record, even though they mayverbally express genuine intentions to cooperate with denuclearization, theymay break their promises or discreetly work on developing more new weapons. Thekey here is to take small steps and practice patience. Denuclearization is agradual, step-by-step process, and if North Korea ultimately takes more stepstoward dismantling their nuclear arsenal compared to developing it, one day, itwill eventually find itself on the doorstep of complete denuclearization.
A winning essay from the APLN-The Korea Times Essay Contest.