North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

A Long History of Failed Diplomacy

South Koreans protesting North Korea’s rocket launch
South Korea Suspends Kaesong Industrial Complex Over North's Rocket Launch. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

 On April 22, 2017, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence held out hope that that the Korean peninsula could still be made free of nuclear weapons peacefully. This goal is far from new. In fact, the United States has been trying to peacefully prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War in 1993.

Along with a welcome sigh of relief to most of the world, the end of the Cold War brought sweeping changes to the tense diplomatic environment of the politically divided Korean peninsula. South Korea established diplomatic relations with North Korea’s longtime allies the Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1992.  In 1991, both North and South Korea were admitted into the United Nations.

When North Korea’s economy began to fail during the early 1990s, the United States hoped its offers of international aid might encourage a thaw in U.S.-North Korean relations resulting in the long-sought reunification of the two Koreas.

President of the United States Bill Clinton hoped these developments would lead to the fulfillment of a key goal of post-Cold War U.S. diplomacy, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Instead, his efforts resulted in a series of crises that would persist throughout his eight years in office and continue to dominate U.S. foreign policy today.

A Brief Hopeful Start

The denuclearization of North Korea actually got off to a good start. In January 1992, North Korea publicly stated it intended to sign the nuclear weapons safeguard agreement with the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By signing, North Korea was agreeing not to use its nuclear program for the development of nuclear weapons and to allow regular inspections of its primary nuclear research facility at Yongbyon.

Also in January 1992, both North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in which the nations agreed to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only and to never “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons.”

However, during 1992 and 1993, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the landmark 1970 U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and consistently defied the IAEA agreements by refusing to disclose its nuclear activities at Yongbyon.

With the credibility and enforceability the nuclear weapons treaties in question, the United States asked the U.N. to threaten North Korea with economic sanctions in order to prevent the nation from buying the materials and equipment needed to produce weapons-grade plutonium. By June 1993, tensions between the two nations had eased to the point that North Korea and the United States issues a joint statement agreeing to respect each other’s sovereignty and to not interfere in each other’s domestic policy.  

First North Korean Threat of War

Despite the hopeful diplomacy of 1993, North Korea continued to block the agreed to IAEA inspections of its Yongbyon nuclear facility and the old familiar tensions returned.

In March 1994, North Korea threatened to declare war against the United States and South Korea if they again sought sanctions from the U.N. In May 1994, North Korea disavowed its agreement with the IAEA, thus rejecting all future attempts by the U.N. to inspect its nuclear facilities.

In June 1994, Former President Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea to persuade supreme leader Kim Il Sung to negotiate with the Clinton administration over its nuclear program.

President Carter’s diplomatic efforts averted war and opened the door for U.S.-North Korean bilateral negotiations that resulted in the October 1994 Agreed Framework for the denuclearization of North Korea.

The Agreed Framework

Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea was required to stop all nuclear-related activities at Yongbyon, dismantle the facility, and allow IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire process. In return, the United States, Japan, and South Korea would provide North Korea with light water nuclear power reactors, and the United States would provide energy supplies in the form of fuel oil while the nuclear reactors were being built.

Unfortunately, the Agreed Framework was largely derailed by a series of unforeseen events. Citing the cost involved, the U.S. Congress delayed delivery of the United State’s promised shipments of fuel oil. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 limited South Korea’s ability to build the nuclear power reactors, resulting in delays.

Frustrated by the delays, North Korea resumed tests of ballistic missiles and conventional weapons in an overt threat to South Korea and Japan.

By 1998, suspicions that North Korea had resumed nuclear weapons activities at a new facility at Kumchang-ri left the Agreed Framework in tatters.

While North Korea finally allowed the IAEA to inspect Kumchang-ri and no evidence of weapons activity was found, all sides continued to doubt the agreement.

In a last ditch attempt to save the Agreed Framework, President Clinton, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright personally visited  North Korea in October 2000. As a result of their mission, the U.S. and North Korea signed a joint “statement of no hostile intent.”

However, a lack of hostile intent did nothing to resolve the issue of nuclear weapons development. In the winter of 2002, North Korea removed itself from the Agreed Framework and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, resulting in the Six-Party Talks hosted by China in 2003. Attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, the Six-Party Talks were intended to convince North Korea to dismantle its nuclear development program.

The Six-Party Talks

Held in five “rounds” conducted from 2003 to 2007, the Six-Party Talks resulted in North Korea agreeing to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards the normalization of relations with the United States and Japan. However, a failed satellite launch conducted by North Korea in 2009 brought a strong statement of condemnation from the United Nations Security Council.

In an angry response to the U.N.’s action, North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks on April 13, 2009, and announced that it was resuming its plutonium enrichment program in order to boost its nuclear deterrent. Days later, North Korea expelled all IAEA nuclear inspectors from the country.

The Korean Nuclear Weapons Threat in 2017

As of 2017, North Korea continued to pose a major challenge to U.S. diplomacy. Despite U.S. and international efforts to prevent it, the nation’s nuclear weapons development program continues to advance under its flamboyant supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

On February 7, 2017, Dr. Victor Cha, Ph.D., Senior Adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that since 1994, North Korea had conducted 62 missile tests and 4 nuclear weapons tests, including 20 missile tests and 2 nuclear weapons tests during 2016 alone.

In his testimony, Dr. Cha told lawmakers that the Kim Jong-un regime had rejected all serious diplomacy with its neighbors, including with China, South Korea, and Russia, and moved ahead “aggressively” with its testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.

According to Dr. Cha, the objective of North Korea’s current weapons program is: “To field a modern nuclear force that has the proven ability to threaten first US territories in the Pacific, including Guam and Hawaii; then the achievement of a capability to reach the US homeland starting with the West Coast, and ultimately, the proven capability to hit Washington D.C. with a nuclear-tipped ICBM.”