North Korea: the path to a deal

Charles K Armstrong
24 October 2007

The Korean peninsula reached a milestone in early October 2007 with two separate but closely linked international meetings. On 3 October, after the sixth round of "six-party talks" in Beijing on 27-30 September, the states composing the multilateral forum (North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) released an agreement on "second-phase actions for the implementation of the joint statement" of 13 February 2007. The title might be dry, but the contents committed the signatories to a series of measures that would, if implemented, amount to real progress in one of the world's most complex disputes.

The key elements include a promise by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK / North Korea) to disable its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and "declare" all of its nuclear programmes by the end of 2007; a reaffirmed commitment by the United States and Japan to take steps toward normalisation of relations with the DPRK; and agreement by all parties on energy assistance to the DPRK.

The following day saw the conclusion of the second summit meeting on 2-4 October between the two leaders of the divided Korean peninsula - Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il - in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The inter-Korean summit produced an eight-point declaration that included the goal of concluding a permanent peace agreement to replace the Korean war armistice of June 1953, establishing a "zone of peace" around the North Korean city of Haeju, and strengthening cooperation in a variety of economic, cultural, and humanitarian areas.

A long unwinding

This is the farthest the two Koreas and the surrounding countries have come in achieving a peaceful resolution to the Korean problem since the North Korean nuclear issue first emerged in the early 1990s; it may even signal the beginning of the end of the Korean conflict which has continued since the start of the three-year war in 1950.

For the most important parties concerned - North Korea, South Korea, and the United States - the October agreements reflect a long-awaited convergence of their policies on the Korean problem. North Korea, despite being seen by many as the source of the problem, has been the most consistent in its approach: since the early 1990s, it has placed a priority on improving relations with the US in order to improve its economy and ensure its security. South Korea since the late 1990s and under two successive, "liberal" presidents (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun) has been committed to a single policy priority: engaging with the north.

Charles K Armstrong is associate professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, specialising in modern Korean, east Asian, and international history. Among his books are Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State (Routledge, 2002) and The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 (Cornell University Press, 20

By contrast, the American approach to North Korea over the last fifteen years has veered: from bilateral engagement under Bill Clinton, to confrontation under George W Bush, to a reluctant multilateral engagement through the six-party talks, to a crisis over North Korean missile and nuclear-weapons tests, and most recently to a new set of diplomatic agreements.

The latest US agreement in the six-party talks and its support for north-south engagement represent a major reversal in policy for the Bush administration, and a recognition that engagement with the north is the only realistic means of resolving the Korean crisis. This takes the situation back, more or less, to where it should have been following the first US-North Korean nuclear agreement in October 1994.

It now seems clear that North Korea made a strategic choice over a decade ago in which it would seek to resolve its profound economic difficulties and alleviate its hostile security environment through an accommodation with the United States. This never meant that the DPRK would simply capitulate to American demands and unilaterally disarm. Rather, North Korea chose to move toward some degree of economic reform domestically while attempting to work out a security agreement and normalisation of relations with the US on the basis of mutual respect for the legitimate security concerns of both sides. This was a message the Clinton administration eventually responded to but that the early Bush administration flatly rejected. Now both sides have reached an agreement on precisely the basis North Korea has advocated all along.

Since the 1990s, and especially since the early 2000s, North Korea has implemented a series of economic changes that represent a real, if still cautious, move toward market-oriented reform. South Korean aid and investment to the north has risen steadily since the late 1990s, and Chinese investment there is also substantial. But the improvement of ties with the US, which Pyongyang had pursued in close connection to its policy toward the south - and which had built considerable momentum during the Clinton administration - ground to a halt with the beginning of the Bush presidency in 2001.

The Americans charged in October 2002 that North Korea, despite a freeze on its plutonium production, was engaged in a secret highly-enriched uranium (HEU) programme for developing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans denied this: the Americans claimed "incontrovertible evidence" that it never made public. Since then, US intelligence has sounded less assured that their evidence was, after all, all that strong. But the initial revelations were enough to put a stop to US-North Korean talks, and eventually to a dissolution of the 1994 agreement that had frozen North Korea's existing nuclear programme.

In January 2003, North Korea ejected International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and removed the spent plutonium from their cases, where they had been in storage since the October 1994 agreement. North Korea was clearly moving toward the production of nuclear weapons.

A slow retrieval

In April 2003, North Korean, American, and Chinese officials met in Beijing to discuss a way out of the impasse. North Korea dropped hints that it might develop its own nuclear deterrent. The United States, while stating it did not intend to attack the DPRK, acted as if coercion and pressure alone would resolve the problem - by North Korea either giving in to American demands, or collapsing as a state. In the event, however, the six states of North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States agreed to hold talks on the issue. The six-party process had begun, setting off a new cycle of "crisis diplomacy." The escalating crisis led to the North Korean missile test of July 2006 and its first-ever underground nuclear test in October of that year (see Peter Hayes & Tim Savage, "Dr Strangelove in Pyongyang", 10 October 2006).

The United Nations Security Council roundly condemned both actions, passing a resolution in response to each that demanded North Korea cease such provocative actions and return to talks. This time, even China - which had long opposed UN sanctions against North Korea - agreed to the resolutions. North Korea did return to the talks, and the result was the agreement of 13 February 2007. This called for the DPRK to shut down and abandon its Yongbyon reactor, extend an invitation to IAEA inspectors to return, and fully reveal the extent of its nuclear programme. In exchange, the US and Japan would move toward normalisation of ties with the DPRK, and they and other countries would offer energy and humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

Also on North Korea in openDemocracy:

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (19 July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, "The ghosts of North and South Korea" (16 December 2005)

David Wall, "North Korea and the ‘six-party talks': a road to nowhere" (12 April 2006)

Jane Portal, "Art under control in North Korea" (28 June 2006)

Peter Hayes, "Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test"(21 July 2006)

Peter Hayes & Tim Savage, "Dr Strangelove in Pyongyang" (10 October 2006)

David Wall, "North Korea vs the United States: a bare table" (15 December 2006)

Peter Hayes, "North Korea and the United States: what deal?"(15 February 2007)

JE Hoare, "Bombs, birthdays and North Korea's future" (9 March 2007)

The agreement was greeted by all parties concerned as a major breakthrough in the nuclear crisis. A month later, however, it hit its first roadblock: the continued freezing of $25 million that North Korea had lodged in Macao's Banco Delta Asia (BDA). Pyongyang refused to go forward with its part of the 13 February agreement until these funds were released; lack of resolution of this issue meant that the sixty-day deadline for shutting down the Yongbyon plant on 13 April came and went.

It was not until June that the BDA funds were released, thanks to some assistance from Russia and a visit to Pyongyang by US ambassador Christopher Hill. North Korea followed by shutting down its Yongbyon reactor in July, and the six parties proceeded to a sixth round of talks in Beijing on 27-30 September, just days before the second inter-Korean summit.

The result of this sixth instalment of the six-party talks was the joint statement with which this article began. It was released by the Chinese foreign ministry on 3 October, and clearly added more substance to the framework established in the 13 February agreement. This time, North Korea promised that it would shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and "provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs in accordance with the February 13 agreement" by the end of 2007. Pyongyang also reaffirmed its promise not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how.

In addition to promises of eventual normalisation of relations with the US and Japan, North Korea would receive the equivalent of up to one million tons of heavy fuel-oil - twice as much as in the 1994 agreement - in an arrangement to be worked out by a working group on economy and energy cooperation. Less than a year after Pyongyang's nuclear test, the mood around the North Korean issue had changed from visions of the apocalypse to hopes for peace and economic cooperation.

This cooperative spirit was doubly reinforced by the concurrent second inter-Korean summit. The 4 October summit agreement, more detailed and specific than the June 2000 agreement from the first inter-Korean summit, outlined a wide range of cooperative activities. Prior to and during the summit, Roh had emphasised economic cooperation, which was embodied in Article 5 of the agreement; among other things, the two sides agreed to create a second special economic zone in the area of Haeju. But perhaps the most interesting section - from the perspective of the other countries in the six-party process - was Article 4, which recognised "the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime." For this, "the leaders of the three or four parties directly concerned" would "convene on the Peninsula and declare an end to the war."

A patient victory

The 13 February deal, the October six-party agreement and the 2007 Pyongyang declaration are all important steps toward inter-Korean reconciliation, de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and achieving a lasting North-South peace. But the road ahead is likely to be long and difficult.

It is one thing for North Korea to give up its obsolete and decrepit nuclear facilities in Yongbyon; it is another for Pyongyang to give up the weapons it already has and the spent plutonium that can be used to make new weapons, as the US will certainly demand. Nevertheless, the step-by-step, action-for-action outline of the agreement offers the chance to test each side's at every stage, even if many of the important details remain to be worked out.

Many doubts remain about the DPRK's intentions, but under the right conditions it should be able to be induced to dismantle its nuclear capability. South Korea remains committed to engagement as a means to resolve the issue; in July 2007, even the conservative Grand National Party, long hawkish on the North, revised its North Korea policy to favour engagement over pressure, little different from the position of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. China, despite its support for UN sanctions, has stated repeatedly that it prefers diplomacy and compromise. Russia has been an active proponent of engagement as well. Even Japan, despite its continuing fixation on the issue of Pyongyang's abduction of seventeen of its citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s, demonstrated in the February and October agreements its commitment to normalisation of relations with the DPRK.

If successful, the six-party process can establish the framework for an agreement finally to end the Korean war and create a long-term security mechanism for maintaining the peace. Within this framework, a less belligerent North Korea would be one important component of a more integrated, more peaceful northeast Asia.

For North Korea, the six-party agreement and the second Pyongyang declaration must appear as clear foreign-policy successes (see Bruce Cumings, "Kim Jong Il confronts Bush - and wins", Japan Focus, 19 October 2007). North Korea's primary adversaries arguably have conceded more than Pyongyang. The United States in particular, after years of tough talk and name-calling, has made an almost complete reversal in its policy and entered into an agreement with North Korea strikingly similar to the 1994 agreement which the Bush administration had once loathed. North Korea's major and consistently-held goals have been a more peaceful security environment, economic development, and the maintenance of its political system. For now, at least, those goals seem closer at hand than for many years.

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