The Korean Nuclear Dynamic: Progress Not in Sight


2012-11-06 by Richard Weitz

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the only state to have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), unilaterally disabled IAEA containment and surveillance systems, and expelled IAEA inspectors from its territory in 1993.

The United States then intervened and negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under this accord, the DPRK agreed to cease its plutonium reprocessing activities, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb, in return for fuel aid and other assistance from Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

But concerns about North Korea’s WMD ambitions surged again after September 2001, when the threatened nexis between WMD proliferation and catastrophic terrorism rose to the forefront of the American and international agendas, leading President Bush included North Korea as a charter member of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.

After U.S. officials accused North Korea of circumventing the Agreed Framework by pursuing a covert uranium enrichment program, another technological path that could lead to the production of fissile material suitable for manufacturing an atomic bomb, DPRK representatives, citing the failure of the other parties to provide Pyongyang with adequate energy assistance, seemingly acknowledged U.S. government claims that the DPRK was conducting an undeclared uranium enrichment program. The DPRK then expelled its IAEA inspectors and withdrew from the NPT.

To address the crisis, China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States began the Six-Party Talks on Korea’s denuclearization in August 2003.

Since then, the talks have experienced extremely mixed results.

On February 10, 2005, North Korea publicly stated for the first time that it possessed nuclear weapons. The IAEA Board of Governors condemned this announcement and urged the DPRK to verifiably eliminate its nuclear weapons program. On September 19, 2005, North Korea committed in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, and to return at an early date to the NPT and restore IAEA safeguards. In return for abandoning its nuclear weapons program, the DPRK was to receive “energy assistance” from the other parties. Japan and the United States also agreed to normalize relations with Pyongyang.

CIRCA 1978: Factory and Field Workers on 5 Won 1978 Banknote from North Korea. Communism propaganda concept. Credit Image; Bigstock 

The deal fell apart, however, after the parties proved unable to negotiate mutually acceptable terms for its implementation and a dispute over frozen North Korean funds in a Macau bank complicated DPRK-U.S. ties. It took the shock of October 9, 2006, when North Korea demonstrated unequivocally that it had the will and capacity to develop nuclear weapons by detonating an underground nuclear explosive device, to provide the necessary fillip to reach an agreement.

The UNSC’s immediate response to the DPRK nuclear test was to adopt UNSCR 1718, which imposed sanctions on Pyongyang and demanded that the DPRK return immediately to the NPT and to IAEA safeguards as well as dismantle its nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner.

After months of mutual recriminations, the following year saw considerable progress in the Korean denuclearization process. On February 13, 2007, the Fifth Round of the Six-Party Talks resulted in the Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement, in which the DPRK committed to shut down and seal, and eventually dismantle, the Yongbyon nuclear complex, including the reprocessing facility; invite IAEA personnel back to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications; and share a list of all its nuclear programs with all the other parties.

In return, the other parties agreed to provide Pyongyang with alternative energy supplies, starting with an initial phase one delivery of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. They also pledged additional energy and economic assistance once North Korea suspended and then eliminated its entire nuclear weapons program. In addition, Japan and the United States committed to “normalize” their relations with the DPRK as part of comprehensive effort to transform northeast Asia into a more benign security environment. The parties established five working groups—dealing specifically with North Korea’s denuclearization: economic and energy cooperation; Japan-DPRK relations; U.S.-DPRK relations; and the regional security architecture—to promote progress in these core dimensions.

On June 27, 2007, the North Korean government ostentatiously blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility before the world’s media.

More importantly, Pyongyang delivered its long-awaited declaration of its past nuclear programs and activities the day before to the other parties to the Six-Party Talks, leading to its first formal meeting in nine months.

After the international community had verified the accuracy of North Korea’s declared nuclear programs, the plan was for the parties to transition to the third phase of the denuclearization process, which would entail actually dismantling them.

This did not happen.

The expectation was that North Korea would have ceased all military nuclear activities and dismantled its entire nuclear weapons program, including whatever nuclear weapons it had produced earlier, in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner. The DPRK would also have refrained from further vertical or horizontal nuclear proliferation activities.

In return, it would have received additional economic and political rewards from the international community. The timeline for starting or, perhaps more importantly, concluding these steps was never negotiated. In fact, the process soon entered yet another retrograde phase.

In April 2009, the UN Security Council imposed additional sanctions on the DPRK after North Korea launched a ballistic missile under the guise of testing space rockets. Pyongyang responded defiantly by withdrawing from the talks and then detonating another nuclear weapon, the second following its initial test in October 2006, in contravention of previous UN resolutions.

The year 2010 saw further deterioration in security conditions on the Korean Peninsula.

Three events proved particularly troubling.

In March, the DPRK launched an unprovoked attack on a ROK warship, firing a torpedo from a submarine that sank the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette.

In early November, DPRK officials showed off a new uranium enrichment facility, consisting of some 2,000 recently constructed centrifuges, to an American nuclear scientist.

Then on November 23, the North Koreans launched an artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong Island, a ROK possession located in the disputed border region, which killed four South Koreans. The incident represented the first direct attack on ROK territory by the DPRK regularly military since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Although the reasons for the DPRK acts are unclear, they probably were partly due to the succession process within the Kim dynasty that has ruled the DPRK since its founding.

At the time, Kim Jong-il, who inherited his position from his father, wanted his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. The Kim regime might have sought to reassure other members of the DPRK leadership about the fitness of the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un to rule by demonstrating his ability to stand up to foreign pressure engendered by the DPRK’s own March and the November provocations.

Thus far, Kim Jong-un has continued with the established pattern of behavior and has sought to extract economic and humanitarian concessions from the other Six Party dialogue participants in return for symbolic and reversible concessions to cement the power transition within the Kim family dynasty.

Seoul attempted to restart dialogue with North Korea in January 2011.

The ROK government made a major concession by no longer requiring that the DPRK government officially apologize for the Cheonan’s sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling before agreeing to resume direct low-level talks. Instead, the ROK government indicated that it would seek assurances that the DPRK will take “responsible measures” for the incidents and cease its provocative actions. A ROK Foreign Ministry official explained that the South Korean government considered it important to respect the concerns of the other Six-Party participants and not block the Talks’ resumption on the single issue of a DPRK apology for its reckless incidents. But plans for a ministerial level meeting collapsed with North Korea walked out after Seoul demanded acknowledgment of North Korean responsibility for the RKS Cheonan sinking from Pyongyang.

The new generation of leaders in Pyongyang, led by Kim Jong-un, who assumed office in December 2011, has not fundamentally departed from Kim Jong Il’s policies. Despite the general unease about having such a young and inexperienced individual in charge of such a volatile regime, foreign governments have not sought to intervene in the succession process in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

A deal announced on “Leap Day” at the end of February 2012, in which North Korea seem to make important concessions, such as allowing international monitors to assess its nuclear programs, in return for U.S. food aid rapidly collapsed after North Korea insisted on launching a ballistic missile on April 13, leading to endless and inconclusive speculation regarding DPRK motives.

At the moment, all the major players are preoccupied with their economic woes and internal political transitions, making it unlikely that we will see a new diplomatic initiative until 2013 at the earliest.

For a perspective on a former 7th USAF commander on the issues discussed in this article see the following: