While Trump administration is ramping up its military rhetoric, US and North Korea seem dangerously close to conflict. Nuclear war is almost becoming a thinkable option and the sudden mania of speaking about nuclear warfare does not seem to shock anyone.
The message is simple: we tried everything, nothing works and the only solution is to use force.
But did really the international community do anything in its power to resolve the crisis in the Korean peninsula?
By 1989, North Korea has developed a deterrence strategy that focused on expanding conventional armed forces as the primary means of deterring the threat of US nuclear weapons. The view appears to be supported by Kim Il Sung’s reported pronouncement during this period that nuclear weapons could not be used on the Korean peninsula due to its small size. In 1985, North Korean leadership joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and in 1990, North and South Korean talks begun.
In January 1992, North Korea concludes a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an agreement that will ratify in April of the same year, despite the sanctions imposed by the US on North Korea’s heavy industry for missile-proliferation activities. The same year the two Koreas will sign the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Under the declaration, both countries agree not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” They also agree to mutual inspections for verification.
But a few months later, in early 1993, US intelligence claims that it possesses evidence that North Korea has been cheating on its commitments under the NPT and demands special inspection of two sites that are believed to store nuclear waste. Pyongyang refuses to grant access to the IAEA inspectors and accuses the United States of pressuring officials of the IAEA Secretariat and Member States to adopt a resolution requiring North Korea to open military sites to inspection that are not nuclear-related. It also announces its intention to withdraw from the NPT in three months.
After months of tensed negotiations, the North Korean government agreed to finally allow the United Nations to resume inspections and suspend its withdrawal from the treaty. For its part, the United States grants assurances against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons. Washington also promises not to interfere with North Korea’s internal affairs.
Αt about the same time, North Korea was negotiating a deal with Israel to end missile exports to the Middle East in return for diplomatic recognition. The deal included the sale of a North Korean gold mine to Israel for cash and an unspecified investment of $1 billion in North Korea made up of contributions from Jews around the world. As an exchange, North Korea would stop supplying long-range missiles to Iran and would resume talks on its nuclear program. But Clinton administration did not wish to see the crisis in the Korean peninsula resolved without its direct implication. Few months later the deal was dead. Israeli officials admitted in August 1993 that the United States has opposed to the Israeli plan to invest in North Korea to prevent the North Koreans from supplying upgraded long-range missiles to Iran and pressured Israel to reject the plan.
More negotiations followed and President Jimmy Carter was invited to Pyongyang to secure the release of an American citizen but also to pursue talks with North Korea on its nuclear Program. Those talks resulted to the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed framework, under which Pyongyang committed to freezing its illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for aid and political recognition.
As Jimmy Carter wrote, “Pyongyang was ready to accept a deal ending its nuclear program and conclude to a permanent peace treaty to replace the temporary cease fire of 1953”.
Unfortunately, this was not going to be the case. Although North Korea had stopped testing longer range missiles or producing plutonium weapons the deal collapsed in 2002, when President Bush took office. One of his first actions was to point the finger directly at three countries -Iraq, North Korea and Iran—which he accused of arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction and forming the “axis of evil”. The aggressive militarism of Bush administration led to North Korea resuming its nuclear and missile program. In January 2003, Pyongyang dropped out of the NPT in retaliation for a US decision to halt the oil shipments that were promised to the country under the 1994 Agreed Framework. US claimed that it had intelligence information proving that North Korea launched a secret effort to enrich uranium, which the United States considered to be a breach of the 1994 accord. TheNew York Times and TheWashington Post reported that Libya received uranium suspected to be of North Korean origin in 2004. However, according to the Arms Control Today, “the evidence indicates, but does not prove, that the material originated in North Korea”.
Despite the standoff, an agreement was reached in 2005, under which Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear and missile program and would allow international inspections. As a result the country was promised a non-aggression pledge from the US, humanitarian aid and 50,000 tons of fuel in 2005 and 900,000 in 2007. But this agreement was also not long lived. President Bush rejected the 60 pages report of the north Korean government on its nuclear program as inaccurate, disbanded the international consortium set up to provide the promised light-water reactor, and toughened the financial sanctions against North Korea. In September 2005, the US accused Banco Delta Asia in Macao of laundering capital and circulating counterfeit money on behalf of North Korea. The US decided to take financial measures against the bank. Alarmed by the massive flight of foreign capital, the government of Macao, froze 24 million dollars belonging to Korean interests and ordered an independent investigation. The investigation was undertaken by Ernst &Young and the government of Macao. No evidence of money laundering was found, yet Banco Delta Asia remained blacklisted without the right to conduct any business in dollars thus causing painful losses to the fragile economy of North Korea.
Where we stand today
Since then, and amid negotiations and sanctions-that were intensified after the two nuclear tests of 2006 and 2009-and the imposition of extended controls over its economy and trade by the UN Security Council (UNSC), North Korea has gradually toughened its stand over the nuclear and missile program. The fate of Saddam Hussein and Muamar Gadhafi is probably a good reason for the north Korean leadership to continue with its nuclear arsenal. US claims that it does not seek regime change provide little reassurance given its proven capacity for shifting policies when new administrations take office.
Last April the announced deployment of the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson strike group toward the Korean Peninsula was accompanied by increasingly shrill speculation that the United States was prepared to launch a preemptive attack against the North if Pyongyang set off its sixth nuclear test or possibly conducted a missile test. There were speculations that the US strike to Syria in April and the use of the MOAB in Afghanistan was a direct message to North Korea.
On September 3rd North Korea carried out its apparent sixth nuclear test. This was not a surprise to anyone who follows North Korea developments. Since April, analysts have been saying the north Korean government was ready, and South Korean intelligence warned about it a week before the test. The test did not fundamentally change the situation on the Korean peninsula, though it was another acceleration.
On December 4th US and South Korean air forces began their five-day annual Vigilant ACE combat drills in South Korea that, according to local media, involve 230 aircraft and 12,000 personnel. South Korean defense ministry was quoted as saying that the drills will include simulated precision strikes on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities.
The drills come at a critical moment because of the statements of US administration of possible strikes against North Korea, and the presence in South Korea of advanced US aircraft that could play a role in them. Beginnings of December, senior Chinese and US military officials held crisis management talks but details were not disclosed. Both China and the US want the denuclearisation of North Korea but high mutual distrust will make coordination between Beijing and Washington difficult. China might prefer the stability of a nuclear-armed North Korea than the risk imposed by a regime collapse in Pyongyang. This could also alarm South Korea which fears that other countries might act against North Korea without consulting with Seoul first.
The level of risk posed by North Korean nuclear program depends on its purpose. North Korea’s aim seems to be defensive with nuclear weapons used as a deterrent strategy. At the same time, developing a nuclear program will allow Pyongyang to reduce spending in conventional military and thus invest more in the economic development of the country. Despite growing bellicosity between Washington and Pyongyang, this is a view shared by both Washington and Seoul.
However the risk of miscalculation remains and it is a clear indication that it is time to get into serious talks.