This long post examines the causes of and offers a response to the dangerous escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
While the details of U.S.-North Korean relations are complex, the story is relatively simple. In brief, the U.S. government continues to reject possibilities for normalizing relations with North Korea and promoting peace on the Korean peninsula in favor of a dangerous policy of regime change. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the U.S. media supports this policy choice with a deliberately one sided presentation of events designed to make North Korea appear to be an unwilling and untrustworthy negotiating partner.
As a corrective, in what follows I offer a more complete history of U.S -North Korean relations, focusing on the major events that frame current tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. This history makes clear that these tensions are largely the result of repeated and deliberate U.S. provocations and that our best hope for peace on the Korean Peninsula is an educated U.S. population ready and able to challenge and change U.S. foreign policy.
Perhaps the best starting point for understanding the logic of U.S.-North Korean relations is the end of Korean War fighting in 1953. At U.S. insistence, the fighting ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. A Geneva conference held the following year failed to secure the peace or the reunification of Korea, and U.S. demands were the main reason for the failure.
The United States rejected North Korean calls for Korea-wide elections, supervised by a commission of neutral nation representatives, to establish a new unified Korean government, a proposal that even many U.S. allies found reasonable. Instead, the U.S. insisted, along with South Korea, that elections for a new government be held only in the North and under the supervision of the U.S. dominated United Nations. Needless to say, the conference ended without any final declaration, Korea divided, and the United States and North Korea in a continuing state of war.
Up until the late 1980s/early 1990s, an interrelated, contentious but relatively stable set of relationships—between the United States and the Soviet Union and between North Korea and South Korea—kept North Korean-U.S. hostilities in check. The end of the Soviet Union and transformation of Russia and other Central European countries into capitalist countries changed everything.
The loss of its major economic partners threw North Korea’s economy into chaos; conditions only worsened the following years as a result of alternating periods of flood and drought. The North Korean government, now in a relatively weak position, responded by seeking new trade and investment partners, which above all required normalization of relations with the United States. The U.S. government had a different response to the changed circumstances; seeking to take advantage of the North’s economic problems and political isolation, it rejected negotiations and pursued regime change.
It is the interplay of U.S. and North Korean efforts to achieve their respective aims that is largely responsible for the following oft repeated pattern of interaction: the North tries to force the United States into direct talks by demonstrating its ability to boost its military capacities and threaten U.S. interests while simultaneously offering to negotiate away those capacities in exchange for normalized relations. The United States, in turn, seizes on such demonstrations to justify ever harsher economic sanctions, which then leads North Korea to up the ante.
There are occasional interruptions to the pattern. At times, the United States, concerned with North Korean military advances, will enter into negotiations. Agreements are even signed. But, the U.S. rarely follows through on its commitments. Then the pattern resumes. The critical point here is that it is the North that wants to conclude a peace treaty ending the Korean War and normalize relations with the United States. It is the U.S. that is the unwilling partner, preferring to risk war in the hopes of toppling the North Korean regime.
The Framework Agreement, 1994-2002
The U.S. government began to raise public concerns about a possible North Korean nuclear threat almost immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These concerns were driven my many factors, in particular the U.S. need for a new enemy to justify continued high levels of military spending. Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in testimony to Congress that with the Soviet Union gone, the United States was running out of enemies. All that was left, he said, was Fidel Castro and Kim Il Sung.
The North had shut down its one operating reactor in 1989 for repairs. In 1992, the CIA claimed that the North used the shutdown to reprocess plutonium and was now in possession of one or two nuclear weapons, a claim disputed at the time by the State Department. The North also denied the claim but offered to settle U.S. nuclear concerns if the United States would enter into normalization talks.
The Clinton Administration rejected the invitation and began planning for war. War was averted only because of Jimmy Carter’s intervention. He traveled to North Korea and brokered an agreement with Kim Il Sung that Clinton reluctantly accepted. The resulting 1994 Framework Agreement required the North to freeze its graphite-moderated reactor and halt construction of two bigger reactors. It also required the North to store the spent fuel from its operating reactor under International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) supervision.
In exchange, the U.S agreed to coordinate the building of two new light water reactors (which are considered less militarily dangerous) that were to be finished by 2003. Once the reactors were completed, but before they were fully operational, the North would have to allow full IAEA inspections of all its nuclear facilities. During the period of construction, the U.S. agreed to provide the North with shipments of heavy oil for heating and electricity production.
Perhaps most importantly, the agreement also called for the United States to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” with the North and “provide formal assurances to the DPRK against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the United States.”
Tragically, although rarely mentioned in the U.S. media, the U.S. government did little to meet its commitments. It was repeatedly late in delivering the promised oil and didn’t begin lifting sanctions until June 2000. Even more telling, the concrete for the first light water reactor wasn’t poured until August 2002. Years later, U.S. government documents revealed that the United States made no attempt to complete the reactors because officials were convinced that the North Korean regime would collapse.
The Bush administration had no use for the Framework Agreement and was more than happy to see it terminated, which it unilaterally did in late 2002, after charging the North with violating its terms by pursuing nuclear weapons through a secret uranium enrichment program. Prior to that, in January 2002, President Bush branded North Korea a member of the “axis of evil.” In March, the terms of a new military doctrine were leaked, revealing that the United States reserved the right to take preemptive military strikes and covert actions against nations possessing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as use nuclear weapons as an option in any conflict; North Korea was listed as one of the targeted nations. In July, President Bush rejected a North Korean request for a meeting of foreign ministers, calling Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and a “spoiled child at the dinner table.”
It is certainly possible that North Korea did begin a uranium enrichment program in the late 1990s, although the Bush Administration never provided proof of the program’s existence. However, what is clear is that the North did halt its plutonium program, allowing its facilities to deteriorate, with little to show for it. The failure of the United States to live up to its side of the agreement is highlighted by the fact that North Korea’s current demands are no different from what it was promised in 1994.
The North Korean government responded to the Bush administration’s unilateral termination of the Framework Agreement by ordering IAEA inspectors out of the country, restarting its plutonium program, and pledging to build a nuclear arsenal for its defense.
Six Party Talks, 2003-7
Fearful of a new war on the Korean peninsula, the Chinese government organized talks aimed at deescalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. The talks began in August 2003 and included six countries—the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. Two years of talks failed to produce any progress in resolving U.S.-North Korea differences. One reason: the U.S. representative was under orders not to speak directly to his North Korean counterpart except to demand that North Korea end its nuclear activities, scrap its missiles, reduce its conventional forces, and end human rights abuses. The North, for its part, refused to discuss its nuclear program separate from its broader relations with the United States.
Finally, in mid-2005, the Chinese made it known that they were prepared to declare the talks a failure and would blame the United States for the outcome. Not long after, the United States ended its opposition to an agreement. In September 2005, the six countries issued a Joint Statement, which was largely a repackaged Framework Agreement. While all the countries pledged to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, most of the concrete steps were to be taken by the United States and North Korea “in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.”
Unfortunately, the day after the Joint Statement was issued, the United States sabotaged it. The U.S. Treasury announced that it had “proof” that North Korea was counterfeiting $100 bills, so called super notes, an action it said amounted to war. It singled out the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, which was one of North Korea’s main financial connections to the west, for supporting the country’s illegal activities, froze its dollar accounts, and warned other banks not to conduct business with it or service any North Korean dollar transactions. The aim was to isolate North Korea by denying it access to international credit markets. The charge of counterfeiting was rejected by the North, most Western currency experts, and even China and Russia who were given a presentation of evidence by the U.S. Treasury. However, fearful of possible U.S. retaliation, most banks complied with U.S. policy, greatly harming the North Korean economy.
The timing of the counterfeit charge was telling. The U.S. Treasury had been concerned with counterfeit super notes since 1989 and had originally blamed Iran. The sum total identified was only $50 million, and none of the notes had ever circulated in the United States. This was clearly yet another effort to stop normalization and intensify economic pressure on North Korea.
The North announced that its participation in Six Party talks was contingent on the withdrawal of the counterfeit charge and the return of its Banco Delta Asia dollar deposits. After months of inaction by the United States, the North took action. On July 4, 2006, it test-fired six missiles over the Sea of Japan, including an intercontinental missile. The U.S. and Japan condemned the missile firings and further tightened their sanctions against North Korea. In response, on October 8, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Finally, the U.S. agreed to reconsider its financial embargo and the North agreed that if its money was returned and it received energy supplies and economic assistance it was willing to once again shutdown its nuclear facilities, readmit international inspectors, and discuss nuclear disarmament in line with steps toward normalization of relations with the United States.
The Six Party talks began again in December 2006 but the process of securing implementation of the Joint Statement was anything but smooth. The U.S. chief negotiator at the talks announced in February 2007 that all frozen North Korean deposits would be unfrozen and made available to the North within 30 days; the North was given 60 days to shut down its reactor. However, the Treasury refused to withdraw its charges, and no bank was willing to handle the money for fear of being targeted as complicit with terrorism. It took the State Department until June 25 to work out a back-door alternative arrangement, thereby finally allowing the Six Party agreement to go into effect.
The Six Party Agreement, 2007-9
As noted above, the Six Party agreement involved a phased process. Phase 1, although behind schedule because of the U.S. delay in releasing North Korean funds, was completed with no problems. In July 2007, North Korea shut down and sealed its Yongbyon nuclear complex which housed its reactor, reprocessing facility, and fuel rod fabrication plant. It also shut down and sealed its two partially constructed nuclear reactors. It also invited back IAEA inspectors who verified the North Korean actions. In return, the U.S. provided a shipment of fuel oil.
Phase 2, which began in October, required the North to disable all its nuclear facilities by December 31, 2007 and “provide a complete and correct declaration of all its existing nuclear programs.” In a separate agreement it also agreed to disclose the status of its uranium enrichment activities. In exchange, the North was to receive, in stages, “economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance.” Once it fulfilled all Phase 2 requirements it would also be removed from the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act and the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
North Korean complaints over the slow delivery of fuel oil delayed the completion of this second phase. However, in May 2008, North Korea completed the last stage of its required Phase 2 actions when it released extensive documentation of its plutonium program and in June a declaration of its nuclear inventory. In response, the U.S. removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
However, the U.S. government failed to release the remaining promised aid or end the remaining sanctions on North Korea. It now demanded that North Korea accept a highly intrusive verification protocol, one that would open up all North Korean military installations to U.S. inspection, and made satisfaction of Phase 2 commitments dependent on its acceptance. The U.S. was well aware that this demand was not part of the original agreement. As Secretary of State Rice stated, “What we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactors, into phase two.”
The North offered a compromise—a Six Party verification mechanism which would include visits to declared nuclear sites and interviews with technical personal. It also offered to negotiate a further verification protocol in the final dismantlement phase. The U.S. government rejected the compromise and ended all aid deliveries.
In February 2009, the North Korea began preparation to launch a satellite. South Korea was preparing to launch a satellite of its own in July. The North had signed the appropriate international protocols governing satellites and was now providing, as required, notification of its launch plan. The Obama administration warned the North that doing so would violate sanctions placed on the country after its nuclear test. In response, the North declared that it had every right to develop its satellite technology and if the U.S. responded with new sanctions it would withdraw from the Six Party talks, eject IAEA monitors, restart its reactors, and strengthen its nuclear deterrent.
The North launched its satellite in April. In June, the U.S. won UN support for enhanced sanctions, and the North followed through on its threat. In May the North conducted a second nuclear test, producing yet another round of sanctions.
In April and December 2012 the North again launched earth observation satellites. Although before each of these launches the U.S. asserted that these were veiled attempts to test ballistic missiles designed to threaten the United States, after each launch almost all observers agreed that the characteristics of the launches—their flight pattern and the second stage low-thrust, long burntime—were what is required to put a satellite in space and not consistent with a missile test.
After the December launch, the only successful one, the U.S. again convinced the Security Council to apply a new round of sanctions. And in response, the North carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013. The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out that there have been “more than 2,000 nuclear tests and 9,000 satellite launches” in the world, “but the UN Security Council has never passed a resolution prohibiting nuclear tests or satellite launches.” The Security Council responded to the North’s nuclear test by approving stricter sanctions.
In addition to sanctions, the U.S. has also intensified its military provocations against the North in hopes of destabilizing the new North Korean regime led by Kim Jung Un. For example, in 2012, U.S.-South Korean military analysts conducted the world’s largest computerized war simulation exercise, practicing the deployment of more than 100,000 South Korean troops into North Korea to “stabilize the country in case of regime collapse.” As part of their yearly war games, U.S. and South Korean forces also carried out their largest amphibious landing operations in 20 years; 13 naval vessels, 52 amphibious armored vehicles, 40 fighter jets and helicopters, and 9,000 U.S. troops were involved.
As part of its March 2013 war games, the U.S. flew nuclear-capable B-2 Stealth bombers over South Korea; these are also the only planes capable of dropping the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb, which was developed to destroy North Korean underground facilities. Nuclear-capable B-52 bombers also flew over South Korea, dropping dummy munitions. The United States also sent the nuclear-powered submarine USS Cheyenne, equipped with Tomahawk missiles, into Korea waters.
The North Korean government responded to these threats in three ways. First, the content of their declarations changed. In particular, they began to focus their own threats on the U.S. as well as South Korea. For example, the government stated, “If the US imperialists brandish nuclear weapons, we — in complete contrast to former times — will by means of diversified, precision nuclear strike in our own style turn not just Seoul, but even Washington, into a sea of fire.” It also asserted, for the first time, that its nuclear weapons were no longer negotiable. At least, not “as long as the United States’ nuclear threats and hostile policy exist.”
Second, the government put North Korean forces on full alert, including all artillery, rockets, and missiles. Kim Jong Un announced that the country would “answer the US imperialists’ nuclear blackmail with a merciless nuclear attack.” Finally, it announced, in April, that it would restart its uranium enrichment program and its Yongbyon reactor.
What Lies Ahead
The Obama administration has adopted what it has called the doctrine of “strategic patience” in dealing with North Korea. But as made clear from above, in reality the U.S. has continued to pursue an aggressive policy towards North Korea, motivated by the hope that the regime will collapse and Korean reunification will be achieved by the South’s absorption of the North, much like the German experience.
The consequence of this policy is ever worsening economic conditions in the North; continuing military buildup in the United States, Japan, China, and both North and South Korea; a strengthening of right-wing forces in South Korea and Japan; and the growing threat of a new war on the Korean peninsula. There are powerful interests in Japan, South Korea, and the United States that are eager to further militarize their respective domestic and foreign policies, even at the risk of war. Tragically, their pursuit of this goal comes at great cost to majorities in all the countries concerned, even if war is averted.
The North has made clear its willingness to enter direct talks with the United States. It is only popular pressure in the United States that will cause the U.S. government to change its policy and accept the North Korean offer. It is time for the U.S. government to sign a peace treaty finally ending the Korean War and take sincere steps towards normalization of relations with North Korea.
*Martin Hart-Landsberg is Professor of Economics and Director of the Political Economy Program at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon; and Adjunct Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences, Gyeongsang National University, South Korea. His areas of teaching and research include political economy, economic development, international economics, and the political economy of East Asia. He is also a member of the Workers’ Rights Board (Portland, Oregon).