For the past 5 months, I have been keeping up to date on all public information surrounding the North Korea situation. My progress thus far has been to search for historic actions that may indicate North Korea’s future actions. In my search, the most notable thing I have found is a willingness on North Korea’s behalf to open discussions. While in practice, they may lack to power to force their own agenda, they certainly have enough power to withhold the agendas of both the U.S. and China. The failed Six-Party talks of 2003, a diplomatic conference between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, the U.S., Russia, attempts were made to reach a compromise regarding nuclear policy.
However, unwillingness of practical compromise on behalf of the U.S. and erratic behavior from the North Koreans led to a gradual but sure collapse of the talks. The talks ceased in 2008, and in 2009 Pyongyang withdrew for then unknown reasons, which they later revealed to be the acquisition of a large uranium enrichment facility. This decline of effective communication and true compromise assured the talks would fail. After the breakdown of the Six-Party talks in 2008, there was some talk of a reboot in 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition and peace talks ceased.
Until around 2012, the U.S. had been relying on North Korea’s adherence to the 1994 “Agreed Framework” which lay out a few compromises between the U.S. and North Korea to normalize relations and de-escalate their new nuclear program. This included promises of the U.S. to build several light-water reactors to provide power that would be lost by the suspension of the nuclear program, fuel imports, and the removal of titles of terrorism (therefore removing certain sanctions against North Korea).
If the global powers hope to reach a peaceful method of denuclearization of North Korea, they may have missed their best chance with the collapse of the Six-Party talks. It should be fairly obvious that threats of warfare and pressure only have a minimal impact on North Korea’s nuclear policies. They have blatantly violated treaty after treaty, because applying pressure to foreign targets is a strategy they also employ, and therefore Pyongyang has an understanding of its weaknesses. Namely, with no way to punish North Korea for breaking these agreements, they are essentially left free.
I will precede the following opinion statement with a disclaimer: I am not a political scientist, a diplomat, or an insider to the North Korean situation. There may be many other facts to support the former strategy of “strategic patience” and they may even be reasons behind the Trump method of “public humiliation” and direct actions against North Korea. My opinions are based only on the public knowledge I have been able to scrounge up, but are not based on anything the news or other scholars have provided.
Recently, the Trump administration passed a hot button piece of legislation: a travel ban of several Muslim-majority countries, Venezuela, and North Korea. While the debate on race-motivated policy is assuredly valid, I believe the ban on North Korea may be a larger issue than expected. North Korea constantly uses American media as propaganda to strengthen the Kim regime and anti-American sentiments.
This ban, in addition to tweets and public speaking engagements by Trump, have provided more cannon fodder for the propaganda machine in North Korea. The upper leadership already holds a deep distrust for Americans, and the entire population feels the same. North Koreans see the U.S. as their number one enemy, and South Korea as a betrayer for accepting american aid and leadership.
The main point I am attempting to make is that U.S. actions of shutting down diplomatic conversation has threatened the future of a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis. The struggle to provide basic infrastructure and resources for their people places North Korea at a disadvantage, which gave the U.S. an opportunity to target that Achilles heel. Had Washington followed through on the promises of the Agreed Framework, they could have a much more direct path for influence, as well as the ability to threaten North Korea nonviolently: crippling the society by restricting fuel or other resource imports is a safer and likely more effective form of pressure.
The Kim regime does not fear U.S. threats of warfare, as evidenced by their own threats to other nations. Pressure must be applied to North Korea in its areas of weakness, and the U.S. now feels their only option is to rely on China to apply such resource-restriction pressures. In order to effectively compromise with North Korea, the U.S. must give them something to sacrifice. At present, the North Koreans have little to offer yet are being asked to begin disarmament with no promise of protection. Even basic compromise cannot take place when the parties are so imbalanced. I believe this foundational problem of imbalance is the reason China, North Korea, and U.S. denuclearization talks have, inevitably, come to an impasse.