North Korea in International Diplomacy

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.

Continuing Research: North Korean and American Instability, China’s Duality

In this academic year, I will be continuing my research from this summer. My efforts to realize and classify the relationships between China, North Korea, and the United States have been and will continue to be aided by historical documents from the early 2000s via WikiLeaks. To supplement this knowledge, I will use personal memoirs, official productions and documents, and sundry other sources, in an effort to produce a complete picture of modern relations.

The goal of this project is not only to further current understandings of the delicate imbroglio and power struggles regarding North Korea but also to determine the practicality of present strategies by the United States. Communications between nations are tense and current leadership of both North Korea and the United States is unpredictable, and do not follow historical trends. Similarly, China seems to be reaching a tipping point of sorts, and will likely be forced to make bold decisions to settle one of the leaders of the other two nations.

Unlike Beijing’s tepid actions of the past, the U.S.’s observatory but inactive involvement, and North Korea’s “all bark and no bite,” every piece of this political puzzle is now in motion. By understanding the new action plans in Washington and the statements by the UN and foreign bodies, this research seeks to erase the confounding variables of the situation and determine key factors of decision-making for each party. The next academic year will be spent furthering conclusions from my previous study. Namely, I will seek to further clarify my conclusions from the summer project that China must maintain its precarious duality of an alliance. I will also utilize relevant historic actions of the U.S. to create policy suggestions for the future of the nuclear situation and unraveling of North Korean relations.

North Korea in the 21st Century: Studying the Dynamic Situation

In the past weeks, I have been scouring the news for information regarding the North Korean situation with China and the United states. Just as I was starting to feel I was reaching a slightly clear understanding of how complex the diplomatic situation was, the news broke. It was announced that North Korea had been working on military plans to attack Guam, an important military base that is home to over 150,000 American citizens in western Pacific.

This came as a huge shock to American citizens, most of whom are not accustomed to more than empty angry rumblings from their geopolitical opponents. Still, understanding the validity of the threat, or lack thereof, is not easy. North Korea has been threatening to destroy South Korea, and a host of other countries for over 60 years now. And yes, news coming from North Korea and China indicate this is a serious threat, but history tells us otherwise. North Korea lacks the material resources to begin a war against the United States and its allies, and if they intended to start a war, Guam would not be their target. Seoul has been threatened by Pyongyang hundreds of times. Almost daily, there are angry announcements and empty threats of how they will make a “sea of fire” of Seoul. Since the Korean War “ended” in armistice in 1953, tensions have been high, but that was 64 years ago.

My research findings all paint the same picture of China’s grip on North Korea. As one of the only countries still with direct interaction after the collapse of the Six Party Talks, China acts a gatekeeper to North Korea. Beijing keeps pressure on Pyongyang, keeping tabs on its international movements. However, since the Korean War in the 1950s, China has been an important ally to North Korea. Almost all foreign aid and interactions to North Korea come from China, after other countries realized even their food aid would never reach citizens; the regime controls every aspect of society, and would rather fatten its leaders than stop their widespread famine.

In modern times though, the power relationship has shifted from mere allies, to a misbehaving child and its parent. While Beijing takes some action against North Korea (like supporting certain United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang), it still trades with and defends Pyongyang diplomatically. This push-and-pull stance comes from China’s desire to keep North Korea from collapse in order to act as a buffer to her mainland, but still benefit from global trade with North Korea’s greatest enemies, like the United States.

This project is challenging in one simple way: there just isn’t a reliable source of information about North Korea in the global public domain. Our own media in the United States is fear-filled, and often dramatizes any news of international and domestic crises. When Pyongyang announced the success of its first long-range missile test, the U.S. news was flooded with maps of how we could possibly be attacked. China’s media is strictly controlled by the state, and often does not even mention North Korea, though Donald Trump’s recent sensationalized tweets have led to official commentary from Beijing. Statements regarding the “arrogance” of Trump’s tweets have come out, criticizing him for not understanding the fluid situation. Other global media is so removed from the situation, it often is only a simpler version of the U.S. news, with an extensive explanation for the history of the story until today.

Because the news can be so frustrating, I have begun to include nontraditional sources. Reading WikiLeaks from older North Korea-China-U.S. interactions has given me the background knowledge to be able to take common media with a grain of salt. Published books, both memoirs and exposés, often have in-depth personal insights about the daily lives of North Koreans, as underground reporters share the truth of the regime from the inside.

The most interesting nontraditional source I have found are YouTube videos. As the hauntingly dark “Official webpage of the DPR of Korea” shares, tourism and ways of visiting the country are now being offered to the world (Check out their official websites, http://www.korea-dpr.com/ and https://www.kfausa.org/ for a firsthand look at North Korean Propaganda – on a global scale). Many people take cameras with them on their “visits” to North Korea, only to be met by what appears to be a completely staged week. This has proven useful in understanding what exactly North Korea hopes to be in the eyes of the world.

Throughout this project, I have learned much about the current shifts in power balance between China, the U.S., and North Korea. While I still have much to learn because the geopolitical situation changes everyday, I am looking forward to continuing my research into the next year, and beyond. As a citizen of the United States, hoping to one day represent my nation on a global diplomatic theater, I feel it is my duty to be educated about the complexities of geopolitical conflicts in East Asia. I will never truly be done with my research on North Korea. As I want to work in South Korea post-graduation, I will stay up to date on the rapidly changing scenario.

However, I find comfort in China’s stance on the matter. If Pyongyang instigates war, Beijing will not come to her aid, as outlined in their treaties. I believe that while North Korea would fight until the end, they are too weak to start a war. We must recognize the concessions of China on North Korean policies, and understand that too hard a push from China could have tragic repercussions for the United States. Demilitarization and stabilization are the goals, but it does not appear as though they can both be achieved. China has her own interests in mind, and will always act to protect those first. If the U.S. initiates war, China will support North Korea until the end. As long as the United States continues a policy of strategic patience, Pyongyang will be unable to act.

North Korea in the 21st Century: the United States, China, and South Korea Imbroglio

Merriam-Webster defines an imbroglio as “an intricate or complicated situation” like one you read in a novel. It’s closest synonym would be an embarrassing or confusing scandal. Imbroglio is the perfect word to describe the mess of current affairs surrounding North Korea and its neighbors. In the project I have developed with Professor Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, I will be looking for the information needed to clarify the imbroglio.

 

Our goal for the project is simply to understand the current North Korean situation as fully as possible. Through an extensive literature review I  will attempt to understand and simplify the North Korean international knowledge. Through the analysis of primary sources, in the form of declassified government documents, Professor Lee and I will assess the status and recent changes on U.S. and Chinese grand strategies, as well as the role of South Korea.