North Korea: An Opportunity Missed

In September, North Korea passed a law that, for the first time, declared itself a nuclear weapons state that will "never give up" its nuclear weapons. On October 3, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over the northern territory of Japan.

It didn’t necessarily have to unfold this way.

According to the Arms Control Association, the United States has engaged in two major diplomatic efforts with North Korea over their nuclear program. The first was the Agreed Framework of 1994. This agreement led to North Korea freezing, and agreeing to eventually eliminate, its nuclear weapons program. They also agreed to allow special inspections by the IAEA to verify their compliance with the agreement. In return, North Korea was to receive two light-water reactors and supplies of heavy fuel oil. Diplomacy seemed to work, suggesting the possibility of resolving the nuclear problem.

But the agreement included assurances for North Korea by promising a cessation to U.S. threats against it. When the US placed North Korea in the Axis of Evil with Iran and Iraq and included North Korea in its 2002 nuclear posture review as a country the US should be prepared to use a nuclear bomb on, North Korea saw the agreement as broken and restarted its weapons program.

According to Noam Chomsky in Hopes and Prospects, the US also failed in the fuel supply part of the agreement, providing only 15 percent of the fuel it had promised. By the late 1990s, according to Lawrence Wilkerson, who was special assistant to Colin Powell, the United States was already not living up to its side of the Agreed Framework.

The second major diplomatic effort occurred in 2005. The terms were similar. North Korea agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program; the US promised to cease its threats against North Korea, to move toward normalization of relations and begin planning of a light-water reactor capable of producing fuel but not weapons. But, once again, Chomsky says in What We Say Goes, the US broke the promise of a light-water reactor and, undertook economic warfare on North Korea by forcing banks to freeze their assets, effectively isolating them.

Diplomacy did not necessarily seem incapable of resolving the North Korean nuclear program. Nor did it seem incapable of softening North Korea’s stance. Though North Korea has now said it will "never give up" its nuclear weapons, despite the repeated US claim that North Korea was never willing to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program, that was never what North Korea said.

North Korea had always articulated its stance as a conditional. If the US eliminates the need for deterrence by eliminating its threats, then North Korea will negotiate the elimination of its nuclear deterrent. In 2017, North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador Kim In-ryong put it this way to UN Secretary-General António Guterres: "As long as the US hostile policy and nuclear threat continue, the DPRK, no matter who may say what, will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table."

That was the consistent North Korean formulation. It was articulated by Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho again shortly after at an ASEAN Regional Forum. And, speaking at a U.N. Conference on Disarmament, a North Korean diplomat said the same thing: "As long as the US hostile policy and nuclear threat remains unchallenged, the DPRK will never place its self-defensive nuclear deterrence on the negotiating table." Kim Jong-un himself said the same thing on July 4, 2017: "Unless the US hostile policy toward the DPRK and the nuclear threat are fundamentally resolved, we will not put nuclear and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table under any circumstances."

Interestingly, even in the current, provocative declaration that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state that will "never give up" its nuclear weapons, that conditional formulation has not been completely expunged.

In his speech marking the passing of the legislation enshrining nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un continued to stress the causal role of US hostility: “The purpose of the United States is not only to remove our nuclear might itself, but eventually forcing us to surrender or weaken our rights to self-defense through giving up our nukes, so that they could collapse our government at any time."

According to CNN reporting, the conditional formulation was still carried over in Kim Jong UN’s speech: "As long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth, and imperialism and the anti-North Korean maneuvers of the US and its followers remain, our road to strengthening our nuclear force will never end."

North Korea has been accelerating its development of nuclear-capable, short-range missiles. It has carried out nuclear tests, and it has launched multiple ballistic weapons, including the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

But the US and South Korea are, at the same time, holding "the largest joint military exercises on the peninsula in years." In a May 21, 2022 meeting between Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Biden reaffirmed that the US extends a "deterrence commitment" to South Korea that includes "the full range of US defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities." The two leaders also agreed "to initiate discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula."

Perhaps there is still a link between North Korea’s perception of threat and their nuclear deterrence policy. Perhaps that link could still be explored through diplomacy.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.