North Korean Nuclear Problem: A History

 

Some may think that the North Korean Nuclear incident is a recent problem, but this international issue is as old as the nuclear devices themselves. Although recent progress has pointed towards a hopeful deconstruction of North Korea’s nuclear arms, past behavior has made this an unlikely outcome. There have even been reports of nuclear expansion despite goals of denuclearization. How it has come to this point, the accomplishments overlooked, and where the future goes lies in the hands of politician’s negotiation skills.

Many people believe that North Korea didn’t get a-hold of Nuclear technology until the deal with Bill Clinton in 1994. However, the Hermit Kingdom actually started its program along with every other country in the early 1950s with the creation of the Atomic Energy Research Institute  (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies , 2018). Scientists were sent from North Korea to the USSR to collect research on the topic. The nuclear deal propositioned by Bill Clinton in 1994 was not a gift of free technology that North Korea didn’t already have, but a response to North Korea’s pre-existing nuclear program (Blakemore, 2018).

Under the guise of “Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy” the USSR signed an agreement with North Korea to assist them in building research complexes in 1959 (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies , 2018). Later on, in the 1960s, Russia also provided them with a small nuclear reactor to help train their own personnel with (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies , 2018). Knowing that Russia played a large part in North Korea’s nuclear program creation

In 1968 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was open for signatures. This treaty was a mutual world-wide agreement to disarm nuclear weapons. More countries signed the NPT than any other arms agreement (UNITED NATIONS, 2011). The treaty stressed that countries that weren’t already nuclear powers, wouldn’t seek to create a nuclear arsenal (UNITED NATIONS, 1968, p. Article II). It made note the importance of nuclear powers to not assist non-nuclear nation states in the development in nuclear weapons (UNITED NATIONS, 1968, p. Article III). North Korea did not sign this for another seventeen years as they dove into nuclear research with the assistance of the USSR.

Since it was not against the contract to explore nuclear energy in general and the only crime was specifically the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, North Korea eventually signed the treaty in 1985 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018). This was the source of nearly every American President’s headache in office after that. Signing the document, North Korea had agreed to disarm any nuclear weapons it may have created, destroy any research facilities used to develop them, and actively work toward becoming nuclear free.

Keep in mind that the Korean peninsula had ally arms left over from the Korean war. The United States had a compliment of 100 nuclear weapons in the South and the Russians had some to the North. On September 27, 1991, allied forces removed their devices in good faith that the two countries would follow suite (Sanders-Zakre, 2018). The two Koreas made an agreement and signed off to completely denuclearize the peninsula jointly (Center for Nonproliferation Studies , 2018). South Korea, extended an olive branch and gave up its weapons, North Korea insisted it did as well. It was revealed on January 10, 2003 when North Korea pulled out of the NTP, that it had actually retained nuclear weapons for the entirety of the time (Kirgis, 2003). North Korea had been so convincingly cooperative, that it was actually surprising that there were still weapons on the peninsula.

North Korea threatened to leave the NTP once before, using it as leverage to obtain what they wanted. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. In 1993 threats were made to leave unless specific conditions were met. In response, a six-party talk was held which included North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States (Cooper, 2007). North Korea came to the table with four conditions. One, the United States would build two light-water nuclear reactors by 2003 to compensate for energy set-backs (Davenport, 2018). Until the two plants were built, the United States would ship 500,000 tons of heavy fuel to North Korea per year (Davenport, 2018). The United States would lift sanctions, remove them from the list of state sponsors of terror, and normalize political relationships (Davenport, 2018). These weren’t unreasonable requests, however, the United States failed to live up to these expectations. Not only did the United States fail to build the two nuclear reactors, but they were also late with shipments of fuel for several consecutive years (Ryan, 2017). Even though being late with fuel shipments was not uncommon, it bred distrust with the North Koreans.

In 2002, George W. Bush referred to North Korea in a speech, placing them on an “axis of evil” next to Iran and Iraq (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018). Directly after making this speech fuel shipments were shut down under the accusations of enriching Uranium (Boghani, 2018). United states intelligence allegedly found evidence of HEU technology that was came from Pakistan (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies , 2018). However, I don’t have much faith in the Bush administration’s intelligence after its claims of nuclear weapons in Iraq. If it wasn’t bad enough for the President of the United States insulting the country they were attempting to disarm, after not living up to their half of an agreement; the United States applied sanctions to an already frustrated country (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018). The North Koreans didn’t get their request to be taken off the terrorist watchlist until 2008 (Ryan, 2017). They got taken off, even after they made the claim that they successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 2006 (Hamblin, 2017).

North Korea’s request to be taken off the terrorist watch list fell upon deaf ears for twelve years. When George W. Bush did act it seemed more like an act of desperation to save his own legacy than good will. It took Bush four years into his Presidency even after the North had been qualified to be taken off. At the last second, North Korea was taken off the terrorist watch list on October 11, 2008 (Ryan, 2017). To give some objective insight, Obama became president elect on November 4, 2008, just twenty-four days after the call was made (A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2018). Less than a full month away from new leadership and Bush made a large political choice that could have altered the incoming administration’s dialogue. On his way out the door, George W. Bush wrote a personal letter to then leader Kim Jong IL, requesting that he keep ‘his end of the bargain’ to denuclearize (Cooper, 2007). He also wrote the other four leaders who were in the six-member talks to reassure them on the United States’ commitment to staying at the negotiating table (Cooper, 2007).

In April of 2009, North Korea launched what many critics called a test of a long-range ballistic missile and pointed out that the Six-party talks were “useless” (Moore, 2009). The Obama administration reacted hastily. Three North Korean companies were blacklisted by the United Nations under expanded sanctions (The Associated Press, 2009), a decision the Obama administration claimed was a “clear and united message” that would send a message of real consequences (Moore, 2009). It had been thirteen years since their initial agreements to denuclearize in 1994. The results from a North Korean point of view, had been nothing but increased sanctions, unkept promises, and the United States tightening their grip on their only lifeline.

The world was then confronted with North Korea’s second nuclear test on May 25, 2009 (Jie-ae, Florcruz, Chance , & Neill , 2009). Whether this was previously planned or out of reaction to increased sanctions is debatable. The blast was large enough to have even its allies concerned, China was not defending North Korea as it had a month previously. North Korea had allegedly attempted place a satellite in space, but failed. The Obama administration considered this a violation of U.N. resolutions and sanctions were tightened (Boghani, 2018). Just a few days later, North Korea was kicking the IAEA inspectors out of the country (Boghani, 2018).

Another test was conducted in May of 2009, with claims that all the flaws had been ironed out. Sanctions were automatically tightened in reaction to the test (Boghani, 2018). Then, just a year later in November of 2010, it was revealed that even under tight sanctions the regime had managed to construct a Uranium enrichment plant (Council on Foreign Relations, 2018). Not only had they built the plant swiftly, but they managed to keep it a secret until publicly revealed. If that’s not bad enough, in the same year South Korea stops negotiations with North Korea over the singing of a Navy vessel (The BBC, 2010).

In December of 2011, it was publicly announced that the ‘Great Leader’ Kim Jong IL had passed away (Boghani, 2018). Walking next to the former leader’s son, Kim Jong Un and one of his closest advisors and brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek. The world had hope that maybe this individual, no more than twenty-five years old, was the key to major reform in the region (World Affairs Institute, 2012). Their answer came when he publicly announced to world leaders, including to the “puppet group in South Korea”, to not expect any change from the North (AFP, 2011). Some still wondered if the young man wasn’t going to be a puppet for bureaucratic officials in the background. His uncle, Jang Song-Thaek had been pulling the strings ever since his father started deteriorating. The Chinese trusted the man, which was likely his biggest downfall. In December 12, 2013, Jang Song-Thaek was executed, with accusations of conspiring against the ‘Republic’ (Morse, 2014). There were even rumors that this young man, who looked harmless, fed his own uncle to actual dogs that he starved for three days (Morse, 2014). The purge of possible instability left the dictator stronger, he would be pushing forward with no one questioning him and a full army at his back. The world had a new leader to deal with, unpredictable, inexperienced, who seemed more unstable than his predecessor’s, and had his hands on a nuclear arsenal.

On February 6, 2015, a little over a year after the strategically planned execution of Song-thaek was carried out, Obama declared his national security strategy for strategic patience (Korte, 2015). The thought behind the alleged strategy was that the United States would allow activities in other countries to resolve as they would have had they not been there at all and ultimately, allow the country’s own actions be their downfall. The thought that, perhaps, maybe China would realize that it was not our interference that made North Korea a headache to work with and would eventually cut them off. That inaction was sometimes better than acting. A philosophy that works better on an individual level, rather than a national level. With this, the United States increased its defenses and practically left North Korea to themselves.

The tides turned on North Korea when they had been dealt a new hand in 2016. An unpredictable person had been elected into the Presidency, it wasn’t just a new set of cards being dealt, it was an entirely new game being played. President Trump was an experienced, unpredictable, negotiator that had something in his personality that said, “I don’t care about the consequences of my words and I don’t care if you judge me for them,”. There was a positive to his tweeting, it made him extremely unpredictable to the North Koreans. Every previous president had a known pattern, was calm and conservative compared to the way Donald J. Trump harnessed his social media platform. Calling his political opponents names, making plans, then cancelling those plans, and spouting his opinion for everyone to see. Presidents of the past would excessively plan before meeting initiating conversation with North Korea, could this be the approach to take the bull by the horns?

Many in the media saw the language as fanning the flames of an already heated topic. Trump used colorful language, in August of 2017 he stated any threats made to the United States would be met with “fire and fury” (Paolo, 2017). A few hours Trump made this threat, North Korea made threatened to target the U.S. Territory of Guam (Paolo, 2017). Many saw Trump as dumping gasoline on a forest fire by using such language, but expert and writer on North Korea, Michael Malice, says Trump was speaking to North Korea “on their level” (Malice, 2017). A month later, the country launched another rocket that successfully flew over the Japanese Islands (Griffiths, Cohen, & Berlinger, 2017). This earned him the nickname “Rocket Man” by Trump that accompanied the statement that he may be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea (Vitali, 2017). This was followed with a new launch at the highest ballistic missile height North Korea had ever reached (BBC, 2017), one of the key components necessary to hit the United States.

A meeting was finally established between the two, and would be hosted by China. There were those who believed that if Trump met with the young dictator that it would be nothing more than free political propaganda for him, with zero results for the United States. Trump reassured everyone watching that he was more than willing to walk away if things weren’t going his way, which again Michael Malice acknowledged as a smart move since North Korea used this tactic all the time at negotiations (Malice, 2017). Publicly announcing the willingness to leave would keep North Korea on their toes instead of the other way around.

On June 12, 2018, Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un even against the wishes of some people in the country (BBC, 2018). A movie clip was shown to Kim Jong-Un that showed him two outcomes, one with prosperity through cooperation and the other through war and annihilation should they not (Friedman, 2018). Trump’s political opponents criticized that he wasn’t more confrontational, instead the President seemed to be respectful and complimenting the Chairman. However, this detail was part of the plan, this is a common sales-pitch tactic known as love bombing the target (M.D., 2017). Before meeting him, he made the chairman uneasy by thinking he may walk away. After Trump meets him, he psychologically narrows the target’s options down to two through visual stimulation. He then showers a neglected confidence with affection to draw him closer to the more attractive option. Love bombing is a manipulation tactic that showers someone with compliments or general affection so they are more open to trusting you (M.D., 2017). Of course, this isn’t the same type of love-bombing as the manipulative romantic relationship type, it’s more of a sales-pitch lure. This is the only reason Trump was hailing Kim Jong Un at the Trump-Kim Summit.

One part of the North Korean Nuclear problem that many don’t understand is the demand of denuclearization itself is a large request when the country considers it to be its only bargaining chip. Having the expectation of full denuclearization up front is a naïve approach. When looking at the scenario in full context, the United States has been just as neglectful at the negotiating table as they accuse North Korea of being. Our media outlets only exacerbate the situation by making us out to always look like the ‘good guys’. A 2009 Washington Post article read, “The 2006 explosion pushed the Bush administration to negotiate directly with North Korea, including removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons.” (Harden, 2009). However, when looking at the entirety of the issue, being taken off the watch list was a promise made by the United States in its original talks in 1994. This means that the Washington Post neglected to report the full context of the issue, made North Korea completely at fault, and made the United States out to be a hero. Even though North Korea undoubtedly took up producing nuclear weapons, it was due to America’s insufficiency that cost us the opportunity to denuclearize the peninsula.

When comparing Trump’s current approach to others, North Korea has been making genuine strides towards denuclearization. Visitors to the country reported that anti-American propaganda has been replaced with more positive images (Illmer, 2018). Even their media has lightened up on its coverage, the tone in the paper has changed from ‘negative’ to ‘neutral’ (Illmer, 2018). A neutral tone is a ‘miracle’ in the eyes of some experts, “In five years working in North Korea, I’ve never seen them completely disappear before.” (Illmer, 2018). Kim Jong Un made history when he became the first North Korean dictator to cross the demilitarized zone and enter Seoul, South Korea (Coonan, 2018). On July 27, 2018 the United States received the remains of alleged soldiers from the Korean war. When the remains were analyzed they were confirmed that they were likely to be Americans (CBS Interactive Inc., 2018) (Gamel, 2018). Scientists have already successfully identified two of the remains and matched them through DNA testing with family members (Copp, 2018). The very fact that they are American human remains is significant itself. North Korea has released alleged remains in the past and they have turned out to be completely faulty. They were nothing more than a box filled with random animal bones. The North and the South have demined a large section of the demilitarized zone (CBS/AP, 2018).

The more likely answer is that these are all moves to make us think that they are genuine. Kim Jong Un will do anything to keep his hands on power. Many North Korean Defectors have warned Donald Trump that Kim Jong-Un is lying (CBC Radio, 2018). However, since Trump has yet to lighten up on the regime, it is likely that these acts of fake integrity are really a sign of desperation.

North Korea has continued with their nuclear weapons, as we all knew they would (DePetris, 2018). Sanctions are still tight on North Korea and they have expressed their unwillingness to cooperate if sanctions stay in place (Denyer, 2018). They have shown full capability of producing nuclear weapons with sanctions on them (Malice, 2017), and have shown a history of being uncooperative if sanctions are in place. Two choices lie ahead, take the risk of taking the sanctions completely off or starve the regime down till it cracks. Either way, Kim Jong Un has backed himself into a corner, his people are starving, the younger generation is not loyal to him, and people are becoming more informed. The real questions are, will the regime be forced to cooperate and will they survive should they refuse?

 

 

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