Pyongyang makes progress in nukes while Seoul in limbo over partisan politics

Bomi Yoon

A critical look at 30 years of allies’ attempts to curb N. Korea’s nuclear ambitions

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first North Korean nuclear crisis.

Three decades are long enough to look back critically on what happened during this time and to analyze what went wrong with South Korea and the United States regarding their joint, yet failed, efforts to end the North’s nuclear program.

It all began in March 1993 when North Korea threatened to pull out from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After a flurry of bilateral diplomatic efforts, the U.S. and North Korea eventually signed the Agreed Framework the following year which called for freezing Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance. The deal was praised as a diplomatic breakthrough.

However, peace was short-lived.

Tensions erupted again in 2002 when the North made the bombshell announcement that it had a highly enriched uranium program to produce the material necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons. The situation has gone from bad to worse since then. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 despite international condemnation; conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, which was followed by five more tests up to 2017; and launched several different types of missiles, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

It is now assumed that the North has ICBMs capable of carrying nuclear warheads that can reach the mainland U.S.

A variety of sanctions and diplomatic engagements were introduced over time to persuade the North to halt its nuclear program. But none of these carrots nor sticks succeeded. Rather, North Korea has advanced its nuclear and missile programs to produce sophisticated atomic weapons that pose a greater threat to international security.

Some experts are calling for an arms reduction deal, stressing that denuclearization of the North has become unrealistic. Such an idea was addressed publicly in December last year when a U.S. media outlet reported what former U.S. President Donald Trump, who is gearing up to run for a second term in November, has in mind regarding North Korea.

According to the report, Trump is contemplating a plan to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in return for economic incentives, while allowing the North to retain the nuclear weapons it already has in its arsenal. Trump has denied the report.

In a show hosted by Voice of America streamed on YouTube on Jan. 7, Robert Soofer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, made a similar remark. “My own personal view is that it’s going to be difficult to get them to give up their nuclear weapons so now we must treat North Korea as a deterrence problem and we can limit the number of nuclear weapons they ultimately deploy is an easier deterrence problem to solve,” he said.

His remark indicated that the allies’ policy goal of denuclearizing the North has failed.

In retrospect, persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program is a job easier said than done, if not completely unrealistic.

South Korean and U.S. officials should have known the intrinsic risks of dealing with North Korea, a country operated based on a very different political system.

Unlike Seoul and Washington where presidential elections are held regularly to elect political leaders who replace their predecessors, Pyongyang is a dynastic autocracy where the leadership is passed on from father to son.

Since 1993 when the first North Korean nuclear crisis rattled global politics, there have been five different U.S. presidents until the incumbent President Joe Biden took office four years ago. And there were four government changes from Democrat to Republican and vice versa.

During the same period of time, in South Korea where a sitting president is not allowed to seek reelection for a second term, six presidents have governed the country one after another before President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May 2022. There were also four government changes from conservative to liberal and back again.

Compared to constant leadership changes in South Korea and the U.S., North Korea has had only three leaders from 1993 till the present, including current leader. All three are from the same family, as the current leader Kim Jong-un was destined for power after the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who also inherited the leadership from his father, Kim Il-sung, after the latter’s death following a heart attack.

Leadership changes in North Korea have not affected its nuclear weapons program, and this has been strengthened following the ascendancy of Kim Jong-un.

But in South Korea and the U.S., government changes influenced policy approaches to North Korea. Despite their shared goal of denuclearizing the North remaining intact, the way of dealing with the reclusive regime has changed a lot depending on who has the top job.

In South Korea, for example, the zig-zagging on North Korea policy has been explicit and its direction has moved from one extreme to the other, depending on which leader was in office.

The allies have wasted their time due to government changes in Seoul and Washington and the ensuing policy modifications, if not downright shifts. Meanwhile, North Korea has taken advantage of these inconsistencies among its adversaries, buying itself enough time to remain focused on its weapons of mass destruction programs.

To avoid repeating the same mistake, the allies need to contemplate introducing measures that can guarantee policy consistency on North Korea.

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