While the tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have gradually evolved into the most dangerous security situation in the world, the international community remains fundamentally divided in its response to the mounting crisis. On one point, however, there has been broad agreement: the need to engage North Korea through renewed negotiations and diplomatic outreach. The most vocal champions of such an approach are Pyongyang’s traditional partners, China and Russia, which have answered nearly every plea for increased pressure on Pyongyang with calls for renewed negotiations. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently repeated his previous claim that sanctions against Pyongyang do not work and criticized the United States for ignoring the “requirement to renew talks” with North Korea. Many of Washington’s closest allies, including South Korea, have in fact adopted a broadly similar stance.
Considering how many hopes have been pinned on negotiations and diplomatic outreach, it is worth re-examining the track record of the decades-long process of seeking a negotiated agreement with Pyongyang. A concerted multilateral effort to engage North Korea through negotiations about its nuclear program began in earnest in the early 1990s. Pyongyang had broken off denuclearization talks with South Korea in late 1992, and the following year it announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and began to block inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Initial multilateral negotiations were therefore aimed at incentivising Pyongyang to re-join the international nuclear arms control regime.
In 1994, the United States and North Korea signed an “Agreed Framework,” which stipulated that Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for receiving two multibillion-dollar light-water nuclear reactors and an annual supply of fuel oil. While the United States was sluggish in completing its part of the agreement, the core elements were being implemented, including a freeze of North Korea’s plutonium production for several years. Nonetheless, Pyongyang secretly continued its nuclear program throughout most of the negotiation period.
The cooperation process collapsed once it emerged that North Korea had been pursuing a clandestine highly-enriched uranium program since the mid- or late 1990s – in direct violation of the terms of the Agreed Framework and the 1992 Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (wherein Seoul and Pyongyang had guaranteed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons” and not to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities”). Washington and its partners halted their fuel oil shipments in December 2002, and the following month Pyongyang announced its renewed withdrawal from the NPT. To date, it is the only state to have ever withdrawn from the Treaty.
Almost as soon as the Agreed Framework had collapsed, the international community responded with another concerted diplomatic effort – the Six Party Talks, involving high-level representatives from Washington, Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow. Begun in 2003, initial rounds of negotiations in this format made little progress. In February 2005, North Korea announced that it had succeeded in producing a nuclear weapon. By the time of this announcement, a mere two years had passed since the breakdown of the Agreed Framework and Pyongyang’s final withdrawal from the NPT, suggesting that North Korea had been actively continuing its nuclear program throughout the negotiation process. The fourth round of the Six Party Talks in September 2005 produced a joint statement, which stipulated the termination of all of North Korea’s nuclear programs, its prompt return to the NPT, and the implementation of the 1992 Denuclearization Declaration. But Pyongyang proceeded to violate all of these terms, amid disagreements about U.S. financial sanctions against a bank holding North Korean assets. One year later, in October 2006, it conducted its first successful nuclear test.
In spite of this flagrant violation of all previous accords, the negotiation process was not discontinued, and the fifth round of the Six Party Talks did in fact produce a promising agreement in 2007: Pyongyang was to shut down and seal its primary nuclear facilities and allow the IAEA to carry out inspections, in return for emergency energy assistance and substantially relaxed international sanctions. Washington subsequently eased sanctions on the regime and removed it from the Trading with the Enemy Act and the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. But the 2007 agreement broke down the following year when the North Korean leadership blocked most forms of verification inspections, refused to sign a verification protocol, and issued an incomplete report of its nuclear inventory.
The coup de grâce for the Six-Party talks came in April 2009 in the form of an attempted North Korean satellite launch, which was widely regarded as a covert test launch of a prototype inter-continental ballistic missile. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the launch, prompting Pyongyang to withdraw from the Six Party Talks. It also expelled all IAEA inspectors and announced that it would resume its nuclear weapons program. In truth, the program had never been properly suspended to begin with, and a mere six weeks after this announcement North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.
Notwithstanding these continuous disappointments, diplomatic efforts and negotiations with Pyongyang continued in various formats. The 2012 Leap Day agreement between Washington and Pyongyang promised the regime aid in exchange for a freeze of nuclear and missile tests, but less than two months after agreeing to the deal North Korea launched another long-range missile. During the Obama administration, Washington sent multiple special envoys to Pyongyang to invite it back to the negotiating table for denuclearization talks, but all of these offers were ultimately rebuffed. While the Trump administration has adopted a belligerent stance toward North Korea, it also repeatedly made offers to resume direct negotiations with Pyongyang, but these were either rejected or ignored. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who won the May 2017 election on a platform of de-escalation and direct negotiations with the North and was ready to make substantial concessions to Pyongyang, likewise saw all his initiatives falter as Kim Jong-un consistently cold–shouldered him and continued a series of provocative missile tests, amid recurring threats to obliterate Seoul.
None of the decades-long negotiation efforts have led to dependable agreements with North Korea or produced any reliable safeguards for those states that find themselves at the receiving end of its nuclear threats. Pyongyang has reneged on every nuclear-related international treaty it has ever signed. As part of the two denuclearization agreements of 1994 and 2005, Washington and its allies paid Pyongyang about $500 million worth of aid in exchange for nuclear freezes that ended up being purely temporary. In the words of one commentator, previous rounds of talks have made it abundantly clear that “Pyongyang does not want peace, or even a peace treaty. It wants a peace-treaty negotiation – the more protracted and inconclusive, the better.”
Nonetheless, many policymakers continue to pin outsized hopes on the prospect of a renewal of negotiations with Pyongyang. A particularly popular suggestion is to try to reach a negotiated agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea that is modeled on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Unfortunately, the preconditions for the Iran deal were fundamentally different from those underlying the current situation in Korea. Not only is Iran still far from acquiring a functional nuclear weapon, it is also strongly integrated into the world economy, has a great stake in upholding its commercial links with U.S. allies, and boasts an active business community with domestic lobbying power. Tehran has therefore been susceptible to sustained economic pressure in the form of international sanctions and willing to make substantial concessions in order to have these lifted. With North Korea’s nuclear weapons program nearing completion and in light of Pyongyang’s imperviousness to most forms of economic pressure due to its self-imposed economic isolation, the scenario of replicating the Iran deal with North Korea has long ceased to be realistic.
A renewal of direct negotiations with Pyongyang would be desirable (and informal lines of communication remain open in any event), but it is essential to demystify them and to avoid false hopes as to what this process can realistically achieve. To date, some of the key parties to the North Korean dispute – particularly Beijing and Moscow – have made virtually no proposals on how to deal with the nuclear crisis that go beyond the mantra of returning to negotiations and pursuing a diplomatic solution. A renewed diplomatic outreach can be supplementary to other measures, but it is not a strategy in its own right. It will be still-born unless it is paired with robust containment and consistent pressure on Pyongyang. Constant appeals for negotiations cannot be a substitute for an actual policy, and they must not become a fig leaf for inaction in the face of a constantly growing nuclear threat.
Björn Alexander Düben is an assistant professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat and other leading media, including The National Interest (print edition) and Reuters. An article on North Korea’s nuclear program will be published in the next issue of the RUSI Journal.