North Korea and the United States

Found in the National Security Archive, Washington DC, the following article: Declassified Documents from the Bush I and Clinton Administrations, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 164, Edited by Robert A. Wampler – 202/994-7000. – Washington D.C. August 23, 2005 – Next week, if all goes according to plan, the United States will resume six-party talks with North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and host nation China on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The parties are trying to reach agreement on a set of principles to guide negotiations that will lead to the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the threat it poses of a destabilizing North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal. 

This will be the fifth round of these talks, which were initiated at the invitation of China in 2003 to address the crisis created in October 2002 when U.S. envoy James Kelly accused the DPRK of violating the terms of the 1994 Framework Agreement that was supposed to halt that nation’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for provision of light water reactors to North Korea to meet its growing need for energy. Since 2002, North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT and earlier this year claimed to have nuclear weapons, the number of which has been placed at six by U.S. and other intelligence sources.[1]

The fourth round of talks recessed on August 7 after nearly two weeks of meetings, a record, to provide time for the six governments, North Korea in particular, to consider the issues which were standing in way of agreement. Among the motivations observers saw for North Korea to agree to these talks was the country’s increasing need for energy to power mechanized farming equipment and to produce fertilizer, key to addressing the country’s worsening food shortages. The key sticking point deadlocking the recent round of talks was North Korea’s insistence that it be allowed to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program under the proposed agreement, something the U.S. has branded a deal-breaker in light of Pyongyang’s violation of the 1994 agreement, though South Korea has gone on record as agreeing North Korea has a right to a civilian nuclear program. Though U.S. and other diplomats expressed encouragement based on the length of the talks and the serious approach they saw North Korea taking to the talks, additional complicating factors were North Korea’s continued insistence that any agreement include a U.S. commitment to remove its nuclear threat to North Korea, a threat the U.S. insists is non-existent, the question of future aid for North Korea, and Japan’s insistence that Pyongyang return abducted Japanese nationals and turn over their abductors. [2]

These talks illustrate a set of recurring themes and issues that run through the efforts by the U.S. and its partners to bring North Korea to the bargaining table and secure a binding commitment that will effectively end the nuclear threat posed by the DPRK. First of course is the challenge of reconciling North Korea’s emphasis on addressing what it sees as the bilateral security issue between itself and the U.S. with the emphasis placed by the U.S. and its negotiating partners on multilateral talks in which North Korea’s neighbors take much of the lead in pressing North Korea to come to an agreement. Second is the challenge of coordinating national positions among the U.S. and its partners, highlighted by the apparent split between Washington and Seoul on the legitimacy of Pyongyang’s desire for a civilian nuclear energy program. Third is the role played by North Korea’s economic situation in pushing that nation to the negotiating table and any eventual agreement.

The challenges of negotiating with North Korea are many, key among them trying to probe the inner workings of a regime that was for so long viewed as reclusive, paranoid and highly unpredictable, even to its erstwhile Cold War allies, Russia and China.[3] In an effort to shed new light on how the U.S. viewed North Korea and sought to deal with this enigmatic country, the National Security Archive’s Korea Project is seeking declassification of key documents going back to the Nixon administration that provide significant new evidence on policy deliberations within the U.S. government and with allies, and on the policy goals regarding North Korea that were pursued by three decades of U.S. administrations. To provide additional background for the upcoming resumption of the 6-Power Talks, the Archive is today posting a collection of documents dating from the first Bush and Clinton administrations that illustrate how the themes, issues and challenges seen in the current talks have echoed through prior policy discussions. Among the notable points highlighted by these documents are:

The cycles of optimism and pessimism in U.S.-North Korean relations. The first document demonstrates the optimism, albeit cautious, that marked the view of the Bush I State Department about the prospect for continued positive negotiations with North Korea as the administration came to a close in 1992. By mid-1993, this optimism would be replaced by bewilderment at North Korea’s reversion to a hard-line regarding its nuclear program. The cycle would continue through the low point of the 1993-94 nuclear crisis, only to move back toward cautious optimism following the 1994 Framework Agreement and the start of peace talks. Relations would reach another high point with the North-South Korean summit and Secretary Albright’s trip to Pyongyang in 2000, only to collapse again two years later with the revelations about Pyongyang’s cheating under the 1994 agreement.

The emphasis during the first Bush and Clinton administrations on pursuing a multilateral approach to the North Korean problem, both in terms of addressing the nuclear problem and the larger issue of a peace settlement for the peninsula. This delicate and complex balancing act created problems at home and abroad, such as:

The complaint voiced in one document that Washington was being whipsawed between the calls of allies such as South Korea and Japan for pursuing diplomatic solutions to the North Korean problem, and domestic pressures to take a hard line.

The struggle to design a forum for discussing a framework for working on a peace treaty that would give the two Koreas the lead in reaching a peace settlement, yet also protect the interests of the other major powers such as China and Russia.

The U.S. desire to preserve the ability to deal with North Korea directly on a bilateral basis to address issues such as missile sales or terrorism that would be free of “ROK manipulation,” as one document put it.

Assessments of North Korea’s leadership, its rationality and ability to survive economically or politically also swung between optimism and pessimism. This can be seen in:

The double-edged sword of North Korea’s dire economic situation, which was seen as helping to motivate Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table, but which, if left unchecked, could lead to disastrous consequences in the event of a total North Korean collapse. This pitted humanitarian against diplomatic considerations, and led the U.S. to work with South Korea to “prevent the precipitate collapse of the DPRK, since it would present unacceptable military risks and economic costs…”

Assessments of North Korea’s social and political resiliency in the face of continued economic hardship, which one analysis attributed to the “continuing strength of their family-centered Confucian value system,” as well as to the belief North Korea’s economic woes were grounded in millennia of imperialistic designs upon the nation.

The fascinating argument put forward by Stapleton Roy, long-time State Department Asia hand, that took issue with the image of North Korea’s leaders as illogical and unpredictable. In assessing the historic summit meeting between the two Korean leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il in June 2000 for Albright, Roy stressed that she must realize the significant degree of continuity in North Korean policies dating back to the period of Kim Il Sung, policies that he said were not ideologically rigid, but able to change in response to changing circumstances on the Korean peninsula. Roy attributed the continued survival of North Korea, “independent and prickly,” to this adaptable foreign policy, which he argued Kim Jong Il had helped to shape during his father’s rule.

Following their October 2000 meetings, Secretary Albright described Kim Jong Il as, “someone who is practical, decisive, and seemingly non-ideological.”
Documents Nr. 1 – 20 in PDF and footnotes are awailable on this site.

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