In late May, North Korea fired its largest intercontinental ballistic missile to date into the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. Then, it followed up in June with eight more short-range ballistic missiles launched to the same proximity. Equally concerning, signs have emerged that North Korea may soon initiate a nuclear test for the first time in almost five years.
Meanwhile, the United States’ proposal to ratchet up the United Nations sanctions by banning tobacco and oil exports to North Korea foundered among Chinese and Russian vetoes. Amid escalating nuclear tension, Seoul and Washington discussed in mid-June to expedite the revival of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group. Established in 2016, the ministerial meeting recalibrates measures to meet the North’s potential nuclear incursion.
The latest diplomatic and military spell, however, culminates years of not only North Korea’s dogged nuclear ambitions but also the concomitant failures of global response. Reckoning and coming to terms with the true nature of North Korea’s existential and diplomatic core show how diplomatic and economic endeavors of the concerned parties have proven ineffective.
The Kim dynasty’s diplomacy has always pivoted on ensuring the nuclear capability and survival of their regime. Contrary to everyone’s genuine yet wishful thinking, North Korea never considered denuclearization a viable option. Instead, occasionally turning up to the negotiating table provided diversion to the poverty-stricken populace. Glib declarations and treaties brought rice and fuel shipment from abroad. Slapping brakes on their nuclear development every now and then to diffuse tension prevented foreign criticisms from going haywire.
Even when inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s foreign engagement had taken commendable strides, all turned out specious and farcical. The two Koreas inked the 1991 Inter-Korean Basic Agreement that envisaged a Korean commonwealth that would eventually evolve into a unitary state. This rather quixotic rapport led the next year to the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to create “an environment favorable to peace and peaceful unification of Korea.”
All the while, North Korea had been furtively gleaning plutonium for nuclear weapons, which prompted the US to strike a deal whereby shipment of heavy fuel oil reached the North as compensation for freezing its plutonium stockpile. Still, this Agreed Framework in 1994 amounted to nothing but a smokescreen as the North plied Pakistan with home-grown Nodong ballistic missiles in exchange for nuclear technology and centrifuges to enrich uranium.
South Korea’s one and only Nobel Peace Prize fell victim to the same pit. Former President Kim Dae-jung became the first Korean laureate in 2000 for having achieved the North-South Joint Declaration earlier that year, which recognized initial federalism, economic cooperation, and eventual unification as the ultimate peninsular goal. Considering that the North-Pakistani barter lasted until 2002, the summit and the Nobel award ended up being just another political antics. Following each sham talkfest, the North requested and received tens of thousands of tons of rice and corn donated from the South.
When Kim Jong Un received the political baton from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, he was hell-bent on perpetuating the nuclear legacy. On numerous occasions, Kim relayed the “deathbed injunction” not to give up nukes from his grandfather and founder of the North Korean regime, Kim Il-sung. His father convinced him likewise since nuclear power was “his only security.” This is the quintessence of the Kim dynasty – a regime that is kleptocratic, authoritarian, and hereditary requires uninterrupted continuity and emulation for legitimacy. Kim Jong Un had more than likely undergone multiple plastic surgeries to acquire his grandfather’s countenance and wears the same attire as his forefathers.
The Leap Day Deal signed with the Obama administration in 2012 offered the first glimpse into his modus operandi. While placing a moratorium on the North’s ballistic launches and nuclear testing in exchange for US food aid, it excluded space launches from the terms after much North Korean inflexibility. But the mutual understanding was that the North would desist from one if it were sincere about the rapprochement. Tellingly, Kim ripped it up by greenlighting a space launch for purportedly civilian and scientific purposes.
A more dramatic case in point comes from a pre-pandemic whirlpool of military tension and diplomatic shindigs of 2017-2019. North Korea tested a potent nuclear bomb and fielded accompanying ICBMs that could hit the US mainland in 2017. The world was galvanized, especially former US President Donald Trump, who threatened “fire and fury” over the North. When asked if he would be open to military intervention, he said, “I mean, we’ll see.”
Kim felt an existential threat as he must have seen his very own rash, swash-buckling persona in Trump, who after all could do anything just as Kim himself had done. It was time to dial down and Kim conveyed his willingness to form an inter-Korean ice hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea. The post-game Panmunjom Declaration – named after a truce village at the 38th parallel – and Singapore Summit repeated platitudes about peace and denuclearization. Although Kim that year refrained from ostentatious missile and nuclear tests, it was because he simply changed tack for the time being, not because he was enthusiastic about the progress: he just devoted his resources to the development of fissile material, missile bases, and nuclear weapons research.
The Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim the following year debunked all the pretense. Trump insisted on denuclearization followed by sanctions relief, while Kim wanted to reverse the order. Image-making trumped pragmatism. Kim, once again, provoked just enough to stage a moment for bargaining, avert nuclear confrontation with the West, and prolong his regime.
Early last year, describing the US as a “war chieftain” at his Eighth Party Congress, he remarked that “the geopolitical features of our state required pressing ahead uninterruptedly with the already-started building of nuclear force for the welfare of the people … and independent development of the state.” Only “formidable striking capabilities” can “put under control all threats and blackmails by the imperialists,” he said in April. All this time, denuclearization has been out of the question, with the North’s diplomacy masquerading as a ploy to ameliorate foreign war hawks and keep external resources tickling into the regime.
In the face – and precisely because – of its unbending will to nurture nuclear weapons, the UN’s economic countermeasures have become toothless. The US has always dangled UN sanctions lift on the North as a reward for the latter’s abolishment of its nuclear capacity.
Yet, while economic normalization would surely be beneficial, Kim’s regime can easily weather the economic strangulation. It has managed to scrape by just enough to fuel its nuclear ambitions, satisfy the elites, and perpetuate its legitimacy. Meanwhile, the UN resolutions and the US rhetoric of “maximum pressure” against the North act as a perfect scapegoat for domestic sufferings. Kim explains away poor infrastructure and famine as byproducts of foreign hostility.
So long as there are means to circumvent the sanctions and reinforce the state narrative of malign foreign influences, sanctions relief is never enough to entice the North to denuclearize. Falsifying documents to conceal maritime national affiliations and tweaking vessel identity numbers, North Korea continues to engage in global trade. Besides, goods flow from China to the North through government-controlled smuggling enterprises over their land border.
The same goes for the sea: China grips the West Sea to the extent that South Korea’s 2nd Fleet allocates most of its manpower to fending off Chinese and North Korean vessels that frequent its waters. Even the 1st Fleet on the other side of the peninsula helplessly watches hundreds of unknown barges nonchalantly plowing at Korean waters. What comes and goes depends entirely on how China wants to shape its southern neighbor – critically, China does not mind the North’s nuclear programs.
This is why the UN sanctions on export of seafood, minerals, and oil to the North hardly coerce the latter to capitulate. Rather, its people suffer while Kim secures just enough resources for his pet programs that have now snowballed to cover half the globe. Even if the West can better enforce tougher sanctions, there always is leeway. The North had severed all its outward interactions and sealed its border – even with China – for more than a year during the pandemic to keep out infections. Yet its recent flaunting of missiles and upcoming nuclear test attests to its resilience and furtive methods of survival.
Former US Senator John Kerry identified in 2011 “North Korea’s cycle” of “provocation and nuclear expansion, in which they kind of flex their muscles, then move back” to get the US “slightly engaged,” only to delude and reel everyone into the loop again. Any alternatives and progress for the peninsula would be better informed by breaking down North Korea’s diplomatic recipe and understanding the dynamics of the circle everyone is trapped in. For now, Kim cannot fault its southern neighbors for wanting indigenous nuclear weapons of their own making.
[Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Eunwoo Lee is an independent journalist and a policy analyst based in Paris. Previously, he had served at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. His articles have also appeared at The Diplomat, The Japan Times, Foreign Policy News, and others.