North Korea: An Example of Diplomatic Failure

Last month, North Korea tested its fifth nuclear bomb , marking the latest in a string of nuclear and ballistic tests. Although the UN issued many sanctions against North Korea, the nation has continued nuclear weapons development. The US and its allies have failed many times at improving relations with this pariah state. Nevertheless, efforts continue to stabilize East Asia.

Around 1990, US satellites discovered nuclear enrichment facilities in North Korea. As Pyongyang was a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the UN sent in investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pyongyang blocked them and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. To prevent this, Washington presented them with the Agreed Framework in 1994, which offered nuclear energy power plants and temporary oil shipments in return for halting their nuclear weapons development. Things went smoothly until Washington cut oil shipments as they suspected Pyongyang was enriching uranium. In response, Pyongyang disputed these claims, withdrew from the NPT, and continued nuclear weapons development.

Soon afterwards, the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan called North Korea to the Six-Party Talks in 2003. The aim was similar to the Agreed Framework; Pyongyang would halt nuclear weapons development, and in exchange the other five parties would provide fuel aid, normalize diplomatic and trade relations, and support Pyongyang’s right to nuclear energy. Once again, although progress had been made, tensions spiked after Pyongyang launched a satellite which the UN claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In response to the Security Council’s condemnation, Pyongyang withdrew from the talks and continued nuclear weapons development.

A caravan of supplies being sent from South to North Korea in October 1998. Wikimedia.

During this all, South Korea launched its Sunshine Policy in 1998. It aimed to improve north-south relations through economic aid and cooperation. Seoul spent $324 million on projects ranging from agriculture to soccer in North Korea. Economic cooperation came about through the Mt. Kumgang Tourist and Kaesong Industrial regions in North Korea. The former is an area popular with South Korean tourists while the latter is an industrial complex where South Korean companies have built factories which employed cheap North Korean labor; both regions are now defunct. The leaders of both nations even met at summit meetings. However, relations chilled as Seoul halted aid in response to Pyongyang’s 2006 weapons tests. Nonetheless, economic cooperation continued, but Seoul declared that future increases in investment would be contingent upon Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, as a result of continued North Korean weapons tests and north-south skirmishes, Seoul decided to end the Sunshine Policy and declared it a failure in 2010.

There is little hope for improved relations between North Korea and the international community. As long as Washington maintains troops along the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily guarded border between the north and south, Pyongyang will protest this as threat to national security and continue nuclear weapons development. As long as Beijing fears an influx of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse, the Security Council will be incapable of imposing substantial sanctions that may incentivize Pyongyang to change its behavior. In the meantime, North Korea will continue its weapons tests and threaten the stability of the region.