Mansudae Korea

DPRK Diplomacy: Then & Now

DPRK Diplomacy: Then & Now


Whilst 2018 has been a flurry of diplomatic activity with the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong Un at it’s centre. From the success of the 2018 winter olympics in PyeongChang, nicknamed the ‘peace’ olympics, to the first ever summit between the United States and North Korean leaders. However, whilst these meetings contrast greatly from the crisis that erupted in 2017 with the development and testing of the Hwasong 14 & Hwasong 15 missiles. The move from “Fire and fury” to ongoing working-level talks seems to (and has been marketed as) an unprecedented change in relations between the DPR Korea and the global community, but is it? During the cold war, very few diplomatic efforts were made to engage with Pyongyang, exacerbated by the fact that the United States refused to acknowledge the formation of the DPRK in 1948. Since 1991, a few diplomatic advances were made by both sides with varying degrees of success, some of which were remarkably similar to what we’re seeing today.

Clinton Administration

Some of the first major diplomatic manoeuvres occurred under the premiership of Bill Clinton. After long-running conflict between Pyongyang and the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN acknowledging that the DPRK was not complying with the NPT safeguards, the government in Pyongyang extended a proposal to the United States, stating that the two sides should begin talks focussed on ‘all issues dividing them’. Clinton accepted, on the condition that the DPRK reopen dialogue with the Republic of Korea and allow IAEA inspectors into the country. After much negotiation, the DPRK allowed inspectors into the country, resumed high level talks with the South and Bill Clinton postponed a high-level military exercise with the South, Exercise Team Spirit. Few of the major goals of the ‘Agreed Framework’ were achieved however.

  • The US failed to supply the DPRK with light water reactors to replace their current reactors
  • The oil from the US, meant to provide alternate power, was delivered with delays
  • The DPRK closed a 5MWe reactors and stopped development of new reactors
  • The DPRK ‘suspended’ their with-drawl from the NPT

Whilst some of the developments, at first, seem like breakthroughs (the closure of a reactor and the abandoning of some under development), they fall short of the original goals. The DPRK did not remain in the NPT, rather just delaying it’s departure, leaving in 2003. The original agreement also reaffirmed both side’s commitment to the 1992 joint declaration between both Koreas, aimed at full denuclearisation of the peninsula. The talks collapsed in 2003 with the DPRK’s with-drawl from the NPT and the Bush administration listing the Pyongyang government, with others, as an axis of evil. The DPRK resumed weapons development despite ongoing sanctions, and diplomatic outreach from the US stopped in the coming years.

Sunshine policy & Kim Dae-jung

In 1998, Kim Dae-jung became the President of the Republic of Korea. He took a more liberal approach to the DPRK-ROK relationship. More economic cooperation began between the two nations, the Kumgang tourist region opened, and 3 major family reunions were held. In June 2000, Dae-jung met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in a two day summit which produced a joint declaration in which both sides made far reaching agreements. Included in the declaration was an agreement to create a special ‘peace zone’ around Haeju, a southern city in the DPRK, the need for military tensions to be defused, the continued social cooperation between the two nations and for the need to end the armistice and broker a final peace deal. Sound familiar? Many of the points agreed in 2000 are the same ‘breakthrough’ agreements made during 2018. Kim Jong Il even agreed to visit Seoul at ‘an appropriate time’, very similar to Kim Jong Un’s agreement to visit Seoul in the near future. Due to the deterioration of relations and heightening tensions in Korea, the policy collapsed in 2006, prior to the missile and nuclear tests. Despite this, a second summit in Pyongyang was held in 2007 between Kim Jong Il and Roh Moo-hyun where both sides reaffirmed their commitment to peace and prosperity, but no major agreements were achieved.

6 party talks

One of the major developments in the region during the Sunshine policy was the start of the 6 party talks. Russia, Japan, China, the United States, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea engaged in high-level negotiations between 2003 and 2007. The goals of the talks were to normalise trade and diplomatic relations, provide a security guarantee to the DPRK, help the development of light water reactors to replace the current reactors and verifiable disarmament . by Pyongyang. Many of the major points were pulled directly from the 1994 Clinton: Agreed Framework. The talks aimed to curb the nuclear ambitions by providing strong guarantees that a nuclear-free DPRK would not be subject to attack or invasion by the US or it’s allies. Following a satellite launch and nuclear test in 2009, heavy sanctions returned to the DPRK and hampered negotiations, leading to the cancellation of the talks. This came as a huge blow to all parties since many of the agreements made would have been major steps in the right direction. The DPRK agreed to shut down it’s main reactors and provide a list of all it’s nuclear programs and assets in exchange for aid. These are some of the elusive agreements that the US-ROK alliance are trying to get from Pyongyang today.

Diplomats from the 6 countries represented at the 6-party talks

Differences today?

It is clear, looking back, that most of the breakthrough agreements made in 2018 have been made, to some extent, by different administrations in the past. The closure of the nuclear testing facility and the Tongchang-ri testing site can be compared to the shutting down of nuclear reactors in the past. Whether or not we are seeing a totally new diplomatic effort by Pyongyang, or a repeat of previous tactics which allow it to maintain low tensions and stronger pan-korean cooperation whilst maintaining it’s defensive nuclear capability, 2018 has been heralded as a new step forward for Korea, whilst mostly re-treading old ground. The most important and unique moment of the year was the first meeting between a US president and Leader of the DPRK, (despite two previous leaders of the DPRK meeting with ‘former US Presidents’) however this is once again made less exciting when it is revealed that the DPRK has extended invites to summits to previous US Presidents, Trump was just the first to accept, and given his infamous malleability and ego, it is no surprise a second summit is high on the agenda for the North. In the previous summit, Trump cancelled joint-military exercises with Seoul without any major concession from the North, and seems more focused on large symbolic gestures and personal chemistry than concrete steps towards an end goal. Overall, the developments in Korea are, by all accounts, great. The benefits of lowered tensions and lower threat of war cannot be downplayed, however it is worth bearing in mind, that for numerous complex reasons, talks like this have collapsed in the past, and so what seems like a new unique kind of diplomacy, could be a sort of political groundhog day.

Former President Jimmy Carter meeting with President Kim Il Sung

Benjamin Weston

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