North Korea vs the United States: a bare table

About the author
David Wall is an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea had been a strong and relatively rich part of Moscow's network; it was, after all, a creation of the Russians. (The country's first leader, Kim Il Sung, grew up in China and joined the Russian army, in thanks for which the Russians gave him North Korea). When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the economy in North Korea, where political problems were compounded by severe natural disasters. The two events led to the death by starvation and famine-related illness of more than a million people between 1995 and 1998. 

In an era of such catastrophe for North Korea, a reasonable person might think it was good of the Americans to offer the North Koreans food aid if they would agree to dismantle their nuclear facilities - even if Kim Jong Il's regime would have to act first. But look beneath the surface (and at the recent stop-start history of Washington-Pyongyang negotiations), and the doubts begin to grow.

A negotiating official - or, indeed, anyone in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - would have serious reservations about accepting the deal presented by United States assistant secretary of state Christopher R Hill in Beijing on 30 November. As the sixth and latest round in the "six-party talks" on North Korea's nuclear programme is poised to resume on 18 December in Beijing - bringing together China, Russia, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea itself - Pyongyang will want to see something substantial on the table.

David Wall is an associate member of the faculty of Oriental studies at Cambridge University, and an associate fellow of Chatham House

Also by David Wall in openDemocracy:

"China: the plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

"North Korea and the 'six-party talks': a road to nowhere"
(12 April 2006)

"The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: uneasy amity" (16 June 2006)

In that regard, North Korea's leaders seem to have better memories than do their American counterparts. In August 1994, the Bill Clinton administration promised to welcome North Korea into the world community as a sovereign state, to open an embassy in Pyongyang, to support North Korean membership of such international aid organisations as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and to provide it with nuclear power for electricity generation. As part of this "agreed framework", the US also promised to supply the country with 500,000 tonnes of oil a year until the nuclear plants were up and running.

East Asia's mind-games

The 1994 negotiations would have led North Korea into a new set of international relationships and might well have put its economy on track to being one of the strongest in Asia. However, a few weeks after the agreement was signed (and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation [KEDO] set up) the political situation in the US changed.

In mid-term congressional elections during Bill Clinton's first presidential term, the Republican Party seized control of both houses of Congress from the Democrats, ignored an agreement which it did not support, and dropped all thoughts of helping North Korea recover from its post-Soviet political troubles and natural catastrophes.

In late 2000, toward the end of his presidency, Clinton sent secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang, where she told North Korean leaders that Clinton would like to restart the agreed framework before his term in office expired. In the end, he didn't go through with it. But the North Koreans said they would put their nuclear development programme on ice for two years in order to allow time to develop a new arrangement with Clinton's successor as president, George W Bush.

Bush did not need two years to formulate a policy towards North Korea. In his state-of-the-union speech in January 2002, he included North Korea as one of the three components (alongside Iraq and Iran) of an "axis of evil" in the modern world.

The North Koreans felt even more let down when assistant secretary of state James Kelly swore that they had told him (in Pyongyang in October 2002) that they were working on weapons-grade, uranium-based, nuclear-weapons technology. North Korean leaders insisted they had not said this. Their explanation was that - after becoming exasperated by Kelly's insistence that they had such facilities - the North Koreans said they had a right to them if they wanted them. North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 2003 was an indication of the state's frustration with Washington's unreliability and a declaration of intent. From this withdrawal grew the six-party talks process.

Also in openDemocracy on North Korea:

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (19 July 2005)

Peter Hayes, "Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test"
(21 July 2006)

Peter Hayes & Tim Savage, "Dr Strangelove in Pyongyang" (10 October 2006)

It is clear that Kim Jong Il and his advisors are unwilling to do anything in return for mere promises from the Americans. Watching how the US dealt with the other two members of Bush's "axis of evil", the Pyongyang leadership wisely decided to develop nuclear-weapons capability. ("Weapons of mass destruction" were cited to justify the invasion of Iraq and the threats against Iran, the leaders of which also are rationally seeking to develop nuclear capability.)

The US's rhetorical hard line has backfired. Its reaction to the North Korean "bomb" (actually, only the first stage in the process of developing one) has tended to isolate Washington on the international stage. The US no longer has the unquestioning support of its four fellow interlocutors with North Korea in the six-party talks.

Russia has said that only the countries bordering North Korea should be involved in the negotiations (which would exclude the US but include Russia - even though there are only fifteen kilometres of estuary, and no bridges, between it and North Korea). Japan has said it will not take further part in the talks unless North Korea swears it will discuss Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents from its coastline in the 1970s and 1980s.

South Korea has said it will not apply the United Nations Security Council's sanctions against North Korea, imposed after Pyongyang announced it had successfully conducted a nuclear test on 9 October 2006. And China has confirmed that it will not cut off economic support for North Korea, without which the country really would collapse.

In short, the Bush administration's behaviour has turned the six-party talks into a farce. It also has further damaged the Security Council. There are not many indications around that the administration (or the Democratic Party, for that matter) is on course to develop a sensible and feasible policy for dealing with the leaders of North Korea, a policy that would be acceptable in that country.

Meanwhile, North Korean leaders will continue to develop plutonium-based weapons capability until the United States either drops out of the picture and leaves them alone or puts something on the table other than talk. The American leaders have yet to demonstrate that they represent an honest, truthful government whose word can be counted on.