Why North Korea developed nuclear bombs: US-North Korean relations (1990 to today)

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By Park Jae-seong translated by Dae-Han Song / Source: International Strategy Center / The Dawn News /

The North Korean nuclear conflict started in 1990. Few people are aware that before taking out its nuclear card, North Korea had approached the United States in earnest. As Communism crumbled and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with North Korea’s southern counterpart, the country’s leaders couldn’t help but feel insecure. In an attempt to gain political recognition as an independent state, North Korea signed a basic North-South agreement, a denuclearization agreement (preventing the development of nuclear weapons in  the Korean Peninsula) and even joined the United Nations, all by 1991.

On Jan. 21, 1992, North Korea’s leader Kim Il-sung sent Worker’s Party International Secretary Kim Yong-soon to New York to meet with U.S. Undersecretary of State Arnold Kanter. Through Kim, North Korea proposed establishing diplomatic relations with the United States, adding that it would not demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula 1. Such concession removed an important barrier to normalizing relations as it would allow the U.S. to maintain its military strategy of checking China with its foothold in the Korean Peninsula. Why did North Korea want to establish diplomatic relations with the United States? After all, North Korea had already gained recognition from the global community by joining the UN. Establishing diplomatic relations would make it so that North Korea’s political sovereignty would also be respected by the world’s military superpower, the United States. In a rapidly changing world, North Korea was doing all it could to get its political and economic system acknowledged and accepted. If the United States had established diplomatic relations then, North Korea would not have nuclear weapons now.

President George H. W. Bush rejected the proposal. Furthermore, starting 1992, the United States demanded  a special high-level nuclear inspection of North Korea as part of any peace negotiations. The special inspection would have allowed full access to the country. That’s when North Korea concluded that the US’s true intention was to threaten North Korea, not to broker peace and end the Cold War. North Korea thus embarked on the much US-loathed mission to develop nuclear weapons to safeguard itself. In 1993, North Korea stated its intent to leave the Non-nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) thus clearing its path towards developing nuclear weapons.

That year, newly elected President Bill Clinton tried to quickly resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through negotiation. To bypass opposition by South Korea’s Kim Young-sam administration at its exclusion from the bilateral negotiations, the United States began secret contact with North Korea. This resulted in the October 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework (Geneva Accord). Under the Geneva Accord, North Korea would stop its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The US would replace the nuclear reactor with two light-water nuclear reactors (whose fuel cores cannot be easily weaponized) by 2003. Until completion, the US would supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel annually. The US would lift sanctions and both would formally announce not using nuclear weapons. In short, North Korea would not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee of its politico-economic system and electricity. The Geneva Accord halted North Korea’s nuclear activities. A month later, Republicans won the U.S. midterm elections thus giving them control of the House of Representatives and Senate. Within just three months, the Republican Party made it impossible for Clinton to fulfill the promise of U.S.-North Korea diplomatic relations delaying the promised heavy fuel oil shipments.

Even though the U.S. government was reneging on its promise, North Korea continued to hold onto hope that the agreement would be kept. Attaining such large amounts of electricity to run their country would have been a great boon. In 1997 (a year behind schedule), the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) began construction in North Korea of the two light-water nuclear reactors that would produce the promised electricity. Construction continued until 2002. Despite running behind schedule and the lack of heavy fuel oil shipments, during this time, North Korea did not carry out threats or provocations.

Upon taking office in 2001, George W Bush accused North Korea of developing uranium nuclear weapons and quickly moved to undo the 1994 Agreed Framework. At this point, North Korea finally gave up hope on the United States and stopped KEDO’s construction of the light-water nuclear reactors. After halting construction of the light-water nuclear reactors 2, North Korea quickly began their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. To block this process, George W. Bush proposed the  six-party talks 3, which yielded the Sep. 19 Joint Statement Agreement in 2005. In exchange for North Korea destroying all its nuclear weapons and re-joining the NPT, representatives from the US promised a new peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula and a non-aggression pact against North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear issue seemed to finally be getting resolved. However, soon after this, the United States froze North Korean funds in the Banco Delta Asia and started sanctions against North Korea. North Korea viewed these actions as the United States breaking its promise once again, and so it resumed its nuclear activities. A year later, North Korea carried out its first nuclear test. North Korea’s nuclear issue had crossed a point of no return.

The Bush administration once again entered into negotiations to turn the ceasefire into a peace agreement, eventually coming up with the Feb. 13, 2007 agreement. However, once again internal grumblings within the United States about restarting negotiations with North Korea surfaced, and the Bush government was unable to accomplish the Feb. 13 agreement before its term.

This process makes clear that North Korea has continually kept up its end of the bargain while the United States has reneged again and again on its agreements. The U.S. misperception that isolation alone, rather than reciprocation, can resolve the North Korean nuclear issue has led to North Korea’s highly developed nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons conflict, peace on the Korean Peninsula, are thus first and foremost a U.S.-North Korean political conflict. The United States wants to preserve its world dominance: to expand its interests, it tries to control North Korea and other countries politically, economically and militarily. Meanwhile, North Korea has responded strategically with the development of nuclear weapons in order to achieve equal relations with the United States and to politically and militarily guarantee its system. If we examine North Korea’s declarations during this period of intensified tensions, it’s clear that North Korea sees the nuclear issue as an issue with the United States. North Korea’s intention of gaining recognition as a nuclear weapon state and terminating its long-standing confrontation with the U.S. are both clear.

On Sept. 11, the UN adopted sanctions against North Korea banning the country’s textile export and capping the imports of crude oil. Yet it’s not had any real impact in affecting North Korea’s actions. Why are supposedly strong economic sanctions against North Korea ineffective? The reason is simple: the sanctions have already reached their saturation point. The only sanction left is war.

Will the U.S. acknowledge a North Korea with proven nuclear weapons as a nuclear state? Will the US wage war against North Korea? The United States has broken countless agreements. Now is its turn to answer.

Notes:

  1. Acquiescing to the possibility of US troop presence in the Korean Peninsula was significant as it went against North Korea’s longstanding goal of a reunified independent Korean Peninsula. Beyond it being a concession, this has also been interpreted as a strategy of using the United States to counterbalance the growing influence of China in the region.
  2. In the “KCNA ‘Detailed Report’ Explains NPT Withdrawal,” North Korea explains in great detail
    https://fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/dprk012203.html 
  3. The six parties were South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia, United States, and Japan.
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