In recent days the Trump administration has continued to scupper reconciliation efforts made by its ally South Korea and its enemy North Korea. On February 9, Vice President Pence reportedly refused to applaud the two nations’ carrying of a united Korea flag at the recent Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that any potential US-North Korea negotiations must be contingent on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear arsenal — an arsenal which US intelligence reports cite as a “deterrence” against potential US aggression.
But Trump’s stance is not unusual. Ever since the US split Korea between 1945 and 1948, and then killed several million Koreans in a war unofficially ending in 1953, the US has violated treaties, both bilateral and multilateral, concerning North Korea. Both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations have violated these treaties, including the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Bush the Elder and Clinton
A report by the right-wing Heritage Foundation notes that until the late 1980s and early ’90s, the US “refused even casual contact with [North Korean] officials.” In 1990, the US claimed that it had satellite proof that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. Following presentation of the images to the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sprang surprise visits on North Korea, which North Korean leaders rejected. This is because North Korea was not legally obliged to permit surprise inspections. The regime feared that UN inspectors could gain access to their non-nuclear related weapons and thus pose a security risk. Also in 1990, North Korea announced that it would accept IAEA inspections on the condition that the US withdraw its nuclear forces from the region. By the end of the year, Hans Blix, the head of the IAEA, confirmed that North Korea was seeking assurances that the US would not attack it. The US rejected the offers.
In 1992, North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This involved joint and mutually-agreed inspections of the other’s nuclear systems. Initially, North Korea lived up to its promises in the agreement, halting plutonium reprocessing and eventually allowing IAEA inspectors into the country. North Korean leadership even invited US government officials and the IAEA to inspect its reactors. The offer was rejected by the hard-line George H.W. Bush administration, though former President Carter visited in 1994. Writing in the respected Arms Control Association journal in 1997, specialist Leon V. Sigal notes:
For a country supposedly intent on obtaining nuclear weapons, that self-restraint seems difficult to explain. One possible explanation is that, starting in 1990 or 1991, North Korea was trying to trade in its weapons program for what it thought it needed more — security, political and economic ties with the United States … Washington entered into talks only with extreme reluctance, and even then it was unwilling to specify what it would give North Korea in return for abandoning its nuclear arms program. When it did make promises, they were not always kept, often because Washington was dependent on others to fulfill them. As a consequence, the United States very nearly stumbled into war [in 1994].
Under the US-North Korea Agreed Framework of 1994, the US, now led by President Bill Clinton, was obliged to replace North Korea’s graphite nuclear reactor with light-water plants. It never did.
After the start of the Agreed Framework, the US helped establish the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in 1995. International funds were raised to transport oil to North Korea and 8,000 spent fuel rods from North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor were removed and sealed. The US never lived up to its obligations under the Agreement and failed to dismantle the reactors and replace them with light water ones.
From Clinton to Bush the Younger
In 1998, North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japan. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this was designed in part to force the US back to the negotiating table; a move that worked. Between 1999 and 2000, the Clinton administration re-entered talks with North Korea.
In his state of the union address in January 2002, President George W. Bush called North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. Three scholars writing for the Woodrow Wilson Center said at the time: “Faced with such a clear and present danger,” i.e., the United States, “Pyongyang did what most countries [sic] under similar circumstances would do,” namely it turned to developing weapons of mass destruction. They go on to note that ” ‘evil’ is something to be destroyed, not something to negotiate with. Indeed, the Bush administration … boxed itself — and North Korea — into a corner.”
In 2002, the US initiated the Proliferation Security Initiative with allies in the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and Indian Ocean. In October 2002, US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly claimed that North Korea “confessed” to him an illicit uranium enrichment weapons program. North Korea denied this. As a result of the allegations, Bush suspended heavy oil supplies delivered under the Agreed Framework.
In January 2003, following Bush’s axis of evil speech, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows countries to develop nuclear technologies for civilian usage, but not nuclear weapons or technologies for use in nuclear weapons programs. The implication was that North Korea would begin work on developing a nuclear weapon to deter US aggression. Following the withdrawal, the US requested China take a role in mediating talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Bush administration entered into talks with China on the issue, and North Korea was persuaded by China to attend the talks and informed both parties that the matter is between North Korea and the US.
North Korea requested direct talks with the US, but the Bush administration refused. At one of the trilateral talks mediated by China, the Bush administration made a fateful decision in rejecting North Korea’s proposal to freeze nuclear development in exchange for economic assistance and so-called security guarantees from the US, South Korea and Japan. The Bush administration said that the “military option” was “on the table” and also “not off the table.” The language confused the Chinese- and Korean-speaking delegates, who asked, “Then where is it now?”
The result was the establishment of Three-Party Talks with the US, China and North Korea in 2003. The aim of the talks was to get North Korea to denuclearize on terms acceptable to the regime, i.e., with guarantees that the US won’t attack. These became Six-Party talks when South Korea, Russia and Japan joined in. The talks failed for several reasons. First, at the first and second Joint Statement 2005, in which all parties voiced their concerns, Bush prohibited US delegates from negotiating bilaterally with North Korea. North Korea responded by withdrawing from the talks.
Second, the third Joint Statement was held in collaboration with the Six Parties (the US and North Korea, plus China, Russia, South Korea and Japan). South Korea agreed to not develop nuclear weapons, and North Korea agreed for the first time to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In September 2005, the US threatened sanctions on banks doing business with North Korea. North Korea responded by boycotting the Six-Party Talks. The US responded by not only slapping sanctions on North Korea for the first time, but also accusing the country of having accounts in Macao used for money laundering in support of terrorism. The US froze $25 million of North Korea’s assets and blacklisted eight North Korean companies. North Korea responded by reverting to its nuclear and ballistic missile developments.
Finally, at the Six-Party talks in late 2006 and early 2007, North Korea agreed to the Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement. This plan outlined closing North Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and abandoning future nuclear programs. In exchange, the Bush administration would remove the country from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
From Bush to Obama
In February 2007, North Korea’s vice foreign minister met with Bush administration officials in the US. This was the first time that diplomacy had been so warm. One of North Korea’s prerequisites for denuclearization was ending the US embargo. The Bush administration refused. By July, the US was still freezing North Korea’s foreign assets under spurious pretexts, but did deliver 6,200 tons of oil via South Korea, as agreed in the previous decade. North Korea permitted the arrival of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify the closing of the Yongbyon station.
By the start of 2008, US reciprocation had declined. The remaining oil promised to North Korea never arrived, new equipment for power plants never came and material assistance for denuclearization was not forthcoming. Despite this, North Korea achieved 75 percent denuclearization unilaterally. In June 2008, North Korea agreed to provide reports to the US concerning its production of plutonium. But the very moment that North Korea supplied the information, the Bush administration announced that it wanted an explanation of the report and failed to honor its commitment to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea reacted in kind, expelling the UN inspectors and announcing its intention to re-nuclearize.
Also, in June 2008, North Korea publicly demolished its Yongbyon cooling tower. The US briefly lifted sanctions, but Japan refused to oblige the Six-Party agreement and supply North Korea with 200,000 tons of heavy oil. When US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill visited North Korea and promised to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, North Korea signalled willingness to reinstate the inspectors.
By then, Obama had come to office and was scoring points at home by portraying North Korea as the bogeyman of Asia. In March 2009, two US journalists were caught operating in North Korea without a permit near the Chinese border and were returned to the US. In April, North Korea announced its intention to launch a satellite (Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2) and then withdrew from the Six-Party Talks, following the election in South Korea of the hard-line President Lee Myung-bak. In May, North Korea launched its second nuclear test. Following UN Security Council Sanctions on North Korea (UNSCR 1874), China encouraged North Korea to rejoin the Six-Party talks.
By January 2010, North Korea had agreed to a peace treaty with the US, including denuclearization, on the condition that sanctions are removed. The US refused the offer and instead conditioned talks on the sanctions remaining in force until North Korea rejoined in the Six-Party negotiations. North Korea’s second, this time bilateral offers with the US on January 11 were met with ridicule by Japanese media. Tensions mounted again in March 2010, when a South Korean warship (Cheonan) exploded and sank, killing 46 people. North Korea denied responsibility, but the US and South Korea immediately accused the country of torpedoing the vessel.
In April 2010, according to the US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative nonprofit group, North Korea not only “renewed its calls for a peace treaty,” but also “released a memorandum stating that it would limit the number of nuclear weapons it produced [and] rejoin denuclearization efforts in exchange for being recognized as a nuclear arms state.” The US rejected the offer.
Trump’s Policies Toward North Korea
North Korea does not have the ability to reach the continental US with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carrying a nuclear warhead. Business Insider reported in November 2017 that the Hwasong-15 ICBM would be weighed down significantly if it carried a nuclear warhead. In December, CNN quoted unnamed US “officials” as saying that North Korea’s longest-range ICBM likely broke up on re-entry into the atmosphere.
US citizens must recognize that President Trump’s policy toward North Korea is merely a continuation of US regional designs in the Asia Pacific. All over the region, there are networks of dedicated peace activists, including Japanese citizens opposing the presence of US military bases on Okinawa, South Korean activists opposing US bases on Jeju Island, and many, many more, such as Women Cross the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) — an organization of women from around the world who march in solidarity with both North Koreans and South Koreans. If these resistance networks do not come together in a globalized movement strong enough to force the US to pursue peace, North Korea might one day develop a weapon capable of hitting the US, and the US might start yet another war, this time perhaps a terminal nuclear one.
This article has been adapted from Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (Clairview Books).