20 years of walking in circlesA special envoy dispatched by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Beijing last month reportedly received a lukewarm reception during his visit. Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the No. 2 man at the country’s top military body, was able to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping three days after he arrived in Beijing. He delivered a hand-written letter from Kim and immediately returned to Pyongyang after meeting Xi. Choe — the highest ranking official sent from Pyongyang since it irked its traditional ally by carrying out a nuclear test in February — reportedly was cold-shouldered by the new leadership in Beijing for being vague about China’s demands to honor its international commitment to denuclearization. During his stay in Beijing, Choe indicated that Pyongyang was ready for dialogue without specifically referring to nuclear disarmament. The North Korean media reporting on Choe’s visit to Beijing did not mention Beijing’s demand and only emphasized that the state won’t give up its nuclear program.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been an international headache for 20 years. All the diplomatic endeavors for the last two decades to denuclearize North Korea have been in vain. North Korea’s technology has advanced to the extent that it may be able to load nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that can fly vast distances in a couple of years. We need to revisit the trajectory of the nuclear stalemate.
In Geneva in 1994, North Korea and the United States signed a landmark Agreed Framework in which the former agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities and freeze its plutonium production in exchange for fuel, economic cooperation and aid to construct light-water nuclear power plants. While the two wrangled over interpretation of specifics in the agreement, an international consortium nevertheless broke ground to build two light-water reactors in Shinpo in South Hamgyong. However, the agreement did not last more than five to six years. It was stalled after conservative Republicans took power in Washington in 1999. It finally broke down after North Korea was suspected of secretly enriching uranium.
The six-party platform gained historic momentum on Sept. 19, 2005 through a joint declaration in which North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and programs and return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in exchange for security for the regime and economic and energy aid, cooperation and investment in a phased manner. Over the following year, South Korea and the U.S. each supplied North Korea with 50,000 tons of heavy fuel, and North Korea repaid them through the symbolic dismantling of a 5 megawatt nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Progress again foundered when North Korea refused nuclear inspections followed by long-range missile tests and its first-ever nuclear weapons test in 2006. Three years later, it walked out of the six-party talks and conducted a second nuclear test.
Pyongyang and Washington resumed talks last year, reaching an agreement on Feb. 29 where North Korea agreed to cease uranium enrichment, allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back in the country, and suspend nuclear and missile tests. But the agreement was short-lived. North Korea in April said it was launching a satellite into space, a program suspected to be a disguised test of intercontinental ballistic missile technology. When the rocket exploded soon after the launch, North Korea reattempted another launch in December and succeeded in putting some kind of satellite into orbit.
In May last year, North Korea revised its Constitution and proclaimed itself a nuclear state to declare at home and abroad that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear program. It made it clear that its nuclear programs were no longer negotiable. In February, it detonated a nuclear device for the third time.
Nuclear diplomacy over the last two decades only brought disappointment to the U.S. and South Korea. For North Korea, it played the game well and has been successful in its goals. There is little chance of reversing the game now.
The North Korean nuclear issue was high on the agenda at the first summit meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in California over the weekend. Washington made it clear that it won’t engage Pyongyang unless it makes sincere gestures toward denuclearization. Seoul is no different. But Beijing sees things in a different perspective. Despite its unprecedented hard tone, China, as host of the six-party talks, wants to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.
Many began to pin hopes on signs of Beijing’s changed attitude toward Pyongyang. China, called upon to exercise responsibility befitting its newfound status on the global stage, is expected to mount more pressure on North Korea using its economic and political influence. Those disillusioned by the 20 years of failure in nuclear diplomacy demand more hard-line pressure to make North Korea forgo its nuclear ambitions. They believe North Korea would inevitably have to give up nukes in order to survive or it may collapse in seclusion.
But that scenario is quite unlikely. North Korea devoted 20 years on its nuclear program. It may take equally many years for Pyongyang to depart with its precious asset. That’s frustrating. But we cannot lose patience on the issue. For the time being, we just have to hope it will be different this time.