North Korea's History of Ignoring International Agreements Should Temper Talks with US
By Dr. Elizabeth Keavney
Associate Professor, School of Security & Global Studies, American Military University
Pictures of President Moon Jae-In of South Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un of North Korea meeting and embracing on April 27 gave some people hope. Possibly, the planned high-level talks between Kim and President Trump could lead to the official end of hostilities between the two countries – or at least to a dramatic lessening of tensions.
The meeting between Moon and Kim and the scheduled summit between Trump and Kim are unprecedented since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953. North Korea’s release of three Korean-American hostages on May 9 also increased that optimism. While there are reasons for hope, history shows that there is also reason for the U.S. to be cautious, even if an agreement is reached.
US Faces Historic Opportunity to Reduce Threat of War with North Korea
The U.S. is faced with what could be an historic opportunity to reduce the threat of war with North Korea. However, success is far from certain and the stakes are high. Just this week, North Korea threatened to call off the summit if Trump insisted on unilateral disarmament.
There are at least two ways that negotiations could fail. First, they could break down, resulting in no agreement. Second, they could produce an agreement that gives the illusion of success, but does not include adequate verification and enforcement provisions.
History of Negotiations and Agreements Between North Korea and Other Countries
It is instructive to review the history of North Korea’s negotiations and agreements with other countries, especially with respect to the development of nuclear weapons.
From 1985 to 2008, North Korea agreed:
- Not to pursue nuclear weapons technology
- To stop developing nuclear weapons technology
- To give up the nuclear technology it had already developed (it had agreed to this concession on at least six separate occasions)
However, North Korea violated all of these agreements. Some of them were violated covertly, with secret nuclear programs still being maintained. Other agreements were violated openly, either by insisting on conditions not included in the agreement or by refusing agreed-to access to inspectors.
In some cases, North Korea complied with the agreements for a while. But in time, each agreement was eventually violated.
Additional North Korean Treaties Abrogated and Nuclear Violations
In 1985, North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty required Pyongyang to ratify a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) within 18 months.
North Korea refused, insisting on U.S. removal of nuclear weapons from South Korea as a precondition. Since the treaty did not allow North Korea to set preconditions, Pyongyang was in violation of the treaty until 1992, when it finally ratified such an agreement.
North Korea further violated this agreement by engaging in clandestine nuclear weapon research in the early 1990s, according to U.S. intelligence and the IAEA. The DPRK refused IAEA inspectors access to a plutonium reprocessing facility in 1994.
Also, North Korea removed fuel rods that could be reprocessed into weapon-grade material from its research reactor without the presence of IAEA monitors in 1994. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003.
In 1992, both North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”
North Korea violated this agreement by building and detonating nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017.
Pyongyang reached a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in 1992. North Korea violated this agreement just a year later by refusing to allow the IAEA inspectors access to two sites.
North Korea violated this agreement again in 1994 when it removed spent fuel (which can be reprocessed into weapons-grade nuclear material) from a reactor without IAEA inspectors present.
In 2002, North Korea further violated this agreement. Pyongyang removed IAEA seals and surveillance equipment from its reactor, moved fuel rods in apparent preparation for restarting the reactor, and expelled IAEA inspectors from the country.
In 2005, North Korea said it would stop the production of all nuclear weapons. It vowed to return to the NPT, the IAEA safeguards agreement, and the 1992 agreement with South Korea on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a joint statement issued with the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.
In 2012, the DPRK agreed to suspend operations at a uranium enrichment plant and to suspend nuclear and long-range missile testing, in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States. North Korea was accused of violating this agreement later that year by launching satellites using ballistic missile technology.
The agreements reached in 1994, 2007 and 2012 all came after North Korea had violated earlier agreements, each of which included actions by other countries that benefited North Korea. For example:
- In 1994, the U.S. agreed to help North Korea construct two light water reactors and other countries agreed to provide substantial heating oil shipments.
- In 2007, the U.S. agreed to remove North Korea from its state sponsors of terrorism list, to release $25 million in frozen North Korean assets, and provide one million tons of fuel oil with the aid of other countries.
Can North Korea Be Trusted to Abide by Future International Agreements?
Since North Korea has failed to abide by international agreements, there is no reason to expect that any new negotiations will produce commitments that Pyongyang will not abandon or violate.
Any successful negotiation with North Korea must be undertaken with great care. The DPRK cannot be granted any significant benefits until rigorous and comprehensive inspections have verified its compliance.
Any agreement involving benefits to North Korea should be structured in a way that ensures that any revocation or termination of the agreement would be severely harmful to North Korea. This structure will prevent the DPRK from abandoning the agreement.
If North Korea expects to duplicate its earlier successes at cheating and the U.S. insists on conditions that would prevent such success, the two countries may find themselves at an impasse. But it is important not to compromise vital conditions for the sake of having an agreement.
Failure to reach an agreement would be better than reaching one that advances North Korea’s military or economic aims without improving the security of the U.S. and its allies.
About the Author
Dr. Elizabeth Keavney is a full-time associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies. She holds a B.A. in communications from Quincy University, a M.P.A. in public administration from California State University, Long Beach and a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University.