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The Peninsula

A History of Security Guarantees with North Korea and What We Should Expect

Published March 8, 2018
Category: North Korea

By Casey Robinson

On March 6, North Korean officials expressed to their South Korean counterparts a willingness to denuclearize on the condition that it receives a security guarantee. South Korean national security director Chung Eui-young said, “The North clarified its will to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and made it clear that there is no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the security of the North Korean regime is guaranteed.” While this development is indeed positive, North Korea has a history of requesting a security guarantee in return for freezing or ending its weapons program to which the United States has typically denied. However, there have been at least two occasions in which the United States has considered providing a security guarantee to North Korea.

1993 Joint Statement and 1994 Agreed Framework

It was in the early 1990s when North Korea first requested a security guarantee from the United States. After Soviet abandonment, North Korea was considerably vulnerable as it had a poor economy and a weak military. With concerns of a preemptive strike by the United States and a reluctance to depend on its allies in case of a conflict, the North Korean leadership believed that it had little choice but to pursue weapons development. Accordingly, when North Korea denied the International Atomic Energy Agency access to inspect nuclear sites and threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States was immediately concerned for its national security. In response, the Clinton Administrations sent high-level officials to encourage North Korea to denuclearize. These high-level talks resulted in the United States agreeing to:

  • Assurance against the threat and the use of force, including nuclear weapons
  • Peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including impartial application of full-scope safeguards, mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
  • Support for the peaceful reunification of Korea

After close to a year and a half of negotiations, North Korea and the United States signed the Agreed Framework in 1994:

  • Both sides will cooperate to replace the D.P.R.K.’s graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities with light-water reactor (LWR) power plants.
  • The two sides will move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.
  • Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
  • Both sides will work together to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime.

This is the only time that the United States provided a security guarantee in writing to North Korea. Yet, despite this, North Korea would ultimately continue its nuclear proliferation. The possible reason for this was that the security agreement was poorly executed by the United States. The United States never signed a peace treaty, continued joint military exercises with South Korea, and going into the Bush administration would increase criticism towards the regime. Without a true sense of security, North Korea chose to continue its weapons program.

2003 Five-party Security Guarantee Proposal

In 2002, the United States intelligence discovered that North Korea had continued its nuclear weapons development and when approached about it chose to officially withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Once again, North Korea said that it would agree to denuclearize on the condition, among others, that it received an adequate security guarantee from the United States, specifically a signing of a non-aggression treaty. The Bush administration refused, arguing that North Korea should not be rewarded for failing to abide by its previous obligations. However, the administration made a counter-proposal of a five-party security guarantee of the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea. This way, North Korea could receive security assurances without the United States jeopardizing its stance. Nevertheless, North Korea viewed this proposal by the United States as inadequate as it did not guarantee that the United States would not invade North Korea like it did with Iraq. The Kim regime desired a nonaggression treaty from the United States.

Will the Trump Administration Offer a Security Guarantee?

If history remains constant, North Korea denuclearizing solely depends on the United States’ willingness to offer the Kim regime an adequate security assurance. Without a strong security assurance, North Korea will not feel safe from a preemptive strike from the United States. The question is therefore whether the Trump administration will provide a security guarantee to North Korea.

For a security guarantee to occur, there needs to be high-level talks between North Korea and the United States. However, it is hard to fathom a Trump administration that is willing to have high-level talks, let alone provide a security assurance, without North Korea first denuclearizing. The Trump administration’s tough policies towards Cuba and Iran, despite progress being made, is one hint of President Trump’s unwillingness to compromise and negotiate with North Korea without it first denuclearizing. Moreover, the Trump administration has even commented that it will not have talks without North Korea first denuclearizing. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said, “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea. We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don’t think we need a Band-Aid. We don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think that we need to have them to stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.”

Though, as an administration without a clear signal, there are signs within the administration that it may be willing to have high-level talks without preconditions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted so by saying, “We’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet and see — we can talk about the weather if you want.” Yet, even if high-level talks do take place, will Trump’s hardline stance towards North Korea allow for an agreement in which a denuclearization and security assurance occur simultaneously or perhaps a security assurance taking place before a North Korean denuclearization? It seems unlikely that either scenario would occur.

Since the early 1990s, North Korea has asked for a security guarantee from the United States and on two separate occasions the United States did offer a security assurance in some form. However, both security assurances failed to generate confidence for the Kim regime that the United States would not preemptively strike it, and consequently North Korea chose to continue its weapons development. For North Korea to denuclearize, the United States will need to in some form agree to move towards signing a nonaggression treaty, an assurance that the United States will not attack it. Given the Trump Administration’s hardline stance, it seems unlikely that it will provide a security assurance to North Korea without it first denuclearizing.

Casey Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate at Waseda University. His research interests include the DPRK, U.S. foreign policy, and international development. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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