Vol: 2020-05

Yea-yl Yoon
Research Professor at
Jeju National University

1. The past five years of the North Korean nuclear issue

2018 was the year when it emerged as a social concern and an academic agenda whether the North Korean nuclear issue will be resolved, and further, whether the resolution will provide an important turning point in building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. In April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom for the historic inter-Korean summit, where they jointly announced the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. In June, the North Korean leader and the U.S. President, Donald Trump, held a summit meeting in Singapore and signed a joint statement, agreeing to establish new relations and build a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

The summits signified the staging of a huge reversal. From January 2016 to September 2017, Pyongyang had consecutively conducted its fourth, fifth, and sixth nuclear tests, and in response, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution which reduced the amount of oil provided to North Korea. In February 2018, Trump announced new sanctions against Pyongyang, aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illicit transshipment in the high seas, which had been identified as a hole in the sanctions against the North. Up until early 2018, the situation on the Korean Peninsula caused growing concerns over the possibility of military conflict. Nevertheless, the confrontational phase was shifted to one of negotiation, first holding the inter-Korean summit, and, finally, the U.S.-North Korea summit.

However, Washington-Pyongyang relations have been at a standstill since February 2019 when the negotiations broke down during the Trump-Kim Hanoi Summit. Trump, currently running for the November general election, is highly likely to maintain the keynote of his policy of managing the status quo unless Pyongyang carries out provocations that could pose a direct threat to the United States. Moreover, Seoul-Pyongyang relations have also remained in a stalemate since the spring of 2020 when North Korea destroyed and shut down the liaison line to South Korean authorities. Even after the second anniversary of the April 27 Panmunjom inter-Korean summit, Seoul and Pyongyang are far from delivering what their leaders agreed upon.

2. The five years until the North Korean issue broke out

Let us now go back some 20 years to the five-year period which spans from 1989, when the Cold War ended, to 1993, when the North Korean issue broke out.

In 1993, the first North Korean nuclear crisis arose on the Korean Peninsula. The general analysis is that Pyongyang rushed its nuclear weapons program in self-defense, due to the loosened alliance between North Korea and China. However, the most serious crisis to the Sino-North Korea relationship was posed by no other than the opening of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China in 1992. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang sensed a strong threat to giving up its alliance with China when China, its sole ally, established diplomatic ties with South Korea, one of China’s enemies at the time. Subsequently, Pyongyang and Beijing were swiftly estranged from each other, while Pyongyang concentrated on developing nuclear weapons under the slogans of “Juche” [self-reliance] and “Songun” [military-first]. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear program was triggered as Pyongyang sensed the inevitable crisis if left alone due to the collapse of a pillar of the Cold War. It can also be construed that North Korea, faced with the looming crisis, not only hurried to develop nuclear weapons to boost its self-defense capabilities, but also used an entrapment strategy in the Sino-North Korea relations when exposed to the threat that China might give up the alliance. With the self-preservation measure of arming itself with nuclear weapons, North Korea highlighted its geopolitical value, while warning that it was capable of causing regional instability and driving China to face a national security crisis. Although the world of thought in South Korea the opening of Beijing-Seoul ties as creating momentum to restore the regional image of East Asia, the North Korean regime considered it a doughnut-shaped image of East Asia that could besiege North Korea.

However, what should not be overlooked is the fact that the Sino-ROK relations, which gave rise to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development, were also established against the backdrop of the improved Japan-North Korean relations. In September 1990, a Japanese delegation led by Shin Kanemaru visited North Korea and signed a joint declaration with the Workers’ Party of Korea where Japan apologized for its colonization of Korea and agreed to commence negotiations on normalizing its diplomatic ties with North Korea. This aroused the vigilance of Chinese policymakers, who rushed to normalize Sino-ROK diplomatic relations. Beijing concluded the normalization of its relations with Seoul early due to concerns that the Tokyo-Pyongyang negotiations on diplomatic relations could expand Japan’s influence on the Korean Peninsula. However, the Japan-North Korea negotiations failed to show substantive progress due to the so-called abduction issue of Lee Eun-hye (also named Yaeko Taguchi) and the subsequent North Korean nuclear issue.

To Tokyo, negotiating for the normalization of relations with Pyongyang meant a touchstone for diversifying from its U.S.-reliant foreign policies in the post-Cold War era and attempting an autonomous diplomacy with Asian countries. Noticeably, one of the moments that drove Japan to take such a forward-looking step was the progress in inter-Korean relations early in the 1990s. To put it differently, Japan judged that it was necessary to secure its presence on the Korean Peninsula by means of normalizing its ties with the North before Seoul and Pyongyang made progress towards a stable inter-Korean relationship. Japan achieved a good result in improving its relations with China; however, in terms of Japan-North Korean relations, it failed to escape the influence of America’s North Korean policies.

They were indeed turbulent five years from 1989, when the Malta Summit between the United States and the Soviet Union officially ended the Cold War, to 1993, when the first North Korean nuclear issue broke out. In the given period, Beijing improved its relations with Japan, opened diplomatic ties with South Korea, and successfully emerged in the international diplomatic arena, whereas Pyongyang failed to normalize its diplomatic relations with Japan and took the path of nuclear weapons development, isolated from South Korea and other neighbors. This outcome reflects the entangled East Asian conditions, which are unreducible to the political choices made by Chinese and North Korean leadership, including the asymmetrical alliance and the gap in national power between China and North Korea, as well as the scope of Japan’s autonomy in its Asian diplomacy under the influence of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

3. East Asianization of the North Korean nuclear issue

For the subsequent 20 years, the North Korean nuclear issue has been “East Asianized,” beyond the boundaries of the Korean Peninsula, and has become an extremely difficult issue to resolve. “East Asianization” of the North Korean nuclear issue implies that the weight of the issue is now even able to determine the future of the East Asian region. It also connotes that the principal agents in the region are involved in a closely intertwined relationship around the medium of the North Korean nuclear issue.

The East Asianization of the North Korean nuclear issue is, above all, construed as Pyongyang’s survival strategy. With the beginning of the post-Cold War period, the economic gap between North Korea and South Korea widened, while Seoul’s Northward policy weakened Pyongyang’s position in diplomacy. This drove the North to lay out the survival strategy of developing nuclear weapons. The North Korean regime decided, for the benefit of its survival, to use the strategy of maintaining a perpetual crisis to entrap international agents such as the United States and China in the Korean Peninsula issue, rather than concentrating on the post-Cold War lineal inter-Korean rivalry. In the process, it has designed a diversity of rivalries and diplomatic relations, including ‘U.S.-ROK vs. DPRK,’ ‘U.S.-ROK vs. U.S.-DPRK,’ ‘U.S.-ROK vs. China-DPRK,’ and ‘China-ROK vs. China-DPRK,’ on different occasions.

Pyongyang’s maintenance of a perpetual crisis and entrapment of international agents are based on America’s embrace of the dilemma in making policy choices. Washington, despite its alliance with Seoul, rules out military solutions due to the concerns over the possibility that they will damage regional stability in East Asia. As such, North Korea has attempted to maximize the national interest for its survival by grasping the structural uniqueness of Northeast Asian regional security issues where multiple matters are intricately intertwined, including South Korea’s limited autonomy in the North Korean nuclear issue, America’s dilemma in making policy choices, China’s interest in maintaining the status quo, and Russia’s concerns over securing regional influence through the North Korean nuclear issue. Although Pyongyang has urged Seoul to “deal with the Korean Peninsula issues on the Korean Peninsula,” it in fact has worked to “deal with the Korean Peninsula issues at the regional and international levels” by means of nuclear diplomacy.

4. Multilayeredness of North Korean nuclear issue

Thus, the North Korean nuclear issue should not be limited to North Korea. Primarily, Pyongyang should be held responsible for its nuclear issue since it has promoted its nuclear program with a strong will for nuclear capability. However, the outbreak and the intensification of the issue are also the result of the the increasingly multilayered interests and dynamics of each principal agent in East Asia.

Again, let us return to the early 1990s. At the time, the U.S. government, due to the strategic confusion in East Asia, was concerned about the possible changes that a normalization of Pyongyang-Tokyo relations would bring to the regional dynamics. The U.S. therefore put the brakes on Japan and North Korea’s move and sealed the signal of changes. The Japanese government also used the abduction issue for domestic politics while in the process of normalizing its diplomatic ties with the North, after which it continued to create anti-North Korean sentiment, resulting an abuse of those ties. Meanwhile, when the United States began high-profile negotiations with North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s brinkmanship in 1993, the South Korean government opposed the direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang by announcing its principle of linking the negotiations to the North Korean nuclear issue. The Chinese government utilized its superior status in the asymmetrical China-North Korea alliance, consequently spurring Pyongyang’s sense of crisis. North Korea was unable to involve itself in regime rivalries in the normal fashion due to domestic circumstances; mainly the worsening of international isolation and economic problems amid the rapid changes in the regional order, and thereby employed the nuclear program as the core of its national strategies. As such, the situation of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development was where the intertwined East Asian circumstances were condensed and expressed.

From the perspective of East Asia, the North Korean nuclear issue bears a complicated significance. For North Korea, the nuclear program is an internal political means to maintain and strengthen the regime. In terms of inter-Korean relations, it is a diplomatic tool that Pyongyang can use to put pressure on Seoul, as well as a weapon to complement its inferiority in defense capability and eventually break the current military balance. In the China-North Korea relations, it is the measure Pyongyang takes in order to execute its strategy of entrapping China, and at the same time, secure autonomy from China. In the relationship with the United States, North Korea’s nuclear program serves as a safety valve it can use to strengthen its bargaining power against the U.S. and guarantee the survival of the regime, with the pretext of its potential to pose a direct physical threat to the U.S. or by its possible transfer of nuclear and/or weapons technologies to terrorist groups in the worsening post-Cold War international environment. Additionally, the program becomes an economic tool when North Korea trades with Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and other countries that develop missiles and nuclear weapons. North Korea’s nuclear program is the nuclear program of a divided nation-state, of a buffer state in a strategic point in Northeast Asia, and of a communist state which has survived in the U.S.-led world order.

5. Repositioning the North Korean nuclear issue: the Korean Peninsula issue and an East Asian issue

The North Korean nuclear issue, as earlier mentioned, is not just a security issue surrounding weapons development, but also reflects the condensed expression of East Asian conditions and circumstances, such as the dissimilarity in state forms, the asymmetry between states/international relations, and the continuity of the divided regimes in East Asia despite post-Cold War trends.

The North Korean nuclear issue constitutes a part of another issue and also the whole issue as it is. Therefore, the issue cannot be resolved by addressing it from the normative perspective of non-proliferation. The process of resolving the issue involves matters regarding politics, economies, and security, such as the economic development of North Korea, the division of the Korean Peninsula, the multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia, and the normalization of the U.S.-DPRK diplomatic relations. Considering the multilayeredness of the North Korean nuclear issue, resolving the issue will presuppose or catalyze improvement in U.S.-DPRK/Japan-DPRK relations, the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and progress in multilateralism in the region. It condenses nearly all factors that determine the path of a society, a state, and a region, including the form of a state, the identity of a nation/people, the hard/soft power of a state, and international relations and diplomatic strategies.

In this sense, the North Korean nuclear issue from the perspective of East Asia is a matter that should be addressed both as a “North Korean” issue and as an “East Asian” issue. If the North Korean nuclear issue is related to how to handle North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the North Korean issue is extended to how to determine the status of North Korean sovereignty in East Asian geopolitics. It is noteworthy that Pyongyang has claimed that its nuclear program originated from America’s policy of hostility against North Korea and that it develops nuclear weapons for self-defense. In other words, North Korea is willing to guarantee its security using nuclear capabilities because the United States has suggested a preemptive nuclear strike as an alternative policy option. Its logic is that the root of the claimed hostility of America against North Korea historically dates back to the Korean War, so it is difficult to give up its nuclear program unless a peace treaty is signed between the first parties of the war; that is, North Korea and the United States. From this perspective, the South Korean measures to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue should contain long-term strategies for denuclearizing the North, such as guaranteeing the recognition of the North Korean regime at an international level, building military confidence, agreeing on mutual non-aggression policies, announcing an end to the Korean War, enabling Pyongyang to build diplomatic ties with its neighbors, encouraging the international community to provide aid to the North, establishing a system of regional security cooperation, and developing measures for the peaceful unification of Korea. This view of North Korea demonstrates that the North Korean nuclear issue is equal to the “Korean Peninsula” issue. The Korean Peninsula issue in this case refers to the issues of politics, military, economy, society, and culture that are raised on the Korean Peninsula and in the regions surrounding the Korean Peninsula due to the hostile division and concurrent existence of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the Korean Peninsula.

Building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue also coincides with another East Asian condition. This condition is represented as the dissimilarity, not the similarity, among the different countries that exist in the East Asian region. First, the notion of peace on the Korean Peninsula itself is highly likely to have a different significance in South Korea than in its neighbors. In the context of the regional order in East Asia, settling peace on the Korean Peninsula, shifting to a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and the unification of Korea based on those elements are not as continuous nor lineal as presumed in South Korea. Even if neighboring countries hope for lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, it does not mean that they support the shift to a permanent peace regime on the peninsula. In addition, building a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is significant in eliminating the remaining effects of the Korean War, which are the unstable armistice and the military rivalry, but it does not mean that it is a pre-unification stage. Most of the countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula prefer to maintain the current state of peace. Thus, even with the support from neighboring countries for the shift to a peace regime, the chances are low that they will support the unification of Korea because the unification, which indicates changes to the status quo, may change the regional dynamics and augment uncertainties in the regional situations. Although the unification of Korea is perceived as the resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue at the peninsular level, the neighboring states may regard it as the onset of a new Korean Peninsula issue.

6. North Korean nuclear issue as a thought challenge

Since March 1993 when Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), U.S.-ROK relations and inter-Korean relations have evolved surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue. However, South Korean scholars and journalists have avoided making insufficient efforts to deeply contemplate the North Korean nuclear issue. The mainstream tendency is to cast doubt on North Korea’s financial/technological capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, to underestimate its nuclear weapons as a tool for negotiations, or to forecast that North Korea will give up its nuclear program when the South uses such tactics as incentives and pressures where applicable. Some even predicted that the North will soon collapse since it is an autocratic regime with vulnerable economic and social infrastructures.

Even today, the North Korean nuclear issue is still presented as one of the diverse security issues. In the case of media, the narrow-sighted articles on the North Korean nuclear issue limitedly describe the increasing crisis as just a phenomenon; are inclined to quoting and interpreting the statements made by officials; rush to find diplomatic measures to prepare a negotiating table; or seek an equivalent of the negotiation.

In addition, academic articles with constructive East Asian views mostly conclude with the notion of peace and/or the following concepts: co-existence, exchange, reconciliation, cooperation, solidarity, integration, balance, harmony, community, overcoming the state-centrism, resolving the nationalistic rivalries, etc. As time passed by, the content of the body changed in accordance with the changes in the situation. However, the conventional conclusions hardly changed.

Probably, it is now time to relocate the concepts of peace, solidarity, harmony, and community, which used to be left in the concluding chapter, to the beginning chapter where questions are raised. In other words, it is now time to review the concepts of peace, solidarity, harmony, and community by considering the conditions of the Korean Peninsula and East Asia, rather than repetitively making complacent prescriptions for the problematic situation based on those concepts. One of the key conditions of the Korean Peninsula and East Asia that should be considered is the North Korean nuclear issue. As earlier mentioned, the North Korean nuclear issue has condensed in it all of the East Asian conditions, such as the regional division that still exists amid global post-Cold War trends, the dissimilarity in the form of a state, the asymmetry in relations between states and in relations between inter-state relationships. If so, should the world of thought in South Korea reposition the North Korean nuclear issue as the Korean Peninsula issue and make a thought challenge for peace in order to translate the Korean Peninsula issue into an East Asian issue?

In fact, if not with the North Korean nuclear issue, the South Korean people will be unaware of the existence of North Korea. This lack of recognition is due to perspectives of Orientalism (on North Korea), approaches based on the theory of modernization, a sense of repulsion due to ideological differences, mentalities led by powerful states, as well as passive or complacent views of peace. Probably, these are the epistemological obstacles that we should urgently overcome in working to settling peace on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia around the medium of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Yea-yl Yoon is a Research Professor of SSK Research Center on the Commons and Sustainable Society at Jeju National University. He received his PhD in Sociology from Seoul National University. His publications include East Asian Discourse, Time to Become a Square, the Origin of Thought, and the Translation of Thought. His key research interests are the history of East Asian sociological thought, the social movement theory, and the theory of the commons.