Commentary Paper n°1

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Koreas and the United States : a complicated diplomatic triangle

Géraldine Frébutte
COMMENTARY PAPER, MARCH 8th, 2012
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On February 29th 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that U.S. officials and North Korean negotiators have reached an agreement following bilateral talks in Beijing last week. In exchange for food aid, Pyongyang consented to stop nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity. Moreover, North Korea accepted AIEA inspectors monitoring nuclear activities into Yongbyon site.

While practical details of the agreement still have to be discussed[1], some analysts assert that this could be the basis for the resumption of the six-party talks[2]. By agreeing to such conditions, North Korea seemed to display the kind of open-mindedness which was lacking for nearly three years. Nevertheless, U.S. officials described this gesture as “modest”, and one cannot simply predict North Korea’s future attitude. Will North Korea honour its commitments? Will the six-party talks really start again under the best possible circumstances?

It stands to reason that the relations between North Korea and some other nations, involved in these talks, are complicated. The analysis of these bilateral relations suggests that the resumption of the negotiations will be very difficult, and that the process begun by the United States and North Korea would be strictly limited to both these states.

Inter-Korean Relations : No Stability on the Horizon

Since Kim Jung-il’s death, North Korea has not reduced its attacks and criticism against South Korea. A succession of events shows that the regime has no intention of being more conciliatory with its neighbour. Quickly after the mourning period following the death of his father, Kim Jung-un developed an aggressive rhetoric against South Korea, which was certainly used to reinforce its power and its legitimacy.

The South Korean administration tried to get in touch with North Korea’s new leadership in making some propositions. For example, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan considered holding talks with North Korean officials during the Seoul Nuclear Summit in March. Seoul also attempted to talk to Pyongyang about reunions of separated families through Red Cross organization. But North Korea rejected this offer, blaming the South Korean government’s behaviour during Kim Jung-il’s death. At the same time, South Korea has displayed its military forces and has held military exercises in collaboration with its American ally at the end of February. Taking place from February 27 to March 9, these drills have been carried out in the Yellow Sea, nearby a maritime border contested by Pyongyang. Named “Key Resolve”, they have mobilized 2 100 U.S. soldiers and 200 000 South Korean servicemen.[3]

The announcement of the U.S. – North Korea agreement has not calmed Pyongyang’s anger with South Korea. Three days after this announcement, the North Korean army threatened to lead a “sacred war” against South Korea, owing to its “provocative behaviour”. On March 4th, these threats were repeated, when North Korea accused “a South Korean army unit in the western port of Incheon of writing aggressive defamatory words above and below portraits of the North’s leader Kim Jong-un and his late father, former leader Kim Jong-il.”[4]

All these events tend to prove that North Korea does not really want to lead talks with South Korea. In fact, some experts consider direct inter-Korean talks highly unlikely. “Rather than engaging in dialogue with the incumbent government in Seoul, [North Korea] may focus on pressuring the South in the hope that the next government will succeed the policy of engaging the North, which was implemented by the former liberal governments”, said Cheoung Seoung-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.[5]

To sum up, negotiations bringing together North and South Korea have no chance of taking place as long as the North Korean leadership needs time to stabilize its hold. Moreover, we could not expect inter-Korean meetings until the advent of a new government, after the presidential elections in December 2012.

Which diplomatic policy for North Korea?

The resumption of the six-party talks is also in jeopardy due to the policy adopted by the involved states. This “stick and carrot” policy tries to combine openness with firmness from diplomatic and military points of view.

This policy has clearly been South Korea’s course of action towards its northern neighbour. Named the “Two-Track Approach”, the policy aims to implement UN sanctions against the North Korean regime[6], while leaving open the door to talks. This “Two-Track Approach” has been a continuous instrument for the Lee Myung-bak government and has been adapted according to circumstances.[7] The United States have also defined the same kind of policy, putting the emphasis on cooperation, negotiation and denuclearization, hoping for the resumption of the six-party talks, but insisting on the efforts North Korea would have to realize in order to demonstrate its willingness and its seriousness.

Nevertheless, this kind of policy has no expectation for success on the North Korean issue. North Korea tends to play a balancing act between the United States and South Korea, favouring talks with U.S. officials and targeting its (verbal) attacks on its direct neighbour. The South Korean “Two-Track Approach” cannot succeed when this country has no longer economic deals to offer – China has become the major economic and trade partner of North Korea. The United States are not more assured to reach their goals and to obtain the resumption of the six-party talks. Thanks to some vague promises, North Korea has gained a specific amount of food aid in exchange for temporary suspension of its nuclear activities. As long as the practical conditions of the North Korea-U.S. agreement have not been reached, North Korea can rely on a relatively important leeway. The United States have to continue negotiations and to find practical bids which will not lead North Korea to shut itself off from the rest of the world.


[1]    Officials from United States and North Korea plan to meet in Beijing next week in order to discuss these issues.

[2]    « North Korea agrees to suspend some nuclear activities and missile tests, will get US food air », in The Washington Post, March 1st, 2012.

[3]    « Exercice militaire conjoint de la Corée du Sud et des Etats-Unis ‘Key Resolve’ », in KBS World, March 4th, 2012.

[4]    « N. Korea steps up war rhetoric against S. Korea over alleged slander », in Yonhap News Agency, March 4th 2012.

[5]    « Pyongyang unlikely to change policy for now », in The Korea Herald, January 1st 2012.

[6]    UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 (October 14th, 2006) and 1874 (June 12, 2009).

[7]    For example, following the North Korea’s attack on the ROK naval vessel Cheonan, South Korea took additional measures such as a suspension of inter-Korean exchange and trade or South Korea-US joint military exercises.