War tensions are building again on the Korean peninsula. Even if actual military conflict is avoided, the tensions themselves have serious consequences–encouraging militarism in Japan; strengthening right-wing, anti-democratic forces in South Korea; intensifying hunger and repression in North Korea; and legitimizing greater military spending in the US. In short, the growing confrontation between the US and North Korean governments is a serious issue and we need to understand what is driving it.
The general consensus as reported in the press is that North Korea is hell-bent on having a nuclear weapons program and using it to terrorize other countries. The US has tried repeatedly to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, but to no avail. The North never sticks to its word and cannot be trusted. Therefore, the time has come for “tougher” action.
This may be the consensus but it is not accurate. The truth is that negotiations between the US and North Korea have always been about more than the North’s nuclear program; they have also been about normalization of relations between the two countries. And, the latter is something that the US has never taken seriously despite promises to do so. That is the main reason that previous negotiations have failed. The sad fact is that it has been the US government that has been the most unreliable negotiating partner: repeated administrations have failed to keep their promises and unilaterally changed the terms of previous agreements.
This is quite a different story—but the facts supporting it are not hard to find. A case in point: the current round of tensions dates back to December 2008 when the US government announced that the North Korean government had failed to comply with the terms of an October 2007 agreement, which required it to declare the extent of its nuclear program. Therefore, the US government no longer felt obligated to take the steps towards normalization of relations that it committed to as part of the agreement.
But did the North really fail to comply? In June 2008, the North Korean government gave the Chinese government, as required by the October 2007 agreement, a package of materials detailing its nuclear activities, including its plutonium holdings. The US response was to demand that the North allow the US to verify this declaration by, among other things, giving the US full access to all North Korean military sites. The problem with this demand was that no verification measures had been agreed to as part of the October agreement. Verification measures were to be negotiated as part of the next stage of negotiations.
In short, the US simply decided to change the terms of the October 2007 agreement. It even rejected North Korean offers of a compromise verification plan. Thus it was US actions that brought the denuclearization-normalization process to a halt and set the stage for North Korea’s recent nuclear test.
Here is how Leon Sigal describes what happened:
The day Pyongyang turned over its declaration, the White House announced its intention to relax sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and to delist North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism”–but with an important proviso. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Heritage Foundation on June 18, “[B]efore those actions go into effect, we would continue to assess the level of North Korean cooperation in helping to verify the accuracy and completeness of its declaration. And if that cooperation is insufficient, we will respond accordingly.” She acknowledged Washington was moving the goal posts: “What we’ve done, in a sense, is move up issues that were to be taken up in phase three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into phase two.”
Many other examples could be given, all reflecting the same pattern. If we want peace on the Korean peninsula, we desperately need a new US foreign policy towards North Korea—and the sooner the better.
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