BY: TIAGO CHAVES
The historic summit between North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, and the South Korean President, Moon Jae-In, that occurred last Friday, blew the world away. One of the world´s most closed off regimes agreed to cooperate, denuclearize, and pacify the Korean Peninsula. The grandson of the founder of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea also posed the issue of unification. Nobody can deny the importance of this summit, where two divided nations are negotiating to end the hostilities of decades. North Korea has previously made attempts at peace in the region but ultimately reneged on its commitments citing ineffective implementation of international, particularly the U.S., promises on energy supply. To understand the scope of the North Korean situation, it is important to examine the path that led the country to develop nuclear weapons.
The Korean War (1950-1953) divided the nation, and not even the armistice signed in 1953 opened the path for a truce. In fact, this was not a peace agreement, but a cessation of hostilities between the parties. After 75 years, the leaders have not signed a treaty ending the war. The major problem that will be complex to resolve is denuclearization.
Taking into account the history of these détentes, the political-diplomatic struggle is far from knowing its end. In 1991, the leaders of both North and South Korea signed the North-South Declaration on Denuclearization. This document guaranteed a non-proliferation regime and bilateral inspection in the Korean Peninsula. The generalized idea, similar to the first round of talks, was that the road to peace was through consolidation. However, the global context at the time was the collapse of the USSR, China was beginning to cement its diplomatic ties with Seoul, and Pyongyang saw the nuclear warheads as a solution.
In 1993, the DPRK banned the International Atomic Energy Agency from entering DPRK, and in the following year, there was a nuclear fuel discharge from a five-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. President Bill Clinton was forced to intervene sending the former US President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang in July of that year to ease tensions. The Clinton administration believed that it was necessary to engage in bilateral diplomacy in the first phase and then extend a diplomatic arm to other interested powers. The signing of the Agreed Framework in October 1994 between the US and the DPRK was exactly that.
The document indicated that the DPRK authorities would freeze and end their nuclear program, and suspend the Yongbyon and Teachon Nuclear Research Centers and the US would commit to building two light water reactors (LWR) with the maximum capacity of two thousand megawatts in North Korea. The DPRK cooperated in order to receive financial resources and establish guarantees of delivery of alternative energy in the form of heavy oil at 500,000 metric tons per year, until the construction of the first light water reactor, which was agreed to be constructed by 2003.
The aim of the commitments was to ensure peace and security in the Korean Peninsula, respect the Non Proliferation Treaty and ease the tensions between the US and DPRK. Most importantly, it was to show a strong commitment to the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Following the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which would be the body responsible for the denuclearization as well as the energy provisions, the implementation of the agreement began with the US supplying oil and DPRK allowing IAEA inspectors back into the country. Representatives from the US, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, China, Argentina, the EU, and Poland were the 13 primary representatives of the organization. The organization did not succeed in its ultimate goal and the LWR projects were officially abandoned in 2006.
Since Kim inherited power in 2011, he has fuelled the country´s nuclear and ballistic force. In November 2017, he even guaranteed that his country would come to possess an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US. We do not know the veracity of this information, but what we do know is that these programs consume great resources and the economic structure of the country is weak. To top it all off, the economic sanctions imposed by the international community have not helped. The leaders of the North and South have stated that complete denuclearization of the peninsula is the ultimate goal of the peace talks. While South Korea does not have an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their disposal, it does have US forces in their territory that possess nuclear capabilities. The US troops present in South Korea are what make the meeting between Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump all the more important. Curiously, Kim did not show any willingness prior to the talks, to dismantle his nuclear and ballistic power, while the US president says the opposite.
The current series of negotiations need a more robust response than the KEDO framework. In the first phase of diplomatic negotiations, trilateral talks and, in the second, an expansion to other entities. This suggestion does not mean that the new agreement will make the same mistakes as in the past, where all the surrounding parties have not sufficiently fulfilled the agreement. Issues of financing any commitments made through the agreements as well as the strength and entry into force, either through international law or domestic, must be addressed. The KEDO framework was conceptually strong but political jockeying and deepening frustrations led to its disintegration. The current situation also faces a lot more variable with political leadership in both North Korea and the United States that come off as impulsive.
In Northeast Asia, energy and geopolitics are deeply entrenches and the DPRK is no different in that regard. Their strong dependence on coal and hydroelectric power causes serious failures in the distribution of primary energy and the establishment of fuel for the transportation media. The need to combat these shortcomings and to promote their industry and agriculture has led them to continue developing their nuclear energy capabilities. Not forgetting, of course, that this power guarantees them a primordial state and territorial survival. The KEDO body, despite all its failures of the past, is a model of diplomatic and peaceful means to resolve this crisis that has been occurring for decades.
Tiago P. Chaves is a Portuguese Historian and a post-graduate student in Political Studies at NOVA University of Lisbon. His scientific research focuses on contemporary history, regional dynamics, and geopolitics.
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