Korean peninsula and the frozen conflict

Jonathan Power

If there were a frozen conflict anywhere in the world today the place to look is not Eastern Europe but Korea. Following years of a pitiless war that ended in 1953, there was an armistice. A line was drawn across the Korean peninsula and its two halves went their separate ways. One to the south and on its way to capitalist development and prosperity, the other went north on the road to a stultifying dictatorship that seemed able to do well only one thing, build nuclear bombs. Today there is no war on the Korean peninsula. But there is no peace.

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear bomb program and to bring to a close one of history’s longest military standoff. All their attempts have come to naught. Not only because of the stubbornness of the North Koreans but also because the Republican majorities in Congress have consistently undermined have what seemed breakthroughs in negotiations.

Now Obama has summoned the strength to return to the ring. The two countries’ nuclear envoys have been discussing the idea of talks about talks. Most observers are doubtful that after two decades of the on and off negotiations, real progress can be made.

But they forget the major progress made by Clinton which culminated in an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang by his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright. Albright’s visit was meant to pave the way for Clinton’s own visit, which had it occurred was likely to have lead to major changes in the relationship. The demands of the make or break Israel-Palestine-US negotiations in the last days of the Clinton administration meant that the president’s visit could not be fitted in.

Then after seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush, his Administration’s negotiators ended up achieving almost the same as Clinton’s, albeit with no plan to take the final big step that Clinton was prepared to do.

The negotiations were masterminded by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Under her leadership Pyongyang’s twists and turns and often appalling behavior were more tolerated than before. In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a ‘light water’ reactor that would help satisfy the North’s domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. In return the North agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection.

Perhaps inevitably both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006 it exploded an underground nuclear device. Nevertheless, Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the hostile rhetoric.

The Rice push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. It also said it would allow back UN inspectors.

But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled. Washington relented, at which point a deal was made. There was a bonus, the North agreed to open up undeclared sites as well, on the condition that inspections would be agreed to by mutual consent.

The negotiations came to a shuddering halt when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test four months into Obama’s new presidency. Later the North revealed it had built a uranium enrichment plant, albeit at that time only enriching uranium to the low requirements of producing electricity not bombs.

Obama tried to pick up the pieces. In February 2012 in return for 240,000 tons of food aid the new North Korean regime agreed to allow UN inspectors to monitor its suspension of uranium enrichment. The North also agreed a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

The agreement did not last long. In April the North launched a rocket containing a satellite, arguing this was a scientific not a military endeavor. Obama, mistakenly in my opinion, decided to cancel the agreement. The US was supported by all members of the UN Security Council.

In December 2012 the North launched a missile that could possibly reach Los Angeles, though without the capacity to carry warheads. In February 2013 it made its third nuclear test and said it was prepared for a thermo-nuclear war.

Today, late in his presidency, Obama is prepared to try again. Can this frozen conflict ever be unfrozen? We know it can. The North when it wants to does negotiate albeit erratically. From North Korea’s perspective Washington itself is erratic.

Can Obama this time bring about an agreement that has eluded his predecessors?  The odds are stacked against him but if he can replicate the determination of Clinton it could be done.