Understanding North Korea: The Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis An analyisis of the DPRK’s nuclear policy between 1994 and 2009, and the rationale behind it

by Giuseppe Spatafora

The Korean Peninsula is a travel gem: the South, a high-tech nation with a reverence for tradition and the ways of old Asia; the North, a challenging, geopolitical enigma.

Lonely Planet Guide of Korea, 2014


With this sentence, the Lonely Planet Guide of Korea summarizes the essence of the Korean Peninsula. It might not be the most canonical source to begin an academic paper, but nevertheless it helps understand the difference between the two countries that occupy it: while South Korea leads the world in innovation, without rejecting its historical legacy, North Korea is just an ‘enigma’. Its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reminds us of its birth in the early years of the Cold War. Its leaders, who have de facto started a new royal dynasty (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un), have managed to maintain the Communist totalitarian state, an exception in the post-Cold War world. And during the last three decades this enigmatic state has appeared in the front pages because of its nuclear tests and a provocative, anti-American rhetoric. While seeking nuclear deterrence, North Korea has worsened its international position. Other states have cut its already feeble ties with the DPRK because of its stubborn pursuit of atomic warheads. The United States has declared that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger to the world order” (State of the Union, 2002). The People’s Republic of China, a DPRK long-lasting ally since 1949, is proving less and less interested in defending the interests of the government based in Pyongyang. It seems that North Korea is pursuing a counter-productive, irrational nuclear policy.

But are North Korean actions really irrational? No government acts without a strategy in mind, although the chosen strategy might be successfully implemented or not. This is particularly true when the government acts within the high stakes of the nuclear world, and when it starts a confrontation with the American superpower. For this reason, there must be a rationale behind the DPRK’s actions. This paper will explore this rationale by answering to the following research question:

Why has North Korea deployed such a provocative foreign and nuclear policy since the end of the Cold War? Why did it decide to pursue nuclear weapons during the 1990s? Why has it abandoned multilateral frameworks in and resumed its nuclear program in the 2000s, thereby escalating the confrontation with the United States and increasing its international isolation?

To attempt to answer this question, this paper will develop a theoretical model for analyzing the DPRK policy, which is called the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis. It will be argued that North Korea has consistently sought to normalize its relations with the United States; that it has pushed for bilateral normalization rather than multilateral dialogue; and that the nuclear program has been used as a tool to persuade the United States to start bilateral talks.

The paper will first explore the academic literature on North Korea. Then, it will develop the theoretical foundations of the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis. In the following section, the hypothesis will be confirmed by the analysis of historical events and documents concerning the first and the second nuclear crises. Finally, the short-comings and the implications of the study will be discussed in the conclusion. The historical analysis will be limited to the period between June 1994 – when the DPRK announced its intention to withdraw from the International Atomic Energy Agency – to 2009 – when North Korea declared that it would no longer take part in the Six Party Talks. Any assumptions and conclusions that this paper makes are valid for the 1994-2009 period, which roughly corresponds to the years of Kim Jong-Il’s rule.

Existing literature on North Korea’s behavior

Not very much has been written on North Korea, as compared to other geopolitically challenging states. One reason is that the inaccessibility of the country, its people and its government has caused major impediments in the collection of primary data – something that the author has experienced first-hand. However, it also seems that the academic world has never put much effort on understanding the DPRK, adopting an over-simplified approach. Most scholars have contented themselves with applying the “Crazy State Theory” to the North Korea case.

The Crazy State Theory was developed by Yehezkel Dror (1971), who focused primarily on the Middle East and on Cuba. The concept of ‘crazy state’ is deprived of the moral connotations of its every-day meaning. Dror (1971, pp. 429-433) defines the craziness of an actor’s policy according to five dimensions: ‘goal content’ (whether the actor pursues a revision of the status quo by going against other states’ interests); ‘goal commitment’ (whether the state is ready to sacrifice its internal goals for the sake of external goals); ‘risk propensity’ of the actor’s policies; ‘means-goals relations’ (“Justification of means in terms of goals”: does the actor shows a desire to be rational? Or do its actions suggest a rejection of rationality?); ‘style’ (whether the actor’s actions are accepted by the international community in terms of accepted practices and customary law). Dror claims that crazy actors have existed in the past, from the Crusaders to Nazi Germany, and that they might exist today as well. A review of the indicators and dimensions of craziness has led scholars to presume that North Korea would be included in the list of ‘crazy states’.

The main objection to the application of this theory to our case is offered by the author himself: “The classification is based on contemporary Western, and especially United States standards. Therefore, the classification is culture-bound and time-bound” (Dror, 1971, p. 433). That is, ‘crazy states’ according to these dimensions were to be found among the United States’ opponents in the 1970s. This sentence invalidates the criteria of ‘craziness’ for an understanding of contemporary DPRK: a coherent analysis of North Korea’s rationale must be conducted by the examination of Pyongyang’s specific circumstances, rather than on the grounds of anachronistic, exogenous criteria.

In addition to abstract and shallow theoretical grounds, or perhaps as a consequence of them, the academic world has often made wrong predictions about the future of the Korean peninsula. It has been widely agreed, for example, that North and South Korea would return to open conflict in the foreseeable future. Professor David Kang explains in “International Relations Theory and the Second Korean War” (2003) why scholars were wrong in predicting that a Second Korean War would unfold. He does so by dismissing the theories of conflict initiation and their application to the Korean peninsula. According to the ‘Power Transition and Preventive War Theory’, when one country achieves power symmetry with a previously stronger neighbor, the former dominant actor would wage war to prevent catch-up: Kang explains that “North Korea’s capabilities were never preeminent over the South. Yet more important is an assessment of relative power that includes the U.S. forces that would be involved on the peninsula in event of a conflict” (Kang, 2003, p. 305).

The second theory under examination is “the Madman Hypothesis”, based on the assumption that the North Korean elite’s behaviors and psychology tend toward irrationality (somewhat similar to the ‘Crazy State’ theory discussed above). This hypothesis assumes that North Korea’s policy has only depended on the mood of its three leaders – and it is unlikely that an entire military and political establishment would back a clearly irrational policy. Also, the author explains that “both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il have been many capable leaders. All the evidence points to their ability to make sophisticated and rational decisions” (Kang, 2003, p. 311). Despite the fact that their country has risked absolute poverty, they never lost their hold on power, and the DPRK has not collapsed.

A third hypothesis predicting conflict is the “Desperate State Theory”: North Korea would attack the South in spite of the United States’ retaliation threats, simply because the alternative would be a slow but inevitable regime collapse. In reality, there are several examples of states that have survived despite American hostility (such as Cuba); and more importantly “[t]here is growing evidence that North Korea is serious about opening to the west, and that it desires normal political and economic relations with the rest of the world” (Kang, 2003, p. 314).

Kang concludes by affirming that North Korea should not be studied and dealt with as an irrational, desperate actor, but as a state with its own security dilemma. The present study will attempt to find a rational explanation behind the DPRK’s policies in agreement with Kang’s conclusions, rejecting hasty generalizations as much as possible.

For this purpose, it is useful to introduce two idiographic studies that explain North Korea’s geopolitical predicament and its nuclear policy more in detail. The first is “North Korea’s Place in East Asia” by Haisoon Paik (2005). The paper deals with North Korea’s strategy to pursue the survival of the regime in the post-Cold War setting in North-East Asia. Pyongyang has been consistent in its efforts to fulfil the goals set out in the early 1990s as an ‘exit strategy’ from the unfavorable circumstances brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist states. The DPRK’s two main goals have been national security and economic development, which have been exposed in “seven critical policy choices” from the mid-1990s to 2011. After a historical excursus of the seven policies, Paik conceptualizes the variables influencing the DPRK’s decision-making process. The variables can be found at the agency level – Paik adopts a constructivist viewpoint: international relations are based on ideas which in turn are shaped through actions – and structural level: domestic politics and ideology, the rise of China, the inconsistent foreign policies of the US and the ROK vis-à-vis the DPRK through time. In the conclusion, the author argues:

“North Korea showed just how serious it was in extricating itself from its predicament, in which it was forced to pursue two possibly contradictory policies together, by exerting serious diplomatic efforts to receive from the United States security assurances that were absolutely necessary for its economic recovery and development” (Paik, 2005, p. 283).

The paper uses several interesting primary documents such as the 1994 Agreement Framework, official statements and interviews to back up its argument. It is a very interesting background upon which to build further studies.

Another research deals specifically with North Korea’s nuclear policy in the post-Cold War world. Historians distinguish between two nuclear crises: the First Crisis from 1992 to 1994, and the Second one from 2002 to the present. Kim Keun-Sik’s paper (2005) begins by outlining the differences between the first and the second nuclear crises in terms of North Korea’s contradictory logical arguments: “[t]he need to develop the nuclear energy industry through peaceful use… versus the need to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the United States” (Kim, 2005, p.134). The First Nuclear Crisis was characterized by the confrontation with the US and the IAEA: Kim Il-Sung defended his country’s stance mainly with the rhetoric of peaceful use of nuclear energy. In contrast, the second Nuclear Crisis, started under Kim Jong-Il in 2003, featured the DPRK’s declared purpose to develop nuclear warheads to confront the US.

In the second section, Kim argues that beyond official rhetoric, North Korea’s real intentions are the following: the achievement of the regime’s security via nuclear deterrence; the acquisition of the nuclear card for negotiations with the United States; and the “premise of confrontation”, which is rationale behind the Seongun Jeongchi (선군 정치, “Military-First Politics”), the strategy adopted by Kim Jong-Il’s leadership. The author concludes by claiming that security guarantees and normalization of relations with the United States will be needed to end the nuclear crisis – a thought-provoking suggestion for the purposes of our research.

The previous essays are just a fraction of the literature review on North Korea and its nuclear policy. More papers will be presented as our analysis progresses. The literature discussed so far forms the fundamental background of the paper: North Korea is not a crazy state, and its policy, albeit apparently irrational, is driven by fundamental logic and consistent intentions. The following section will present a new, hypothetical explanation for North Korea’s policy. The analysis of primary documents and events will then confirm the hypothesis.

The Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis

North East Asia did not experience any border rearrangement after the end of the Cold War, unlike Europe. This factor does not mean that the political situation did not change following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. China, for instance, has adapted its socio-economic system to the capitalistic world, without changing the fundamental one-party form of government. North Korea, instead, experienced a dramatic challenge to its very survival. Without the USSR maintaining the balance of power in the Korean peninsula, Kim Il-Sung’s regime were to face by itself the roaring South Korean economy and the giant arch-enemy, the United States. Since 1991, Pyongyang has needed to come out with a strategy that would allow it to survive in the post-Cold War world, both politically and economically.

The strategies that North Korea has implemented for its survival, in particular the nuclear policy, have been regarded as contradictory and, again, irrational. As it has already been pointed out, “North Korea showed just how serious it was in extricating itself from its predicament, in which it was forced to pursue… possibly contradictory policies” (Paik, 2005, p. 283). The aim of this section is to dismiss North Korea’s decisions and policies as irrational by providing the ‘Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis’. During the theoretical explanation, the conceptual definition of the terms ‘normalization’ and ‘bilateral negotiations’ will be presented.

With ‘normalization of diplomatic relations’ we refer to the establishment of amicable ties between two states through the opening of embassies, increase in trade, elimination of economic barriers, and further steps such as assurance treaties (a non-aggression pact), alignments and memoranda of understanding. Recently, the term ‘normalization’ has been used for the détente between the United States and Cuba. The issue of normalization is primarily important for North Korea. The DPRK is the only state in North East Asia with whom the United States has not opened an embassy or signed a recognition treaty. North Korea feels the absence of diplomatic relations as a primary risk for its security: as there has been no commitment on the side of the United States to recognize its government, Washington might well decide to seize the territory or support a South Korean annexation. For the aforementioned reasons, North Korea’s survival depends, on Pyongyang’s eyes, in normalization. This is the first proposition of our hypothesis: A rationale behind the DPRK’s apparently irrational foreign policy can be found in its post-Cold War strategy to normalize the relationship with the United States.

An immediate question arises from the first proposition. If Kim Jong-Il had such intentions, why have they been so reluctant in engaging in the Six Party Talks to advance their claims? And why did he decide to deploy such a provocative nuclear policy?

One of the major difficulties in resolving the second North Korean nuclear crisis has involved the modality of negotiations: “Whereas North Korea has consistently favored bilateral talks with the United States, the US has preferred multilateral formats” (Moon, 2012, p. 218). ‘Bilateral talks’ are a form of negotiation in which only two parties are involved in the discussion. A bilateral format encourages parties to address the issues at stake directly. Usually, the great powers prefer bilateral formats: for example, China prefers bilateral dialogue to address the South China Sea disputes; the US-USSR nuclear fora were also strictly bilateral. In the case of post-Cold War North Korea, however, we observe a contradictory pattern. The bilateral forum is preferred by North Korea because, despite the material differences, the two parties have equal status when negotiating. In a bilateral negotiation table, Pyongyang would be face-to-face with Washington: despite the overwhelming power asymmetry, the United States would need to treat the DPRK as equal partner, and negotiate with it in a symmetric situation. In the world of international relations, in which reputation matters a lot, the very fact of accepting a bilateral discussion forum means that the two parties recognize each other. Pyongyang must have taken this into account.

In contrast, a multilateral forum involves a n >2 number of parties in the discussion. They are often preferred as a venue to solve collective security issues – NATO and the UN Security Council are clear examples. Usually small powers prefer multilateral venues such as the UN General Assembly because they can form broad coalitions and put pressure on one, isolated big power such as the US. North Korea, however, is since the Cold War a pariah state with very few allies. Moreover, the international community has tended to isolate and condemn Pyongyang for its violations of human rights and the threats to international community. The UN Security Council, which has consistently adopted hostile resolutions, is a clear example in North Korea’s eyes. It goes without saying that the DPRK would prefer to opt out of a multilateral forum. The analysis of the Six Party Talks in the next section will show how North Korea agreed for compromise only when bilateral normalization with the United States was included. Thus, the second proposition of the hypothesis is the following: North Korea has pursued bilateral talks with the United States in order to normalize their relations.

North Korea’s most hostile policy of the last two decades, that is, its pursuit of nuclear weapons, has been left aside in these pages. It is worth asking now whether there is a link between the hypothesized rationale and the nuclear policy. As it will be demonstrated in the next section, the only time that the United States and the DPRK sat at the same table, facing each other, without third parties, was when they signed the Agreed Framework in Geneva in 1994 and the follow-ups to the agreement. The nuclear program has been the only card that has brought the United States to the bilateral negotiation table in the 1990s. After the deterioration of relations in the early 2000s, and the Bush administration’s new harsh policy vis-à-vis North Korea, the DPRK has continued its nuclear program in the hope to resume the bilateral talks that would guarantee the survival of the regime. The US has since 2002 pushed for multilateral formats of discussion to achieve the denuclearization of the peninsula – through the Six-Party Talks and the UN sanctions regime. However, the DPRK has not complied with such multilateral forums and decisions because of its mistrust, and it has instead pursued its policy to achieve deterrence, draw the United States’ attention and get back to the negotiating table. Thus, the third proposition links the nuclear program and the hypothesis: North Korea has used the nuclear card to normalize its relations with the United States in a bilateral way.

Before beginning our analysis of historical records and documents, we need to clarify more in detail the reasons why the DPRK would prioritize its relationship with the United States to the relations with other neighboring states: the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan.

Although North Korean provocations have become more blatant in the last decade, tensions between the PRC and the DPRK have existed even during the Cold War. Communist China acted as North Korea’s “big brother”, representing a fundamental protector of its ideological partner. Historical sources, however, point out that Pyongyang disliked Chinese over-involvement in North Korean affairs, especially its foreign policy. The relationship between the PRC and the DPRK has been deteriorating in the last years. Chinese policy vis-à-vis the UN sanctions has dramatically changed: instead of condemning the Security Council, Beijing has adopted tighter measures on the DPRK, even supporting UN sanctions. In 2016, Xi Jinping has shocked the world by endorsing and implementing the toughest list of economic measures ever taken against Pyongyang, UNSC Resolution 2270 (Sun Ru, 2016, p. 1). It might seem, Sun Ru argues, that North Korea has escalated its nuclear program in a way to provoke China: “North Korea launched its satellite on February 7, 2016, the eve of Chinese New Year. The timing of the launch was so bad that it was interpreted as intentional” (2016, p. 11).

The reason behind Pyongyang’s actions may be found in its long-term frustration over Chinese paternalism, or in the Kim dynasty’s experiments to exploit Chinese protection and tolerance. In the last few years, as previously stated, this confrontation has risen, with the North seeking more independence from Beijing. In addition to geopolitical-strategic reasons, there is a clear ideological feature, which is typical and idiosyncratic of North Korea, behind this increasing separation: the Juche (주체) ideology, which proclaims autonomy and self-sufficiency, pushes Pyongyang away from being over-reliant on Beijing (Hale, 2002, p.112). Juche is a further piece of evidence confirming the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis: China would be out of the negotiations, thus reinforcing the Juche ideology, the idea that North Korea can do it alone, in self-reliance.

As far as Japan is concerned, the hostility to the former colonial is strongly embedded in North Korean – but also South Korean – nationalism. It is claimed that the first constitution drafted under Kim Il Sung was, more than a Socialist charter, an anti-colonialist and anti-Japanese document (Hale, 2002, p. 105). In addition, it might not be a chance that all the missile tests held by the DPRK have been launched over Japan. Normalization of relations with Japan is also mentioned in agreements and records, but it seems to be dependent on the much more delicate status of US-DPRK relations.

The relationships between the governments of the two Koreas have also been very tense, with the North claiming that Seoul is under American occupation and the two states being formally still at war. In the 1990s, however, a gradual détente developed between the ROK and the DPRK, culminating in the Inter-Korean Summit of 2000 between Presidents Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae Jung. It is worth noting that the “Sunshine Policy” and the warming of inter-Korean relations has coincided with the periods of maximum cooperation between the United States and North Korea as well. The situation has degenerated since the year 2002, just like the US-DPRK dialogue, and it might be no coincidence that the Cheonan incident – of which the DPRK is claimed responsible – happened when the Six-Party talks were failing.

Improvements of bilateral relations with the United States, in North Korea’s eyes, might be the prerequisite for détente in North-East Asia’s relations. That is the reason why the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis might have important policy implications. The hypothesis must, however, be confirmed by historical analysis, which is what the next section will attempt to do.

Historical analysis of North Korea’s behavior

To recognize elements in favor of our hypothesis in documents and events, an operational definition must be stated. The Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis can have the following operational definition: There is a correlation between the DPRK’s compliance with international agreements concerning its nuclear program and the inclusion of the normalization of the US-DPRK relations in such agreements. Finding this correlation in the events around North Korea’s nuclear program will reflect the presence of a strategy grounded on the hypothesis. Showing this correlation is the scope of this section, which will drive mainly on historical facts and inter-governmental agreements such as the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement. It is a hard process to come across primary documents written by the DPRK’s official organs, and the ban on the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) by the government of the Republic of Korea – where this paper has been written – has rendered the research efforts more problematic. Given time constraints and the inaccessibility to primary sources, most speeches and documents are retrieved from the quotes and data used in other academic papers. Notwithstanding this, the interpretation of the sources is original and consistent with the scopes of this research. The events mentioned without citation – for purposes of lighter notation – are retrieved from official chronologies: the ‘Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy’ by the Arms Control Association and the ‘North Korea International Documentation Project’ by the Wilson Center.

The account of North Korea’s First Nuclear crisis begins on June 13, 1994. That day, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in response to the IAEA’s declaration that “North Korea is not adhering to its safeguards agreement and that it cannot guarantee that North Korean nuclear material is not being diverted for non-peaceful uses”. At that time, the old Kim Il-Sung claimed that the development of nuclear material was only and exclusively for energy purposes. North Korea’s declaration forced the United States to act immediately to maintain peace and stability in North-East Asia – perhaps the reaction that Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il were waiting for.

On June 15, 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter negotiated a deal with North Korea in which Pyongyang confirmed its willingness to “freeze” its nuclear weapons program and resume high-level talks with the United States. Bilateral talks were expected to begin, provided that North Korea allowed the IAEA safeguards to remain in place and did not reprocess any spent nuclear fuel. The bilateral forum lasted four months, and it was not halted by Kim Il-Sung’s death on July 8. The last political will of North Korea’s Supreme Leader was to leave its country in a safe international position, and Kim Jong-Il preferred not to disrupt the process. The US-DPRK consultations culminated in the “Agreed Framework Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” of October 21, 1994.

The document was signed in Geneva on the grounds of a Letter of reassurance by President Clinton to President Kim Jong-Il. The main provisions state that the U.S. would make arrangements for the provision to the DPRK of a light-water reactor (LWR) project and in exchange the DPRK would reenter the IAEA, freeze its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities, and will eventually dismantle these reactors and related facilities. Following the provisions on nuclear security is an entire section dedicated to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries:

“II. The two sides will move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.

1) Within three months of the date of this Document, both sides will reduce barriers to trade and investment, including restrictions on telecommunications services and financial transactions.

2) Each side will open a liaison office in the other’s capital following resolution of consular and

other technical issues through expert level discussions.

3) As progress is made on issues of concern to each side, the U.S. and the DPRK will upgrade bilateral relations to the Ambassadorial level.” (Agreed Framework, par. 2)

The Agreed Framework of 1994 is arguably the friendliest moment in US-DPRK relations. Pyongyang seemed to have achieved security guarantees for its survival, while Washington had averted the risk of a nuclear arms race in North-East Asia. As we shall discuss, the relationship between the two countries did not improve substantially in the following years. As the hypothesis predicts, in the following periods of tension, North Korea resumed the nuclear threat as the only card that led the United States to accept bilateral relations.

The record of North Korea’s compliance with the Agreement in the 1990s looked promising as well as ambiguous. North Korea seemed willing to cooperate with the international community. On November 28, 1994, the IAEA announces that it had confirmed that construction had been halted at North Korea’s Yongbyon and Taochon nuclear facilities. The United States fostered the provision of light-water reactors and heavy oil fuels to North Korea through the Korea Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which also included Japan and South Korea – deeply concerned about North Korea’s actions. North Korea partook in the intergovernmental arrangements, as long as the dialogue framework between Pyongyang and Washington stood in place. The climate of relaxation between the DPRK and the US was probably one of the factors behind the DPRK’s acceptance of Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy.

The relation between the two US and North Korea remained somewhat positive until the end of the Clinton presidency. In October 2000, during a meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Colbert Albright, DPRK Foreign Minister Jo Myong Rok delivered the following lines:

“If the US provides the North Korean leadership with definite and detailed guarantee for the safety of North Korean sovereignty and territory, then Chairman Kim Jong Il will certainly make an important political decision to convert the current hostile relations between the two sides to friendly and cooperative ones.”

The statement should remind the readers that the United States and North Korea had not fully normalized their relations, that mistrust still existed on both sides. As a result, Kim Jong-Il still pressed for security guarantees from the United States, alternating compliance and threat. The missile launch over Japan of 1998 was perhaps the first contradictory example of North Korean policy after the agreement. In the light of what has been showed, the missile launch was supposed to remind Washington that, in case of disruption of the accords, North Korea was ready to resume its military programs.

The Clinton administration remained consistently committed to integrating the DPRK into the international community. Despite the 1998 incident with Japan, Secretary of State Albright continued to travel to Pyongyang – the last time being October 23, 2000 – confirming the US endeavor to deliver LWRs to the DPRK and promising “a visit by President Clinton to North Korea in the near future” (Paik, 2005, p. 185). The visit was never going to take place, given the election of George W. Bush in late 2000, and the US-DPRK relations entered a new phase. The Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis will help understand North Korea’s response to the new phase.

It should be noted that the Bush administration did not change the relation with Pyongyang because of ideological difference from the Clinton one; nor should it be thought that Clinton acted out of pure idealism. This aspect is captured by Jihwan Hang’s essay “Realism and US Foreign Policy toward North Korea: the Clinton and Bush    Administrations in Comparative Perspective” (2004). The author begins by outlining the striking similarities in discourse and intentions within the cabinet meetings in Washington during both administrations: the US counterparts claimed to “want to use diplomacy to engage Pyongyang, but [they would] be ready to use force in case of defection from the DPRK” (Hwang, 2004, p. 17). The author’s thesis is that there are less differences than similarities between Bush’s and Clinton’s approaches to the Korean question, and that both Presidents were applying a defensive realist paradigm when dealing with North Korea. According to certain data, Clinton seemed ready to combine carrots and sticks to face the nuclear crisis, and was preparing a preventive strike in the weeks of major tension in 1994, right before the signing of the agreement.

Hang’s main point is that “U.S. foreign policy was not critically influenced by the perception gap between the Bush and Clinton administrations, but it rather varied with the specific situations of U.S.-North Korean relations and the international system” (Hwang, 2004, p. 20). The 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hwang asserts, changed the global order, and pushed President Bush to include all menaces the US-led global order in the famous January 29,2002 State of the Union address:

“Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.”

In addition to the dramatic events of 2001 and the inclusion of North Korea in the “Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world”, the Bush administration’s posture vis-à-vis North Korea changed after the visit of US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly, to North Korea in October 2002. Kelly’s visit resulted only in worsening US–North Korean relations as they labored under the charge of a North Korean ‘covert uranium enrichment program’. From that moment on, the climate of trust-building between North Korea and the United States was dramatically disrupted. Starting December 2002, the United States suspended its supply of heavy fuel oil to North Korea.

Pyongyang reaction to Washington’s actions can be explained in terms of the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis: given that the United States has suspended its bilateral cooperation, the best option for Pyongyang was to resume its nuclear program, threaten a nuclear crisis in North East Asia, and force the United States back to the negotiation table. The DPRK rejected the US criticism that North Korea had “violated” the Agreed Framework, and resumed operation of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities that had been frozen under the Agreed Framework. Moreover, North Korea removed IAEA surveillance cameras from the frozen facilities, removed seals from the spent fuel rods, and expelled IAEA inspectors from North Korea. On 10 January 2003, North Korea declared that it would withdraw from the NPT, and then claimed that it no longer was obliged to abide by the IAEA safeguards agreements, giving the following reasons (Paik, 2005, p. 200):

“We are the victim of an aggressive policy by the United States. It is the United States who violated the NPT and the Geneva Agreed Framework, but the IAEA is asking us to give up our rights to self-defense under American pressures without mentioning a single word on American behavior. Such attitude reveals how false and hypocritical its claims are to impartiality. […] It is nothing but an American conspiracy to strangulate us through the manipulation of IAEA. […] The Iraqi War shows that to allow disarming through inspection does not help avert a war but rather sparks it.”

The declaration, originally diffused by the KCNA, stresses North Korea’s right to self-defense – which was never mentioned during the First Nuclear Crisis, according to Kim (2005, p. 137) – as well as its mistrust of international organizations, which are dismissed as tools for US imperialism. North Korea claimed that it reserved the right to withdraw from the NPT if its national interests were severely threatened. As it was already mentioned, the DPRK dislikes multilateral frameworks in which it usually represents the minority. It would keep to push the United States to resume bilateral talks, which is the main problem behind the American difficulties to push the Six-Party Talks forward.

The 2003-2009 period was marked by the US attempt to resolve the Second Nuclear Crisis through multilateral talks, having the Bush administration lost its trust on the bilateral process. The first option put on the table was a P5+5 formula: a multilateral dialogue between the five nuclear-weapon states (i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council), the two Koreas, Japan, Australia and the EU. North Korea absolutely refused such a solution, out of its fear and mistrust of UN-style directories. China also stepped in, beginning a trilateral forum with Pyongyang and Washington in 2003 aimed at preventing a nuclear arms race on China’s borders: “Failure to stop the fiasco [of the Geneva Agreement Framework] and North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could threaten China’s national security interests” (Moon, 2012, p. 223). North Korea assisted to the first meeting, and it declared that it would be ready to freeze its nuclear weapon program “provided its requests for a nonaggression document, normalization with the US, non-obstruction of its economic co-operation with Japan and South Korea, and alleviation of its energy situation were met” (Moon, 2012, p. 223). Once again, Pyongyang made its compliance conditional to its bilateral relation with the United States.

North Korea’s opposition notwithstanding, however, China successfully engineered the Six Party Talks process with the addition of Japan, Russia and South Korea to the trilateral forum. In Chung-in Moon’s view, “It represented a compromise between the American proposal of P5 + 5 and the North Korean proposal for bilateral talks” (2012, p.224). The Six Party Talks (SPT) represent the most advanced collective-security forum in North East Asia up to today. Nevertheless, it did not help solve the Second Nuclear Crisis due to North Korea’s resistance, as predicted by the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis.

The Talks did not achieve any significant agreement during the first three rounds, from 2003 to mid-2005. North Korea’s representatives often asked to work on a reward mechanism of “words for words” and “actions for actions”, which again reminds of a bilateral model (a one-to-one interaction). In 2004, the DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman declared that, in spite of the reward mechanism, “The talks could not make a decisive breakthrough towards breaking the present deadlock as there existed big differences between the DPRK and the U.S. […] What merits a serious attention is that substantial negotiations could not start among the parties concerned for the settlement of the issue as the DPRK and the U.S. failed to wipe out the bilateral mistrust and misunderstanding” (Six Party Talks Document Archive, 2012). The major issue at stake, in North Korea’s eyes, was to restore its relationship with the superpower, because American hostility forced the Kim Jong-Il regime to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense purposes.

The SPT stalemate was broken at the end of the Fourth Round on September 19, 2005, when the parties issued the ‘Joint Statement on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’. It is worth noting that the US representative to the talks, James Kelly, who had first advocated ending the cooperation with the DPRK in 2002, had been substituted by Christopher Hill: the change in representatives might have induced North Korea to engage more willingly in cooperation with the US. The Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis can again explain how the September 19 Joint Statement was achieved. According to the statement, North Korea committed itself to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, as well as to returning to the NPT and IAEA safeguards. The American affirmed its non-hostile intent, as well as its respect of sovereignty, peaceful co-existence and eventual normalization, as stated in the second section of the document: “The DPRK and the United States undertook to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies” (Six Party Talks Document Archive, 2012). Once again, the DPRK agreed to cooperate in exchange for assurance of future security through the promise of normalization of relations with the United States – and eventually with its allies, as the following paragraph urges North Korea and Japan to start bilateral talks as well.

The 19 September Joint Statement was not as effective as the Geneva Agreed Framework: the points of the document were restated during following talks, but no party decided to carry the burden of first implementation. In a prisoner-dilemma-like situation, with each side encouraged not to cooperate to gain more, the “commitment for commitment” principle could not start. The international situation worsened through time, leading to North Korea’s successful nuclear test of October 9, 2006 and to the UN Security Council Resolution 1718 imposing the first set of harsh sanctions on Pyongyang. The DPRK resorted to the 2006 nuclear test to demonstrate the seriousness of its intentions. Despite the beginning of sanctions – which badly hurt North Korean economy and should generally not be underestimated – the missile test did push the other parties, especially the United States, to act. On February 13, 2007, the SPT members issued the ‘Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement’ (Six Party Talks Document Archive, 2012):

“The parties agreed to take the following action in parallel:

  1. The DPRK will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility […].
  2. The DPRK and the US will start bilateral talks aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations. The US will begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK.
  3. Recalling Section 1 and 3 of the Joint Statement of 19 September 2005, the Parties agreed to cooperate in economic, energy and humanitarian assistance to the DPRK […].
  4. The Parties agreed on the establishment of Working Groups (WG) in order to carry out the initial actions and for the purpose of full implementation of the Joint Statement […].”

All the provisions consist of operational guidelines for the application of the Joint Statement. What matters the most for the purpose of our analysis is the highlighted clause n. 3, in which the United States agreed to take effective action for the normalization of relations with the DPRK. Consistently with the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis, North Korea had used its nuclear threat to obtain security guarantees about full diplomatic normalization. In 2007/2008, North Korean leaders might well have thought that this tactic would again bring fruits.

On June 28, 2008, at the conclusion of the sixth round of SPT, it seemed indeed that the dialogue had produced significant progress, as stated in the declaration of the Chairman, Wu Dawei, head of the Chinese delegation: “In the spirit of the October 3, 2007 Six Party agreement, on June 26, 2008, the DPRK will submit its nuclear declaration to the Chair of the Six-Party Talks, and the United States will […] remove the designation of the DPRK as a state sponsor of terrorism and to terminate application of the Trading with the Enemy Act” (Six Party Talks Document Archive, 2012). US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice rescinded North Korea’s designation as state sponsor of terrorism on October 11, 2008, a major concession from the Bush administration after eight year of troublesome relationship with Pyongyang. Despite the non-encouraging start, the Six Party Talks had made some modest accomplishments because they were matched by a US-DPRK bilateral dialogue and mutual promises: it is a further confirmation that “the North perceived the multilateral approaches as viable only within the context of bilateral agreements with the United States” (Moon, 2012, p. 226).

In 2009, however, the Six Party Talks stalled, and they have not resumed ever since. North Korea conducted a missile test on April 5 – which it claimed to be a satellite launch –, detonated an underground nuclear device on May 25, and responding angrily to the following UN Security Council’s resolution, said that it “will never again take part in such [Six Party] talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks.” Can this U Turn be explained rationally, according to the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis? It can, as long as we consider the political changes of 2008/2009. The election of Barack Obama to the White House represented a moment of high hopes for North Korea, in comparison to the hostile Bush years. However, the Obama administration was preoccupied domestically with the economic crisis and internationally with issues around Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Palestine, leaving North Korea a low policy priority. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delayed the nomination of a new US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, showing no interest in resuming bilateral talks. In a speech delivered in Seoul on February 20, 2009, Clinton warned that “North Korea’s relations with the US will not improve until it engages in dialogue with South Korea. [Kim Jong-Il] cannot improve its relationship with the United States while insulting South Korean leadership and refusing dialogue with President Lee Myung-Bak” (Moon, 2012, p. 232). The North Korean leadership responded to Clinton’s remarks as it had to Bush’s State of the Union address: by disrupting the existing agreements and resuming the nuclear program.

The low policy priority assigned to the Korean peninsula contrasts with the overall importance that Obama assigned to the ‘Pivot to Asia’, and it is also striking that the wife of the President who brought the US-DPRK relation to its most cooperative point, in 2009 delivered a speech which triggered the disruption of the process. Chung-in Moon suggests that “the real motive behind the April 5 launching may also have been to test the Obama administration’s true intentions towards, and perception of, North Korea” (2012, p. 233). North Korea deliberately identified and exploited a loophole in UN Security Council Resolution 1718: there were no concrete regulations concerning satellite activity, as opposed to ballistic missiles and related technology. The final point is especially worth noting, because “by using the launch as proof of normal behavior in complying with international rules and procedures, North Korea structured a calculated test to determine how willing the new administration was to recognize the North as normal international state” (Moon, 2012, p. 233). Once the United States, and the world with it, reacted negatively to the action, the DPRK deduced that it was not regarded as ‘normal’ by the US, and resumed the nuclear plan to force the Obama administration, as the Bush administration before it, to the bilateral negotiation table. However, neither bilateral nor multilateral talks have been held since 2009, as the United States has limited to respond to DPRK actions with UN sanctions, the latest being in January 2016. Our historical analysis terminates in 2009: the absence of new developments in the North Korean issue, the Obama administration’s ‘passive diplomacy’, as well as the leadership change in Pyongyang from Kim Jong-Il to Kim Jong-Un do not allow to speculate whether the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis will still be implemented or not.

Implications, Shortcomings and Conclusions

Historical and textual data from 1994 to 2009 seem to confirm that North Korea regarded bilateral talks and the normalization of relations with the United States as its strategy to survive after the end of the Cold War. In this sense, the nuclear program was the instrument, rather than the objective. It is right to assume, in line with nuclear deterrence theory, that nuclear weapons’ main purpose is to ensure security via deterrence. In addition, DPRK might have wanted to get nuclear weapons ‘per se’, a function that Robert Art called ‘swaggering’: for the purpose of achieving prestige – joining the nuclear club of the P5 plus India, Pakistan, Israel – and showing strength. Moreover, let us not forget that Kim Jong-Il’s strategy, Seongun Jeongchi, gave priority to the military needs of the regime: by pushing for the acquisition nuclear weapons, the leader increased the power of the military establishment within the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). All these features notwithstanding, this study has regarded the nuclear program as instrumental, as a tool to achieve diplomatic objectives. North Korea could never use the nuclear weapons as a tool to wage war as it would face annihilation. As Kang explains, “any conflict calculation includes likely U.S. actions in these assessments. […] North Korea’s capabilities were never preeminent over the South. Yet more important is an assessment of relative power that includes the U.S. forces that would be involved on the peninsula in event of a conflict” (2003, p. 305). The only use the DPRK could make of its nuclear threat is in deterrence and bargaining. While many studies focus on deterrence, the present research has emphasized the role of nuclear weapons as bargaining tool to force the US to the bilateral negotiation table, obtain security guarantees, and gradually integrate in the international system.

A possible criticism to this paper is that the DPRK today is not better off than in 1994, which would be the case if a strategy of Bilateral Normalization had been consistently implemented. Today, the DPRK is more alienated and hostile to the international community than ever: its opponents have multiplied, and its only post-Cold War ally, China, is turning its back to Pyongyang, preferring denuclearization to unconditional support (Sun Ru, 2016, p. 4). The relationship with Washington is far from being as promising as in 1994. It is probably safe to assume that North Korea’s strategy has not worked. However, an assessment of the success of such a strategy lies not within the scope of this paper. The author has explored a possible rationale behind the DPRK’s ambivalent behavior, and it has found one in the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis. Never in the course of the research has it been argued that the strategy would pay off. Intentions do not imply success, and failure does not invalidate intentions. Therefore, the criticism is invalid as it challenges an implication that has not been made.

A second possible criticism is that the DPRK has not complied with the international agreements – the 19 September Joint Statement, for instance – even though it promised to do so, and even though assurances of diplomatic normalization with the United States had been given: such non-compliance would make no sense if Pyongyang had normalization as its final scope. The rebuttal to this criticism has already been mentioned during the historical analysis: not only North Korea, but no party has complied with the agreements which pushed for cooperative action, due to mutual distrust and a very high prisoner’s dilemma. The US, the DPRK and other parties in the SPT made short-term promises, but nobody dared to implement bold concessions because of the high stakes. Removing North Korea from the list of state-sponsors of terrorism has a symbolic meaning, but it would not be as decisive as the signing of a non-aggression pact. Moreover, each side has balanced collaborative actions with provocative reactions: the DPRK first agreed to freeze its nuclear program, but then conducted a nuclear test; the US first gave assurances about normalization, but later imposed new sanctions and put North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’. Once again, failure does not invalidate intentions: the inference about North Korea’s rationale can still be valid, even though it is not matched by concrete actions in practice.

This study presents, however, shortcomings that future research should address. The absence of sources about internal debate in North Korea leaves a big question mark. Given the resources available today, it is almost impossible to know the decision-making process. Were it possible to access minutes of the KWP meetings, cabinet briefings, or similar material, it could be confirmed whether the hypothesized rationale behind North Korea’s action was really implemented. So far, the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis has been confirmed by foreign policy decisions. Nevertheless, it remains a hypothesis until further research and new sources accept or reject it. Another study can also analyze the Kim Jong-Un years, and predict whether a similar pattern to the 1990s or the 2000s will be witnessed in the next decades, or if a new strategy will be designed. Whatever the direction of new research, it is hopeful that the field of North Korean studies will be revived. As it has been said during the literature review, the academic world has not concentrated on the DPRK, leaving it “a challenging geopolitical enigma.” This enigma has often led to wrong assumptions, with consequently inadequate policy decisions. For example, the UN sanctions regime has not prevented North Korea from conducting new nuclear tests and producing warheads. The regime has been the result of an oversimplified comparison between Iran and North Korea: if sanctions have pushed the Islamic Republic to freeze its nuclear rearmament, they should force the DPRK to give it up as well. But sanctions mostly hurt international trade. North Korea does not rely on international trade as much as Iran does, for which reason there has not been a replication of the same success story.

In contrast to the sanctions regime, were the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis to be confirmed by further research, it may have important policy implications. The United States might end the current stalemate by starting a new bilateral dialogue. The US-DPRK bargain could be shaped in the following way: establishment of full diplomatic relations in exchange for abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear program. The Obama administration has pursued a similar strategy with other two ‘pariah’ states, Iran and Cuba. On the same line, there can be a revival of relations with the DPRK, especially if bilateral normalization is what Pyongyang is longing for. At the same time, the United States should give reassurances to its regional allies (Japan and South Korea) that there will not be a nuclear-weapon armed North Korea. China will not be opposed to the normalization of US-DPRK relations as long as it will be assured of the policy of “three nos on the Korean peninsula: no nukes, no war, and no collapse of North Korea” (Paik, 2005, p. 195).

Whether the Bilateral Normalization Hypothesis will be confirmed or not, the new US administration will need to face the issue of preventing a nuclear arms race in North-East Asia. For the purpose of avoiding this outcome, it is paramount to understand all the countries in the region, their historical grievances, the strategic interactions with their neighbors and with the superpower. This is why North Korea should no longer be disregarded, as it has often been, when making geopolitical calculations.






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