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Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Issue

  • The Significance of the North Korean Nuclear Issue

    North Korea’s nuclear development is a matter of serious concern to the international community that not only threatens peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the international community but also undermines the foundation of the international non-proliferation regime. For more than two decades, the ROK government and relevant countries have made intensive efforts to resolve this issue.


    History of the North Korean Nuclear Issue

    The North Korean nuclear issue drew international attention when North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1993. Since then, the North Korean nuclear issue has gone through a cycle of progress and regress.

    The Agreed Framework (Geneva Agreement) of 1994 between the United States and North Korea led to a freeze of North Korea’s plutonium nuclear facilities for several years. However, the agreement eventually collapsed as suspicion about the North’s nuclear development using enriched uranium was raised and North Korea restarted its plutonium nuclear facilities in 2002.

    In 2003, the Six-Party Talks was launched, involving South and North Koreas as well as the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. The Six-Party Talks achieved some progress by adopting the “Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks” on September 19, 2005; “Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement” on February 13, 2007; and “Second-Phase Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement” on October 3, 2007. However, the Six-Party Talks has not convened since December 2008, as the parties failed to agree on the verification protocol.

    Even during the Six-Party process, North Korea sought to possess nuclear weapons, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006 and the second test in 2009. Suspicions on the North’s uranium enrichment activities were brought to light after Pyongyang made public about its relevant facilities at Yongbyon in 2010.

    In 2012, the international community had high expectations for progress on the denuclearization negotiation as the United States and North Korea reached a deal (the so-called “Leap Day” Deal), which specified North Korea’s pre-steps for resumption of denuclearization talks. However, the agreement collapsed as North Korea unsuccessfully launched a long-range missile on April 13, and proclaimed itself as a nuclear weapons state in its newly-amended constitution on the same day. Since 2013, North Korea sought the status of a nuclear weapons state, despite strong opposition from the international community, through a series of measures including conducting the third nuclear test on February 12, 2013; declaring its permanent position as a nuclear weapons state on March 9; adopting the so called "Byungjin" policy of simultaneously pursuing economic development and nuclear armament on March 31; enacting a “law that consolidates the position of a nuclear weapons state for self-defense” on April 1; and stipulating the Byungjin policy in the rules of the Workers’ Party of Korea amended at the 7th Party Congress in May 2016.

    In 2016, despite the repeated warnings from the international community, North Korea further carried out fourth nuclear test in January and, after only 8 months, the fifth test in September, while launching 24 various range of ballistic missiles threatening a preemptive nuclear strike. In 2017 as well, tensions continued to escalate as North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test and ICBM-class ballistic missile launches, and claimed to be a “nuclear-weapon state” by testing yet another ICBM-class ballistic missile on November 29, a third of the year.

    However, 2018 witnessed a critical turning point in the history of North Korean nuclear issue. The ROK government has emphasized the importance of peaceful resolution of North Korean nuclear issue in many occasions, including President Moon's "Berlin Initiative" in July, 2017. The ROK government has also made persistent efforts to bring North Korea to dialogue, such as proposing Pyongyang's participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. As a result, North Korea participated in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in February and March, to which a high-level delegation attended.

    In the first half of 2018, series of historic milestones were set: Two inter-Korean Summits each on 27 April and 26 May was followed by the first-ever US-North Korea Summit on 12 June in Singapore. These events have changed the political landscape on the Korean Peninsula, stripping away the remnants of the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and paving the way for a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. Most importantly, the top leaders of the two Koreas and the US expressed their firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which was stipulated at the outcome documents - the Panmunjom Declaration of 27 April and the US-North Korea Joint Statement at the Singapore Summit on 12 June. The ROK government continued to play an active role in promoting dialogue among the two Koreas and the US. This led to the Pyongyang inter-Korean Summit Meeting on 18-20 September where North Korea pledged to take concrete measures for denuclearization in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration. North Korea announced that it will permanently dismantle its Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform under the observation of experts from relevant countries, and indicated its willingness to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures. During the following US Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea on 7 October, North Korea and the US reached an agreement to hold a second US-North Korea Summit as soon as possible.

    These efforts led to the second US-North Korea Summit in Hanoi from 27 to 28 February in 2019. It is regrettable that North Korea and the US were unable to reach an agreement at the summit. However, both sides have made meaningful progress through in-depth discussions. The two leaders have expanded the scope and depth of their understanding of each other’s positions and reaffirmed their willingness to resolve the issue through continuous dialogue.

    Although US-North Korea dialogue has stalled since the second US-North Korea Summit, the two sides continued to express their willingness for engagement. On June 30, the three leaders of the two Koreas and the US met for the first time in history in Panmunjom, a symbolic place of division, and the leaders of the US and North Korea agreed to resume US-North Korea working-level negotiation. As a result, the working-level negotiation took place in Stockholm in October 4-5, and both sides exchanged views on each other’s position. However, it ended without an agreement or any follow-up plans. Since then, there has not been any tangible progress on the US-North Korea dialogue.

    The ROK government has made every diplomatic effort to manage the situation and maintain a momentum of dialogue in close coordination with the US. The ROK government will continue its efforts to achieve substantial progress toward complete denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

  • The Position of the ROK government and Ways to Resolve North Korean Nuclear Issue

    The international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state under any circumstances. The unified resolve of the international community to not tolerate North Korea’s repeated provocations and violations of international obligations is clearly reflected in UN Security Council resolutions 2270(March 2016), 2321(November 2016), 2356(June 2017), 2371 (August 2017), 2375 (September 2017) and 2397 (December 2017). While thoroughly implementing these UNSCRs and its unilateral sanctions measures, the ROK government will continue to offer a brighter future once the denuclearization is achieved and encourage for North Korea's more forthcoming measures.

    The ROK government, through rock-solid ROK-US alliance and close cooperation with the international community, will continue its efforts to achieve complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue. Based on the Panmunjom Declaration of 27 April, the US-North Korea Joint Statement of 12 June, the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of 19 September, and other past agreements with North Korea, the ROK government will focus on promoting U.S.-North Korea as well as inter-Korean dialogue, which will contribute towards progress in denuclearization.

    We welcome your continued support on this process towards complete denuclearization and permanent peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.