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The Korean Nuclear Issue

Past, Present, and Future: A Chinese Perspective

Fu Ying, a former diplomat, offered her perspective on the thorny Korean nuclear issue Translated and edited by Xu Fangqing and Yu Xiaodong

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

The Korean nuclear issue is the most complicated and uncertain factor for Northeast Asian security. It has now become the focus of attention in the Asia Pacific and even the world at large.  

Fu Ying, Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress and Chairperson of the Academic Committee of the National Institute of Global Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, offered her perspectives on the thorny issue in an article published on Brookings.edu on April 12, 2017, and a Chinese version of the full article was also published on NewsChina’s sister publication China Newsweek (Vol 803).  

Fu Ying previously served as China’s vice minister of foreign affairs. She has also served as ambassador to the Philippines, Australia and the United Kingdom. From 2000 to 2003, she was director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Asian Affairs, and in that role she was involved in the multilateral talks that took place over the Korean nuclear issue. 

 In the article, Fu Ying gave a detailed account of the history of the Korean nuclear issue. As the Chinese saying goes, “He who tied the bell should be the one who unties it.” To open the rusty lock of the Korean nuclear issue, we should look for the right key, she said. Below follow further excerpts from the article. 

Origin of the Korean Nuclear Crisis  

The origin of the Korean nuclear issue can be traced back to the settlement of the Korean War – a war which in a legal sense has not yet ended, said Fu Ying. After the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, the Korean Peninsula remained divided along the 38th parallel north between the ROK (Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as South Korea) in the south and the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly referred as North Korea) in the north.  

With the South backed by the Western powers headed by the US and the North by the socialist camp led by the former USSR, the Korean Peninsula became a front of the Cold War, though the Peninsula was relatively calm for some time as the two superpowers were in relative equilibrium. 

In the early years of the Cold War, North Korea established the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in 1959 with the help of the USSR, though the Soviet experts returned home after North Korea built its first 2-megawatt small light water reactor in 1965. Then in the early 1980s, North Korea started to construct a 5-megawatt natural uranium graphite gas-cooled reactor, which would be able to produce 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium each year.  

At the beginning of the 1980s, North Korea started to construct a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the US started to pay attention to the growth of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. In 1985, the US pressured the USSR to force North Korea to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 

Then in the beginning of the 1990s, the decline and disintegration of the USSR and the end of the Cold War broke the balance on the Korean Peninsula. Not only did North Korea lose the support of its main backer, the USSR, and then of the USSR’s successor, Russia, China also changed its policy and established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992. North Korea was so unhappy that it halted most high-level exchanges with China until 1999.  

Fu Ying pointed out in her article that the US took no visible steps to improve relations with North Korea, nor did its ally Japan. The opportunity for cross-recognition and simultaneous establishment of diplomatic relations was missed.  

It looks as though the events of the early 1990s caused North Korea a profound sense of crisis at the time and led to its decision to go its own way, including making the “nuclear choice” for its own security. 

After a US satellite discovered that North Korea was secretly developing nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted six unscheduled inspections in North Korea between 1992 and 1993, and proposed another “special inspection.” Then in March 1993, the US and South Korea resumed their joint military exercises. Regarding these as a doubling down of pressure, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT, triggering the first Korean nuclear crisis. 

US-DPRK Bilateral Talks (1993-2002) 

Fu Ying noted that prior to 2003, the North Korean issue was addressed exclusively by the US and the DPRK through bilateral negotiations.  

In 1993, under the administration of then-president Bill Clinton, which adopted an approach in favor of negotiation, high-level talks between North Korea and the US made some progress and the two sides signed the Agreed Framework. Its main contents included North Korea’s agreement to give up its two graphite-moderated nuclear reactors that were under construction.

The US agreed to lead an international consortium to oversee and finance the construction of two light water reactors and to provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually.  

However, neither party demonstrated sufficient political will or the ability to execute what was committed, with most of the content in the Agreed Framework left hanging in the air. For example, both the planned dismantling of the reactors and the construction of the light water reactors by the US, Japan, and South Korea were consistently delayed, and ultimately never carried out. 

But generally speaking, Clinton managed the first North Korea nuclear crisis quite successfully in his first term. During his second term, he attempted to thoroughly resolve the nuclear issue by engaging more closely with North Korea. The two sides even conducted discussion on setting up liaison offices and then lifting the offices to the level of diplomatic representatives at a later stage. However, as the US entered presidential elections, the lame duck Clinton administration had no time to realize this vision. Several years later, Fu Ying herself discussed this with then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and there was an agreement that perhaps an important opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue had unfortunately been missed. 

After George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he reversed the Clinton administration’s decision to increase contact, arguing that the policy of engaging North Korea had helped the regime avoid collapse. ���

In January 2002, the US president listed North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as one of the three states forming the “axis of evil.” Then in October 2002, the US claimed they had discovered North Korea’s secret nuclear program, and deemed North Korea as having violated the US-DPRK Agreed Framework and announced the end of bilateral talks.  

In response, North Korea announced that it would restart the nuclear program that they said had been frozen in accordance with the Agreed Framework in December 2002. Then on January 10, 2003, North Korea announced its formal withdrawal from the NPT. 

The problem with American rhetoric about North Korea during this period is that it often confuses “denuclearization” with “regime collapse,” so much so that North Korea could not tell which one was the main target. As a result, Pyongyang could only conclude that the US was not serious about making an agreement in the first place. 

Former Chinese vice-minister of foreign affairs Fu Ying

As the US-DPRK Agreed Framework was not producing results, the US sent then Secretary of State Colin Powell to China for help in February 2003. Given that a denuclearized Korea was also in the interest of China, the Chinese government, after careful consideration, decided to accept the US request. It was only at this time that China started to act as a mediator to facilitate the multilateral talks regarding the issue, said Fu Ying in her article.  

From April 2003 to October 2007, China hosted one round of Three-Party Talks together with representatives from the US and North Korea, and six rounds of Six-Party Talks adding representatives from South Korea, Japan and Russia.

The Six-Party Talks produced three documents, including the September 19 Joint Statement (in 2005), the February 13 Joint Document (in 2007), and the October 3 Joint Document (also in 2007) laying an important political basis for peacefully resolving the Korean nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation. Regrettably, however, these agreements were never implemented, as talks were disrupted and broke down from time to time, resulting in spiraling tensions. 

According to the October 3 Joint Document, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactors and to declare the suspension of all of its nuclear programs. In exchange, the US and Japan were to improve their bilateral relationships with Pyongyang, as well as provide various material assistance.  

But as North Korea had completed 75 percent of its nuclear reactor disablement by early 2008, it did not see corresponding measures being taken by other parties. North Korea and the US later agreed that North Korea would declare an end to its nuclear program and the US would remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.  

But on the very day when North Korea submitted its declaration, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the issue of verification and called for inspectors to verify the declaration. North Korea was strongly opposed to this, arguing that the October 3 Joint Document did not include any clause on verification. As the US failed to honor its commitment to remove North Korea from the list, North Korea declared on August 11, 2008 that it would “suspend the operation of disabling nuclear reactors and would at the same time consider restoring Yongbyon nuclear facilities to the original state.” It also expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.  

The Six-Party Talks managed to move forward in spite of many difficulties and obstacles and helped to maintain stability on the Peninsula. More importantly, the talks kept all parties moving in the direction of denuclearization and a peaceful settlement of their differences. Unfortunately, this process failed to continue in subsequent years.  

Escalation and Intensification (2009 to present) 

As of March 2017, North Korea had conducted five nuclear tests. The first occurred following the suspension of Six-Party Talks in 2006. The other four tests all occurred after 2009 under the administration of then US President Barack Obama, during which time the Six-Party Talks completely stalled and a vicious cycle of escalation and intensification took over. 

The Obama administration strongly believed that North Korea had not been honoring its commitments to the various agreements and had been allowed to go too far in cheating and blackmailing the US. Opposing any US-DPRK deals became the “politically correct” stance in Washington. In the same period, Pyongyang apparently decided to take a tougher stance and became more inclined to acquire nuclear capabilities. The result was a new round of spiraling escalations.  

On May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, triggering the UN Security Council to unanimously pass Resolution 1874 on sanctions. Then on March 26, 2010, the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea, when an unidentified explosion hit the rear of the ship, causing 46 deaths. The US and South Korea immediately accused North Korea of attacking the warship with a submarine torpedo, imposing new sanctions, which was then followed by a new cycle of escalations and sanctions.  

For the Obama administration, the Korean nuclear issue is linked with its disapproval of the North Korean regime. As a result, the essence of its policy of “strategic patience” was that no matter how North Korea conducted itself, the US did not give any serious consideration to Pyongyang’s security concerns. If North Korea was willing to negotiate, the US would talk but with no intention of making any progress. If North Korea chose confrontation, the US would intensify sanctions. The ultimate purpose was to see the North Korean regime collapse under constant pressure.  

So, the reality is that the Obama administration’s de facto tough policy concealed by the word “patience” bumped against North Korea’s strong determination to possess nuclear power. The two countries negatively reinforced each other, allowing the tense situation to slip into a downward spiral. 

Since the two sides reached an impasse, the DPRK has taken the opportunity to move forward with its program. In the meantime, the UN Security Council has stepped up sanctions, and the US and South Korea have been carrying out heightened military exercises to exert greater military pressure on the DPRK. Consequently, tensions are now running high and the channel for talks is closed, and the situation is increasingly dangerous. 


Fu Ying noted that China strongly opposes nuclear proliferation. Upon taking up its role as a mediator, China firmly requested North Korea stop its nuclear weapons development while requesting other concerned parties, especially the US, to address the DPRK’s legitimate security concerns. But the deep mistrust between the US and the DPRK made it very hard for any consensus or agreement made during the years of negotiations to be effectively implemented.  
China had been working hard to play its role both as a mediator and a party to UN sanctions, but it did not have the leverage to force either the US or DPRK to assume their respective responsibilities. Without holding the key to the DPRK’s security concerns, China has no leverage to convince this foreign nation to stop its nuclear program. The US, which the DPRK sees as the source of threats to its security, has been neither interested nor willing to consider responding to the DPRK’s security concerns. 

Fu Ying envisioned three possbilities of the development of the Korean nuclear issue.  

First possibility: The vicious cycle of US and UN sanctions followed by North Korean nuclear and missile tests goes on until it reaches a tipping point. At that point, those who oppose North Korea possessing nuclear weapons would be faced with the hard choice of taking extreme action with unknown consequences, or tolerating it. Sanctions may exert huge pressure on North Korea, but the country can hold up and will not give up nuclear development.  

As a matter of fact, North Korea started nuclear testing after sanctions started, and it has conducted five tests against the background of intensified sanctions. The pattern of a spiral of intensified sanctions and continued nuclear testing is difficult to change because of two factors: First, North Korea is determined to possess nuclear capabilities in order to ensure its own security. North Korea has perceived external security pressure and has not been successful at acquiring a security guarantee, despite having attended different forms of peace talks.

Secondly, the United States is unwilling to make any compromise and refuses to make a deal with North Korea and in the meantime, the US is also making use of the tension to invest heavily in strategic deployment and military activities in Northeast Asia and, therefore, cannot focus itself on resolving the nuclear issue. Given its political habits, any adjustment in policy toward North Korea would meet strong resistance. Whether President Donald Trump can free himself from the old inertia and find a way out remains to be seen. 

DPRK leader Kim Jong-un oversees the testing of a new high-performance rocket engine on March 18, 2017

In the US, there is often talk about the military option. Every time this is seriously considered, the analysis invariably shows that military action, big or small, would cause huge civilian casualties and results that are hard to control. Keeping the military option on the table also threatens stability and is a source of mistrust among the countries involved. As the situation gets closer to a tipping point, it is all the more important for the US to carefully calculate its moves. 

Second possibility: The North Korean regime collapses. The US has long taken a stance of non-recognition and hostility toward North Korea, with regime change as its main goal. This was also one of the fundamental principles of President Obama’s policy of strategic patience. To a large extent, the persistence of the US in intensifying sanctions while giving no chance for talks had the intention of pushing North Korea to undergo internal changes. In the US, contact and dialogue with North Korea are often regarded as helping the regime and hindering changes. That is why North Korea firmly believes that the US will not change its hostile policy and, therefore, that it should take a strong position to resist. The reality is that the North Korean economy has already passed through its most difficult time. Though North Korea’s domestic policy and behavior have caused wide resentment, the expectation of regime collapse as a solution to the Korean nuclear issue may not be realistic in the short term.  

Third possibility: Talks and serious negotiations restart, which may ease or even resolve the nuclear issue. Admittedly, this is harder now as mistrust between the US and North Korea has grown deeper over the years, and many setbacks throughout multilateral negotiations have undermined the parties’ confidence in dialogue. But past experience shows the obvious benefits of talking: first, talks helped stabilize the situation and created conditions for addressing mutual concerns. Second, talking opened the way to reaching various agreements.  

In the past, the disruption of the talks was due to a failure to implement the agreements, and the nuclear issue has escalated in the absence of talks. It should be noted that, after years of escalation, the ground has shifted and the basis for negotiation has changed significantly since 2003. If talks are resumed, whether all parties can accept such a reality and whether they can restart negotiations without preconditions remains an open question. In other words, if some parties assume nothing has happened or try to return to the past without considering changes, it will be hard for the new talks to succeed. Currently, one realistic starting point may be what has been termed a “double suspension.”  

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained at a press conference on March 8, 2017:  
“To defuse the looming crisis on the Peninsula, China proposes that, as a first step, the DPRK suspend its missile and nuclear activities in exchange for a halting US-ROK exercises. This ‘double suspension’ approach can help us break out of the security dilemma and bring the parties back to the table. Then we can follow the dual-track approach of denuclearizing the Peninsula on the one hand and establishing a peace mechanism on the other. Only by addressing the parties’ concerns in a synchronized and reciprocal manner can we find a fundamental solution to lasting peace and stability on the Peninsula.” 

At the most recent China-US summit in Florida, China explained to the US side its proposals of “double suspension” and a “dual-track approach of denuclearizing the Peninsula,” stressing its hope to achieve a breakthrough for resuming talks. China believes that only through dialogue can the parties get the Korean Peninsula out of the current vicious cycle and prevent Northeast Asia from entering into a dark era, Fu Ying concluded.