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North Korea under Tightening Sanctions
North Korea under Tightening Sanctions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Briefing 101 / Asia

North Korea under Tightening Sanctions

Outwardly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) appears stable. However, the country has been shaken by constricting international sanctions, extremely poor policy choices, and several internal challenges that have the potential to trigger instability.


Outwardly, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) appears stable. However, the country has been shaken by constricting international sanctions, extremely poor policy choices, and several internal challenges that have the potential to trigger instability. International sanctions have reduced foreign exchange earnings, while humanitarian assistance, which feeds millions of North Koreans, has declined due to political factors and donor fatigue. In addition to sanctions, Pyongyang has been dealing with the internal pressures of a disastrous currency reform as well as a chronic and deteriorating food security problem. The aggregate pressure is already taking a toll on North Korea’s human security and could have a number of unanticipated consequences for regional and international security.

Some analysts and policymakers believe international sanctions have pressured North Korea to seek a face-saving return to the Six-Party Talks and better inter-Korean ties. Although Pyongyang’s opaque policymaking process makes it nearly impossible to understand regime motivations, the pressures of cascading and overlapping “mini crises” are unmistakable just as the country has had to face difficult succession issues. However, the DPRK has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive under pressure. Any of the current challenges – as singular problems – should be manageable. The state security apparatus and the barriers to collective action make a “revolution from below” virtually impossible. But despite the loyalty of elites in the party and the military, a sudden split in the leadership, although unlikely, is not out of the question. Signs of any fissures would not be observable from the outside until a power struggle, a coup d’état, collapse or similar crisis was already unfolding.

The first half of 2009 was marked by bellicose and defiant posturing from the North, but in the latter half of the year, Pyongyang began to express a desire to improve ties with the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and the U.S. Frequent shuttle diplomacy has led to speculation that the Six-Party Talks could reconvene soon and that an inter-Korean summit could be held in 2010 or 2011. On the other hand, the [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA) has been conducting a winter exercise that is expected to last until late March. The KPA has issued several provocative statements and in late January 2010 fired live artillery rounds towards South Korean islands off the west coast. The shells landed in the sea in the vicinity of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the western sea boundary that Pyongyang does not recognise. Nevertheless, despite KPA rhetoric, there have been no unusual troop movements or mobilisations.

Human security has not been at the top of the North East Asian security agenda given the prominence of traditional security issues, historical legacies, and strong sovereignty norms. It is generally defined along two dimensions: freedom from want; and freedom from fear. Throughout most of East Asia, even undemocratic countries have sustained relatively strong economic growth for long periods; living standards have thus improved in many countries that have experienced little or no progress in expansion of civil liberties and human rights. In contrast, North Korea’s human security has been a long-term crisis. Human rights abuses and economic deprivation have been widely documented, but the international community has no effective policy instruments to produce improvements. The recent tightening of economic sanctions, compounded with domestic problems, is exacerbating the DPRK human security tragedy. This does not mean the international community is responsible for North Korea’s current plight, of course: the DPRK government itself holds the key to easing the human security crisis.

The Korean peninsula has lived with the threat of war for over half a century. Mutual deterrence is robust, but inadvertent escalation or miscalculation is always possible. The balance of power has shifted against Pyongyang, and the DPRK leadership is not likely to start a war it knows it would lose. However, the leadership’s motivation to survive could result in more dangerous proliferation activities as sources of foreign exchange – both legitimate and illegitimate – disappear. Kim Jong-il’s political machine requires hard currency to operate, and there are several signs that the regime is increasingly desperate to earn it.

Seoul/Brussels, 15 March 2010

North Korean soldiers look south on the north side as a U.S. soldier stands guard upon Belgium's Prince Philippe's visit in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, in May 2009. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak
Report 269 / Asia

North Korea: Beyond the Six-Party Talks

Prospects are bleak that the Six-Party Talks can lead to a denuclearised Korean peninsula, notably since North Korea has made nuclear weapons an integral part of its identity. The international community must open new channels of communication and interaction, give greater roles to international organisations, the private sector and civil society.

Executive Summary

The Six-Party Talks were established in 2003 as a multilateral forum to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. However, the parties (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) have not met since December 2008, when the talks stalled over verification issues. There is a strong international consensus that North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) should come into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions and abandon its nuclear weapons program but widespread disagreement over the strategy and policies for achieving this. Nuclear arms are now an integral part of North Korea’s national identity, however, so it is increasingly apparent that absent a sea change in ideology or leadership in Pyongyang, the Six-Party Talks will not achieve their central aim. Though governments need to keep up pressure for disarmament and maintain the dynamics of the current containment and deterrence policy, they also should establish – and encourage other international actors to establish – new channels of engagement that may further incremental change in North Korean society.

Since the end of the Cold War, the DPRK has developed a state ideology ofsŏn’gun (“military first”). Furthermore, the third generation of Kim family rule has adopted the pyŏngjin line, calling for simultaneous economic and nuclear technology development for both peaceful and military purposes, as Kim Jong-un’s contribution to “scientific socialist thought” and essential to the continuing Korean revolution. Nuclear status has been enshrined in the constitution and statutes, and state propaganda emphasises the role of nuclear weapons, satellite launchers and nuclear technology in the nation’s modernisation and prosperity. DPRK officials often have repeated that Pyongyang will denuclearise when the rest of the world does. Denuclearisation would require a transformation of that identity, in effect revolutionary change. The North has offered to return to the Six-Party Talks “without preconditions” to discuss regional security, nuclear disarmament and other issues – but not denuclearisation.

South Korea (ROK) faces an existential threat from the North’s growing nuclear arsenal. It is divided, however, over policy toward Pyongyang. After activity was detected around the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in spring 2014, it invested considerable effort in an attempt to restart the Six-Party Talks. By late February 2015, five parties had reached a consensus on the minimum criteria to present to Pyongyang. To test intentions and sincerity on denuclearisation, Seoul has pushed for “exploratory talks” in a track two setting as a first step toward resuming the formal six-party process. If Pyongyang does not meet the criteria for resumption, which have not been disclosed publicly, the U.S., South Korea and others appear poised to take increasingly punitive measures.

There is little likelihood the U.S. would enter upon resumed talks unless there is a much greater prospect than appears to exist that they would be pursued in good faith by the North and not simply for manipulation and propaganda. Experience under the Agreed Framework in the 1990s, in addition to widespread perception that the DPRK is unreliable, make the Obama administration, and almost certainly any future president, sensitive to likely domestic blowback from another failed diplomatic effort with Pyongyang. China does not face the same domestic risks if the talks were to restart and turn out badly. It could always take credit for hosting them, and in the case of failure, blame the DPRK and/or the U.S. Its consistent position has been to restart dialogue even with low likelihood for success.

Japan also has a high threat perception regarding the North’s nuclear and missile programs and generally will support South Korea and the U.S. over the talks. Bilateral discussion of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s raised hopes for improved relations, but that process also has stalled. Without a satisfactory resolution on abductions, Tokyo will be even more inclined to take a harder line on the nuclear issue. Russia wants the talks to resume as soon as possible. Though sensitive about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, it believes Washington exaggerates the threat, and its focus is on economic cooperation, which the North welcomes as helping reduce economic dependence on Beijing.

Whether or not an intended exploratory meeting is held, the gap between positions is too broad to expect the Six-Party Talks to resume as a good-faith effort to denuclearise the peninsula. For that, either the DPRK must abandon its nuclear identity and ambitions, or the international community must accept transformation of the talks into a different type of institution that does not address denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Neither seems possible, so deterrence and containment will remain fundamental for dealing with a nuclear North.

Deterrence is imperfect and could fail, but it will remain a pillar of security in the Korean peninsula for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it needs to be complemented by a broader engagement with North Korea on a range of issues. The self-imposed isolation of Pyongyang perpetuates a dangerous regime, in the same way the U.S. isolation of Cuba may have delayed evolutions in the Caribbean island; every opportunity should be seized to encourage an opening of society in North Korea. Three sets of actors might do so: governments and inter-governmental organisations (IGOs); private sector firms; and civil society. The roles, risks, opportunities, and costs vary, and engagement must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Only governments can sign treaties, impose and lift economic sanctions or change a military posture. Businesses can trade and invest, creating opportunities for contacts and engagement, but unconstrained trade can lead to dangerous technology transfers.

A relevant segment of civil society activities includes educational, cultural, artistic, musical, scientific and sports exchanges. There is no true North Korean civil society activity, but outside non-governmental organisations (NGOs), while they cannot substitute for governments or economic actors, could be important for transmitting ideas and information into the North, which ultimately is necessary to change its thinking, identity and policies.