Between Sanctions and Diplomacy: North Korea's Balancing Act

30 Apr, 2018    ·   5461

Shivani Singh analyses the factors that contributed to North Korea and the US agreeing to a historic bilateral summit outside of the six-party talks framework

Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

The possibility of bilateral negotiations between North Korea and the US is a sign of relief after months of prevailing tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Following a long trajectory of strained relations between North Korea and the West, North Korea has finally agreed to direct bilateral talks with the US. The reason for this is simple. There has been a change of tactics by Kim Jong-un towards a more diplomatic and cooperative approach with China, the US and South Korea. Additionally, deployment of hard diplomacy by the international community through the imposition of sanctions on North Korea finally seems to be paying off. This article argues that a combination of both these factors is what led to a thaw in the escalating conflict and is a development to be cautiously optimistic about.

Tactical Changes
Sticks in the form of international economic and diplomatic sanctions on North Korea have been in place for some time. North Korea has traditionally ignored international condemnation of its regime by taking a more aggressive stance and conducting more nuclear weapon and missile tests. However, it recently adopted a different tactic by deploying soft diplomacy measures, which included sending a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Crucially, North Korea displayed its willingness to cooperate with South Korea by allowing the games to be concluded without tensions.

This diplomatic positioning by North Korea along with soft symbols of unity like North and South Korean athletes marching under the Korean Unification Flag and re-opening communication channels definitely contributed to pacifying bilateral relations. A South Korean delegation's visit to North Korea to discuss peace prospects followed.

Efficacy of Sanctions
China is North Korea’s largest trade partner accounting for 93 per cent of its overall trade, and it agreed to come on board in adopting the latest set of UN sanctions targeting North Korea’s oil import and textile exports. Although China signed onto the new sanctions, as it has done in the past, there has always been considerable reason to doubt China’s intentions given its relationship with North Korea.

However, one can see a considerable shift in China’s position as it has ramped up the implementation of international sanctions. Reports suggest that the effect of these sanctions is being felt on both sides of the border as they are “hitting local Chinese businesses hard and starting to bite inside North Korea, with factory closures, price rises and power shortages in some areas.” In January 2018, China reported a 10.5 per cent drop in its trade with China for the year 2017 with an 81.6 per cent slump in China’s imports from North Korea. The gradual drop in North Korea’s trade with China is accompanied by depleting foreign currency reserves and soon is likely to impact its inventories of food and medical necessities and a rise in prices during decreased supply.

The signs of economic strain were made evident when in his new year’s speech, Kim Jong-un signalled the economic hard times that are to come in the near future, focusing on the need to develop the domestic industries as relying on external aid is fast diminishing as an option. However, one also has to consider the opaqueness that accompanies China and North Korea’s trade figures. Whether the sanctions have actually worked is debatable but the possibility of stalled financial avenues in the short-run is most definitely to factor into North Korea’s calculations and could have worked as an incentive to come to the negotiating table.

Seeking Legitimacy
North Korean efforts yielded fruit – without implying monocausality - when for the first time the US agreed to have talks with North Korea bilaterally, outside the Six Party framework, which is a major concession for the North. North Korea finally perceives a chance to present itself as one nuclear power negotiating with another nuclear power on the same dais. This is the kind of legitimisation that North Korea was hoping to gain from the US and these talks can prove to be the first step in achieving that goal.  

The question here is not whether North Korea will seriously consider a complete, verifiable, and irreversible disassembly of its nuclear arsenal, but that for the first time ever, a sitting US president will meet a North Korean leader and the world will recognise the North Korean regime as a legitimate party in bilateral talks with the US.

It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-un will diverge from the position he took during his new year’s speech where he celebrated the success of achieving a complete nuclear deterrent and claimed to “mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.” However, the current thaw that has been achieved is likely to be used as an opportunity by North Korea to shed its image of a ‘Hermit Kingdom’ by entering into negotiations.

Despite no change in the three conditions that North Korea put forward that would make it consider denuclearisation, that is, the US removing troops from South Korea, assurances of no threat of regime change, and removal of the US security umbrella from South Korea and Japan, the fact that both countries have agreed to a bilateral summit is in itself an achievement. The way forward should be to persist with the ‘carrots and sticks’ approach rather than ‘all sticks and ignore’ policy that has existed for the last few decades.

Shivani Singh is a Researcher with the Nuclear Security Programme (NSP) at IPCS.