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The Decline of the Relationship between the US and North Korea

Info: 2930 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 2nd Apr 2019 in International Relations

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The Fog of War: Declining North Korea-United States Relations from Clinton to Trump

The sporadic surges in North Korean hostility amidst an already acrimonious United States-North Korea relationship has been widely regarded by the American public until late as a commonplace phenomenon of needless concern. While the United States and its democratic counterpart in South Korea have gradually grown accustomed to such irregularities in state behaviour, the codification of newfound sanctions with respect to North Korea, imposed without abstention by the United Nations Security Council at the behest of the Trump administration in 2017, has elicited profound consequences[1]. Viewing the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as an unwarranted act of aggression, the United States’ encouragement of economic sanctions was strategically devised to incapacitate North Korean development; a plan of action propagating the current rise in open hostility[2]. Though the last twenty-five years of attempts at establishing open diplomacy with North Korea by the U.S. have had minimal (if not utterly unsuccessful) results, the progressive deterioration in foreign relations from President Clinton’s calculated attempt at negotiating nuclear non-proliferation to President Trump’s highly publicized anti-North Korean saber-rattling offer worrying context behind the present-day bilateral nadir[3].

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The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the close of the 20th century fundamentally altered the former world balance of allegiances between East and West in its creation of a global power vacuum across the former Soviet satellites and remaining Communist holdouts alike. Among the elder President Bush’s foremost challenges in this unipolar (yet highly unstable) new world order was carefully preventing the proliferation of nuclear stockpiles, exemplified in his continued policies of rapprochement with Gorbachev’s rapidly fragmenting Soviet Union[4]. President Clinton would prudently elect to build upon his predecessor’s legacy by keenly cooperating with Russia and Great Britain for disarmament in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum[5]. However, Clinton would face his greatest hurdle in stopping nuclear proliferation in the insular and ever-inflexible “hermit kingdom” that same year. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), having suspected North Korea’s then-recently inaugurated Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center of utilizing undeclared fissile material for martial purposes, attempted to schedule a routine inspection to no avail[6]. Soon after, North Korea announced to profound global disquiet its immediate withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the first pullout of such a kind[7]. Displeased with the IAEA’s lack of progress (and without a doubt, the possibility of NPT withdrawals becoming a trend), Clinton officials began high-level talks with North Korea in an attempt to find common ground[8]. With their initial bargaining position weak and the regime on the cusp of instability due to widespread hunger effected by the loss of their de facto Soviet suzerain[9], North Korea conceded to the Agreed Framework of 1994, freezing the processing of graphite in exchange for the cessation of American-South Korea joint military training and the supplying of oil on an annual basis[10]. Despite the seemingly conciliatory tone in which negotiations were pursued, subsequent disclosures of government documents would reveal the Clinton administration was prepared to sanction military force if met without cooperation[11]. This precarious balance between the United States’ decision to present themselves outwardly with honeyed open-handedness while concealing their inward militancy towards the rogue state would form the backdrop for future administrations’ dealings with North Korea until Trump’s presidency.

While many contend that the failure to reset relations partially fell upon the notable partisanship of the American political process, as exemplified in the Republican-dominated Congress’ opposition to North Korean relief during Clinton’s second term[12], the North Koreans would in their own regard secretively reopen Yongbyon in 1998[13]. However, upon the junior President Bush’s accession in 2001, the leading Republicans had conceded to abandoning their former unwillingness to compromise and to instead continue Clinton’s advocacy of North-South reconciliation[14]. Unfortunately, all progress towards a potential North Korean reset would be made void in the advent of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, whereupon an ignited American desire for vengeance would instil profound global apprehension in a newfound uneasiness not seen since the Cold War. Lumping in North Korea with the likes of Iraq and Iran in Bush’s “axis of evil”, a newly bellicose Bush administration would openly consider the possibility of regime change in North Korea to safeguard American security[15]. In light of such a drastic shift in foreign policy, Clinton’s Agreed Framework would ultimately collapse. After the dust of 9/11 had settled, the United States would attempt to engage in diplomacy with North Korea afresh through the six-party talks after the regime’s first low-yield nuclear detonation in 2006[16]. Shortly after, a young charismatic Senator from Illinois would ascend to the Office of the President campaigning on hope and change in American governance both at home and abroad.

President Obama, though woven from a different cloth then his neoconservative forerunner, would maintain much of his hardline rhetoric with the seemingly non-negotiable regime. Like Bush before him, Obama and his predecessor both saw any development towards a period of American détente with North Korea breakdown within their first year in office. In Obama’s case, continued North Korean satellite experimentation in 2009 in direct opposition to a coordinated American-North Korean bilateral mandate quickly rendered the painstaking six-party talks of three years void[17]. On the eve of Obama’s second term in late 2012, North Korean-American relations would begin an unprecedented decline from which attempts at reconciliation have yet to occur. With North Korea succeeding in their endeavours to put an object into orbit, coupled with several further nuclear tests in 2013 and 2016, an irate American government and public alike had grown exhausted of patiently bargaining with a petulant state ostensibly incapable of negotiation[18]. This trend would be brought out in then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hawkish rhetoric regarding North Korea.

Amidst the last stages of the 2016 Republican primaries, front-runner Donald Trump sent shockwaves throughout the American public and the world stage alike by championing the prospect of diminishing economic interdependence with China due to their prominent ties to North Korea in favour of stronger American-South Korean association[19]. This “two-front” policy would advocate forced North Korean isolation from without by destabilizing Chinese-North Korean relations while simultaneously showboating American-South Korean military capabilities in order to incur the recognition of American primacy and in time, long-standing North Korean submission. However, Trump’s aggressive grandstanding would come to provoke far more difficulties then expected upon his unforeseen election win in 2016. In response to a newfound foreign threat to his authority, Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un would exacerbate nuclear experimentation throughout 2017, culminating in the succesful testing of a thermonuclear device and an ICBM in early September[20]. However, this flaunting of military resurgency differed from the typical North Korean teeth-gnashing of the past, for it chillingly represented the first time in twenty-six years that an openly belligerent nation had obtained the power to hypothetically strike the American mainland[21]. With escalating antagonism between the two countries in a visible death spiral, a declaration of war seemingly teeters on razor’s edge.

The deterioration of bilateral relations between the United States and North Korea from Clinton to Trump has, amidst other conflicts, quashed idealistic aspirations for a post-Cold War climate wholly dependant on peace and cooperation over the archaic throes of war. As the burden of the rational actor falls upon the American government in this tenuous scenario, they must take heed to understand the “siege mentality” permeating North Korean society. An outlook developed over centuries through North Korea’s historical and present-day hermitic culture and their contemporary interactions with the West since the Korean War, the United States has been unconditionally viewed by the North Korean government as both an aggressor and a tangible threat to their future[22]. As such, American aggrandizement in the face of innate North Korean distrust has accomplished naught but consolidate preconceived notions about the U.S[23]. Despite the apparent futility of the conflict at-hand, policymakers in Washington would do well to keep such knowledge in mind and reopen diplomatic channels between the U.S. and North Korea in order to peacefully bridge the present crisis, avert lasting damage and conceive diplomatic solutions for the future based on overcoming such a cloistered ideology.


  • Bajoria, Jayshree and Beina Xu. “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program.”Council on Foreign Relations. September 30, 2013. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program. (February 23, 2018).
  • Bradsher, Keith. “Noting Soviet Eclipse, Baker Sees Arms Risks.” The New York Times. December 9, 1991.  http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/09/world/noting-soviet-eclipse-baker-sees-arms-risks.html. (February 23, 2018).
  • Campbell, Colin. “DONALD TRUMP: Here’s how I’d handle that ‘madman’ in North Korea.” Business Insider. January 6, 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-north-korea-china-nuclear-2016-1. (February 23, 2018).
  • Campos, Rodrigo and Hyonhee Shin. “U.N. Security Council imposes new sanctions on North Korea over missile test.” Reuters. December 22, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles/u-n-security-council-imposes-new-sanctions-on-north-korea-over-missile-test-idUSKBN1EG0HV. (February 23, 2018).
  • Farago, Niv. “Washington’s failure to resolve the North Korean nuclear conundrum: examining two decades of US policy.” International Affairs 92 (September 2016): 1127-1145.
  • Hwang, Jihwan. “Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy toward North Korea: The Clinton and Bush Administrations in Comparative Perspective.” World Affairs 167 (Summer 2004): 15-29.
  • Kessler, Glen. “How Cotton’s misguided history lesson on the North Korean nuclear deal.” The Washington Post. March 13, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/13/cottons-misguided-history-lesson-on-the-north-korean-nuclear-deal/?utm_term=.9638d0c3a5a3. (February 23, 2018).
  • Kim, Bomi. “North Korea’s Siege Mentality: A Sociopolitical Analysis of the Kim Jong-un Regime’s Foreign Policies.” Asian Perspective 40 (April-June 2016): 223-243.
  • Lee, Eric Yong Joong. “Will Trump’s Military Option against North Korea Work? Legal and Political Restraints.” Journal of East Asia & International Law 10 (Autumn 2017): 451-462.
  • Price, Greg. “North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Isn’t Really Trump’s Fault: How Bush, Clinton and Obama Contributed to Conflict.” Newsweek. August 10, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/north-korea-bush-clinton-obama-trump-649522. (February 23, 2018).
  • Ryan, Maria. “Why America’s 1994 deal with North Korea failed – and what Trump can learn from it.” The Independent. August 4, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/north-korea-missile-test-us-1994-agreed-framework-pyongyang-programme-kim-jong-un-donald-trump-a7876446.html. (February 23, 2018).
  • Weissman, Jordan. “How Kim Jong il Starved North Korea.” The Atlantic. December 20, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/how-kim-jong-il-starved-north-korea/250244/. (February 23, 2018).
  • Yost, David S. “The Budapest Memorandum and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.” International Affairs 91 (May 2015): 503-538.

[1] Rodrigo Campos and Hyonhee Shin, “U.N. Security Council imposes new sanctions on North Korea over missile test,” Reuters, December 22, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles/u-n-security-council-imposes-new-sanctions-on-north-korea-over-missile-test-idUSKBN1EG0HV February 23, 2018.

[2] Campos and Shin, “U.N. Security Council imposes new sanctions”.

[3] Greg Price, “North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Isn’t Really Trump’s Fault: How Bush, Clinton and Obama Contributed to Conflict,” Newsweek, August 10, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/north-korea-bush-clinton-obama-trump-649522 February 23, 2018.

[4] Keith Bradsher, “Noting Soviet Eclipse, Baker Sees Arms Risks,” The New York Times, December 9, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/09/world/noting-soviet-eclipse-baker-sees-arms-risks.html February 23, 2018.

[5] David S. Yost, “The Budapest Memorandum and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.,” International Affairs 91 (May 2015): 508.

[6] Jihwan Hwang, “Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy toward North Korea: The Clinton and Bush Administrations in Comparative Perspective.,” World Affairs 167 (Summer 2004): 24.

[7] Hwang, 23.

[8] Ibid, 24.

[9] Jordan Weissman, “How Kim Jong il Starved North Korea,” The Atlantic, December 20, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/12/how-kim-jong-il-starved-north-korea/250244/ February 23, 2018.

[10] Hwang, 24.

[11] Ibid, 25.

[12] Maria Ryan, “Why America’s 1994 deal with North Korea failed – and what Trump can learn from it,” The Independent, August 4, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/north-korea-missile-test-us-1994-agreed-framework-pyongyang-programme-kim-jong-un-donald-trump-a7876446.html February 23, 2018.

[13] Glen Kessler, “How Cotton’s misguided history lesson on the North Korean nuclear deal,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/03/13/cottons-misguided-history-lesson-on-the-north-korean-nuclear-deal/?utm_term=.9638d0c3a5a3 February 23, 2018.

[14] Hwang, 25.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu, “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 30, 2013, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program February 23, 2018.

[17] Niv Farago, “Washington’s failure to resolve the North Korean nuclear conundrum: examining two decades of US policy,” International Affairs 92 (September 2016): 1141.

[18] Farago, 1143.

[19] Colin Campbell, “DONALD TRUMP: Here’s how I’d handle that ‘madman’ in North Korea,” Business Insider, January 6, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-north-korea-china-nuclear-2016-1 February 23, 2018.

[20] Eric Yong Joong Lee, “Will Trump’s Military Option against North Korea Work? Legal and Political Restraints.,” Journal of East Asia & International Law 10 (Autumn 2017): 452.

[21] Lee, 452.

[22] Bomi Kim, “North Korea’s Siege Mentality: A Sociopolitical Analysis of the Kim Jong-un Regime’s Foreign Policies.,” Asian Perspective 40 (April-June 2016): 240.

[23] Kim, 240.


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