North Korea was met by increasingly harsh sanctions from the outside world, not only from the UN but also directly from the EU and the US. Following the fifth nuclear test in the autumn of 2016, the UN Security Council introduced sanctions banning the export of coal, iron and lead, important sources of income for North Korea. In response to the sixth nuclear test a year later, limits were set on North Korea’s imports of oil, while textile exports were banned and new visas were stopped for North Korean guest workers. The United States had proposed that UN sanctions would completely block North Korea’s oil imports, which are mainly from China, but Security Council members could not agree on this.
Tensions are rising in the region
Neighboring countries reacted with concern to the North Korean test firings. In 2017, South Korea deployed a US missile defense system (THAAD) as protection against North Korean robots. Beijing, fearing that the system could be used to monitor China and threaten the balance of power in the region, initially protested strongly and relations with South Korea cooled. But after South Korea, among other things, promised to limit the scope of air defense, the Chinese leadership calmed down.
Japan, which was concerned that North Korean robots had been tested over Japanese territory, agreed with the United States on increased military cooperation and deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the country. Japan and South Korea also imposed their own sanctions on the North Korean regime.
Kim Jong-Un’s aggressive actions and threats against the United States led US decision – makers to highlight North Korea as the most pressing security issue. With Donald Trump as the new American president from 2017, the tone became more threatening. Trump made statements on social media that military attacks on North Korea could not be ruled out. Pyongyang responded by threatening nuclear war. But US government officials nevertheless stressed that the main means of getting North Korea to change its mind were diplomacy and sanctions.
The United States criticized China – North Korea’s only ally and largest trading partner – for not doing enough to pressure Pyongyang and to see through its fingers that Chinese companies traded with North Korea in violation of international sanctions. In an attempt to appease the United States, Beijing tightened controls, and sanctions policy now seemed to bite harder.
Kim Jong-Un’s turnaround
During the first months of 2018, a dramatic change took place. According to agooddir, North and South Korea began a rapprochement, made possible not least by the desire of the new South Korean President Moon Jae-Ins to improve relations. During the inauguration of the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang in February, North and South Koreans marched together behind a reunion flag. A summit between the two countries’ leaders was held in the South Korean border town of Panmunjom, when Kim Jong-Un, as the first North Korean leader ever, entered South Korean soil. They agreed to strive for a peace agreement and for the countries to be free of nuclear weapons. Shortly before the meeting, Kim Jong-Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing.
But the most surprising meeting took place in Singapore on June 12 between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. The hitherto bitter enemies now shook hands and promised in a written agreement to create peace and a nuclear-weapon-free Korean peninsula. But no more detailed action plan was established. Washington undertook to safeguard North Korea’s security, and shortly after the meeting, the United States stopped the recurring military exercises with South Korea. A few months later, North Korea kept its promise to send back the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War.
What was behind the turnaround?
According to experts, North Korea today has the capacity to mount nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles and the regime claims that it is able to strike at the US mainland. At a party meeting in April 2018, it was determined that North Korea had achieved the nuclear weapons goal and that the forces would henceforth be focused on developing the country’s economy.
But the plans are thwarted by the world’s sanctions, which hit the North Korean economy hard. In order for the country to accelerate growth and be able to implement more market economic reforms, trade, loans and investments from the outside world are needed.
The steps taken by North Korea during the first half of 2018 – to stop all test firings and reportedly destroy a nuclear test facility – have not been enough for the outside world to lift sanctions against North Korea. The United States demands more in order to move forward with the promises in the Singapore Agreement. So far, the United States has also taken Pyongyang’s desire for a peace agreement as a first step in the process. The deadlock was not facilitated by the IAEA’s report in the summer of 2018 that nuclear development in North Korea looked set to continue.
Some experts say that Pyongyang only uses proven North Korean tactics to gain advantages, without any intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. Others, including South Korean experts who engage in dialogue with their Korean neighbors, are convinced that Kim Jong-Un is indeed prepared to trade his nuclear weapons for economic development provided the regime’s security is secured – and his own grip on power.