However, throughout the Cold War the DPRK as an ally of both the Soviet Union
and the People’s Republic of China was embargoed by the US and its allies. With
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc in the early 1990s the
North faced a dilemma. All aid and trade concessions, such as cheap oil, ceased.
Without Soviet aid, the flow of imports to the North Korean agricultural sector
ended. In 1991, energy imports fell by 75%. The economy went into a downward
spiral, with imports and exports from the former socialist countries it had
relied on abruptly ending.
For a time, China filled the gap left by the Soviet Union's collapse and propped up North Korea's food supply with significant aid. By 1993, China was supplying North Korea with 77 percent of its fuel imports and 68 percent of its food imports. In 1993, however, China faced its own grain shortfalls and need for hard currency, and it sharply cut aid to North Korea.
During this period of economic free fall and food shortages brought on by drought and economic dislocation relations between the DPRK and the US remained in a deep freeze. Although various attempts were made by successive US administrations to deal with North Korea no US President was willing to make the necessary concessions regarding diplomatic recognition and guarantees of the DPRK’s sovereignty to allow for the normalization of relations. In fact, there was no continuity between US administrations regarding its policy toward the North and the US belligerent attitude towards the DPRK led to its development of a nuclear weapons program to serve as a deterrent against US aggression.
A brief history of DPRK/US relations will put the current situation in perspective. After the 1953 armistice negotiations to settle outstanding political issues in Geneva stalled as the US refused to deal directly with China. John Foster Dulles, then US Secretary of State, infamously refused to shake hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and left the conference early.
In 1958, the US unilaterally breached the provision of the Armistice which prohibited the introduction of new weapons onto the peninsula by deploying nuclear-armed missiles to South Korea. This showed the intransigence of the US and its continued hostility to the DPRK. At the same time the US supported and propped up the military dictatorship of Syngman Rhee in the South. Throughout the 1960s and during the War in Vietnam relations between the US and the DPRK were non-existent as South Korean under the administration of strongman Park Chung-hee took an active role in the Vietnam War. From September 1964 to March 1973, South Korea sent more than 300,000 troops to fight alongside US troops.
With the defeat of the US in Vietnam the DPRK once again sued for peace as it had in 1954. It insisted that a peace treaty was necessary to achieve security on the peninsula. In 1974 Pyongyang publicly invited the US to join negotiations for a peace treaty to replace the armistice. Neither the Nixon nor the Ford administrations took any action in response to the request.
Subsequently, North Korea's then leader Kim Il-sung raised the idea of a peace agreement with President Jimmy Carter but nothing came out of it. When President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981 he increased US troop levels in the South. He opposed a peace treaty and maintained support for the South. His successor, George H. W. Bush, withdrew the nuclear weapons and marginally reduced US troop numbers in South Korea, but did not seriously consider negotiating a peace treaty.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc led President Bill Clinton to reevaluate relations with the North. The Agreed Framework in 1994 and the Joint Communiqué between Washington and Pyongyang in 2000 set in motion a process that had the potential to thaw the deep freeze US and DPRK relations had been in since the 1950s. But despite these efforts, the relationship was set back by George W. Bush's hawkish foreign policy and his decision to include North Korea in his imagined "axis of evil".
By 2003, the US had not lived up to its pledge in Article 2 of the Agreed Framework to "move towards full normalization of political and economic relations." In response, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Six Party Talks were convened in 2003, but the Bush administration remained hostile and the talks were inconclusive.
It is against this backdrop that Pyongyang commenced nuclear tests in 2006. When the Obama administration came to office in 2009, it did not seriously engage but preferred to adopt a policy of "strategic patience", relying on sanctions which it hoped would lead to the collapse of the DPRK, to no avail.
The recent emergence of the DPRK as a nuclear power was hence the culmination of decades of US intransigence and hostility. In retrospect it can be seen that the DPRK’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system forced the issue of resolving once and for all the Korean War and the animosities it had created. Otherwise peace talks and normalization of relations would never have gotten off square one. Trump, faced with a nuclear DPRK, was boxed into a corner. He could huff and puff and threaten the DPRK with fire and fury, he could as his predecessors had, ratchet up sanctions, but his bluster turned out to be a charade. Once Kim Jong-un took the initiative to seek a rapprochement with the South during the 2018 Winter Olympics and announce his willingness to meet with Trump at a summit and pledge to denuclearize, the US President had no real choice but to accept.
The Summit just held and the agreements made are a clear victory for the DPRK, as well as China. The Chinese had long sought a peace process that entailed the suspension of joint US/South Korean military exercises in exchange for the initiation of denuclearization. China has also long sought to influence the North to initiate economic reforms along the lines that China had taken in its opening up to the outside world. The meetings between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to the Kim/Trump Summit solidified the Chinese/Korean alliance and freed Kim to engage with Trump to initiate the peace process.
The Korean nuclearization project had one objective in mind, to break the logjam and force the US to the negotiating table, something the US had long resisted. Kim’s strategy worked like a charm. All the demands of the DPRK and its Chinese mentor have been met. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has gained international legitimacy and stature. US/South Korean military exercises have been suspended. A road to a peace treaty has been cleared. The US has made security guarantees to the DPRK and North and South Korea can continue their rapprochement. China is waiting in the wings, willing and able to suspend sanctions and help the South and other nations reconstruct the DPRK’s economy.
On the US side, Trump must be praised for accepting reality and finally acknowledging the DPRK’s legitimate security concerns. In return he can portray himself as a peace-maker and burnish his image. In fact, the US has finally capitulated. The DPRK, China and all peace-loving nations and people are the ultimate winners. The question however is will the US live up to its commitments or will the war-mongers in the US Congress seek to sabotage the progress now made?
Dennis Etler is an American political analyst with a decades-long interest in international affairs. He is a former professor of Anthropology at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California.