North Korea Table of Contents

North Korea's foreign relations are shaped by a mixture of historical, nationalistic, ideological, and pragmatic considerations. The territorial division of the peninsula looms large in the political thinking of North Korean leaders and is a driving force in their management of internal and external affairs. Over the centuries, unequal relations, foreign depredation, dependence on foreigners for assorted favors, and the emulation of foreign cultures and institutions are less the exception than the rule in Korea's relationship with the outside world. These patterns give rise to the widely shared assumption among Koreans that their capacity to control their national destiny is limited by geopolitical constraints.

Inter-Korean Affairs

The reunification of the two Koreas is seen as a difficult goal. Although P'yongyang and Seoul agreed in principle in 1972 that unification should be achieved peacefully and without foreign interference, they continued to differ substantially on the practical methods of attaining reunification; this area of disagreement has not narrowed in subsequent years.

North Korea's goal of unification remains constant, but tactics have changed depending on the perception of opportunities and limitations implicit in shifting domestic and external situations. From the beginning, North Korea has insisted that an inter-Korean political formula should be based on parity or coequality, rather than population. Because South Korea has more than twice the population of North Korea, a supreme Korean council set up according to a one-person, one-vote formula will give South Korea a commanding position in that type of relationship. Another constant is P'yongyang's insistence that the Korean question be settled as an internal Korean affair without foreign interference.

P'yongyang's position that unification should be achieved by peaceful means was belied by circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and by subsequent infiltrations, the digging of tunnels, and other incidents. North Korea's contention that the conflict was started by South Korea and the United States failed to impress South Korea's population. The war, in effect, reinforced the obvious ideological and systemic incompatibilities that were in place at the time of the division of the peninsula in 1945. At the Geneva Conference in mid-1954, North Korea proposed the formation of an all-Korean commission and a single Korean legislature through elections; the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the Korean Peninsula; and the formal declaration by outside powers of the need for peaceful development and unification in Korea. P'yongyang also proposed that the armies of both countries be reduced to 100,000 persons each within a year, that neither side enter into any military alliance, and that measures be taken to facilitate economic and cultural exchanges. Kim Il Sung urged a mutual reduction of armed forces and a sharp cutback in the "heavy burden of military expenditure in South Korea," recognizing that any arms buildup could lead to a renewed arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Kim also called on "South Korean authorities, political parties, social organizations, and individual personages" to have their representatives meet their northern counterparts in P'yongyang, Seoul, or P'anmunjm to start negotiations on all "burning issues awaiting urgent solution."

In mid-1969 Kim signaled the resumption of peaceful gestures to South Korea. In October 1969, P'yongyang announced that the policy of peaceful unification would be renewed, adding that this option had not been stressed "in the last few years" because of alleged war policies being pursued by the United States and South Korea. Beginning in August 1970, Seoul proposed that the two Koreas open "a bona fide competition" to see which side could better satisfy the various needs of the Korean people. This development ended P'yongyang's previous monopoly on the rhetoric of neighborly intentions and peaceful unification.

Inter-Korean affairs became more complex in 1970 and 1971, in part because of the United States decision to withdraw some of its troops from South Korea and because of moves by the United States and China to improve their relations. In August 1971, amid signs of a thaw in the Cold War and an uncertain international environment, the Red Cross societies of Seoul and P'yongyang agreed to open talks aimed at the eventual reunion of dispersed families. These high-level talks--between Kim Il Sung's brother and the chief of the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency, were held alternately in the two capitals and paralleled behind- the-scenes contacts to initiate political negotiations, reportedly at South Korea's suggestion. The talks continued to evolve and resulted in a joint communiqué issued on July 4, 1972, in which the two countries agreed to abide by three principles of unification. As such, the two Koreas agreed to work towards reunifying the country independently and without foreign interference; transcending differences in ideology and political systems; and unifying the country peacefully without the use of armed force.

The communiqué also contained an accord designed to ease tensions and foster mutual trust by instructing the two countries to refrain from slandering and defaming each other, expediting the Red Cross talks, installing a hot line between P'yongyang and Seoul, and establishing a South-North Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as the machinery for substantive negotiations and for implementing the points of the agreement. The SNCC met three times. The first and third meetings were held in Seoul from November 30 to December 2, 1972, and June 12-14, 1973, respectively; the second meeting was held in P'yongyang March 14- 16, 1973. At the second meeting, the committee agreed to set up five subcommittees--political, military, foreign, economic, and cultural affairs--under joint direction. It was stipulated however, that subcommittees would be formed only when progress had been made vis-à-vis SNCC dialogue.

By June 1973, inter-Korean dialogue had become deadlocked. The fourth meeting was scheduled for August 28, 1973, in P'yongyang, but North Korea declined to convene it, making it official that it was no longer interested in participating in SNCC meetings. No significant agreement has been reached through the SNCC mechanism.

It quickly became obvious to both sides that they have fundamentally divergent approaches. North Korea's position focuses on three major themes: that the inter-Korean armed confrontation must first be ended; that North Korea's transitional scheme of coexistence called "confederation" be recognized as a practical necessity; and that a one-Korea policy should be pursued under all circumstances. P'yongyang seeks to settle military questions first, proposing cessation of the military buildup and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from South Korea. South Korea's position is one of peaceful coexistence based on "peace first, unification later." Seoul seeks recognition of the political systems of the two Koreas, noninterference in each side's internal affairs, and the promotion of mutual economic cooperation. South Korean president Park Chung Hee stressed the importance of preserving peace at all costs, specifying that each side refrain from invading the other or interfering in the other's affairs.

The contrast in positions is especially evident in international relations. South Korea suggested that both Koreas become members of the United Nations (UN) if it were the wish of the majority of UN members and if membership would not impede unification. In reaffirming peace and good-neighborliness as the basis of its foreign policy, Seoul declared its readiness to establish formal relations even with those countries whose ideologies and social institutions were different from South Korea's. In an obvious allusion to communist states, Seoul called on these countries to reciprocate by opening their doors.

North Korea began to urge the United States to refrain from obstructing the dialogue and from giving military aid to South Korea. In March 1974, P'yongyang proposed direct negotiations to Washington on the question of replacing the "outdated" Korean armistice agreement with a peace agreement. Relations between North Korea and South Korea had, by 1975, become increasingly complicated because of the ripple effect created by the fall of the government in Saigon. Following Vietnam's reunification in mid-1975, the Nixon administration reduced the United States troop level in South Korea by about one-third. This move, in conjunction with Nixon's opening to China, worried South Korea.

Leaders in both P'yongyang and Seoul talked increasingly about the dangers of renewed military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea called on South Koreans to overthrow President Park's government and reiterated its support for what it called a "massive popular struggle for independence and democracy" in South Korea. In South Korea, the cry of "threat from the North" became more shrill after Vietnam's reunification. In August 1976, against the backdrop of escalating tensions along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the telephone hot line that had linked P'yongyang and Seoul ceased operations and remained unused until February 1980.

In the late 1970s, North Korea and South Korea attempted to revive their dialogue. In January 1979, North Korea agreed to South Korea's proposal to resume talks unconditionally, but preliminary talks held in February and March failed to narrow the differences. North Korea maintained that the talks should be within the framework of a "whole-nation congress" composed of political and social groups from both sides. South Korea countered that the talks should be on a government-to-government basis without participation of nongovernmental mass organizations.

In February 1980, preparatory talks got under way at P'anmunjm in the DMZ. Through August 1980, the two sides met ten times and agreed on several minor procedural and technical points, even though they were unable to decide on an agenda for the premiers' conference or on an interpretation of such terms as "collaboration," "unity," and "peaceful reunification." Another impediment was disagreement on whether the premiers' talks should be treated as part of broader North-South contacts involving various mass organizations--as North Korea contends--or whether the talks should be on a more manageable government-to-government basis--as South Korea demands. On September 24, 1980, two days before the eleventh scheduled meeting, North Korea suspended the talks, citing "the South Korean military fascist" policy of seeking confrontation and division. On September 25, P'yongyang also once again suspended operation of the telephone hot line. In October 1980, at the Sixth Party Congress, Kim Il Sung proposed the establishment of the Democratic Confederal Republic of Kory, a system of unification based on mutual convenience and toleration. According to the proposal, a single unified state would be founded on the principle of coexistence, leaving the two systems intact and federating the two governments. The Democratic Confederal Republic of Kory, so named after a unified state that previously existed in Korea (918-1392), is viewed by North Korea as "the most realistic way of national reunification." A supreme national assembly with an equal number of representatives from north and south and an appropriate number of representatives of overseas Koreans would be formed, with a confederal standing committee to "guide the regional government of the north and the south and to administer all the affairs of the confederal state." The regional governments of the north and south would have independent policies--within limits--consistent with the fundamental interests and demands of the whole nation and strive to narrow their differences in all areas.

The proposal provided that the supreme national confederal assembly and the confederal standing committee--its permanent organ and the de facto central government--would be the unified government of the confederal state and, as such, would be responsible for discussing and deciding domestic and foreign affairs, matters of national defense, and other matters of common concern related to the interests of the whole country and nation. Further, the coordinated development of the country and nation should be promoted. The confederal government would be neutral and nonaligned. South Korea rejected the confederation as another propaganda ploy.

No significant dialogue occurred between the two countries until the middle of 1984, when South Korea suffered a devastating flood. North Korea proposed to send relief goods to flood victims in South Korea; the offer was accepted. This occasion provided the momentum for both sides to resume their suspended dialogue. In 1985 the two countries exchanged performing arts groups, and ninety-two members of separated families met. In January 1986, however, North Korea once again suddenly cut off all talks with South Korea, blaming "Team Spirit," the annual United States- South Korean joint military exercise.

After the inauguration of South Korean president Roh Tae Woo in 1988, a more vigorous dialogue commenced between Seoul and P'yongyang. Nordpolitik, South Korea's efforts since 1984 to expand ties with the former communist bloc, and the slowing pace of North Korea's economic development have contributed to a basic change in P'yongyang's strategy toward Seoul. Further encouraging this shift were the political upheaval and demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, one of North Korea's key allies.

Subsequently, North Korea lost its guaranteed access to the market once provided by the Soviet Union and its satellites. At the same time, South Korea established commercial and diplomatic relations with many East European countries. Next, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council approved the simultaneous entry of both Koreas into the UN in September 1991.

Five rounds of meetings were held alternately in Seoul and P'yongyang before the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation between the South and the North was signed on December 13, 1991. The agreement called for reconciliation and nonaggression on the Korean Peninsula. Then North Korean premier Yon Hyong-muk called the agreement "the most valuable achievement ever made between the South and North Korean authorities." It was agreed that further meetings would be held to resolve such issues as creating a nuclear-free Korea, uniting divided families, and discussing economic cooperation.

For the first time, North Korea "officially recognized" the existence of South Korea. The accord called for North Korea and South Korea to formally end the Korean War. Among the terms of the accord are agreements to issue a joint declaration of nonaggression, advance warning of troop movements and exercises, and the installation of a hot line between top military commanders. The Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation has led to the establishment of several joint North-South Korea subcommittees that are to work out the specifics for implementing the general terms of the accord. These subcommittees report to the committees that met in conjunction with the prime ministerial level talks that had began in September 1990. There are subcommittees on economic cooperation affairs (concerning South Korea's commercial investments in North Korea) and on trade and the opening of lines of travel and communication (including telephonic) between the two Koreas; cultural exchange, concerning the exchange of entertainment and athletic groups and the joint sponsorship of single teams to represent both Koreas in international sports competitions; political affairs, on working to eliminate mutual slander in their respective mass media and to abrogate laws detrimental to improving understanding and cooperation; and military affairs, on devising ways and means to reduce tensions and exchange notice of military exercises. Separate from the prime ministerial dialogue, yet closely associated with it, are talks held between the North and South Korean Red Cross organizations about reunification of families.

The two Koreas also agree that their peninsula should be "free of nuclear weapons." The joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula calls for the establishment of a Joint Nuclear Control Committee (JNCC) to negotiate a credible and effective bilateral nuclear inspection regime as called for in the declaration. Although negotiations in all these areas produced substantive progress toward the drafting of detailed accords for the terms of implementing the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges and Cooperation, nothing has been implemented as of mid-1993. As for negotiation of a bilateral inspection regime, these talks also had not achieved any significant progress by mid-1993.

Foreign Relations with
China and the Soviet Union
The United States

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress