The situation on the Korean Peninsula reached a possible turning point on July 8, 1994, with the death of North Korea's eighty-two year-old president, Kim Il Sung. The passing of the North's founder and only leader of the Communist State had been predicted for years as an event that could open new possibilities for dramatic change on the Korean Peninsula.  The United States, South Korea, and North Korea's other neighbors face significant challenges in determining policy adjustments that might encourage the new North Korean leadership to take actions to reduce tensions and promote regional stability in Northeast Asia.

 

Introduction

The situation on the Korean Peninsula reached a possible turning point on July 8, 1994, with the death of North Korea's eighty-two year-old president, Kim Il Sung. The passing of the North's founder and only leader of the Communist State had been predicted for years as an event that could open new possibilities for dramatic change on the Korean Peninsula. Almost four months after Kim's death, however, the nature and extent of changes in Pyongyang's policies remain unclear. Uncertainties persist over the course of North Korea's leadership transition and prospects for North-South relations, as well as the North's willingness to implement the October 21 U.S.-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) framework agreement. Future periods of heightened confrontation, if not crisis, over the North's nuclear program can not be ruled out. The United States, South Korea, and North Korea's other neighbors face significant challenges in determining policy adjustments that might encourage the new North Korean leadership to take actions to reduce tensions and promote regional stability in Northeast Asia.

Key Points

  • The October 21, 1994 U.S.-DPRK framework agreement outlines the steps for dismantling North Korea's plutonium production capability and improving U.S.-DPRK relations. It will be years before the agreement can be fully implemented, and a renewed crisis could occur if any elements in the agreement are not carried out. North Korea's continued adherence to its pledge not to refuel its five megawatt (MW) experimental reactor or reprocess spent fuel rods currently in wet storage, and to freeze construction of its 50 MW and 200 MW graphite reactors, is critical to implementing the agreement and is essential for further progress.
  • It will be important to support the U.S.-DPRK agreement with parallel progress in the North-South Korean dialogue to reduce tensions on the peninsula and to ensure that the relationship between Washington and Seoul remains one of confidence. Progress in U.S.-DPRK relations has raised South Korean fears of losing control over developments on the peninsula and of a weakening of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance.
  • Washington must be attentive to South Korean concerns and reassure Seoul of the undiminished commitment of the U.S. to South Korea. This requires not only exceptional governmental measures to coordinate policy, but also efforts to build public support for common policy as the U.S. and South Korea both parties deal with North Korea on nuclear and other issues.
  • South Korea should be actively involved in diplomacy with North Korea, relying on the South's economic, political, and military strengths and searching for appropriate opportunities to reactivate the North-South dialogue. The South will have a major role in supplying North Korea with light-water reactors. At the same time, the United States should take steps to ensure that the degree of progress toward normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations does not outpace the development of North-South relations.
  • There is still little reliable information about how the North Korean political succession is proceeding. Kim Il Sung's death may not have precipitated a period of policy paralysis in North Korea, but it has created considerable uncertainty for outsiders. Doubts remain among foreign observers about whether the elder Kim's son and designated successor, Kim Jong Il, will ultimately consolidate his power. These questions persist despite the younger Kim's stepped-up public appearances following the ceremony marking 100 days of mourning for his father and reports that the elder Kim, before his death, approved a policy of improving U.S.-DPRK relations at the cost of relinquishing the North's nuclear program. Even if Kim Jong Il is finally named as North Korea's state and party leader, the transition has made it more difficult to achieve progress in the North-South dialogue.
  • To encourage North Korea's commitment to implement the October 21 agreement, the United States must maintain close cooperation with South Korea, Japan, China, and others so that the post-Kim Il Sung leadership does not doubt the international consensus in support of the agreement's implementation. Maintenance of an international coalition on these issues is critical to convincing Pyongyang that it cannot succeed in diplomatic maneuvers designed to split off elements of the coalition or to stall in implementing the agreement.

 

 

 

Related Publications

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

South Sudan’s Pitfalls of Power Sharing

Friday, February 16, 2018

By: USIP Staff; Susan Stigant; Aly Verjee

This week, a new proposal for a power sharing government was tabled at the ongoing Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF) peace talks for South Sudan. An earlier, 2015 peace deal also contained a formula for power sharing; that arrangement failed and the civil war re-ignited a year later. Power sharing arrangements are appropriate if certain conditions are met, but not enough has been done to ensure the latest proposal will overcome the obstacles present in South Sudan, according to Susan Stigant, USIP’s director for Africa programs and Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP and a former senior advisor to the IGAD mediation, who comment on the proposal and suggest how it could be improved.

Democracy & Governance; Fragility and Resilience; Global Policy

Understanding China’s Response to the Rakhine Crisis

Understanding China’s Response to the Rakhine Crisis

Thursday, February 8, 2018

By: Adrienne Joy

Following attacks on police posts by an armed Rohingya militia in August 2017, reprisals by the Burmese government have precipitated a humanitarian crisis. More than six hundred thousand Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where they face an uncertain future. Publicly stating that the root cause of conflict in Rakhine is...

Global Policy

Reframing the Crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Reframing the Crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Monday, January 22, 2018

By: Gabrielle Aron

In the aftermath of attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and subsequent military clearance operations, two competing narratives have emerged. One frames the attacks as a critical threat to national security and the majority cultural-religious status quo. The second focuses on the human cost...

Global Policy; Human Rights

A Diplomatic Window Opens, Briefly, on the Korean Peninsula

A Diplomatic Window Opens, Briefly, on the Korean Peninsula

Thursday, January 18, 2018

By: Frank Aum

Last week’s “sports diplomacy” between South and North Korean negotiators—the first direct dialogue in more than two years—was a good first step in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, along with news that the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises will be delayed until late April, has produced a rare window of opportunity for diplomatic progress.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

View All Publications