The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has a long history of issues with nuclear compliance and other nuclear-capable nations. In the early 1990s, President Kim Il Sung had two main missions for his reign: (1) expel the United States from South Korea and (2) reunite the two Koreas. Even though North Korea was a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which effectively banned pursuing nuclear weapons, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found discrepancies between what President Sung had reported and what their NPT mandated inspections had found. This led the international community to believe the North Koreans were beginning to develop nuclear weapons. After the discrepancies were announced to the public, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT. In order to avoid the risks of violence and increase the probability of success in negotiation, the United States employed a strategy of appeasement. Appeasement involves complying with the aggressive actor’s demands in the hopes that it will satisfy their needs and lessen aggression. Although critics’ negative reception of the strategy is valid, it was an effective strategy at the time in avoiding high risk of nuclear war. 

Appeasement Negotiations

North Korea made five demands to remain in the NPT. Firstly, they demanded the cancelation of any future “Team Spirit” exercise, joint military exercises between the US and South Korea which North Korea saw as a threat to their national security. Secondly, they demanded South Korea allow inspections of military facilities, thirdly, that the US guarantee to never attack North Korea with a nuclear strike, fourthly, that the US remove the “nuclear umbrella” from South Korea, and lastly, that the US recognize the governmental system in North Korea. Despite the gravity of demands, the US decided to appease North Korea by complying with all requests.

The Agreed Framework

The response to North Korea’s demands and additional incentives resulted in an agreement called the Agreed Framework.  The South Korean Defense Minister publicly acknowledged Team Spirit would be suspended following North Korea’s allowance of IAEA inspectors to access their nuclear facilities again. After some negotiation, the US and North Korea issued a joint declaration in which both sides agreed to support peace and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, respect the other’s sovereignty, and eventually reunite North and South Korea. 

Beyond conceding to North Korea’s demands, the US committed itself to the non-use of nuclear weapons on North Korea and formally announced their support for North Korea’s nuclear energy program. In the agreement, North Korea was given two Light Water Reactors (LWRs) for nuclear energy, and in order to make up for the forced transition from their less efficient heavy water reactors to LWRs, heavy fuel oil would be given as compensation. LWRs allow energy to be created using nuclear materials, but can also be diverted towards nuclear weapon creation. These reactors were specifically built to have safeguards that would make it difficult to divert the nuclear materials to make weapons or would clearly show if attempts were made to weaponize them. In addition, compliance with multiple IAEA safeguards and monitoring measures were mandatory in order to ensure North Korea would comply with the new agreement. If the US or South Korea were notified that North Korea was defecting from the agreement, the verification methods would allow the renegotiation or punishment before any significant nuclear progress had been made. The final concession granted a wish held by North Korea since their creation as an adversary to the “western powers” – the United States announced they would begin the reduction of trade and investment barriers, which the North Koreans saw as a commitment to ending sanctions. 

A Breakdown of the Agreed Framework

The appeasement of North Korea worked for a few years, but began to break down due to resistance to the agreement. Establishing formal relations between the United States and North Korea was not forthcoming, forcing the North Koreans to pay for liaison offices and diverting part of a German Embassy for the new relations. The reduction in economic sanctions was also little to none, causing tension. Since the United States seemed it could not be fully trusted, North Korea decided to break the agreement and secretly resume their nuclear program. 

The Pros and Cons of Appeasement

Bob Gallucci, the senior US negotiator of the Agreed Framework, called his strategy “the broad and thorough approach.” His tactic involved tying the behavior of the North Korean government to incentives they wanted from the US, such as normalizing relations and diplomatic recognition. The hope for this plan was to appease North Korea and induce future good behavior. Still, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework and the NPT brought criticism of the strategy from the public and other actors. 

Appeasement of antagonistic actors generally has a negative reception. After appeasement failed to deter Hitler during World War II, many people tended to look down upon it. Furthermore, incentives are seen among the international system as actions between allies, not enemies. Clinton critics also saw the appeasement as approval of North Korea’s human rights abuses and predicted the appeasement would turn into blackmail in future negotiations. Still, the powers strongly believed at the time that appeasement would work, and using other tactics such as coercion or punishment contains the high risk of a war the U.S. could not win.

The United States and South Korea thought appeasement would work better than violence because the aggressor’s demands were limited, leading them to believe if those demands were met, the crisis would be absolved. They additionally  maintained that North Korea felt insecure in their safety due to their lack of nuclear weapons, so reassuring the North Korean government by complying with all demands and making a commitment to nonviolence was hoped to be seen as a sign of good faith, not weakness. Furthermore, nuclear threats were not credible since the United States could not be sure that in a first strike they could destroy all nuclear weapons, leaving them open to nuclear retaliation, especially by their Soviet allies, and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). A nuclear strike on North Korea would also leave Japan susceptible to dangerous nuclear fallout, further ensuring North Korea that the US would not be launching a nuclear strike against them at any time soon. Sanctions would not work since North Korea already had the materials they needed for nuclear capabilities, and denying the North Koreans oil and causing an economic collapse would spell disaster for US allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Conclusions and Future Application of Appeasement in the Korean Peninsula 

The United States appeased North Korea in an attempt to entice the government to remain in the NPT and the Agreed Framework. Although the appeasement was criticized in a hindsight analysis, it was a better option during the Agreed Framework negotiations than violence, since the US could not risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union or risk the effects of a nuclear strike. The appeasement was thought to work since it contained verification methods, complied with all of North Korea’s demands, and attempted to reassure the government that the US would not be a threat.  

In future nuclear negotiations with North Korea, it is too late to exercise appeasement. Appeasement failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons because of mistrust, resistance, and North Korea’s nuclear ambition – all factors still present in the North Korean government. With Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il’s similar attitudes of mistrust and self-preservation, it is likely a current strategy of appeasement in North Korea would be just as ineffective as it was in the 1990s. North Korea’s desire to be the nuclear superpower in the Korean Peninsula is still greater than any concession the west could credibly make.

About the Author: Elise Levy is a Deputy Moderator-in-Chief with the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at the George Washington University Law School. She received her B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).