Last month, North Korea tested its fifth nuclear bomb, marking the latest in a string of nuclear and ballistic tests. Although the UN issued many sanctions against North Korea, the nation has continued nuclear weapons development. The US and its allies have failed many times at improving relations with this pariah state. Nevertheless, efforts continue attempt to stabilize East Asia.
Around 1990, US satellites discovered nuclear enrichment facilities in North Korea. As Pyongyang was a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the UN sent in investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pyongyang blocked them and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. To prevent this, Washington presented them with the Agreed Framework in 1994, which offered nuclear energy power plants and temporary oil shipments in return for halting their nuclear weapons development. Things went smoothly until Washington cut oil shipments as they suspected Pyongyang was enriching uranium. In response, Pyongyang disputed these claims, withdrew from the NPT, and continued nuclear weapons development.
Soon afterwards, the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan called North Korea to the Six-Party Talks in 2003. The aim was similar to the Agreed Framework; Pyongyang would halt nuclear weapons development, and in exchange the other five parties would provide fuel aid, normalize diplomatic and trade relations, and support Pyongyang’s right to nuclear energy. Once again, although progress had been made, tensions spiked after Pyongyang launched a satellite which the UN claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In response to the Security Council’s condemnation, Pyongyang withdrew from the talks and continued nuclear weapons development.
There is little hope for improved relations between North Korea and the international community. As long as Washington maintains troops along the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily guarded border between the north and south, Pyongyang will protest this as threat to national security and continue nuclear weapons development. As long as Beijing fears an influx of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse, the Security Council will be incapable of imposing substantial sanctions that may incentivize Pyongyang to change its behavior. In the meantime, North Korea will continue its weapons tests and threaten the stability of the region.