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Facts Matter

How North Korean diplomacy fails

Kim Jong-un.
Kim Jong-un. STR / AFP / Getty Images

North Korea has expressed willingness to discuss denuclearization with the U.S., a significant step that President Trump has greeted on Twitter with cautious optimism. The news follows talks between North and South Korea, and a show of unity at the Winter Olympics.

There's reason for skepticism: The diplomatic history shows that apparent breakthroughs and shows of good will have proved fleeting, particularly surrounding major sporting events. Even now, North Korea maintains it won't discuss denuclearization, which the U.S. says must be a starting point for talks.

The diplomatic history

1985-1992: North Korea agrees to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) but doesn’t abide by a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

  • How it falls apart: The U.S. sanctions two entities in North Korea.

1993: After finding discrepancies in North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear materials, the IAEA requests to inspect sites in North Korea, which Pyongyang refuses.

  • How it falls apart: Pyongyang threatens to withdraw from the NPT.

1994: The U.S. and North Korea hammer out the “Agreed Framework." This halts North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the NPT and freezes its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid.

  • How it falls apart: In 2002 the framework falls apart, with alleged violations from both countries.

2003: Six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, China, the U.S., Japan, and Russia begin, and last for 6 rounds. They lead to an agreement in 2005 about the North’s potential denuclearization, re-joining the NPT, and maintaining a civilian nuclear program.

  • How it falls apart: The U.S. also adds in some economic measures, and when North Korea requests these be eased the deal breaks down.

2007-2009: The parties work on crafting steps to implement the prior agreement, including a proposal from the U.S. about site inspection in North Korea.

  • How it falls apart: North Korea opposes that pitch and announces it will restart its processing plant. Pyongyang launches a Taepo Dong-2 three-stage rocket, which the UN calls a violation of one of its resolutions. North Korea announces it will no longer participate in talks.

2010: North Korea suggests talks on implementing a peace treaty in place of the ceasefire that followed the Korean War.

  • How it falls apart: Pyongyang threatens war with South Korea after Seoul says it would invade the North if it threatens a nuclear strike.
  • A South Korea patrol ship sinks and the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) concludes the North is responsible. The U.S. and South Korea conduct joint military exercises as a show of force in response. The U.S. increases financial sanctions.
  • North Korea announces it has a facility with 2,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium and fires artillery at a South Korean island.

2012: After meeting with the U.S. in 2011 for the first time in 2 years, North Korea announces it will stop uranium enrichment, allow in IAEA inspectors, and hold a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

  • How it falls apart: North Korea announces it will launch a satellite, which the U.S. says would violate the agreement. The U.S. suspends food aid delivery to the North. North Korea reveals six ICBMs, although experts say they may be fakes. North Korea launches a long-range rocket.

2018: South Korea says it is willing to talk with the North after Kim Jong-un suggests coordinating for the Olympics. The U.S. and South Korea postpone joint military exercises.

Sports and violence

North Korea has launched attacks on South Korea in the buildup to or during major sporting events hosted in the South, the BBC reports.

  • 1987: Bombing a Korean Airlines flight in advance of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
  • 2002: Opening fire on a South Korean navy ship during a Fifa World Cup semi-final match hosted in South Korea.

The bottom line

South Korea has expressed hopes that these Olympic Games may signal something different, but the history shows that tensions often ramp up just after an apparent breakthrough.

Axios 3 hours ago
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In Mideast, democracy struggles to strike root

Mohammad bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Photo: Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Bloomberg

"Egyptians go to the polls next week in what is essentially a one-candidate election considered by critics to be a return of sorts to authoritarian rule, after a 2011 revolution that sparked loftier expectations for the region," AP Middle East Editor Dan Perry writes.

The big picture: "[I]n the Middle East as a whole, democracy has largely failed to take hold."

Shannon Vavra 6 hours ago
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What it's like to negotiate with North Korea

Cups and a weapon.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

President Trump may find himself in a difficult position as soon as he sits down with Kim Jong-un, according to Jim Walsh, who has been in the room for previous talks and says North Korea’s first pitch is often a curveball.

“I’ve been in settings [in which they] set it at the top of the meeting, ‘we’re not going to talk about denuclearization,’" Walsh told Axios. "People on the other side say ‘why the hell are we meeting?’”