Decades of U.S. Diplomacy With North Korea: a Timeline
Trump's potential meeting with Kim Jong Un follows decades of mostly failed U.S. talks with the Hermit Kingdom.
President Donald Trump stunned the world, and even parts of his own administration, when he agreed last week to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for talks amid a high-wire nuclear standoff.
The meeting would be unprecedented: No sitting U.S. president has met a North Korean leader. But it would follow decades of tough diplomatic wrangling on North Korea by past administrations, where successes were fleeting and failure was common.
All prior talks were the culmination of months, even years, of diplomatic spadework by successive administrations. The Trump-Kim meeting could happen as soon as May, leaving diplomats only a few months to scramble to lay the groundwork for talks. (Meanwhile, the State Department’s North Korea special representative, Joseph Yun, retired this month and Trump has yet to fill other key diplomatic posts, including the U.S. ambassador to South Korea.)
And unlike in negotiations past, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are far more advanced than any previous time. North Korea would enter any talks “in a new position of strength,” says Jenny Town of Johns Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute.
Experts are torn on whether a Trump-Kim meeting would help soothe tensions or just make things worse. Some think a summit would play right into Kim’s hands for a public relations coup, forcing Washington to treat Pyongyang as an equal.
But others welcome the development. “I would rather have summits and stability over fire and fury,” says Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues.
Here are the major talks and nuclear milestones that came before Trump:
1985: North Korea acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It did not, however, complete an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement.
1991: U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, including some based in South Korea. Months later, South Korean President Roh Tae-woo announced his country would not produce or store nuclear weapons.
1992: North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, agreeing not to test, produce, posses, or deploy nuclear weapons, and agreeing to mutual verification inspections.
1993: North Korea gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but suspended the decision following discussions with the United States at the United Nations. At that point, U.S. intelligence agencies estimated North Korea had enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear warheads.
1994: Jimmy Carter became the first former U.S. president to visit North Korea, where he laid the groundwork for further diplomatic talks. Later that year, the Clinton administration and North Korea signed the “Agreed Framework” to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program. Most experts agree this was the closest Washington came to a successful deal with North Korea: Pyongyang agreed to freeze construction of nuclear reactors and production of plutonium in exchange for aid, fuel shipments, and other economic benefits.
2000: Jo Myong Rok, a senior North Korean military leader, visited Washington to meet President Bill Clinton following positive signs in Pyongyang’s talks with South Korea. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang shortly thereafter. She met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to try and expand the Agreed Framework and prepare a potential visit by President Bill Clinton. But the talks ultimately failed.
2002: The Agreed Framework set up under Clinton broke down. President George W. Bush, who took a harder-line stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor, accused North Korea of cheating by secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment program. North Korea accused the United States of backing out of its end of the deal.
2003: Following the collapse of the Agreed Framework and North Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, China hosted the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia for semiregular rounds of talks with North Korea known as the six-party talks. Throughout the talks, Pyongyang insisted it would not give up its nuclear weapons program.
2006: North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, resparking the simmering diplomatic crisis.
2009: The six-party talks collapsed following an impasse over granting international inspectors permission to visit sites in North Korea. Despite the lack of progress on that front, former President Bill Clinton visited North Korea and successfully negotiated the release of two imprisoned American journalists.
2011: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea since 1994, died amid President Barack Obama’s administration’s efforts to revive peace talks. His son, Kim Jong Un, took power.
2012: President Obama tried to push Pyongyang to the negotiating table by ratcheting up sanctions. But Kim Jong Un scuppered a final deal that would have halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and allowed in international inspectors in exchange for U.S. aid. (Town says it is likely because Kim had to display strength to consolidate power after his father’s death.) Meanwhile, North Korea continued to make strides in its nuclear weapons program.
2016 – 2017: Newly elected President Donald Trump unleashed a barrage of sharp rhetoric against North Korea, threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on the Hermit Kingdom if it continues to escalate tensions with the United States. North Korea test-fired a slew of ballistic missiles, and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
2018: South Korean President Moon Jae-in helped bring about potential talks between Trump and Kim following overtures from Washington and Pyongyang at his country’s Winter Olympics. The Trump administration credits its economic and diplomatic pressure campaign for bringing North Korea to the table.
Trump has agreed to a historic meeting with Kim Jong Un, possibly by the end of May, though North Korea has yet to formally accept the offer.
Town says a face-to-face between the two leaders could be promising, but only if it’s the start of follow-on talks at lower levels.
“Realistically, when Trump [meets Kim], he’s not going to walk away with a final agreement,” she says. “This isn’t a one-off, be-all, end-all. This is just the start of the negotiations.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin