U.S. Eases Sanctions After North-South Summit; Pyongyang Reaffirms Missile-Testing Ban

July/August 2000

By Seth Brugger and Matthew Rice

Immediately following a historic summit between North and South Korea, on June 19, the United States eased sanctions on North Korea that had been in place since 1950. The U.S. action, which implemented a previous decision to relax sanctions, apparently prompted North Korea to reaffirm its pledge not to flight-test missiles and provided momentum for a resumption of bilateral missile talks.

The United States originally announced its intention to ease sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the Defense Production Act, and the Commerce Department's Export Administration Regulations in September 1999. (See ACT, September/October 1999.) However, the sanctions were not legally relaxed until new regulations were printed June 19 in the Federal Registry. Explaining the lapse between the announcement and the actual easing of sanctions, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher simply said, "Everything always takes longer than you planned."

The United States has eased sanctions on Pyongyang before, although only in a very limited sense. Some travel restrictions were loosened in 1989. In 1994, following the signature of the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which aimed to freeze North Korea's nuclear program, Washington relaxed a few narrowly focused economic sanctions. The United States has also permitted the shipment of humanitarian items to North Korea in response to natural disasters there in 1995, 1996, and 1997.

The newly announced action is much broader and permits a "wide range" of exports and imports between the two states, although imports from North Korea will be subject to an approval process, according to the State Department. Direct personal and commercial financial transactions are permitted, and investment restrictions have been eased. Additionally, commercial U.S. ships and aircraft will be allowed to land or dock at North Korean ports.

However, some sanctions remain in place, including counter-terrorism and non-proliferation controls and statutory and multilateral restrictions, effectively prohibiting exports of military and sensitive dual-use items and most related U.S. assistance. North Korea also remains on the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, effectively blocking U.S. support of World Bank or International Monetary Fund loans to North Korea. Pyongyang has insisted that as long as it remains on the terrorism list, it will not send a high-level official to Washington as reciprocation for a May 1999 visit to North Korea by presidential envoy William Perry.

Following the U.S. action, North Korea reaffirmed its September 1999 pledge to "not launch a missile." On June 20, a foreign ministry spokesman remarked, "Now that preparations are going on for the Washington high-level talks, the moratorium still remains in force," according to a June 21 report by the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean government's press organ. The spokesman called for the complete removal of remaining U.S. sanctions, adding that if the United States "sincerely" worked toward "improved bilateral relations…the D.P.R.K. will move in good faith and work to clear the U.S. of its worries." During a June 21 briefing, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said these assurances were "very much welcome."

These latest U.S.-North Korean actions helped provide the momentum needed for a resumption of bilateral missile talks, dormant since March 1999. The two sides met in May for preparatory talks, which will be followed up with missile talks from July 10 to 12 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


The North-South Summit

The easing of sanctions and North Korea's latest missile pledge followed on the heals of the first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, held June 13-15 in Pyongyang. The summit produced agreements of little substance but offered hope of progress toward more peaceful relations.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il signed a joint declaration June 15 that "agreed to resolve" the reunification question, decided to "promptly" settle the issue of exchange visits by families separated since the Korean War, encouraged economic and cultural cooperation, and set the stage for an eventual visit by Kim Jong-Il to Seoul. President Kim Dae Jung exuberantly proclaimed that the accord promised the Korean people "a dawn of hope for reconciliation, cooperation and unification."

It had not been expected that the two sides would make progress on difficult issues such as the status of U.S. troops in South Korea and the North Korean missile program. However, President Kim Dae Jung said he discussed these issues. "We talked about nuclear and missile problems and U.S. troops," he told reporters upon his return to Seoul.

President Kim Dae Jung told a June 19 meeting of the U.S.-Korea Business Council that although Pyongyang continues anti-U.S. propaganda, Kim Jong-Il never denounced the United States during the summit, according to Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, who attended the meeting. President Kim Dae Jung said that he told the North Korean leader that improved ties with the United States could aid his country's economy and that Pyongyang should pursue better relations with China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. President Kim also told his counterpart that nuclear and missile controls needed to be kept in place, emphasizing the importance of North Korean cooperation on these areas in order for Pyongyang to gain the international communities' support and economic assistance. According to President Kim, the North Korean leader responded to these remarks in a fairly positive manner.


Effect on U.S. Threat Assessment

It is not clear whether the missile flight-testing moratorium and the slow thaw on the Korean Peninsula will impact the short-term U.S. evaluation of the North Korean missile program, a key driver behind the proposed U.S. national missile defense system. During a June 28 press conference, President Bill Clinton described the summit as a "very, very important development" and said he was "encouraged" by the missile moratorium, but he cautioned that he did not think the North Korean missile problem had yet been resolved. "Do I think [the threat has] gone away because of this meeting? I don't. Do I think it might? It might, and I hope it will, but we don't know that yet," Clinton said.

Vice President Al Gore echoed Clinton's sentiments in a June 15 interview on "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer." When asked whether a reconciliation process on the Korean Peninsula would lessen the need for a national missile defense, Gore said, "Yes, but not eliminate it." Gore added, "We are well to keep a weather eye on such threats."