Kim Il Sung's juche policy and the purported terrorist activities of the regime consolidated North Korea's image as a pariah state. In the past North Korea was able to rely on the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union for economic and political support. Those days are long gone. China's support for North Korea has weakened considerably, and Russia has dramatically cut back aid as it deals with its own economic morass. Kim has never traveled outside the communist world. In the late 1990's, however, Kim indicated that improving relations with South Korea was a major foreign policy objective. He hoped to put into effect some long-frozen accords between the two Koreas and expressed a willingness to negotiate with the South. At that time, Kim also indicated he wanted to improve relations with Japan and the United States. "We have no intention to regard the United States as our eternal sworn enemy," he wrote in a major essay published in 1997. An active program of diplomatic rapprochement initiated by Kim in 1999 began to show tangible results. By the spring of 2000 normalization talks with Japan were under way, and a summit meeting with South Korea occurred in mid-June. In August a North Korean plane touched down in South Korea for the first time since 1950, reuniting 100 families. North-South relations, however, came to a standstill shortly after August 2000. Kim made no efforts to resume talks with the South until early April 2002, when he expressed a willingness to work with the South to continue reuniting families and discuss issues such as tourism.
A major foreign policy issue faced by North Korea is the future of its nuclear weapons program. North Korea has been developing these weapons in secret for some time, and as of 2002, Western intelligence suspected that it may have up to five bombs. In 1994 the United States proposed that North Korea's existing atomic power reactors be replaced by two light-water reactors, believed to be less easily adapted to the production of nuclear weaponry. The United States agreed to establish a consortium to finance and supply these reactors and donate 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil until they come to fruition. After several years of negotiations, final protocols to this agreement were signed in January 1997, with construction scheduled to begin at the end of the year. In order to monitor compliance, North Korea agreed to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA monitors, however, were still denied access to certain laboratory sites. North Korea also elicited international protest in August 1998, when it was suspected of having launched a ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific, a charge it denied, claiming that what had been fired was actually a satellite launcher. In January 2002, U.S. president George W. Bush declared North Korea to be a member of an "axis of evil" due to its development of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. This halted critical weapons discussions between the two nations.
In October 2002, North Korea revealed it had been engaged in a program to enrich uranium for use in the making of nuclear weapons. Within months, North Korea pulled out of the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States, expelled IAEA inspectors, removed IAEA monitoring devices, pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and began plutonium-producing operations at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. The United States demanded that North Korea cease pursuing its nuclear ambitions, but refused to enter into direct talks with the country, which North Korea regarded as necessary. The United States came under criticism in late 2002 on into 2003 for pursuing an aggressive policy toward Iraq and its possession of weapons of mass destruction, while not requiring North Korea to submit to similar disarmament programs. The United States stated it regarded the situation as a regional problem, and that China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea would have to assume a fair amount of responsibility for pressing North Korea into abandoning its nuclear ambitions. The United States, however, maintained that while it had no plans to invade North Korea, all options, including potential surgical military strikes against the Yongbyon reactor, would be considered. In what was regarded as provocative behavior, on 2 March 2003, four North Korean MiG fighter jets pursued a U.S. RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft for 22 minutes in international airspace over the Sea of Japan / East Sea. The MiGs came within 15 meters (50 feet) of the RC-135S, before it aborted its mission and returned to its base on Okinawa, Japan. It was the first hostile act by a North Korean aircraft against a U.S. plane since 1969, when a North Korean MiG shot down a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft, killing 31 American airmen. The 2 March incident was seen as an attempt by North Korea to force the United States into agreeing to direct bilateral negotiations. The United States stated it would not capitulate to North Korean brinkmanship.