Tag Archive | "nuclear weapons"

An Interview with Ambassador Christopher Hill on the Nuclear Talks with North Korea

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Ambassador Christopher Hill, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The following is a partial transcript of that conversation, which has been edited for space. The rest of the episode can be found here.


Gibson: Since you’ve seen some of these things before in terms of negotiating with the North Koreans, what do you see in today’s negotiations that is maybe similar or different than when you were working on similar issues?

Ambassador Hill: There’s no question there are some familiar patterns, but I think there are also some new elements to it. And one of the new elements was of course the American President, President Trump, being prepared to meet with the North Korean President, that was a first. The North Koreans have over the years suggested that they would like to meet with the American president, but it’s first time that the American president said yes. So that was very different.

What is not different, however, is that North Korea really has a great deal of difficulty coming forward and saying it’ll do the things that we would like to see done, namely denuclearization. I think North Korea also has some difficulty explaining what it is they want, and they often leave us kind of negotiating with ourselves – is it a peace treaty they want, is it something to do with economic assistance – what do they want? And I think to some extent that whole issue has bedeviled this process in the days and weeks after the Singapore Summit.

Gibson: What was your assessment of the Singapore Statement?

Ambassador Hill: I think the statement that was agreed to at the Six Party Talks in 2005 was a much better statement, and there are a number of reasons for that – it very successfully laid out some of the issues and laid out the mutual obligations of the various parties. But it also represented not only a lot of work but a lot of time in doing that work, and I think to some extent Singapore suffered by a sense that perhaps they got going on it much too late.

So it was a statement that kind of touched some of the issues that were drilled into in Beijing in 2005, but in kind of just touching those issues, I don’t think it did a very good job of making it clear what the various obligations are. So I think it was a statement that got the process going, and now we have to see if the diplomacy can flesh out some of those issues.

Gibson: What are some of the pros and cons of the top-down approach?

Ambassador Hill: The pros are obvious – if you get some agreement, the agreement should stick, because it’s being done at the top. The cons are also evident – if they can’t agree on something, what are you going to do? Push it down to lower levels for more work? So I think there’s a problem overall with the idea of having this senior approach.

And moreover, every time there’s a failure to agree on something, that failure looms very large in everyone’s’ minds. It’s one thing to have an assistant secretary come back from a trip empty handed, it’s another thing to have the Secretary of State come back from a trip empty handed. So I think the problem is the failures are magnified, perhaps even more than the successes are.

Gibson: Is it important to get regional players such as China, Japan, and Russia directly involved and if so, how?

Ambassador Hill: If you look at the Six Party statement of September 2005, which had some similar elements to the Singapore Statement, and it had a lot of other elements there. It spoke about normalization of North Korean-Japanese relations. Obviously, that wasn’t touched in Singapore. Again, I think peace and security can be achieved in Northeast Asia, and I continue to be an optimist about that. But we have to understand what has driven the crisis, and it’s not just the U.S. and NK, there are other things going on.

I think to understand what happened in the Six Parties, it was not a question of the six delegations all meeting together simultaneously, I think that would have been a very difficult format to pursue. What it was, was essentially a platform on which the various delegations could meet with each other whether one-on-one, one-on-two, three-on-one, whatever was necessary. I think that was beneficial.

But again we have a president who wants to look at this with a very fresh set of eyes, and not have his vision clouded by the problems and events of the past.

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Why the United States Won’t Provide Financial Aid to North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

In trying to sell Kim Jong-un on giving up his nuclear program, the United States and South Korea have tried to entice North Korea with the promise of a better economic future. As part of this push, the Trump administration has suggested that the U.S. private sector, along with China, South Korea, and Japan, will provide financial assistance to North Korea. However, it has also been made clear that no U.S. tax dollars will be used as an economic inducement for North Korea.

While the refusal to provide aid is in line with President Donald Trump’s desire to ensure that greater costs are born by other states, there is a practical reason why the United States will not provide significant aid to North Korea. The administration is limited in its ability to provide economic assistance.

When Congress legislates sanctions on foreign countries, it generally includes a provision in the legislation that allows an administration to waive the sanctions if it determines that doing so in the national interest. Most of the U.S. sanctions on North Korea contain national interest waivers, but in most cases they do not to apply to the prohibitions on providing aid to the regime in Pyongyang.

In recent years, Congress has inserted specific language into the annual appropriations legislation explicitly forbidding the use of funds for North Korea. These restrictions include credits, loans, or guarantees by the Export-Import Bank. While there are exceptions for humanitarian aid and some other circumstances, it is unlikely that Congress will change course and remove the prohibitions in the near future.

While the administration could request Congress grant it an exception to the prohibitions on aid or to remove them permanently, it would also need to persuade Congress to appropriate the necessary funds. Doing so could be challenging. If the United States intends to provide security assurances to the North Korean regime through a treaty in the U.S. Senate, as has been suggested by Secretary Pompeo, persuading Congress to also waive sanctions on aid will be dependent upon progress on the nuclear issue, and perhaps other issues. Even if the administration can secure an agreement with North Korea on the nuclear issue that would gain the support of two-thirds of the Senate that would be needed for passage of a treaty, Congress may be reluctant to appropriate funds for North Korea if progress is not made on issues that could include North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, its cyber activities, and human rights.

The history of the Agreed Framework suggests that even if Congress agrees to appropriate funds there will be limits. As part of the Agreed Framework, the United States committed to providing 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil a year until a light water reactor was completed. The Clinton administration had promised Congress that the costs would not exceed $30 million a year, and when they did the needed extra funds were not forthcoming. In the case of the Agreed Framework, the funds were designed to serve as a bridge to a new energy resource for North Korea. While it is reasonable to expect that if a deal is struck Congress might appropriate funds for dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, funding that is focused on economic development as opposed to dismantlement is unlikely.

Practically speaking, the Trump administration does not have the authority to provide economic assistance to North Korea and is unlikely to seek it from Congress. It goes against Trump’s broader philosophy and is something Congress would most likely be reluctant to provide. While North Korea will need assistance in developing its economy, there is unlikely to be political support in the United States in the near future for economic aid for North Korea.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo by Pictures of Money on flickr Creative Commons.

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Comparing Prior U.S.-North Korea Joint Statements

By Phil Eskeland

With all the discussion regarding the statement signed by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their recent summit meeting, now is a good time to compare and contrast past joint statements between the U.S. and the DPRK to measure how closely they match and review previous commitments by both parties.  Below are two graphics that summarize the central elements of key American and North Korea statements that have aimed to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and establish grounds for a new relationship between the two countries.  The statements may not be reflective of every commitment made at the Singapore summit, but further diplomacy may develop a more comprehensive agreement later on in the process, similar to how the aspirational 1993 New York statement led to the more detailed Agreed Framework in 1994.

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the White House’s Instagram feed.

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U.S.-North Korea Aspirations Waiting to Be Fulfilled

By Donald Manzullo

After a year of exchanging insults and threats, the United States and North Korea have decided to work towards a different future. Much could still go wrong, and much remains to be done, but in Singapore Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un laid out an aspiration for a better relationship between the United States and North Korea.

The Singapore Statement is not the type of detailed document that we have come to expect from international diplomacy. It clocks in at a relatively brisk 394 words, a little less than this blog. It gains its detail not necessarily from new commitments from North Korea, but rather the agreement to work towards recovering POW/MIA remains from the Korean War and the reaffirmation of the Panmunjom Declaration.

If the statement is aspirational, many questions remain about the road ahead. In his press conference, President Trump indicated that Kim Jong-un understands the need for denuclearization, but will he be willing to commit to a more specific statement on denuclearization and inspections? The language in the Singapore Statement actually steps back from the language on denuclearization in the September 2005 Joint Statement from the Six Party Talks:

2018: Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

2005: The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.

Prior to the 2005 statement, North Korea had withdrawn from the Treaty Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the statement from the Six Party Talks would have required it to rejoin. In contrast, with the collapse of the Six Party Talks, North Korea has instead continued to pursue its nuclear program.

In that same press conference, President Trump also raised questions about the future of U.S. military exercises in South Korea and the rate of sanctions relief. To the surprise of many, President Trump indicated that there will be no more military exercises in South Korea. This raise questions about the future readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as the United States’ ability to deter an attack from North Korea. It also boxes the United States and South Korea into a corner. If North Korea drags the process out and readiness deteriorates, the alliance faces the no-win choice. Allow readiness to continue to deteriorate or risk being accused of derailing the process by restarting what Trump himself has described as “provocative.” Adding to all of this, there is no indication that North Korea will be foregoing its own military exercises.

President Trump also indicated that he is open to the idea of the eventual removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. Couple with the decision to end military exercises, a future withdrawal of U.S. troops could be an unexpected coup for China.

On sanctions, President Trump also suggested that sanctions could come off quicker than had previously been anticipated. If the administration’s position had been that sanctions would not be removed until North Korea had dismantled its nuclear program, President Trump has suggested that “the sanctions will come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.” This could be much quicker than the complete and verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, especially with countries such as China already calling for sanctions to be lifted.

Rather than a specific commitment by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programs, we have received an aspiration to attain denuclearization at some point. It’s a noble goal, but one that since the early 1990s has waited to be fulfilled. The question remains, will this time be different?

Donald Manzullo is President and CEO of Korea Economic Institute and former Member of U.S. Congress (1993-2013). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Leonid Yaitskiy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Initial Thoughts on the Trump-Kim Summit

After watching the first summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un, KEI staff members Troy Stangarone, Kyle Ferrier, and Jenna Gibson share some of the things that stood out to them.

The three analysts participated in a Facebook live video during the start of the summit, sharing their thoughts as the event unfolded in Singapore. You can watch the full discussion here.

Troy Stangarone:

  • What made the meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un stunning wasn’t the symbolic setting of crossing the DMZ that set the tone for the inter-Korean summit, but the fact that a sitting president of the United States was meeting with the leader of North Korea. Now that Kim Jong-un has become the man of the hour he has moved from “rocket man” to “rockstar.”
  • At the inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong-un went off script when South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked when he could visit North Korea. With the summit kicking off with a private meeting between Trump and Kim, one wonders if Kim Jong-un surprised Trump with an offer as well.
  • Now that the process has started, one of the key things to success will be whether the new process only focuses on North Korea’s nuclear program or whether it tries to build a sustainable relationship by tackling cyber, chemical/biological, and the other issues that could undermine any progress made.

Kyle Ferrier:

  • The opening of the summit clearly was more about optics and pleasantries than anything else. That there was not even a reference to any substantive issues highlights how this meeting is foremost about building a rapport between the two leaders.
  • Trump’s broad statements about working with Kim Jong-un seem to support his earlier statements that this is going to be a drawn out process with North Korea. This is the best alternative if a concrete agreement is not yet on the table, but the U.S. must use this meeting to at least move the ball forward on the nuclear issue in some way. The Kim family has always had time on their side, so the U.S. can’t wait too long for progress, particularly as diplomatic success is really contingent upon maintaining international economic pressure on Pyongyang. If the diplomatic process goes on for too long it could lead to lax sanctions enforcement due to impatient business interests.

Jenna Gibson:

  • Kim Jong Un has truly arrived on the world stage. After successful meetings with both President Moon Jae In and President Xi Jinping in which he was treated to the full summit experience, we just witnessed a leader of North Korea standing in front of alternating American and North Korean flags shaking hands with a U.S. President. No matter what comes out of the rest of this meeting, Kim Jong Un has already gotten a big chunk of what he came for – to be taken seriously as a world leader and the head of a nuclear state.
  • I wasn’t necessarily surprised by this because we saw some of this at the Inter-Korean Summits, and we know President Trump’s informal style, but I was still struck by some of the friendly body language between the two, particularly the way Trump kept patting Kim on the arm. This seemed like a very friendly and almost intimate gesture, although I wonder if Trump was purposely trying to send the signal that he’s at ease and not intimidated by Kim.
  • The fact that Trump and Kim planned to meet behind closed doors with no one else but interpreters in the room made many analysts uneasy. But at least as far as we could tell, it didn’t cause any major issues – the two emerged 40 or so minutes later still smiling. Considering that President Trump said he would walk away from the table if he didn’t think he could get somewhere with Kim, we’re off to a good start so far. What would be interesting (and we may never know the answer) is whether Trump raised some of the issues that could be embarrassing to Kim if raised in a more open meeting, including abductees and human rights. If he were going to raise those issues, it would have to be in that closed-door meeting.

Troy Stangarone is KEI’s senior director for congressional affairs and trade, Kyle Ferrier is the director of academic affairs and research, and Jenna Gibson is communications director. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

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What to Look for at the Trump-Kim Summit

By Troy Stangarone

For the first time a sitting U.S. president will meet with the leader of North Korea when Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un meet in Singapore on June 12. While President Trump has recently described the meeting as the beginning of a process and a meet and greet, there are seven issues that will give us a good idea of how the summit went and where the process is going.

The Optics Will Matter

Both Trump and Kim revel in presentation. After spending a year discussing “fire and fury” and missile strikes on Guam both will want to present an image of success. In the case of Trump, normally there would be an increased incentive to present success in the aftermath of a G7 summit where the optics were as bad as they can potentially be for a U.S. president. However, optics also depend on the audience, and for Trump’s audience walking away to demonstrate American toughness could be seen as a success rather than working towards an actual success.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un seems to have mastered the art of managing the international stage. He used a simple spontaneous gesture in his first meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to help break the ice by offering to step with Moon back into North Korea briefly to offer Moon his first trip to North Korea, and their bridge walk proved successful enough that it was copied for his second meeting with Xi Jinping. One thing to look for will be does Kim try to use a little English or self-deprecating humor to disarm Trump?

The use of optics may be no stronger than if there is a statement about ending the Korean War. Both leaders want to be the historic figures that brought the Korean War to end.

Unless the summit ends in failure, look for both sides to use the imagery of a historic moment to spin a narrative, but also pay attention to how the two leaders interact with each other, what images they try to present, and how they define their talks – in Trump’s case on Twitter afterwards – for how they want to the summit to be defined.

The Substance Will Matter More

If the optics will matter for presentation, the substance will tell you how the process is going. There is no expectation of every issues being settled and every detail being agreed, but the specifics will matter if the process is going to work.

When the inter-Korean summit concluded it laid out some precise objectives and timelines – specifically a timeline for the conclusion of talks on a peace treaty. Will any document give a clear definition of what denuclearization means or maintain a vague aspiration for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula? Will there be specific actions and timelines announced? The more specific the details and the timelines involved, the more substantive agreement there likely is between the United States and North Korea.

What Was Said About Peace and Security?

Whether it is a political declaration ending the Korean War, an agreement to negotiate a treaty ending the war, or an announcement on the security guarantees that the United States will provide North Korea, this is the part of the summit that will most interest North Korea.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that the United States would offer security assurances unlike those that it has offered in the past and in prior Congressional testimony had suggested that the administration wanted Congress to give its approval to any deal, unlike in the case of Iran. If the United States offered a treaty with North Korea, getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote for a treaty with North Korea without a strong deal on denuclearization from Pyongyang could be too high a bar to reach for the administration. The shape of the security assurance, therefore, could be critical to the processes ability to be successful.

One other key issue to watch on this front isn’t necessarily whether there is any announcement on ending the Korea War but, rather if President Trump makes any comments on the possibility of removing any U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

What Else Was on the Agenda?

When the United States and North Korea release their joint statement one area to watch is whether there are any issues discussed by the two leaders other than the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, as well as discussions of ending the Korean War. President Trump has promised Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo that he will raise the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. Will there be discussion of other human rights concerns related to North Korea? Will the two leaders discuss North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, its cyber activities, or economic reforms in North Korea?

What Happens to Sanctions?

The United States position has been that sanctions will remain in place until after the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program has been completed. However, it seems unlikely that North Korea will agree to a phased dismantlement of its weapons programs without some sanctions relief.

North Korea may not be looking for significant sanctions relief as it will likely want to control the reopening of the economy and a rapid lifting of sanctions could be destabilizing to the regime, but it will push for some relief to take the current level of pressure off.

While the administration has indicated that it will not take the pressure off, it will be important to want for any U.S. agreement to lift some of the sanctions or suggestions that it might do so prior to the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs.

What Is Said in North Korea?

Some issues we’ll only know after the summit, but will provide insight into the process. On Kim Jong-un’s recent flight to Singapore, the tightly controlled North Korean state media made no attempt to hide the fact the Kim traveled to Singapore on a Chinese jet. Will North Korea be as forthcoming about the results of the summit, or will it hold details back? If there is an agreement on denuclearization and North Korea releases the same information to its public that would be a positive sign going forward.

How Do Other Countries Treat North Korea Afterwards?

On the international stage, the U.S.-North Korea summit has been a boon for Kim Jong-un. After years of isolation he has already met with Moon Jae-in and Xi Jinping twice. Once he has met with Trump, will other countries begin to treat North Korea as a more normal country? We have already seen suggestions that Chinese sanctions are beginning to loosen, will the summit and the prospect of peace unravel much of what remains of the sanctions regime and relieve pressure regardless of whether the U.S. administration is willing to engage in early sanctions relief or not. While we will not know the answers to these questions right away, they could provide the answer to whether North Korea abandons its nuclear program in the end or not.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Brian Evans photosteram on flickr Creative Commons.

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An Interview with Ambassador Joseph Yun on the U.S.-North Korea Summit

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Ambassador Joseph Yun, former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy at the State Department.

The following is a partial transcript of that conversation, which has been edited for space. The rest of the episode can be found here.

Gibson: I want to start at the beginning, with the first meeting that will be taking place between a U.S. leader, President Trump, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. We saw during the inter-Korean summit, the first meeting between President Moon of South Korea and Kim went very well, it kind of captured people’s imaginations even, this first greeting. So how do you expect it will go when Trump and Kim meet for the first time?

Yun: Like you, I thought the meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Moon of South Korea went very well. I mean, I felt that this was really the first time we saw Kim Jong-un fairly up close, as he did a press conference afterwards. And I think he came across much more human, a real person, not like a caricature Americans are used to seeing. And then of course he met twice with President Xi Jinping of China and most recently he also met with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia. So all that tells me is that he is pretty much ready for prime time. So in Singapore I expect the meetings to go smoothly. And also I think you saw the way President Trump greeted Kim Jong-un’s special envoy Kim Yong Chol only a few days ago, that was a very warm greeting, and President Trump came out of the White House to go to the driveway, accompanied him all the way to his car, had a photo op with the North Korean delegation. So everyone’s going to put on just excellent diplomatic protocol, if I may call it that.

Gibson: Did that surprise you, the warm welcome for Kim Yong Chol?

Yun: It did in some ways, but of course this is a summit which President Trump, I believe, has been wanting for a long time. Even before he became president, even during the campaign, he made it clear that these big issues – denuclearization, or normalization of relationship with North Korea, is something he wanted to do face-to-face at a summit with the other leader. So to me, it was not a big surprise that he took the arrangement that South Korea made so readily. He’s been following the issue very closely for a long time. So I’m really in a bit of a disagreement with people who say he’s not well prepared. I think he is adequately prepared.

Gibson: One thing that a lot of us particularly who are Korea policy wonks are watching closely is if and how President Trump brings up any of the related issues with North Korea. Of course the nuclear program is the big, main issue they’re going to discuss, but there are of course issues with cyber capabilities, biological and chemical weapons, human rights, etc. Do you think President Trump should try to address any of these other issues at the Singapore meeting and if so, how?

Yun: Well I think the highest priority issue is of course denuclearization and, accompanying that issue, what North Korea wants in terms of North Korea’s own security. Now, there are some of the issues like cybersecurity, but there are many other issues. What do you do about biochem weapons? What do you do about conventional weapons? What do you do about human rights? And another example related to that is Japanese abductions. What do you do about refugee issues? Clearly if you load that all together in one agenda, that’s going to be too much. So in that sense, I can completely understand why the administration would want to stick with priority issues. But I can also understand people who feel deeply, for example, about human rights, that might not get raised. And also, what does normalization or international legitimacy for North Korea look like – eventually these issues will have to be addressed in some form or another.

Gibson: So the summit is going to take place on June 12, next week. What do you think June 13 looks like? What are the next steps?

Yun: What I would like to see from the summit is the two leaders agree very broadly on things like denuclearization and security assurances for North Korea, and thereafter, have some immediate concrete steps that they can roll out. So that, I would say, would constitute credibility going forward that there is something in place. So with those immediate next steps should include a process on how to deal with step-by-step denuclearization and with step-by-step security assurances. So if we see broad agreements followed by some immediate concrete steps and a process that goes along with it, I think that certainly would meet my own test as a credible summit.

Gibson: For those of us who on June 12th, or late on the 11th here in the States, will be glued to the news or glued to Twitter, do you have any recommendations for things to watch out for or things you might be expecting during the summit?

Yun: Well certainly you should see what the outcome documents look like, I think that’s very important that the two leaders agree on paper to something. What do they agree on denuclearization? Is it going further than we have gone before, not just agreeing in principle to denuclearize, but are there concrete steps? So you should look at what the immediate steps are. Similarly on the security side, you should look at: Is there a path to an end of war declaration? Is there a path to peace treaty negotiations? Is there a path to diplomatic normalization? So those are the things that I would look for.

Photo provided by Korea Economic Institute of America.

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North Korea Test Moratorium Not as Significant as It Seems

By Troy Stangarone

In what is being hailed as a significant step by the United States and South Korea, North Korea has announced that it has suspended missile tests and will shut down its nuclear test site. While seemingly an important step towards denuclearization, the move by North Korea only affirms prior statements by the regime.

Shortly after conducting its third intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test and in Kim Jong-un’s New Years Day Address, North Korea had suggested that it had concluded testing for its nuclear program. Since North Korea’s third ICBM test, it is now in the midst of one of the longest pauses in tests under Kim Jong-un. While there are still questions regarding the development of North Korea’s ICBMs, it is this pause that made the upcoming talks between Kim Jong-un and President Trump possible.

However, in light of its earlier announcements, North Korea’s pause in testing was an easy concession to the United States and South Korea, and the announcement of an end to testing is not as significant as it may seem. Any further tests on the part of North Korea would have either been an acknowledgement that it had not actually completed its tests, or would be intended as a clear provocation designed to raise tensions.

In addition, there were already concerns about the geological stability of North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. Since the last nuclear test there have been further signs of instability.

This is not the first time that North Korea has made a largely symbolic gesture in relations to its nuclear program. During the Six Party Talks, North Korea made the dramatic gesture of blowing up the cooling towers at the Yongbyon nuclear power plant to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization. Those talks ended up failing over North Korea’s refusal to agree to verification procedures. In this case, resuming use of its nuclear test site will be significantly easier than restoring the cooling systems at Yongbyon should North Korea decide to change course.

The announcement also does not does not commit North Korea to denuclearization or to abandon the other significant plan Kim Jong-un laid out in his New Year’s Day Address – to expand North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In advance of the summits, it would have been more impressive if Kim Jong-un had offered to suspend uranium enrichment or missile production during the upcoming talks, though these steps would also be unverifiable without intrusive inspections.

The announcement does, however, fit into North Korea’s outreach that began at the beginning of 2018 when it announced that it would take place in the PyeongChang Olympics. North Korea may be making a strategic decision eventually to dismantle its nuclear program, but the recent announcement on a suspension of testing and the closing of its nuclear test site should be viewed more as a public relations move than a real step towards denuclearization.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Could North Korea Use Nuclear Weapons as a Shield for Aggression?

By Taehwa Hong

The mainstream view of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program holds that it is the regime’s ticket to survival; Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpiles serve as a deterrence against American military intervention. Having seen Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein fall after giving up their nuclear programs, the Kim regime is unlikely to forgo its’ strongest bulwark against “American imperialists.” There is widespread complacency that it is all good and safe though, because deterrence works. As long as the U.S and South Korea maintain overwhelming military superiority, Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles will remain cobwebbed in underground facilities. However, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not just about protecting the regime. They are a shield behind which the regime could engage in aggressive actions. Even with deterrence against a nuclear war, North’s nuclear program has the potential to breed instability on the peninsula.

North Korea’s strategy is likely to exploit nuclear weapons as a deterrence against American and South Korean retaliation to its own aggressions. Granted, it is not unreasonable to believe Kim Jong-un will restrain from headlong aggressions once he possesses a credible second-strike capability against the U.S., given his much-touted Byungjin policy line (developing nuclear weapons and economy simultaneously). Tension doesn’t help promote much-needed foreign investments, especially from China. In fact, the North’s recent move for reconciliation with Seoul comes in this backdrop; with its nuclear program entering a terminal phase, Pyongyang may be hoping to formulate an environment favorable to foreign aid and investment. However, the regime’s legitimacy hinges on protecting the people from “imperialists” in the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The regime needs a perennial state of tension, even a latent one, as a rationale for the Communist Party’s rule. Furthermore, North Korea has traditionally carried out its unique deceptive stick-and-carrot strategy whereby it alternates between saber-rattling and olive branch to elicit economic aid. Previous progressive governments in Seoul provided financial assistance in the hopes of improving relations, most notably in 2000 when the South Korean government transferred cash to North Korea as a sign of goodwill ahead of a summit meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. North Korea has been demanding economic rewards for inter-Korean stability since then. While this coercive posture could be further buttressed by nuclear weapons, it is unclear that it will be as successful with the current South Korean government which has backed the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”

Those who put trust in deterrence assume North Korea is rational. They are right—as the CIA noted, Kim does appear to be rational. It is completely rational for North Korea, however, to occasionally exit the deterrence box and provoke its southern neighbor, for such moves strengthen regime legitimacy and consolidates national unity. Furthermore, domestic political imperatives drive North Korea towards provocations. North Korea’s bombing of the Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 was designed to form a crisis mood in the North to smoothly facilitate Kim Jong-un’s upcoming succession of his father. North Korean generals also have a habit of spearheading aggression against the South to win the Kim family’s favor. Although the final decision must go through the supreme leader himself, North Korean military figures have political incentive to plot an attack against the South during confrontational periods. The sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 was orchestrated by Kim Yong-chul, the then director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau—the North Korean equivalent of the CIA. He used the incident to steadily climb up the hierarchical ladder to become the head of the United Front Department and the Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party. In these contexts, North Korea views nuclear weapons as a perfect shield to deter South Korean and American countermeasures, especially if the allies understand North’s attacks are not intended for an all-out-war. This is North Korea’s own “bloody-nose strike”: inflicting enough damage on South Korea to humiliate it, but preventing escalation through nuclear deterrence. A nuclear apocalypse may be precluded by mutually assured destruction, but South Korean lives and territorial integrity will continuously be at risk.

In the aftermath of the attack on Yeongpyeong Island, Seoul planned to launch a massive retaliatory air strike on North Korea, only to be restrained by its concerned American allies. North Korea’s progress in developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. mainland coupled with Donald Trump’s “America-First” rhetoric has raised questions about American commitment to South Korea. Quiet disagreement between the allies over how to deal with North Korea’s charm offensive exacerbates this concern. Policymakers in Seoul and Washington are discussing the so-called “Libyan Solution,” whereby North Korea is rewarded only after complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program. The Trump administration’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton advocates this path, while the Blue House deems it unrealistic. Further, prior to reaching a preliminary agreement, President Trump even insinuated he could use U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as leverage for a more favorable renegotiation of the KORUS FTA. Should these areas of dissent—which so far have been managed quietly—develop to a policy-level discord, North Korea could interpret it as a sign of weakening U.S.-Korea alliance. If another Yeongpyeong happens, South Korea could fear that the U.S. may try to avoid confrontation rather than stand by its side. After all, much has changed since the American effort to deescalate the Yeongpyeong. In this backdrop, North Korea could find it easier to launch periodic provocations against the South, hiding behind the nuclear asymmetric advantage and relatively unclear American willingness to intervene.

An even more dangerous problem could arise if Seoul decides to retaliate. It will be compelled to do so with or without American support, belying Pyongyang’s own perception of retaliation-free provocations. In the aftermath of a series of provocations, Seoul’s counter-provocation posture shifted to “Proactive Deterrence,” whereby it retaliates disproportionately to deter further provocations and snap enemy morale. The South Korean government would also face the domestic political cost of displaying weakness in a time of crisis. Even if both sides do not favor a full-blown war, a spiral of reciprocal retaliations could render the situation uncontrollable. In such a scenario, Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons will make it more likely to gamble than if it had not acquired them. Kim Jong-un’s sense of strategic advantage through nuclear weapons could lead him to take risky steps he otherwise wouldn’t. Over the last seven decades, excessive escalation has been precluded by mutual constraints in the Korean peninsula. As North Korea’s nuclear capability advances, mutual escalation will become more likely.

While overwhelming U.S.-South Korea military superiority deters North Korea from launching large-scale aggression, Pyongyang is not contained to a level that it can no longer exercise local provocations. As Kenneth Waltz noted in The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, the shaky North Korean regime needs to “demonstrate to its own people that it has influence beyond its own borders”. The Madman Strategy is at work here; North Korea is betting on the assumption that Seoul and Washington are afraid of a war, and that if they know Kim didn’t mean to start one, they would back-down rather than escalate because the regime is more reckless than them. Pyongyang is also aware that the allies have more to lose from a crossfire—economically, politically and socially. It is paradoxically using its status as a starving pariah state to challenge much stronger adversaries.

In essence, the North Korean nuclear threat is not one that can be simply dealt with through deterrence. As Henry Kissinger noted in World Order, Bismarck’s 19th century aphorism applies to North Korea: “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” While strengthening military deterrence remains critical, the international community should seek to at least freeze and preferably roll-back North’s nuclear program through pressure and engagement. The most ideal outcome of the upcoming negotiations would be the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear weapons, but such an outcome is highly unlikely to be reached anytime soon. North Korea will demand a reciprocal guarantee of regime security such as a peace treaty and the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula which neither South Korea nor the U.S. can afford. Furthermore, North Korea witnessed Qaddafi’s demise after he abandoned nuclear weapons. North Korean officials continue to argue that Qaddafi should have kept his nukes. For Pyongyang, Bolton’s insistence on the “Libyan Solution” would simply revive the specter of the “Libyan Mistake”. In that backdrop, a freeze and roll-back are unsatisfying, yet a realistic compromise. The slower the progress in North Korea’s nuclear program is, the weaker the conceptual “shield” will be. In the end, stable peace in the Korean peninsula will come in the form of a peaceful Seoul-led reunification, not a fragile deterrence put in place.

Taehwa Hong is an international relations student at Stanford University. His research focuses on East Asian security and the Middle East. The views are the author’s alone.

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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North Korea Must Address Nuclear Safety and Security as it Discusses Curbing its Nuclear Weapons Program

By Casey Robinson

Under diplomatic and economic pressure, North Korea has ceased weapons tests and has expressed a willingness to denuclearize. In meetings with South Korea, North Korean officials stated that North Korea has no need for nuclear weapons if its security is guaranteed. However, due to lingering distrust and resentment, the denuclearization of North Korea, as well as scaling back U.S. forces in South Korea, is unlikely to occur in the short-term. Consequently, North Korea’s reliability in denuclearizing will continue to be in question. Nonetheless, the North Korean government does have options to boost international confidence and reduce regional tensions in the short-term. One option that North Korea could pursue is address and enhance nuclear safety and security. A nuclear attack is not the only thing that the international community is concerned about. It is also concerned of the international consequences of a nuclear catastrophe or nuclear material landing in the wrong hands due to the North Korean government’s negligence.

Less than a week prior to its first test on October 11, 2006, the North Korean Foreign Ministry stated that it would conduct nuclear tests safely as well as prohibit the first-use and transfer of nuclear weapons. However, despite this statement, there are concerns about North Korea’s handling of its nuclear weapons program. Matt Korda, a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, expressed his concerns regarding North Korea’s safety culture. He has pointed to a video of Kim Jong-un smoking near a liquid-fueled missile and a report that 200 workers were killed in a tunnel collapse after the sixth nuclear test. Yet, Korda’s major concern is if a nuclear catastrophe occurred, North Korea would likely not ask for international assistance to address the issue. Consequently, nuclear safety in North Korea is a considerable international concern.

In addition, due to increasing concerns about terrorist groups using nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, there has been fear that North Korea would sell nuclear weapons or material to terrorist organizations. The primary argument for this is that the cash-strapped North Korean government has a history of engaging in illicit dealing and selling weapons to terrorist groups. Graham Allision, former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, has argued for years that North Korea is capable and willing to sell nuclear weapons or materials to terrorist groups. Last year, Allision pointed to North Korea’s dealings with Syria as a precedent that North Korea will go as far as sell to terrorist organizations.

Accordingly, North Korea may benefit greatly if it were to immediately address nuclear safety and security concerns. The United States and South Korea have stated that they will not provide sanctions relief without North Korea first denuclearizing. However, not all governments share the same interests as the United States and South Korea. For example, China, which has historically shown more concern about destabilization and has a reputation of not abiding by sanctions against North Korea, would likely respond well if concerns about a nuclear catastrophe occurring south of its Northwest border decreased. The United States would likely push China to continue to pressure North Korea. However, with greater concerns about the collapse of Pyongyang, China may choose to provide North Korea with sanctions relief as long as its concerns in nuclear safety and security are addressed.

There are many concerns about the reliability of North Korea performing nuclear safety and security functions reliably. North Korea has a history of not abiding by its agreements and is too secretive to allow international scientists to assist it in improving nuclear safety and security functions. However, as Korda points out, nuclear safety (and as I would argue nuclear security) is a sincere interest of North Korea. If a severe nuclear accident were to occur, North Korea’s regime stability would be at risk. In addition, if it was proven that thousands to millions of people perished due to terrorists obtaining North Korean nuclear weapons or materials, the international reaction about North Korea would likely not be pleasant for the Kim regime. Accordingly, permitting foreign scientists in to improve nuclear safety and security functions would be in the best interest of North Korea.

North Korea has recently shown sincerity in denuclearizing, but, as a rational regime, it is unlikely to immediately denuclearize due to security concerns. However, what it can do is commit itself to improving nuclear safety and security functions within the country, which would boost confidence that it is a responsible power. Doing so may help encourage governments to provide it with sanctions relief, but would also decrease incentive to blame it for a terrorist nuclear catastrophe. While the ultimate goal should be denuclearization of the peninsula, these small steps would help enormously in moving North Korea in the right direction.

Casey Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate at Waseda University. His research interests include the DPRK, U.S. foreign policy, and international development. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Nicolas Raymond’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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