Is the Past Prologue? North Korea and Denuclearization

June 12, 2018
Is the Past Prologue? North Korea and Denuclearization
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

The future of negotiations between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), South Korea, and the United States over the North’s nuclear program have swung dramatically between warm embraces across an armistice line and renewed threats of nuclear warfare.  What is happening, and what is at stake?

  • First, the wild ride represents a contest among the interested parties establishing the terms of a future negotiation. In that contest, North Korea is winning.
  • Second, what is meant by North Korea’s “denuclearization” is not a settled issue.
  • Finally, the present negotiation over the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must be considered in light of the recent move by the United States to abrogate the so-called “Iran Deal” (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

In spite of the twists and turns, the mere fact that a summit meeting is being planned between the North Korean and U.S. heads of state is unprecedented.  Even if the summit fails to be realized, and the North’s nuclear program remains unchecked, the momentum generated so far should not be squandered.

Framing the negotiation

When North Korea protested joint military exercises conducted by South Korea and the United States and sent other confrontational messages, they attempted to seize the initiative in the negotiation.  Presented with this apparent loss of good faith, President Trump cancelled the meeting.  It is, after all, his signature move in the art of business deal-making.  When the terms of the negotiation are not to one’s liking, walk away, he advises—looking desperate to make a deal is fatal, according to Trump’s best-selling negotiation book, The Art of the Deal.  International diplomacy is not business, however.  Walking away from a negotiation is always seen as negative.  The other side can convincingly claim that you were the one who didn’t want to cooperate or make peace.  In a statement by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister, he cast the North in the most favorable light,

“We remain unchanged in our goal and will to do everything we could for peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and humankind, and we, broad-minded and open all the time, have the willingness to offer the US side time and opportunity.”

After all, it seems that the planned summit is back on, set for June 12, a few days after a tumultuous G-7 meeting in Canada.  Whether it happens or not, or when it eventually happens, the mere suggestion that such a high-level meeting could occur is without precedent and one can reasonably expect turbulence along the way.

For his own part, the President’s letter to Kim Jong Un ranged from wistful regret to promising nuclear annihilation.  He referred to actions undertaken by Kim’s regime in the lead-up to the proposed summit meeting as “wonderful” and “beautiful” but also reminded Kim, “you talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”  The so-called “beautiful gesture” of releasing three U.S. citizens the North Korean state held captive needs to be put in perspective.  There was nothing “beautiful” about violating international law by capturing them in the first place, and similarly nothing “beautiful” about torturing to death American Otto Warmbier in 2017.

In the face of the unprecedented nature of the current state of affairs, the North appears to be testing the depth of President Trump’s desire to achieve a diplomatic win where others have failed.  In a mid-May statement, the North went as far as to dictate which advisors President Trump may listen to and which he must not, expressing “repugnance” at National Security Advisor John Bolton for suggesting the North giving up its nuclear weapons first then be compensated afterward.  The North can blame others for pretended offenses as they did mid-May by excoriating the South for allowing “human scum” (their preferred nomenclature for defectors) to publicly criticize the Kim regime.  So, the North can derail a negotiation that will almost assuredly demand giving up its nuclear weapons program (which it refuses to consider) while blaming everyone else for the failure to reach an accord.


The most important issue under contention between North Korea and the rest of the world is its status as a nuclear power.  There are two facets of that complex issue that require close attention:  First, the means to produce nuclear weapons have been dramatically “destroyed” by North Korea before, only to be reconstituted elsewhere later.  Second, the leadership of the North has stated very plainly that they have already achieved all their nuclear weapons goals and are now a global nuclear power.  From their perspective, the North has the initiative—they are negotiating from a position of strength at a time and place of their choosing.

Much has been made of the closure of the Punggye-ri test site where the North conducted all six of its live nuclear detonations.  Pyongyang invited international observers to watch it collapse the remaining tunnels at the site and seal its entrances.  Even if rendered completely unusable, there are other sites to build entirely new test facilities, so this action is easily reversible.  While President Trump called this a, “smart and gracious gesture,” others are not so convinced.  In fact, reporting indicates that the now decommissioned test site was rendered unusable after the last nuclear detonation on September 3, 2017.  The continued usefulness of the test facility and its “gracious” closure may not be that important anyway.

North Korea has made public demonstrations signaling the end of its nuclear program before.  Notably, in June 2008 the North dynamited the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor—then its only source of plutonium.  At the same time, the North Korean regime published reports on its nuclear arms program, which was rewarded by President George W. Bush removing North Korea from the U.S. Department of State list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (an act reversed by President Trump on November 2017, who put the DPRK back on that list).  Obviously the real effect those trust-building demonstrations had on the North’s nuclear weapons program was negligible—less than ten years later, they were successfully testing a hydrogen bomb and launching multiple stage intercontinental ballistic missiles.  One should assume that any steps taken by the North that appear to halt or end their nuclear weapons program could be easily and clandestinely reversed.

Dismantling testing facilities and agreeing to constraints on its development program does not mean that North Korea will no longer be a nuclear power.  For example, the United States maintains the most powerful nuclear weapons force in the world, yet it has not conducted a practical test of a nuclear device since 1992.  One must consider the possibility that from the perspective of the North, they have demonstrated their nuclear weapons capacity sufficiently to deter military action against the Kim regime.  As was the case in Pakistan and India, a nuclear capacity was built, demonstrated, accepted by the wider nuclear community, and remains in the background as a known quantity.  That said, it seems that at least with respect to the North’s ballistic missile program, further tests would be necessary to fully develop a reliable delivery platform.

In spite of these concerns, the 2018 joint statement by Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un was unique among the three joint statements between the leaders of the two Koreas in its specificity about a common goal of creating, “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”  The statement concluded that,

“South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard. South and North Korea agreed to actively seek the support and cooperation of the international community for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The joint declaration in 2000 focused on “peaceful reunification” and “promoting mutual understanding.”  The joint declaration in 2007 addressed ending “military hostilities,” agreeing to not antagonize each other, reducing tension, and to “resolve issues in dispute through dialogue and negotiation.”  The specificity of the May 2018 joint statement makes it easier to establish measurable goals, while at the same time may also make it easier for North Korea to back away if it perceives that it may be asked to give up too much, too quickly.  Protests by the North over joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea provide strong indicators that “denuclearization” is, from the perspective of the North, a long-term goal that depends a great deal on securing what it views as essential concessions from the U.S., South Korea, and the rest of the world.

From Kim Jong Un’s perspective, the North is coming to the negotiating table by their own free will, and would never accept that they had been forced by outside pressure; they have achieved everything they need with their nuclear program—they are now and should always be considered a global nuclear power.  In the mid-May statement that appeared to call off the summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un, North Korea asserted, “But now, the U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure.”  The statement concludes—underlining its status as an established nuclear power,

“It is a ridiculous comedy to see that the Trump administration…still clings to the outdated policy…when the DPRK was at the stage of nuclear development…if the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.”

Much was made over National Security Advisor Bolton’s suggestion that North Korea could follow the “Libyan Model” of denuclearization.  The historical allusion refers to the sequence of events during which the North African nation initiated a nuclear weapons program then unilaterally decommissioned that program.  Libya’s denuclearization was met with the relaxation of sanctions and the removal of Libya from the United States list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.  Understood as a unilateral shuttering of a nuclear weapons program, one might just as easily call it the “South African Model” since it too developed and ended such a program.  Unrelated to Libya’s self denuclearization, in 2011 a popular uprising led to the end of the forty year rule of Muammar Gaddafi and his death at the hands of an angry mob.  These two events—the end of Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and the end of Gaddafi’s rule and forfeiture of his life—were conflated in the popular media and by President Trump himself.

The suggestion that North Korea might follow the “Libyan Model” was reasonably met with fear and anger on the part of the Kim regime—no dictator would welcome a course of action that ended with him beaten to death in a ditch as Gaddafi was.  The North’s revulsion to the misunderstood “Libyan Model” prompted President Trump to offer Kim Jong Un “protections,” assuring the North Korean leader that he, “will be very very happy,” if Kim proceeded with nuclear talks.    His offer to shield an inhuman regime which routinely works its political prisoners to death reverses decades of U.S. policy regarding North Korea and may be an unsettling indication of how desperate Mr. Trump may be to concluding a deal he prematurely celebrated as a fait accompli.


Conclusion: Is the past always prologue?

            Kim Jong Un’s regime has openly worried about the fate of Libya and Iraq as they considered negotiations with the United States.  Kim must also be thinking about the fate of the “Iran Deal” (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA); why should he conclude an agreement with the U.S. about his nuclear program when President Trump has just abrogated an agreement with an incipient nuclear power?  The comparison may in fact be inappropriate.  North Korea has proven its capacity to build nuclear weapons and demonstrated some limited ability to deliver those weapons via inter-continental ballistic missiles; Iran has not yet built a nuclear weapon.  Even if it pauses its nuclear weapons program, North Korea could re-start such a program with little effort. Iran has claimed it does not seek to develop a nuclear weapon—a claim widely disbelieved—and appears willing to continue the terms of the JCPOA without the United States’ participation, which would at least delay Iran’s ability to build a weapon.

The unprecedented nature of present negotiations between North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States should not be understated.  Even if a summit meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. does not become a reality, the momentum generated so far should not be wasted.  Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a nuclear “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin, a similar “hotline” has finally been installed connecting Pyongyang and Seoul; perhaps it is time for the opening of mutual diplomatic interest sections (something less than an embassy) in Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang.  At the very least some semblance of permanent diplomatic transparency and communication could mitigate the effects of a very unpredictable, reclusive North Korean regime.