A More Isolated and Unpredictable North Korea in 2022

Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.  The views expressed represent those of the author.

View all articles by Joseph DeTrani

This piece from Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joe DeTrani was first published in The Washington Times

OPINION — Kim Jong Un, during his ten years of authoritarian rule in North Korea, failed to accomplish his two primary objectives: normalization of relations with the U.S. and acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

When Kim took over from his father, Kim Jong il, who died reportedly of a heart attack in December 2011, there was hope that this young leader, who had studied in Switzerland, would pursue a policy of economic reform and political opening up to the outside world.  To succeed, North Korea would be willing to commit to complete and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances and eventual normal relations with the U.S., which would provide the North with international legitimacy and access to financial institutions, for economic development purposes.

What we have seen over the past ten years was a leader determined to normalize relations with the U.S., but with a confidence that he can convince the U.S. to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.  This determination to retain nuclear weapons, while seeking normal relations with the U.S., has been the consistent strategy of North Korea for the past 28 years.

Dating back to Kim’s grandfather, Kim il Song, who approved the 1994 Agreed Framework that halted North Korea’s nuclear program at Yongbyon in return for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors and a path to normal relations with the U.S.  This agreement ended abruptly in 2002 when North Korea was confronted with U.S. information that they were pursuing clandestine Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons.

After that, Kim’s father, Kim Jong il, approved the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks (6PT) that committed North Korea to complete and verifiable dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities, in return for security assurances, economic development assistance and a path to normal relations with the U.S.  This agreement also ended abruptly in 2009, when North Korea would not permit international monitors to leave the Yongbyon nuclear facility to visit other undeclared suspect nuclear facilities.

And in June 2018, Kim Jong Un, in an historic Singapore Summit with former President Donald Trump, agreed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in return for a transformation of relations with the U.S. and a peace treaty to end the Korean War.  This agreement also ended abruptly in February 2019, during the Hanoi Summit with Trump when Kim Jong Un would agree to halt nuclear activities only at the Yongbyon nuclear facility and not at other nuclear facilities in the North, as requested by the former President.

What’s constant from these years of negotiations and temporary successes, was North Korea’s determination to have and retain nuclear weapons, regardless of any agreement.  What was also constant was the North’s determination to normalize relations with the U.S.

During Kim’s ten years in power, he has raced to become a formidable nuclear weapons state, launching over 120 missiles, to include two Intercontinental missiles (ICBM), the hwasong 14 and 15, and conducting four nuclear tests, to include a thermonuclear test in 2017.  The North has a reported nuclear arsenal of 30 to 60 nuclear weapons that can be mated to ballistic missiles. If you’re living in South Korea or Japan or any where else in Northeast Asia, North Korea is an existential nuclear threat.  Eventually, they could be an existential nuclear threat to the U.S.


The Cipher Brief hosts private briefings with the world’s most experienced national and global security experts.  Become a member today.


Getting North Korea to denuclearize will continue to be a challenge in 2022, especially given the nuclear and missile progress that Kim has made with these programs during the past 10 years. And living with a nuclear North Korea will be an enduring nightmare for South Korea, Japan, the region and beyond. One should never disregard the potential for the accidental use of nuclear weapons due to miscommunication or misjudgment.  A nuclear arms race in the region, with allies like South Korea and Japan pursuing their own nuclear weapons, despite U.S. extended deterrence commitments, is a real likelihood.  An even more disquieting reality will be the potential for nuclear terrorism, with a nuclear weapon or fissile material for a dirty bomb getting into the hands of a rogue state or terrorist organization.

Kim Jong Un made it clear during the 8th Congress of the Workers Party in January 2021, that the state must do a much better job caring for the people and improving the dire economic situation in the North.  Prior to COVID-19 and the North’s self-imposed isolation, a United Nations and North Korea joint study reported that more than 40% of the population in the North was malnourished.  One can only image what that number is now.

Kim Jong Un also recently announced that North Korea, while focusing on economic challenges, will also develop “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.”  And given what we’ve seen over the past 10 years, it’s likely that North Korea will be at least partially successful with these pursuits.

Even if we don’t see another ICBM launch or another nuclear test, North Korea appears determined to build more nuclear weapons and more sophisticated missiles to deliver these nuclear weapons.

Currently, North Korea’s lifeline continues to be China.  If China implemented all the United Nations sanctions imposed after 2016, as they did in 2017, it would be hard for North Korea to survive economically. It appears, however, that China is now providing some of the energy and food aid necessary to keep the North afloat.

Hopefully, Kim Jong Un now understands that he can’t have both: normal relations with the U.S. and acceptance as a nuclear weapons state.  And if Kim is concerned with the plight of North Korea’s economy and its devastating impact on his people, he’ll come back to negotiations to get sanctions lifted.  He should finally realize that North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, thus requiring him to decide if normal relations with the U.S. and a path to economic well-being and international legitimacy are more important than nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them.

If Kim decides that nuclear weapons are more important, then the U.S. and its allies and strategic partners have no alternative but to enhance containment, with additional sanctions, and increase deterrence efforts to counter the nuclear and conventional threat from North Korea.

Ideally, Kim Jong Un will return to negotiations for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea, in return for security assurances, sanctions relief and a path to normal relations with the U.S.


Go beyond the headlines with expert perspectives on today’s news with The Cipher Brief’s Daily Open-Source Podcast.  Listen here or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Read more expert-driven national security perspective, analysis and opinion in The Cipher Brief

Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.  The views expressed represent those of the author.

View all articles by Joseph DeTrani

Comments are closed.

Related Articles

Search

Close