This has been an unprecedented year for nuclear proliferation in East Asia, namely in North Korea. If not halted quickly, it’s very possible the region will inadvertently stumble into nuclear conflict, with unimaginable casualties.
So far, in 2017 North Korea has launched at least 20 missiles – the latest on Tuesday according to the U.S. Pacific Command – to include Intermediate and Intercontinental range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Guam and the continental U.S. The regime in Pyongyang has also conducted a nuclear test of what it claims was a miniaturized hydrogen bomb.
What’s striking to me, having worked this issue since 2003, is that we still haven’t resolved issues with North Korea, despite the twenty-five years of work.
What’s even more striking is that North Korea now refuses to engage with the new administrations in the U.S. and South Korea – administrations that appear willing to enter into unconditional talks with North Korea. This is in sharp contrast to former U.S. and South Korean administrations that insisted that North Korea agree to and start implementing comprehensive denuclearization before official talks could be initiated.
The current North Korean strategy of defiant testing is only gaining them international censure. The United Nations Security Council unanimously responded to recent tests by enacting two additional sanctions resolutions, adding to the six resolutions on the books, condemning North Korea for its latest nuclear and ballistic missile violations. The U.S. recently re-listed North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, while North Korea continued with its harsh rhetoric, threatening the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear annihilation.
The new U.S. Administration sent its most senior officials, to include President Donald Trump, to its allies in South Korea and Japan to re-confirm our extended nuclear deterrence commitments and ensure that the leaders and citizens of South Korea and Japan know that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is an inviolable U.S. commitment to our trusted allied. The recent participation of three U.S. aircraft carriers for joint military exercises with South Korea was further proof of the U.S. commitment to defend its allies.
The 12th East Asia Summit in Manila in November brought together the leaders of the 18 member states to affirm their resolve to address those economic and political issues requiring greater regional attention. The Korean Peninsula was a topic of immediate concern, with all states committed to working for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
This wasn’t any normal summit – it was attended by Presidents Donald Trump, Xi Jinping of China, Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Shinzo Abe of Japan and other world leaders. The consensus at the meeting was that more must be done to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea – though China and the U.S. each pointed to the other as holding the key to initiating those talks.
The media in China recently stated that the U.S. has the ultimate leverage with North Korea: security assurances. Indeed, if that is the case, then China should encourage North Korea to enter into official exploratory talks with the U.S. These talks would permit North Korea to discuss their security concerns and related demands. U.S. concerns and demands could also be brought up. If the talks are productive, then official negotiations including South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and possibly others could commence.
I’m confident that China eventually would support this approach. From 2003 to 2009, China had invested considerable time and resources in hosting the Six Party Talks (6PT). Their efforts were rewarded with the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement, signed by the six countries in Beijing, committing North Korea to comprehensive denuclearization in return for security assurances, a peace treaty, economic development assistance and a discussion dealing with the provision of two Light Water reactors when North Korea returned to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state.
Unfortunately, the Joint Statement ended in 2009 when North Korea refused to sign an agreement to permit verification monitors to inspect sites outside of Yongbyon, their plutonium facility. Since 2009, the situation with North Korea has changed profoundly. North Korea is now assessed to have a number of nuclear weapons that they claim can be miniaturized. They also have the ballistic missiles that can deliver these weapons.
Although Kim Jung-un has made it clear that North Korea will never denuclearize, providing security assurances, a peace treaty and a more normal relationship with the U.S. may convince Kim Jung-un that denuclearization is better than an isolated and heavily sanctioned North Korea.
Getting North Korea to halt its missile launches and nuclear tests and entering into negotiations should be our immediate goal. Indeed, the U.S. goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization should be our inalterable goal with North Korea, knowing that it may take years and require security assurances and other confidence building measures to convince Kim Jung-un that regime change is not our goal.
Convincing North Korea to halt its missile launches and nuclear tests and entering into official talks with the U.S., and possibly others, should be the responsibility of not just the U.S., but also China and Russia and all those countries that attended the 12th East Asia Summit.
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani served over two decades with the Central Intelligence Agency. The author was the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.
You can hear more of Amb. DeTrani’s thoughts on dealing with North Korea in this Intelligence Matters podcast.