The North Korea Threat

| Joe Detrani
Joseph DeTrani
Former Director of the National Counterproliferation Center

North Korea is threatening the Global Community with its reckless nuclear and missile behavior.   They have consistently disregarded U.N. Security Council Resolutions and have made clear, especially to China and the U.S., that they are a nuclear weapons state. The four nuclear tests, the most recent in 2016, have progressively been more potent, with reported progress on miniaturization.  The dozens of missile launches, with the most recent in June 2016 of a medium-range Musadan ballistic missile, have enhanced its reach and its reported ability to mate a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile.  Currently, North Korea is an existential nuclear threat to South Korea, Japan and others in the region.  Eventually, North Korea wants to be an existential threat to the U.S., with its work on a reported KN-08, a mobile, long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.

North Korea has made it clear that the Six Party Talks (6PT) are dead.  The leadership of Kim Jung-un has institutionalized “Byongjin,” a policy of economic and nuclear development.  North Korean officials recently have publicly stated that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state; that they will enhance their nuclear weapons capability.

For someone who has negotiated with North Korea when we initially established the 6PT process in 2003, this is not surprising.  Indeed, in the first bilateral meeting we had with North Korea in Beijing, on the margins of a plenary session with all six nations, North Korea’s lead negotiator told us that North Korea wanted to be treated in a manner similar to the way the U.S. treats Pakistan, a nuclear weapons state. He said North Korea, with nuclear weapons, wanted normal relations with the U.S.; that they would be a friend of the U.S.  He went on to add that if the 6PT negotiations do not result in an agreement to Pyongyang’s liking, then North Korea would build more nuclear weapons, test them, and if necessary, sell them.  Their lead negotiator was told that the U.S. would never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.  And if they ever sold a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials to a country or non-state actor that used them against the U.S. or an ally, we would know and take appropriate immediate action against North Korea.

Previously, North Korea has used threats and attempts at intimidation to force the U.S. and others to compromise and come to the table to negotiate.  Since 2008, however, negotiations with North Korea have ceased. North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2009, 2013, and 2016 have not resulted in negotiations.  Their numerous missile launches, to include putting two satellites in orbit, the recent Musadan launches, and Submarine Missile Launches have not resulted in a return to negotiations.  No country wants to be intimidated and forced into negotiations, when the outcome of those negotiations only will serve the interest of North Korea.  Rebuffing North Korea and not capitulating to their threats and attempts at intimidation were justified.  Indeed, North Korea’s reckless behavior has resulted in a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning North Korea, supported by all nations, including China and Russia.  Currently, North Korea is an isolated and distrusted nation.  Even China, their only ally on paper, is unhappy with Kim Jung-un and his reckless behavior.

We are at a critical juncture with North Korea.  We can work at further isolating them, with additional sanctions, while they build more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Hoping that sanctions and isolation will compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons is wishful thinking.  Sanctions have not and will not get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.  Sanctions are important, however, because it’s one of the few tools we have to punish North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs. In that regard, sanctions are important.  Sanctions also make it harder for North Korea to survive and maintain its nuclear programs.  However, North Korea will continue to find work arounds to get the materials necessary for its nuclear and missile programs, while continuing to enrich its leadership.

It’s time for China and the U.S. to come up with a strategy for dealing with a reckless North Korea.  Absence such a strategy could result in a nuclear arms race in the region, with South Korea, Japan and others possibly going nuclear.  It could also result in North Korea possibly proliferating nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to rogue states and non-state actors.  The most immediate threat would be an accidental use of a nuclear weapon, due to an accident or miscalculation.  In short, North Korea has to halt its nuclear weapons program and commence the process of dismantling it.

China has the ability to bring North Korea to the table to talk to the U.S. about its nuclear weapons program.  China did this in April 2003, when the three countries met and agreed on the establishment of the 6PT process.  A similar set of meetings can be convened.  In that meeting, North Korea can be reminded of the commitment Kim Jung-Il made when he signed the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement.   That agreement committed North Korea to a comprehensive and verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program in return for security assurances, a peace treaty, economic and energy assistance, and a discussion for the provision of Light Water Reactors when North Korea returns to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) as a non-nuclear weapons state.

It’s time to be pro-active in finding a peaceful solution to the North Korea nuclear issue.  

The Author is Joseph DeTrani

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 later 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. Ambassador DeTrani is... Read More

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