A Dangerous Dance with a Nuclear North Korea

Cipher Brief Expert View

Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea 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, and was a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence. 

OPINION– Resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea is a priority national security issue for the United States. After 26 years of negotiations, North Korea reportedly has between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons and is capable of mating them to missiles that can target neighboring countries and the whole of the United States.

Despite leadership talks in 2018 and 2019, North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons and missiles with greater reach. The October 2020 display of a large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), possibly capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads, was a not-too-subtle message that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state with a nuclear deterrent that can, if necessary, be used against an aggressor nation. Ensuring that we do not inadvertently enter into conflict with a suspicious North Korea, because of miscommunication with or misjudgment by the North, is a real challenge.

This is the North Korea the Biden administration must deal with. Fortunately, however, we have deep experience in dealing with North Korea. We have learned from negotiations that North Korea wants normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and acceptance as a nuclear weapons state. We also know that:

  • North Korea cheated and pursued a covert uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons, despite assurances in the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea that, in return for normal relations and the provision of light water reactors for civilian nuclear energy, North Korea would cease pursuing nuclear weapons;
  • United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea are crippling its economy and ability to sustain its nuclear and missile programs and the lavish lifestyle of its leadership;
  • North Korea has behaved as a criminal state, counterfeiting the U.S. $100 bill, pharmaceuticals and cigarettes, trafficking in methamphetamines, and selling missiles and conventional weapons to Iran, Libya and Syria. We know that North Korea uses its cyber capabilities to attack foreign banks, entities and cryptocurrency exchanges. Most troubling, North Korea has an abominable human rights record, with up to 200,000 political prisoners, subject to physical abuse and execution, in camps throughout the country.

A recent private conference was held, with former negotiators from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, to observe the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 19, 2005, Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks with North Korea. It took more than two years of tense negotiations with North Korea, chaired by China in Beijing, to get North Korea to agree to the joint statement. This historic document committed North Korea to complete and verifiable dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities, in return for security assurances, economic development assistance and a path to normal relations with the U.S., South Korea and Japan in separate bilateral negotiations dealing with each country’s unique issues with North Korea.

It also committed North Korea to returning to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, at which time the subject of providing North Korea with a light water reactor for civilian nuclear power could be pursued. All actions in this agreement were based on the principle of “actions for actions and commitments for commitments.” As North Korea moved forward with dismantlement, security assurances and economic deliverables would be forthcoming — and for the U.S., the beginning of a dialogue to establish normal diplomatic relations, contingent on North Korea making progress to end its illicit activities and dismantle prison camps. In late 2008, when North Korea refused to sign a protocol permitting international nuclear monitors to leave Yongbyon’s declared plutonium facility to visit non-declared suspect sites throughout the country, the Six-Party Talks came to an abrupt end.

What we learned from the talks and from President Trump’s two summits with Kim Jong Un is that North Korea wants security assurances, eventual normal relations with the United States and a peace treaty ending the Korean War. Currently most important for North Korea is the lifting of sanctions, especially those imposed after 2016 that restrict North Korea’s ability to import crude oil and petroleum products and limit its ability to earn revenue through the sale of fisheries, coal and textiles, mainly to China. The February 2019 Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim ended early when North Korea reportedly asked the U.S. to lift sanctions in return for its halting activity at Yongbyon. When the U.S. countered that North Korea would have to halt activities at all nuclear weapons facilities, including undeclared highly enriched uranium facilities, and halt their missile programs and chemical and biological programs, Kim refused, bringing the summit to an abrupt end.

It appears that Kim — a young, brutal leader who studied in Switzerland and replaced his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011 at age 27 with minimal grooming for the job — wants a normal relationship with the U.S. on his terms: Accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, similar to what the U.S. did with Pakistan. This is something the North has wanted since 2003 and it has been told consistently that the U.S. will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Other countries in the region would pursue nuclear weapons, and weapons or fissile material for dirty bombs could be proliferated to rogue states or terrorist organizations.

Reestablishing working-level talks that deal with these issues to determine if North Korea is serious about complete and verifiable denuclearization should be a priority for the Biden administration. If talks resume, progress is likely — which should include progress on human rights issues and the immediate closing of one or more prison camps for political prisoners.

Any substantive negotiation will take time and effort, given the complexity of the issues. But as we negotiate, trust will be established, with the ultimate goal of consummating a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with North Korea.

If North Korea does not respond favorably to overtures from the new administration, and if it continues to conduct nuclear tests and missile launches while continuing its illicit activities and human rights abuses, then the U.S. and the international community have no option but to continue with a policy of crushing sanctions and enhanced military deterrence, with additional missile defense capabilities supplied to the region.

Hopefully, this will not be necessary and Kim Jong Un will realize that complete and verifiable denuclearization, in return for security assurances, a path to normal relations with the U.S. and the eventual lifting of sanctions, will provide North Korea with its best option.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Joseph DeTrani was first published by our friends at The Hill

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