A Dark Path Ahead for North Korea

By Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea

Ambassador DeTrani served as 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 Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, ODNI.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.

OPINION — As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits North Korea, it’s important to keep in mind the weapons including artillery shells and ballistic missiles, that North Korea is providing Russia in support of Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine. 

In turn, Russia is probably providing North Korea with sophisticated technical assistance for their nuclear, missile and conventional weapons programs.  It is also likely that North Korea received Russian assistance with their successful satellite launch in November 2023, which would all be in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

It’s not just for the President anymore. Cipher Brief Subscriber+Members have access to their own Open Source Daily Brief, keeping you up to date on global events impacting national security.  It pays to be a Subscriber+Member.

Mr. Putin probably views this enhanced relationship with North Korea as a positive development as he gets help with weaponry for the war in Ukraine and has an ally in his confrontation with the U.S. and NATO. 

For North Korea, it is an ephemeral victory.  The reality is that they are aligned with a revanchist Russian Federation and a leader who is bent on recreating the Russian Empire. What that translates into is a Russia that will persist with wars of aggression and resultant alienation from the international community.  Is this the future Kim Jong Un envisions for North Korea?  Is the technical assistance that Russia is providing worth aligning with a revanchist Russian Federation?

Kim Jung Un’s grandfather, Kim il-Sung, in 1994 met with visiting former President Jimmy Carter and made it clear that North Korea wanted a normal relationship with the U.S.  Representatives from the U.S. and North Korea then met in Geneva and signed the Agreed Framework, halting North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and the construction of two new reactors, in return for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors.  Mr. Kim died later that year and his son, Kim Jong il, took over as the supreme leader, pursuing the goal of normalizing relations with the U.S.

In May 1999, former Defense Secretary William Perry visited North Korea as President Clinton’s Special Coordinator for North Korea policy.  After three days of meetings with political, diplomatic and military officials, Mr. Perry described his visit as “very intense, extremely substantive, and quite valuable in providing insights into North Korean thinking on key issues of concern.”

The positive Perry visit moved relations forward, with the October 2000 visit of North Korea’s Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, the second most powerful official in North Korea, Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rol. Marshall Jo, who had a “positive” meeting with President Bill Clinton in the White House.  The momentum continued with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later in October visiting North Korea for historic hours of long and productive talks with Chairman Kim Jong-Il.  Discussions about establishing diplomatic Interest Sections in our respective capitals were discussed. 

Over the next nineteen years, (2000- 2019) negotiations with North Korea continued, with North Korean negotiators saying their ultimate objective was normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. 

The Six Party Talks Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, clearly stated that North Korea’s complete and verifiable dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities was the path to eventual normalization of relations. 

I heard this often in official talks with North Korean interlocutors:  North Korea wants a normal relationship with the U.S.  This was repeated often in Track 1.5 meetings with North Korea’s Vice Foreign Ministers and in the 2018 Singapore Summit of former President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. 

The problem was – and is — North Korea wants normal relations and acceptance as a nuclear weapons state, like we managed the nuclear issue with Pakistan.  North Korea was told that we will not accept them as a nuclear weapons state.  Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the path to normal relations, they were told.

Who’s Reading this?  More than 500K of the most influential national security experts in the world. Need full access to what the Experts are reading?

Since the failure of the February 2019 Hanoi Summit of former President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea has refused to meet with U.S. negotiators and has raced to build more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver these nuclear warheads.

And since September 2023, when Mr. Kim met with Mr. Putin in Russia, there has been a flurry of senior level meetings in Moscow and Pyongyang and continued North Korean weapons assistance to Russia.

This alliance with Russia may embolden Mr. Kim to do something provocative toward South Korea; something that could escalate quickly.  It has also emboldened Mr. Putin to persist with his war in Ukraine, with the prospect that he won’t stop, regardless of the outcome.

This is the Russia that North Korea is aligned with. This is not what Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather envisioned for North Korea.  It is not the future that will provide economic development assistance and greater security to North Korea and its people. It is not the future for Korea that Kim Jong Un was pursuing in his summits with former President Donald Trump.

Indeed, this is the time for North Korea to reengage with the U.S. and continue to pursue the legacy of his father and grandfather – normalization of relations with the U.S.  This is the time for the U.S., unilaterally or with the assistance of China, to use the tools available to us to reengage with Kim Jong Un. 

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

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business.

Related Articles