Welcome to a more Confident and Desperate North Korea

By 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 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.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — On September 9th, Kim Jong-un, at a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, made it officially clear that North Korea will remain a nuclear weapons state with an expansive nuclear doctrine that includes the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. 

Clearly, this was a message from Kim to the United States and South Korea. He was telling the United States that any future negotiations will focus on arms control issues, not denuclearization.  And in this context, Kim now appears confident that the United States eventually will relent and accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, something the North has been pursuing since the Six Party Talks from 2003-2009. 

North Korea was told then, and continues to be told now, that the United States will never accept the North as a nuclear weapons state, concerned that other countries would pursue their own nuclear weapons program, despite U.S. extended deterrence commitments, and that a nuclear weapon or fissile material for a dirty bomb would be provided to a rogue state or terrorist organization.

Equally concerning was Kim’s other pronouncement that North Korea now has a nuclear “first use” doctrine that includes the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack or an imminent attack on the leadership or its nuclear command structure or, indeed, a threat to the existence of the state.

President Yoon Suk yeol, during his campaign for the presidency, publicly stated that a preemptive strike was an option for South Korea in response to an imminent attack from North Korea. It appears that this may have been Kim’s response – we also have a preemptive use policy —  to Yoon’s comments about a preemptive strike. 

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Although Kim Jong-un’s September 9th expansive commentary on the preemptive use of nuclear weapons was not too surprising, (since he had made similar comments about the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in April 25, 2022, at a military parade celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s army) it was noteworthy in that Kim is now stating clearly – what many suspected- that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, seemingly dashing any hope for the resumption of denuclearization talks.

On September 16, 2022, the United States and South Korea will convene a session of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG).  At the May 2022 summit between President Joe Biden and President Yoon Suk yeol, it was agreed that the EDSCG would be reactivated since its last meeting in 2018. Both presidents agreed to enhance extended deterrence capabilities and resume robust annual joint military exercises. Accordingly, from August 22 to September 1, the largest joint military exercise in five years, Ulchi Freedom Shield, was successfully conducted with live-fire exercises that involved thousands of troops and land, sea, and air forces.

These developments on the Korean Peninsula are happening at a time when North Korea has been supportive of Russia in its war with Ukraine.  Pyongyang has recognized the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and reportedly is providing Russia with rockets and millions of artillery shells.  Unconfirmed reporting also mentioned North Korea sending workers to these breakaway provinces of Ukraine and possibly also sending troops to aid Russia. No doubt this is a calculated move on the part of Kim Jong-un to secure Russia’s support – its veto power as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council in the United Nations, to ensure that no further sanctions will be imposed on Pyongyang, regardless of their reckless behavior, to include a seventh nuclear test.  Additionally, North Korea would receive needed oil, natural gas, and wheat from Russia, in exchange for Pyongyang’s support in the war with Ukraine.

Although North Korea has had close relations with Russia going back to the days of Stalin and the Soviet Union’s support of North Korea during the Korean War and through the 1980s – when the Soviet Union was helping North Korea with its missile and nuclear programs – to include the provision of a research nuclear reactor in the 1980s, and aid that abruptly ceased with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991.  However, aligning with a revanchist Russia probably isn’t the option Kim Jong-un and his father, Kim Jong-il, wanted to pursue. 

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Rather, it was normalizing relations with the United States.  This goes back to former President Jimmy Carter’s meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Il-sung in 1994, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s meetings in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-il in 2000, and Kim Jong-un’s meetings with former President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.

North Korea wants a normal relationship primarily with the United States. We know this from almost 30 years of negotiations and informal meetings and exchanges. The problem was and is, that North Korea wants this normal relationship on their terms – accepting their existence as a nuclear weapons state.  This has been and is the rub – we correctly continue to say “no”. 

Normalization is available with complete and verifiable denuclearization and significant progress on human rights.  We should hold to this principled decision.

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

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