Yoon’s Map to 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 OPINION — South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, in his Liberation Day speech on August 15, reminded the world that “denuclearization of North Korea is essential for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and around the world.”

President Yoon’s speech dealt with his “audacious initiative” to encourage North Korea to return to negotiations to initially halt and eventually, denuclearize.  In return, North Korea would receive:  a large-scale food and agriculture program, assistance for power generation, projects to upgrade ports and airports for international trade, modernization of hospitals and medical infrastructure and initiatives to encourage international investment.

President Yoon’s economic proposal to the North was predicated on complete and verifiable denuclearization, a goal we have been pursuing for the past thirty years. Unfortunately, the few fleeting successes we’ve had – the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Six Party Talk’s September 19, 2005, Joint Statement and the 2018 Singapore Summit – all eventually failed.  Currently, North Korea reportedly has between forty and sixty nuclear weapons and is capable of miniaturizing and mating them to short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missiles. 

The Yoon Administration’s understandable focus is getting North Korea to halt and commence with denuclearization, given that North Korea ended its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and in 2022, launched thirty-one ballistic missiles that included an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the United States, hypersonic and submarine launched ballistic missiles, and the likelihood of a seventh nuclear test.  Mindful of thirty years of failed negotiations, it’s not surprising that concurrent with this economic outreach to the North, the Yoon Administration is also focusing on enhancing deterrence, with the reintroduction of upgraded joint military exercises that will commence on August 22 (Ulchi Freedom Shield) with the United States and clear pronouncements that South Korea would respond to any nuclear escalation and provocation from the North. 

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Most of the so-called experts who follow developments with North Korea are outspoken in their assessment that North Korea will never abandon its nuclear weapons; that a policy that contains and deters North Korea is the only viable strategy for dealing with a belligerent North Korea.

This view was reinforced by statements this week from Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who said North Korea had no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles for economic cooperation.  This was not too surprising, in that North Korea consistently has demanded security assurances and the lifting of United Nations imposed sanctions as core demands for any dialogue dealing with complete and verifiable denuclearization.

Since the failure of the Hanoi Summit between former President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un in February 2019, North Korea has publicly enhanced its relationship with China and Russia. With China, it’s going back to a relationship as close to “lips and teeth”; and with Russia, it’s Pyongyang’s support to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recognizing the independence of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and media reports that North Korea may send troops to Ukraine to help Russia.  And in May 2022, Russia and China vetoed – for the first time – a U.S.- drafted United Nations Security Council resolution to strengthen sanctions on North Korea for the missile tests in 2022, that violated previous United Nations resolutions.

It should be obvious that Russia and China will no longer support United Nations efforts to censure North Korea for continued violations of Security Council resolutions.  It’s also obvious that North Korea will continue to upgrade its ballistic missile capabilities while continuing to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. 

Given this provocative behavior from North Korea, and its continued unwillingness to return to negotiations with the United States, Mr. Yoon’s effort to provide a road map to North Korea that encourages a return to negotiations to initially halt its nuclear program while pursuing denuclearization, in return for significant economic development, is a timely and well-intentioned initiative.

Based on our experience from Six Party Talks negotiations with North Korea and the Joint Statement of 2005 that “committed North Korea to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear weapons programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards”, North Korea will also want, on an action for action basis,  security assurances and the lifting of sanctions, especially those enacted by the United Nations Security Council after 2016. 

However, these are issues that can be further pursued with North Korea, assuming eventually, they will engage with the new Yoon Administration, especially in response to President Yoon’s “audacious initiative” and a subsequent detailed road map that, in an action for action format, provides North Korea with the security assurances, sanctions relief, economic development assistance and a path to normal relations with the United States, South Korea and Japan. 

But regardless of Pyongyang’s decision, the Yoon Administration’s offer to substantively engage with North Korea in an inter-Korean dialogue, while also pursuing with the United States a robust deterrence program with enhanced joint military exercises, is a timely and appropriate strategy. 

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

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