What Does North Korea Want—and What is the US Prepared to Give?

April 26, 2018 | 12:46 pm
David Wright
Former Contributor

North Korea is not likely to negotiate in earnest unless it is convinced the United States is committed to the process. It is important that the administration put together a package of what it is willing to put on the table in response to Pyongyang’s steps.

Kim has talked about the dual goals of security and improving the economy. A key goal of early talks should be for the United States to understand what North Korea wants and what it is willing to do to get those things.

(Source: KCNA)

Kim’s first interest is likely setting up conditions that assure the survival of his regime without needing nuclear weapons. Recent press reports indicated what steps North Korea sees as important to increase its security, including:

  • stopping the inclusion of “nuclear and strategic assets” during US joint military exercises with South Korea,
  • guaranteeing that the United States will not attack North Korea with either conventional or nuclear weapons,
  • converting the armistice agreement from the Korean War into a peace treaty, and
  • normalizing diplomatic relations with the United States.

As part of normalizing relations, the United States should discuss opening a liaison office in Pyongyang, and to have North Korea do so in the United States. This step was discussed in the 1990s and was expected to occur by the end of 1998, but never happened.

As noted in Part 1 of this post, North Korea stated in 2016 that denuclearization “includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.” The United States will need to understand what it means by “its vicinity,” and whether Pyongyang sees that as including the US air base on Guam, where nuclear-capable bombers are based, or Okinawa, where nuclear storage sites may be built as part of a new US military base there.

Non-military issues

In addition to security measures, North Korea is also looking for economic and development assistance. As in past negotiations this assistance would not all come from the United States.

One step would clearly be relaxing sanctions. A second would be to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Bush had removed it from the list in 2008, but President Trump relisted it last November. This creates a barrier, for example, to economic assistance and getting loans from the World Bank and other international institutions.

In the past there were discussions of helping North Korea grow more of its own food through assistance with fertilizer, measures to repair and improve irrigation systems, etc. Such assistance would still be important.

In past negotiations there has also been a focus on energy assistance. Frequently that took the form of shipments of heavy fuel oil, which was chosen because it could be used to produce energy but was not highly refined enough to be useful to fuel military vehicles, etc. However, its interest is certainly broader than that. In the 1990s, North Korea was interested in assistance in developing energy technologies, including sending scientists to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The North could also benefit from assistance in modernizing its power grid.

In the past, North Korea has also declared the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful uses, and is currently building a reactor that it says is intended for producing power and would not be used for military purposes. In principle, this could be done once it has rejoined the NPT and allowed the IAEA to safeguard its nuclear facilities, but given North Korea’s past action in expelling inspectors and pulling out of the NPT this is certain to be controversial.

North Korea has also been interested in assistance to improve its mining sector. Such a step could be very important since minerals are one of the main resources North Korea has to earn foreign exchange. A recent article notes that

North Korea has sizeable deposits of more than 200 different minerals, including coal, iron ore, magnesite, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore, limestone, molybdenite, graphite and tungsten. All have the potential for the development of large-scale mines.

The United States could help establish a fund to assist North Korea in developing its mining technology and infrastructure, and could encourage private capital to help develop the mining sector. In 1993, Israel was negotiating with North Korea to stop missile sales to the Middle East, and assistance for its mining industry was an important part of the deal. Ultimately, Israel backed away from this agreement under US pressure since the United States was negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program at the time.

Former Senators Nunn and Lugar have also proposed developing a program that would help employ and retrain scientists and engineers from North Korea’s military sector, and to provide technical and financial assistance for destroying and disposing of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their delivery systems. This is similar to what was done under the successful Cooperative Threat Reduction program Nunn and Lugar developed after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Finally, North Korea has stated that it wants to be able to use space in the ways other countries do—for communications, earth monitoring, resource exploration, weather forecasts, etc.—and has developed an incipient satellite launch capability. An indigenous satellite launch program could be acceptable sometime in the future when the international community has developed more trust in the North Korean regime, but not in the near term.

There are several approaches to negotiating an end to this program. One approach is for the international community to provide North Korea access to various kinds of satellite services and help with developing the expertise needed to use it, eliminating the need for it to own and operate its own satellites.

A second approach would be to set up a consortium that could help North Korea develop technical satellite expertise and design and build a satellite. The international community would then fund or heavily subsidize foreign launch services to compensate for North Korea’s lack of domestic launch capability. And in either case it could be useful to integrate North Korea into various international and regional space and satellite forums.

(Part 1 of this post)