What Does the US Want from North Korea?

April 26, 2018 | 12:45 pm
David Wright
Former Contributor

President Trump is planning to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in May or June. In preparing for the summit, the administration must be clear about what it wants from the process—both near-term and long-term. And it needs to figure out what it is willing to put on the table to get those things.

(Source: KCNA)

Beginning talks

The current situation seems to offer about as good a stage as one can imagine for talks that could lead to meaningful changes in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

In particular, North Korea has said it is willing to talk about denuclearization, which is a long-standing US pre-condition for talking. Press reports in early April reported that Pyongyang had repeated its willingness to discuss denuclearization and indicated the key things it wanted in return, which are steps to increase the security of the regime that appear similar to steps the United States agreed to under the Bush administration. And it has said it would not require US forces to leave South Korea as part of such a deal.

Moreover, North Korea has said it is ending nuclear and missile tests. It has not conducted a missile test in more than four months—which is especially noteworthy after testing at a rate of nearly twice a month in 2017. A lack of testing is meaningful since it places significant limits on North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and it can be readily verified by US satellites and seismic sensors in the region.

There is a debate about whether “denuclearization” is a realistic long-term goal of negotiations, what that term means to North Korea, and what it would take to get North Korea to give up its weapons. It seems significant, however, that in July 2016 Pyongyang stated that denuclearization means “denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity” but did not say it would only give up its weapons when the United States and other countries disarm, which is the position it had taken previously.

Whether or not full denuclearization of the peninsula is possible, there is a lot to be done in the near-term that would greatly benefit US and regional security and set the conditions for denuclearization.

And the administration should remember that the alternatives to diplomacy are not good: The best is a stalemate in which the United States uses the threat of retaliation to deter a North Korean strike, just as it does with Russia and China. A military strike and response by North Korea would be a disaster for the region.

Confrontation vs. Diplomacy

The first thing the administration must decide is whether it will pursue confrontation or diplomacy in this meeting.

There is a strong feeling among some in Washington that the North Korean regime is evil and that any effort to negotiate simply helps the regime—and that the United States should not be doing that. Instead these people believe the only solution is regime change in Pyongyang. They see a face-to-face meeting at best as an opportunity to confront North Korea rather than seriously negotiate.

This issue will certainly become a prominent point debated in Washington if negotiations go forward. If President Trump wants an agreement he will have to ignore these arguments, which torpedoed negotiations under the Bush administration.

Even among those in the administration who want to engage North Korea, the prevailing idea seems to be that the United States should demand that North Korea give the United States what it wants up front before Washington will reciprocate.

For example, in his recent confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo said the administration would not give North Korea “rewards” until it had denuclearized “permanently, irreversibly.” Similarly, an unnamed administration official said “the US will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs.”

Because of the long-standing lack of trust between the two countries, North Korea has instead called for a “phased, synchronized” implementation of any deal. This is the approach adopted at the Six Party talks in 2005, when the parties agreed to move forward “commitment for commitment, action for action.” Kim presumably wants a step-by-step process that convinces him that he will not become the next Gadhafi.

These US statements may still allow Washington to offer things early on other than sanctions relief, such as taking steps to normalize relations and remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. If instead the administration expects North Korea to give the United States what it wants up front—and lose its negotiating leverage before the United States addresses the issues Pyongyang brings to the table—that approach will fail.

One concern is that the United States may overestimate the leverage it has, overplay its hand at the table, and lead to a failed summit. If other countries see an intransigent US approach as preventing progress on engaging North Korea and reducing the risk it poses, that could begin to create cracks in the sanctions regime, which would reduce US leverage for substantial changes.

It’s worth remembering that in the early 2000s the George W Bush administration’s confrontation policy derailed negotiations that appeared close to ending Pyongyang’s plutonium production and missile development at a time North Korea had no nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. Following that, North Korea continued these programs and today it has both.

What is North Korea up to?

Why the new tone from Pyongyang and the limits it has announced on its nuclear and missile programs?

Some suggest this is just a ploy by North Korea to buy time to produce more fissile material and missile parts, and to try to create splits between the countries currently supporting sanctions against it with the hope of getting sanctions relief without really limiting its military capabilities in a serious way.

On the other hand, it may be that Kim understands his military buildup is unsustainable and that to stay in power he needs to turn to improving the economy, as he promised when he took power. Nicholas Kristof wrote recently that “Kim has made rising living standards a hallmark of his leadership, and sanctions have threatened that pillar of his legitimacy.” Now that he appears to feel secure with his position within the ruling elite he may need to think about the middle class that appears to be emerging in North Korea.

He may have decided, as his father appeared to in the late 1990s, that opening to the world is his only chance for real economic growth. Not only are his nuclear and missile programs barriers to that opening, they are also two of the few things of significant value he has to take to the negotiating table.

That doesn’t mean he has decided to get rid of them any time soon. But if this is his thinking, then significantly limiting—and possibly eventually eliminating—these programs makes sense if he can get security assurances that convince him he doesn’t need these weapons.

To understand what it is dealing with, the United States will have to take steps that test to what extent the North is willing to accept meaningful limitations—such as accepting international inspectors to confirm that plutonium production and uranium enrichment facilities are shut down and beginning to be dismantled. This has happened before with North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, so there is a precedent. These steps are important both for understanding Pyongyang’s intent and for halting its nuclear program on the way to denuclearization.

Near-term goals

The best outcome for a meeting between the two leaders is that it will set broad goals for an agreement that addresses both countries’ security concerns and establishes a path to denuclearization. But as we’ve seen in the past, working out the details—especially on issues like inspections and verification—will be tricky and take time. So one goal of the first meeting should be to agree to a schedule of ongoing talks to give both countries an expectation of a continuing process, and a list of what issues will be on the table at future meetings.

Here are three things that should be near-term goals of the negotiations:

  1. Locking in a permanent ban on nuclear and missile tests, and satellite launches.

(Source: KCNA)

North Korea has announced that it is ending nuclear and missile tests and shutting down its nuclear test site. The United States should clarify the details and get it written down as a formal commitment.

While North Korea put this on the table even before negotiations began, people should not overlook its potential importance.

North Korea has now done a single test of a missile that in principle can reach all of US territory, several underground tests of an atomic bomb, and a single underground test of what was likely a hydrogen bomb. Given those tests, North Korea can say it has—in principle at least—the ability to hit the United States with a nuclear missile and therefore has a deterrent to a US military attack.

Indeed, in his New Years’ message this year, Kim said, “we achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017,” adding that “the entire area of the US mainland is within our nuclear strike range, and the US can never start a war against me and our country.”

But North Korea does not yet have a fully tested capability to attack the United States with a long-range missile, and this matters. With only a single test of its Hwasong-15 missile on a lofted trajectory and no known successful test of a reentry vehicle on a long-range missile, additional tests are necessary to gain that practical capability. Similarly, after only a single test of a hydrogen bomb, it is very unlikely North Korea has a design that is small and light enough to launch on a missile, and it has little information about the reliability of the design.

This means that stopping additional nuclear and missile tests is important and meaningful. And since the United States can verify that no tests are occurring, it will know if North Korea is abiding by the agreement.

There are reasons why Kim may be happy to stop testing long-range missiles at this point. For one thing, while his single test of the Hwasong-15 missile was successful, there is no guarantee that a second test would be. A failure would undercut Kim’s claim of having a missile capability against the United States.

Moreover, gaining confidence in the missile performance would require a series of successful flight tests. The rapid increase in the range of the tested missiles during 2017 may have been possible because key components were acquired from Russia. If so, the North may be limited in how many missiles it can actually build—either to test or put in an arsenal.

While I have argued that developing a working reentry vehicle is not likely to be a technical barrier for North Korea, it has not yet demonstrated that it has one in hand for a long-range missile. Stopping further missile tests would keep it that way.

The two countries should clarify what missiles the flight ban applies to. The United States should press for it to include all missiles—ballistic and cruise—that would have a range over 300 km with a 500 kg payload, which is the MTCR limit. It would therefore apply to missiles that could reach Japan. South Korea has developed ballistic missiles with ranges up to 800 km and cruise missiles with ranges up to 1,500 km, and this flight ban would apply to the South as well. That would require South Korea’s agreement to this limit.

The United States should make clear that the ban also applies to satellite launchers. Because the technologies for satellite launchers can be used to develop long-range missiles, stopping this development is an important part of ending its missile program. Getting the North to agree to give up that program, given the civil benefits of a satellite program, is likely to require the US to arrange for the international community to provide access to space launch or satellite services in place of a domestic space launch program.

A longer term step would be eliminating all missiles on the peninsula that fall under the flight ban. Verifying elimination would be more difficult than verifying a flight ban, but was discussed in the negotiations with North Korea under both Clinton and Bush, and verification was put in place as part of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated all US and Russia ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

Following that, the next step could be to eliminate all missiles, as well as the artillery North Korea has aimed at Seoul, as part of a broader agreement limiting conventional forces.

  1. A freeze on the production of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, leading to a ban

Yongbyon reactor (Source: US Senate)

A second near-term goal of negotiations should be an agreement to shut down North Korea’s nuclear reactors, which are the source of its plutonium, and have inspectors on the ground to ensure it does not extract plutonium from fuel rods that have been removed from the reactors. North Korea agreed to both steps in the 1994 Agreed Framework and verifiably did so until the Framework collapsed in 2002.

The agreement should also put international inspectors at North Korea’s known enrichment facility to verify that it is not being operated, and allow challenge inspections of other sites that it might suspect are being used for enrichment.

Getting these agreements would not be unprecedented. During the 2005 negotiations, Pyongyang agreed to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.” Those negotiations eventually stalled over disagreements on verification measures and inspections, which were unresolved when the Bush administration left office.

The agreement should also require Pyongyang to preserve information that in the future would allow the IAEA to construct a history of its past nuclear activities. This would allow the IAEA to determine how much fissile material North Korea had produced—and whether it was all accounted for.

As part of the Six Party talks under George W. Bush in 2008, North Korea shut down its reactor at Yongbyon and provided 18,000 documents about its plutonium production, so there is a precedent for this as well.

  1. A ban on the sale or transfer of missile or nuclear technology, or technical assistance

As part of a deal, North Korea should agree to a ban on the sale or transfer of missile or nuclear technology to other countries or groups, and a ban on providing technical assistance on these systems. Such a ban would require agreement on transparency measures to help provide confidence that such activities were not taking place. In a recent speech, Kim stated:

… the DPRK will never use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocations against the DPRK.

So this could be a starting point for a discussion of these issues.

In the longer term, in addition to talking about denuclearization, the United States should focus on getting rid of North Korea’s chemical and biological weapons programs, and put restrictions on its conventional weapons. The latter would have to include restrictions on South Korean conventional weapons as well.

(The second part of this post will discuss what North Korea is likely to want from the talks.)