On March 8, 2018, following the talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, Chung Eui-yong, South Korean President’s national security advisor, announced the acceptance by Trump of the proposal by North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un to hold the U.S.-North Korean Summit. A day later this was also confirmed by the White House spokeswomen who said “[Trump] will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un […] We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea” [White House, 2018]. This diplomatic overture caught many by surprise given that previously Washington and Pyongyang had been engaged in the dangerous cycle of threats and counter threats. At the upcoming landmark face-to-face meeting, the first ever between the leaders of these two states, the issue of complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will be on the agenda. However, taking into account the fact that no country, except for South Africa, in the past had ever given up its indigenously developed nuclear capability, at this stage no one expects a deal on the full denuclearization. The more realistic option would be reaching an interim deal on halting the North Korean missile and nuclear program but without destroying its stockpile of warheads and nuclear materials. At the same time, there are significant risks associated with a possible failure to reach any deal or implement a negotiated agreement, which may lead both sides to conclude that a diplomatic solution is not a viable option and, as a result, return to their belligerent rhetoric.
North Korea has been actively developing its nuclear program since 1990s, with its first nuclear weapon successfully tested in October 2006. Since then the country has conducted five more nuclear weapon tests and multiple missile launches. After Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, the development of the North Korean nuclear program has accelerated. Four out of North Korea’s six nuclear tests (one in 2013, two in 2016 and one in 2017) and more than 80 missile tests have been conducted under Kim Jong-un’s watch. According to some estimates, Pyongyang’s nuclear capability particularly progressed last year when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) detonated its sixth and so far most powerful bomb while also launching three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with the latest Hwasong-2015 ICBM being capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile activities, the UN Security Council has adopted eleven major resolutions on North Korea since 2006. The latest U.S. sponsored sanctions resolutions 2371 and 2397 adopted on August 5, 2017 and December 22, 2017, respectively, restrict, among other things, the North Korean exports of coal and iron that are a major source of revenue for the country and cut the supply of petroleum products to Pyongyang by 90% thus disrupting the nation’s energy supply. These sanctions aim at isolating North Korea until it agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
DPRK’s newly acquired ICBM capability that puts the United States within a striking range has also led the U.S. administration to more seriously consider a military option. To illustrate, after North Korea successfully tested ICBMs for the first time on July 4 and July 8, 2017, the Trump administration threatened to respond with “fire and fury” [Reuters (a), 2017].
In his turn, referring to the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 in November 2017 in the New Year speech, Kim Jong-un, said he had a “nuclear button” on his office desk and warned that “the whole territory of the United States is within the range of our nuclear strike” while also extending the olive branch to South Korea by expressing hope for the North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang [Reuters (b), 2017)]. The initial talk between the two Koreas on January 8, 2018 in the Demilitarized Zone over the issue of a possible participation of North Korean athletes in the Olympic Games was followed by a series of high-level talks. During the latest round held on March 5 in Pyongyang, the South Korean delegation, led by Chung Eui-yong, held a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. During these talks, as stated by Chung Eui-yong, “the North expressed its will to have a candid dialogue with the United States for discussing the issue of denuclearization and the normalization of the Pyongyang-Washington ties” [Korea.net, 2018]. This sudden conciliatory message on the part of the North Korean leader towards Washington conveyed through South Korea is viewed as an attempt by Kim Jong-un to use an engagement as a way of easing harsh sanctions and averting a preventive use of military force by the current U.S. administration, which has adopted a strategy combining sanctions and military threats.
Currently, the parties are actively setting the stage and terms for the upcoming summit. As reported in the media, the United States and North Korea are holding direct secret talks through the intelligence channels with Central Intelligence Agency Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo visiting Pyongyang on April 17 to work out the details of the summit, the exact venue and date of which is yet to be announced. Very little is also known of the agenda the parties are about to negotiate. The Trump administration has said it wants North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” [U.S. Department of State, 2018]. It is estimated that North Korea may possess as many as 60 nuclear weapons [Kristensen and Norris, 2018]. At the same time, according to the statement of Chung Eui-yong, the North Koreans stated their “willingness” to “denuclearize the Korean Peninsula” in return for a removal of the “threat” [Reeve, 2018]. According to the DPRK, the “threat” is the presence of the U.S. military base on the Korean Peninsula, as well as the U.S. nuclear umbrella that defends South Korea and Japan. In return, if Pyongyang feels “secure”, the DPRK will “consider denuclearization in 10-20 years”. In this regard, it can be argued that the future talks will be centered on the exact terms and conditions for the U.S. demand for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” and DPRK’s condition of the removal of the “threat”. Experts, however, are confident that the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will not result in a denuclearized Korea, and at best the parties would manage to make concessions around the edges [Tong-Hyung and Talmadge, 2018]. An interim deal might be achieved that would require Pyongyang to put a significant limit on the further development of its nuclear weapons and missile program like curtailing the production of plutonium and uranium in return for easing sanctions and restoring some diplomatic ties [O’Hanlon, 2018]. This may open a path for a future full scale denuclearization deal that would include the testing freeze, access to all nuclear production facilities and military sites, and complete dismantlement of weapons. However, as the history of the previous deals between Pyongyang and Washington illustrates, this is a long path which may be subject to a breakdown. For instance, the Agreed Framework signed in 1994 that put maximum constrains on the North Korean nuclear program derailed because of the inability of both parties to deliver on the agreed terms of the deal. Therefore, there is a real threat that expected diplomatic compromises may not sustain, and after failing diplomatically the parties may soon return back to the tactic of pressure and disengagement [Terry and Collins, 2018].
Until recently it seemed that the international efforts of denuclearizing North Korea were in stalemate since the imposition of political and economic sanctions has made little effect on Pyongyang. It is clear now that the DPRK is indifferent to outside pressure if it has to do with the top national priority of possessing the nuclear capability that potentially ensures the regime survival. Therefore, the initiation of negotiations instead of only resorting to pressure and threats presents a better chance for the prospects of resolving the current stand-off.
White House. (2018). Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/press-briefing-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-030918/. Accessed on 19.04.2018.
Reuters (a). (2017). Trump says North Korea will be met with ‘fire and fury’ if it threatens U.S. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-usa-trump-idUSKBN1AO28O. Accessed on 20.04.2018.
Reuters (b). (2017). North Korea’s Kim ‘open to dialogue’ with South Korea, will only use nukes if threatened. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-kimjongun/north-koreas-kim-open-to-dialogue-with-south-korea-will-only-use-nukes-if-threatened-idUSKBN1EQ0NJ . Accessed on 20.04.2018.
Korea.net. (2018). South, North Korea agree to hold 3rd summit in April. Retrieved from http://korea.net/NewsFocus/policies/view?articleId=155265&pageIndex=1. Accessed on 20.04.2018.
U.S. Department of State. (2018). A Common Goal: The Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea. Retrieved from https://blogs.state.gov/stories/2018/01/17/en/common-goal-complete-verifiable-and-irreversible-denuclearization-north-korea. Accessed on 20.04.2018.
H.M. Kristensen and R.S. Norris. (2018). North Korean nuclear capabilities, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74(1): 41-51. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00963402.2017.1413062. Accessed on 09.04.2018
Cited in: J.R. Reeve. (2018). A U.S.-North Korea summit: What could possibly go wrong?. Brookings Institution. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/09/a-u-s-north-korea-summit-what-could-possibly-go-wrong/. Accessed on 23.04.2018.
K. Tong-Hyung and E. Talmadge. (2018).North Korea Halts All Nuclear and Long-Range Missile Testing. National Post. Available at: http://nationalpost.com/news/north-korea-says-it-will-suspend-nuclear-and-missile-testing. Accessed on 21.04.2018.
M. O’ Hanlon. (2018). North Koreans tease nuclear weapons concessions. Should Trump believe them?. USA TODAY. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/03/08/north-korea-said-itd-get-rid-its-nukes-should-we-believe-them-michael-ohanlon-column/404935002/. Accessed on 20.04.2018.
S. M. Terry and L. Collins. (2018). The First Summit Between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. CSIS. Available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/first-summit-between-donald-trump-kim-jong-un. Accessed on 23.04.2018.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations. He obtained his master’s degree in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford through the Bolashak scholarship. His thesis “ Political Economy of Oil: the case of Kazakhstan” received distinction mark. Prior to joining the ERI, he worked for governmental and international organizations.