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News | Nov. 16, 2018

Aspiration vs. Reality: Where are We with the North Korea Denuclearization Process?

By James Przystup Strategic Insights

Secretary Pompeo and Chairman Kim Attend Working Lunch in Pyongyang
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea attend a working lunch in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea on October 7, 2018.
Secretary Pompeo and Chairman Kim Attend Working Lunch in Pyongyang
Secretary Pompeo and Chairman Kim Attend Working Lunch in Pyongyang
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea attend a working lunch in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea on October 7, 2018.
Photo By: U.S. State Department
VIRIN: 181116-D-BD104-001

Over Veterans Day Weekend 2018, major western media outlets reported that unclassified satellite imagery assessed in a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Beyond Parallel Project confirms that North Korea (DPRK) maintains a large, undeclared and growing number of missile bases; and that these bases can easily accommodate ever more capable short and medium range payloads, to include nuclear warheads.

These findings followed late summer 2018 reports that North Korea continues to enhance its unmonitored capability to make more fuel for nuclear warheads, and a September report from the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating that Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains a source of grave concern, “The nuclear programme of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a cause for grave concern. The DPRK’s nuclear activities are clear violations of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and are deeply regrettable.”

Each of these developments and more have called into question the commitment of North Korea to denuclearize.  As denuclearization remains the core aim of the Trump Administration diplomatic gamut with North Korea, the passing of five full months since the United States – North Korea (US-DPRK) Summit in Singapore offers a chance to discern whether US strategic aims are being fulfilled.

In relatively short order, President Trump moved the United States from "Fire and Fury" and "Maximum Pressure" strategies toward North Korea to a historic face-to-face Summit meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in hopes of achieving the denuclearization of North Korea.  Following this June 2018 Singapore Summit, the President announced that he and Kim had reached an understanding on the issue of denuclearization but, because of time pressures at the Summit, they were unable to write down the details of the agreement. 

Diplomacy 101, however, instructs practitioners that there is no agreement without text and without text there is no agreement.  Since the Singapore Summit, Secretary of State Pompeo has been tasked with filling-in the details of the Summit understanding.  Pompeo’s ongoing frustration in fulfilling this task may come from the unfortunate fact that Trump and Kim likely do not share a common understanding of the meaning and process of denuclearization.

North Korea’s Strategic Goal

In the June Singapore Summit statement, North Korea committed to “work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  This is not a commitment to denuclearization per se, but a commitment to a process that may end in its denuclearization.

In that commitment to a process rather than an end state, North Korea revealed its overarching negotiating objective is to maximize regime gains for minimal steps toward denuclearization. As a result, its major activities since the Singapore Summit have been long on show but short on substance.  Pyongyang has paused its nuclear and missile testing, while continuing both programs. It has dismantled the Sohae missile test facility, but Sohae is no longer needed as the DPRK missile program now is focused on solid fuel capability.  North Korea transmitted pictures of its destruction of entrances to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, but that facility was at risk of a nuclear accident if ever used again.  Kim Jong Un’s interlocutors also have hinted at the possible shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Other sources note continued activity at the facility.  

These DPRK actions can generously be accepted as trust building measures but, in reality, do not advance denuclearization.   Meanwhile, North Korea’s nuclear and missile test suspension remains a freeze on testing, not a freeze on the many other aspects of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which appear to remain very active.

The Singapore Summit language of “to work toward” implies a process of indeterminate length.  A recognized weakness of the September 2005, Fourth Round Agreement of the 2003-09 Six Party Talks was the lack of any time-line to mark progress in the verification and dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program and infrastructure.  The Singapore Summit statement suffers from the same weakness.  A viable time-line will have to be painstakingly negotiated and perhaps play into a DPRK strategy of “protracted diplomacy.” Protracted diplomacy allows space for exacerbating differences between the US and South Korea (ROK) and, in a war of diplomatic attrition, allows Pyongyang to focus upon immediate economic sanctions relief while ultimately moving negotiations toward Washington (and Seoul) acceptance of North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state - another Pakistan.

Given its obvious strategic aims, North Korea cannot be expected to denuclearize in any acceptable time frame.  The best The Trump Administration may be able to achieve is a freeze on key elements of DPRK nuclear weapons programs and possibly limit the ability to expand production of fissile material and deployment of long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  Inevitably, this would leave Japan and South Korea vulnerable to North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) arsenal.

Kim Jong Un: Master of Diplomacy

Since January 1, 2018, Kim Jong Un has set the pace and direction of DPRK-ROK-US diplomacy.  In less than a year, Kim has held three Moon-Kim inter-Korea Summits; two meetings with China’s President Xi, and of course, the Singapore Summit with President Trump.   

Kim has played masterfully to progressive forces in South Korea, which are strongly behind President Moon’s peacemaking initiatives toward the North.  Seoul supports an easing of sanctions to encourage North Korea to move toward denuclearization.  President Moon has become a tireless ambassador for Kim’s aims to see sanctions relief occur before the establishment of any formal denuclearization time-lines.

During meetings in France, Italy and Belgium, President Moon has personally lobbied for an easing of sanctions to encourage North Korea toward denuclearization. At the Vatican, Moon also extended a personal invitation from Kim Jong Un to the Pope to visit North Korea.   Recently, the Vice-Foreign Ministers of North Korea, Russia and China issued a joint statement calling for an easing of sanctions to encourage North Korea toward denuclearization.

Cast as a Roadblock: The United States and Inter-Korean Dialogue

During his June 2017 visit to Washington, President Moon linked progress in South-North engagement to progress in US-DPRK negotiations on denuclearization.   Today, progress in South-North engagement is fast out-pacing progress in DPRK denuclearization.  This trajectory is likely to continue.  And Kim Jong Un will focus on driving wedges into the US-ROK alliance, emphasizing the importance of implementing inter-Korean agreements made in the April 2018 Panmunjon Declaration and the September 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration before committing to any formal process for denuclearization.

On October 21, 2018, North Korea’s state controlled website (the Uriminzokkiri) cast the United States as obstructing “every case” of inter-Korean cooperation projects and accused Washington of “an impure attempt to put the brakes on implementation of the [Panmunjon] declaration,” and of an “impure attempt to make inter-Korean relations adjunct to the DPRK-U.S. dialogue.”

The lag in progress toward denuclearization risks painting the United States as the roadblock to progress in South-North engagement, which North Korea will continue to exploit to its advantage.

Challenges Ahead for the United States and North Korea

Real progress in US-DPRK negotiations can only be achieved after a mutually agreed on definition of denuclearization.  The Singapore statement refers to “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  In the past, North Korea has maintained an expansive definition of such denuclearization to include: the termination of the US-ROK alliance, an end to the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence, as well as the withdrawal of U.S. conventional military forces from the Korean Peninsula.

At the same time, the administration must recognize that the UN Security Council has made an explicit link made between Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and its other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2094 specifically refers to “the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as their means of delivery as constituting a threat to international peace and security.” The Singapore Statement lacks any reference to North Korea’s chemical-biological WMD arsenal. DPRK relief from UNSC sanctions requires that this WMD issue be addressed. 

Finally, there cannot be denuclearization without a detailed time-line for declaration and verification. In reality, the opening of a new era in US-DPRK relations, in building a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and in taking the first steps toward denuclearization all have the same starting point: North Korea’s complete declaration of its nuclear program and infrastructure, production, test and storage sites.  Final Fully Verified Denuclearization (FFVD) cannot be accomplished without first knowing what North Korea has already nuclearized.  (Under the Bush and Obama administrations U.S. policy toward North Korea was defined as the Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization, (CVID); the Trump administration has redefined its policy as FFVD.) Complete declaration by DPRK remains the essential beginning of a trust building process toward denuclearization.

In response to a vital, yet unrealized, nuclear declaration by North Korea, the Trump Administration should generate a roadmap and timetable for denuclearization.  The sequencing of steps should focus on: sanctions relief – suspension with snap-back provisions focused on well-defined specific steps with well-defined timetables; the opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington; and support for Kim Jong Un stated commitment to bring prosperity to the North Korean people by dispatching a team of Treasury, Justice and Commerce officials to assist North Korean preparation of a submission for membership in the World Bank and IMF

After declaration and a sequenced timetable, the denuclearization process can then reach the critical stage of verification.  The Trump Administration has announced that it will submit an agreement on North Korea to the Congress.  This will require North Korea to accept an intrusive, go anywhere/challenge inspection and verification regime. North Korea has never agreed to such an arrangement and this has been a key point on which previous negotiations with North Korea have faltered. 

In the November-December 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Pompeo writes, “When considering a future North Korea deal that is superior to JCPOA, we have described our objective as ‘the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Korea peninsula as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong Un.’ ‘Final’ means there will be no possibility that North Korea will ever restart its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. ‘Fully verified’ means there will be stronger verification standards than under the JCPOA, which . . . did not require inspection of Iranian military facilities.” In policy term, Pompeo’s description of FFVD means that North Korea must return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it abandoned in 2003, including the Additional Protocol; and, must allow IAEA inspector access to both declared and undeclared activities. The Secretary’s framework sets an extremely high bar for policy implementation.

At the same time, President Trump’s June 15, 2018 claim that he has “largely solved” the “most dangerous problem facing the United States…” has served to undercut any return to his former policy of “Maximum Pressure.” In the event of a U.S.-North Korea negotiations stalemate— presently a good bet—any return to “Maximum Pressure” will run fully against trends in South-North Korean engagement.   


Present U.S. efforts to denuclearize North Korea do not portend a bright future. Other future outcomes must be considered. Will the Trump Administration, in the end, tolerate a less than optimum, “best that we can get,” outcome?  Will the United States accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear state?

These outcomes are very worrisome, for to accept anything less than the final denuclearization of North Korea, as verified by the IAEA, would put at risk stability and security in Northeast Asia and call into question US credibility and commitment to the NPT, one of the pillars of international order.  Five months on from the Singapore Summit, the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea is far from resolved.  U.S. aspirations are now meeting North Korea reality that will test President Trump’s ambition and Secretary Pompeo’s diplomatic skills. 

Dr. James J. Przystup is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University (NDU).  The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy of NDU, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.