The More We Wait, The Worse It Will Get

(Photo: iStock)

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, August was the cruelest month. US-DPRK working-level talks did not begin, as most observers expected, after US-ROK joint military exercises ended on August 20. For a variety of reasons, the diplomatic window seems to be narrowing. Washington continues to profess an interest in returning to the negotiating table but has not adopted a new approach with potential for progress, while Pyongyang appears increasingly uninterested in even sitting down at the table. If by some quirk of fate the talks do manage to resume, the North’s hardening line over the last few months has not set the stage for progress but rather soured the atmosphere further.

February’s summit in Hanoi was a major setback: US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked away empty-handed, the North Korean delegation seemingly bruised and angry. The dialogue survived, in part because Kim and Trump held a quickly arranged meeting at the border between North and South Korea in late June and continued correspondence afterward. But the process is now on life support, with time and circumstances working against it. Since late July, the North has engaged in a flurry of tests of new weapons systems, including solid fuel, short-range ballistic missiles. Some of this was in response to the US-ROK exercises but also signaled a tougher DPRK position on the need for improvements in its conventional capabilities to counter what it claims are enhanced US and South Korean capabilities.

So far, Washington remains publicly committed to a version of the maximalist approach that has failed for nearly two decades—that is, no relief in economic sanctions imposed either by the US or the UN Security Council until the North abandons its weapons of mass destruction and the programs supporting them. But the perceived value of this pressure-and-wait approach hinges on a static situation, and the situation is anything but that. Although diplomatic rapprochement over the last 18 months and a hiatus in DPRK testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles have put the North’s program on a plateau of sorts, Pyongyang could easily redouble its efforts to expand and improve its nuclear arsenal if it so chooses. There is not much the US can do to force a resumption of talks if the North is determined not to reengage, but if talks do get underway, they will need traction very soon. The longer the United States waits for what it thinks is a better deal, the more it risks that the opportunity for such action will slip away—and that future negotiators will face an even tougher predicament, with much more advanced DPRK nuclear and missile capabilities.

Kim’s Pivot to the Economy

Just two years ago, the sophistication and destructive capacity of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal were advancing at an alarming rate. The country’s sixth-ever nuclear test, conducted in September 2017, produced an estimated yield matching that of a hydrogen bomb—in other words, more than ten times as powerful than the fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2017, the North also launched its first intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The missiles were crucial to one of Pyongyang’s main goals: credibly threatening to strike the US mainland with nuclear weapons from anywhere in the country, at any time. Pyongyang, it seems, was convinced that until it had this capability—even in rudimentary form—the United States would not take seriously the idea of negotiations. Having finally reached his goal, Kim apparently calculated that he could pivot to diplomacy and economic progress. In April 2018, as Kim prepared to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump, North Korea announced that it had completed its nuclear and long-range missile program and would no longer test these systems. Henceforth, the regime said, the core policy would be “everything for the economy.” This pledge, to the extent that Kim could stick to it, signaled a significant shift in the country’s resource allocation and economic policies.

Kim’s pivot did not put the nuclear program entirely on hold. Absent any diplomatic agreement, the North has continued to produce fissile material. Over the past 18 months, it has likely added about 10 bombs’ worth of fissile material to the roughly 30 bombs’ worth it possessed in late 2017. Chances are that North Korea has continued to refine its weapon designs and conduct experiments short of nuclear tests. The regime also appears to be preparing a 25 MWe experimental light water reactor (ELWR) at its biggest nuclear facility, Yongbyon, for eventual operation. Once running, the reactor is designed to generate electricity, but it could also be used to produce more weapons-grade plutonium and tritium, the requisite materials for hydrogen bombs sufficiently small to fit on long-range missiles.

Despite the regime’s claims, we do not believe that it now has the necessary test experience to field a militarily useful ICBM with a nuclear warhead that is small, light and robust enough to survive launch and reentry into the atmosphere. One of Washington’s highest priorities must be to prevent a return to testing by locking in Pyongyang’s voluntary halt.

A Setback at Hanoi

In the wake of the unsuccessful Hanoi Summit earlier this year, most observers latched onto the simplistic sentiment that sometimes one must walk away from a bad deal, that is, trading the North’s dismantling Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions relief. The critics argued that shutting down the Yongbyon facility would not necessarily require North Korea to give up any nuclear weapons or missiles. Nor would it require the North to reveal the location of, or offer access to, any bomb manufacturing facilities, missile factories, launch sites or covert uranium enrichment infrastructure located outside of Yongbyon. The country could, therefore, continue producing some highly enriched uranium and manufacturing nuclear warheads.

All of this is true, but it misses a more important point: Eliminating the entire Yongbyon complex and allowing inspectors at the site would immediately put a major dent in the North’s nuclear program, and so would be a crucial step toward a longer-term deal. The Yongbyon facilities are not obsolete or insignificant; rather, they remain key to the nuclear enterprise. Freezing and dismantling the site’s 5 MWe reactor and preventing the ELWR from becoming operational would halt the production of plutonium and tritium. Closing the known enrichment facility at Yongbyon would certainly curtail, though not end, the production of enriched uranium. And inspectors on site could learn more about past activities at Yongbyon and infer crucial information about the hidden parts of the nuclear enterprise located elsewhere.

Back home, the Hanoi debacle weighed heavily on Kim. Through March, as Pyongyang cut off all contact with Washington, the leadership initiated a total review of policy and personnel. Then, in mid-April, Kim delivered an important “policy speech” at a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) that clearly left the door open for renewed talks, albeit with caveats and a warning of a deadline, i.e., that the North would “wait for a bold decision from the U.S. with patience till the end of this year.”[1] That language appeared to fit into Kim’s warning in his New Year’s address that if the US misjudged the North’s patience, “we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country and supreme interests of our state and achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Despite the warnings, an unmistakable rise in the status and ranking of the foreign ministry at the time of the SPA speech seemed to reinforce signs of a positive direction of Kim’s thinking. Yet, there were apparently fissures developing in the regime. Signs of debate in North Korean media suggest that some in the leadership did not accept the results of the review or the embrace of continued diplomacy, viewing it as a dangerous course. In the weeks after the June meeting between Kim and Trump, Kim made a point of attending an unusual spate of weapons tests, perhaps in part to remind Washington of his threat to take a “new path” and even of the possibility that nuclear and missile tests could resume.

The North also seemed intent on reinforcing the message that it is now “compelled to develop, test and deploy the powerful physical means essential for national defense,” and that if talks with the US resume, it will no longer press for sanctions relief but rather for US steps on military/security issues, in keeping with the DPRK foreign minister’s post-Hanoi message that, ultimately, the “security guarantee is more important to [North Korea] in the process of taking the denuclearization measure.” In line with this, over the past month the North expanded its list of complaints to include a wide range of US and South Korean military activities on or off the Korean Peninsula, and taken a harsher tone with Seoul, calling the current government an “arch criminal” [3] for bringing in “advanced weapons,” and supposedly breaching earlier agreements to lower tensions.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Talks are not out of the question. Last month, Trump told the media that Kim’s latest letter to him promised to end the recent round of short-range missile launches and resume talks once the current US-ROK exercises ended. And in an exquisitely careful statement last month, a North Korean official noted that the “currents” could again “flow in favor” of dialogue.[4] These positive signs were subsequently tempered by a highly abrasive statement issued on August 23 by the DPRK foreign minister, excoriating US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the news that the foreign minister will skip the UN General Assembly in September.

Determining whether there is actually an opening, much less how wide it is, will take a combination of perseverance, diplomatic skill and luck. The nuclear threat may have abated thanks to positive political developments and the temporary plateauing of the North’s technical capability, but those conditions are reversible. The political situation is tenuous in both capitals, and trending downward. In addition to the existing diplomacy-averse factions in the Trump administration, US presidential election-year politics will increasingly create a challenging atmosphere for US-DPRK talks. Moreover, the window is fast closing for action before Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline. North Korea’s successful nuclear and missile development track record leaves little doubt that if Pyongyang were to resume its nuclear and missile tests, it would rapidly improve its arsenal’s military utility. The longer the United States waits, the more the overall nuclear threat will grow.

To avoid stumbling onto the North’s threatened “new path,” talks would do well to avoid lunging for the big breakthrough. It would be better for now to lock in the current halt of North’s nuclear and long-range missile testing and pursue steps toward a verified freeze and dismantlement of the Yongbyon facilities. Kim’s unilateral and highly atypical decision in April 2018 to stop the testing has limited the country’s nuclear arsenal at a stage that is worth capturing before it gets worse. At the same time, the dialogue will need to get past its herky-jerky phase and, through a series of smaller steps, create the momentum crucial to overcoming inevitable bumps in the difficult road ahead. For this, it would make sense for the US to challenge the North to take easy, but substantive steps to address US concerns in exchange for easy, but substantive steps from Washington. In short, the conditions call for real diplomacy of the sort the two sides once practiced, but haven’t done in too many years.


  1. [1]

    “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at First Session of 14th SPA,” Rodong Sinmun, April 13, 2019.

  2. [2]

    “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Makes New Year Address,” KCNA, January 1, 2019.

  3. [3]

    “KCNA Commentary Terms S. Korean Authorities Harasser of Peace and Stability,” KCNA, August 10, 2019.

  4. [4]

    “Press Statement by Director-General of DPRK Foreign Ministry,” KCNA, August 11, 2019.


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