The US-DPRK Summit in Hanoi in 2019 ended without a deal due to disagreements over the right mix of sanctions relief for the nuclear concession Kim Jong Un offered. After the US rejected the North’s request to lift a significant portion of the sanctions imposed since 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained, “…as we take steps toward denuclearization, the most important issue is security, but we thought it would be more burdensome for the US to take military-related measures, which is why we saw partial lifting of sanctions as corresponding action.” This rationale illuminates Pyongyang’s previous calculation: that partial sanctions relief for partial denuclearization would be an acceptable outcome.
The failure of the Hanoi Summit appears to have prompted North Korea to recalibrate its strategy for dealing with the US. This new policy seems to be based on what the North perceives as: US hostile policy, double standards and two-pronged policies. As such, the DPRK has been both demanding concessions and justifying its own behavior, such as the cessation of US hostile policy through the provision of security guarantees, the development and testing of missile technology and the refusal of diplomatic dialogue. In the meantime, Pyongyang has resumed its nuclear development based on a power-for-power policy to pursue a military balance on the Korean Peninsula and increase its leverage over Washington before returning to negotiations.
However, this power-for-power principle is only one half of the equation. It is coupled with a goodwill-for-goodwill policy as well, giving Pyongyang the option to restart diplomatic talks with Washington under the right conditions. Hence, to engage North Korea, the US could consider proposing to jumpstart diplomacy with a concrete offer that begins to address North Korea’s major concerns. This is a practical way to convince Pyongyang to come back to the negotiations table and stop their military provocations.
There are three key themes that have emerged in North Korean rhetoric since the failed Hanoi Summit that help illuminate the North’s thinking about its relations with the US and the prospects of restarting nuclear negotiations.
First, is North Korea’s perception of a hostile policy. Although the US has offered to resume talks with North Korea, Pyongyang has rejected them, instead asserting that it will not return to the negotiating table until Washington withdraws what it calls its “hostile policy.” This calculus can be observed when analyzing Pyongyang’s behavior after the Hanoi Summit. While North Korea has often used this term to describe US actions toward the regime and a number of political and economic grievances, there is a very large security component to “hostile policy” as well. Should the US still push for a “big deal” again—North Korea commits to complete denuclearization—then the North will likely ask for a package of security guarantees, such as the withdrawal of all US hostile policies toward the country, as part of that exchange. While this term is rather ambiguous, the DPRK might demand, for instance, normalized relations with the US, which could include the withdrawal of all US forces in South Korea. That is, before Pyongyang can go through with complete denuclearization, its security situation needs to be resolved first.
Under this rubric, Pyongyang has viewed continued joint military exercises between the US and South Korea as a major aggression toward the North. These annual exercises are performed to practice the defense against a North Korean attack, and have, occasionally, included offensive components as well. The termination of these exercises has become part of the demands for the regime to resume negotiations with Washington. For example, Kim Yo Jong—Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister—warned the Biden administration to scrap future military exercises with South Korea “if it wants a good night’s sleep for the next four years, it would be good for them not to seek something to do unseemly that may not make them sleep properly.” Therefore, the first step toward addressing North Korea’s perception of US hostile policy could be an offer to stop future US-ROK joint military exercises, as it did in 2018 when negotiations were ongoing. That said, the suspension of joint military exercises in concomitance with a change in Washington’s strategic calculus regarding denuclearization are a small component to the general precondition of ending US hostile policy. There is also a risk that North Korea would not take any action for denuclearization even if joint military exercises are terminated by the US and ROK.
Second, Pyongyang has expressed frustration over the international community’s reactions to its pursuit of increased military capabilities, especially the United Nations (UN) criticism over missile testing, while remaining silent about South Korea’s missile developments. North Korea argued that the international community holds a “double standard” against its missile testing and development of conventional weapons. Ri Pyong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), stated that the tests are the regular exercise of North Korea’s right to self-defense. Both the US and South Korea can test and develop conventional weapons without fearing backlash from the international community, while North Korea, even if testing unsanctioned hardware, always encounters bashing and is labeled as a threat. Through this rhetoric, Pyongyang appears to be trying to both justify and normalize the strengthening of its military capabilities through regular tests of missile and strategic weapons, labeling them as a reactionary measure imposed by the geostrategic situation in the region.
Third, given these developments, the Biden administration’s offer for talks “anywhere, anytime” is not likely to be accepted by Pyongyang any time soon. North Korea believes that the US is employing a two-pronged policy: that on the one hand, the US is offering diplomatic dialogue as a way to demonstrate a peaceful measure, while, on the other hand, it is still pushing them with military and economic pressures. As such, any attempt of outreach or proposal of engagement from Washington is perceived as nothing more than a farce in Pyongyang. Choe Son Hui, first vice foreign minister, dismissed these attempts to establish dialogue as a “delaying-time trick.” Kim Jong Un has probably concluded, based on the last round of negotiations and messaging since Hanoi, that, at least in the near-term, Biden is not interested in meeting the regime’s primary demands, such as ending US hostile policy and providing sanctions relief to the North. Case in point, on December 10, Washington imposed the first new sanctions on Pyongyang under President Biden. North Korea argues that if the US really intended to solve problems through dialogue, then it would have refrained from any hostile actions toward the North, like imposing new sanctions. In brief, the North sustains that the US says it wants dialogue but does nothing to reinforce these statements nor follows up with practical proposals of engagement.
Further North Korean Missile Tests Likely
Since North Korea was unable to obtain concrete and sustainable concessions from the US—such as the termination of US-ROK joint military exercises or some level of sanctions relief—during the last round of negotiations, it appears to have concluded its current nuclear weapons capabilities cannot change US strategic calculus. Consequently, Pyongyang’s behavior and government officials’ statements show that the qualitative and quantitative upgrading of its nuclear and conventional capabilities are necessary to achieve concessions from the US concomitantly with ensuring national security. The regime appears to have returned to the policy of nuclear and national defense strengthening, the so-called “power-for-power” to counter US military threats and its hostile policy.
This decision was once again confirmed by announcing the five-year military plan at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, held in January 2021. Kim Jong Un emphasized that “completing the national nuclear force project is a strategy that North Korea must preemptively occupy in the construction of a powerful socialist state.” In other words, North Korea will continue to work towards the development of stronger nuclear weapons and the strengthening of its national defense capabilities to overcome fundamental security issues with the US.
In line with the five-year plan, North Korea has conducted eight missile and strategic weapon tests this year, starting with two short-range missile tests on January 22—the first tests in six months and just two days after the inauguration of US President Biden. Furthermore, the cruise and short-range ballistic missile tests conducted in late March were largely seen as a signal to the new US government, before its North Korea policy review was complete, that the DPRK would continue developing its nuclear weapons program.
However, Pyongyang stopped testing for five months from April to August as the regime seemed to need some time to evaluate Biden’s new North Korea policy, which was unveiled at the end of April. During the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee, held on June 17, Kim Jong Un analyzed in US administration’s revised North Korea policy and stressed:
…the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation in order to protect the dignity of our state and its interests for independent development and to reliably guarantee the peaceful environment and the security of our state.
Since September, though, the regime has resumed more regular missile testing. In September and October alone, North Korea conducted five missile tests, demonstrating a new long-range cruise missile, a railway-launched short-range ballistic missile, a hypersonic missile and a “new-type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Furthermore, South Korea’s recent testing of numerous missile technologies and systems has highlighted a growing arms race between the two Koreas. During September, South Korea conducted two SLBM tests, a long-range air-to-surface missile test, and revealed previous progress on building a supersonic cruise missile. In many ways, North Korea’s most recent missile advancements have also focused on capabilities to counter South Korean defense improvements in recent years, including ballistic missile capabilities and missile defenses. Indeed, perceived military inferiority would mean an inability to defend its own sovereignty and national security, which would, in turn, become an existential threat to the North Korean regime.
Another observation can be made by looking at the arms race on the peninsula: North Korea’s recent missile tests were also conducted shortly after South Korea’s testing of similar missile technologies and systems. In late October, North Korea test fired a new SLBM after South Korea’s first underwater-launched ballistic missile in mid-September. Furthermore, on September 28, North Korea tested a new hypersonic missile, called Hwasong-8, that came after South Korea’s own supersonic cruise missiles developed sometime last year. Therefore, through this behavior, North Korea seems to be implying that its tests are an inevitable measure, matching recent South Korea’s missile developments. This also means North Korea’s development of missile technology will continue at least until the five-year military plan ends, using South Korea’s military development as a convenient excuse for such efforts.
Taking all the above into consideration, Pyongyang is likely to continue carrying out more missile tests in the coming months to demonstrate advancements in its missile technologies according to the five-year military plan’s “5 top-priority tasks…facing the strategic weapon sector.” However, among others, new technologies associated with a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), hypersonic missiles and a nuclear-powered submarine are more likely to be on its future agenda. Those are also the areas for arms racing between the two Koreas, and North Korea seems to be trailing behind its competitor. Seoul has revealed that the country conducted a combustion test of a solid-propellant engine for space launch vehicles on July 29 and has plans to begin testing a prototype for a ground-launched hypersonic cruise missile in 2022.
In particular, North Korea’s plans for further SLBM development raises concerns, as SLBMs on a minimum trajectory could be fired from an undetected point outside of US missile defense system radar range. As a result, one possible upcoming test could be firing multiple long-range SLBMs from a new 3,000-ton-class submarine, which may be nearing completion or is ready to be rolled out in the near future, according to North Korean media.
Prospects for Future Negotiations
While North Korea is likely to continue pursuing nuclear and missile developments, negotiations haven’t been fully ruled out. Pyongyang might be aware that future missile tests are unlikely to convince the Biden administration to change its policy toward North Korea. However, it might have decided to increase its leverage over Washington with further missile provocations in an attempt to push the US to propose more favorable conditions for the North’s return to dialogue than the current Biden’s proposal. One of Choe Son Hui’s statements to North Korean state media supports this view: “We already clarified that we will counter the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.” Albeit not groundbreaking nor novel in nature, these perceptions and this idea of exchanging power for power and goodwill for goodwill help us both understand the reasoning behind North Korea’s actions and gauge its strategic calculus for nuclear development and negotiations.
Although resumption of more intense dialogue might simply have to wait until the global pandemic crisis is over, North Korea’s economic situation may impact its willingness to resume negotiations with the US, even under less-than-ideal terms. North Korea is currently facing serious economic difficulties due to a combination of sanctions, natural disasters, COVID-19 containment measures and a history of economic mismanagement. North Korea’s real GDP fell by 4.5 percent in 2020, according to estimates by South Korea’s Bank of Korea (BoK) at the end of July. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un himself, at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the WPK, admitted that “the people’s food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfill its grain production plan due to the damage by typhoon last year.” Furthermore, the arms procurement and competition will force Pyongyang to spend more on its conventional weapons and nuclear programs than perhaps it anticipated to avoid falling behind Seoul. Thus, the unabated pursuance of arms procurement and development could have dire repercussions, given North Korea’s current economic condition.
Since Biden has proposed “diplomatic talks” to the North on several occasions since April, from a US perspective, the ball is in North Korea’s court. Still, North Korea continues to reject US proposals for talks and instead continues to ramp up its defenses as the regime does not believe the US is offering anything concrete that would address its political, economic or security concerns. It sees only what it considers continued US hostile policy, double standards and two-pronged policies. As such, if the aim of the international community is to persuade North Korea to come back to the negotiation table, it needs to take the DPRK’s thinking and perceptions into greater consideration.
Amid distrust and differences in approaches and demands, some parallel, practical concessions are needed to resume talks. By looking at Pyongyang’s signaling, two issues can be identified as key entry points to kickstart this trust-building and dialogue process: military exercises and future missile development and testing. As such, the US and ROK could offer the halt of joint military exercises, and South Korea could offer a moratorium on its missile testing, and in response, the North could declare a moratorium on all missile tests as an entry point for future talks. Such a compromise may constitute a concrete action to narrow down the gaps and solve two contentious issues: a cessation of the next joint military exercise may then be positively seen by the DPRK as a partial lifting of the hostile policy, while a moratorium on all missile tests can convince the US of North Korea’s serious commitment to long-term denuclearization.
To achieve the common goal of peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, Washington and Pyongyang need to find ways to build a baseline of trust and mutual confidence necessary for further negotiations.
”Kim Yo Jong, Deputy Director of CC, WPK, gives statement to media,” Voice of Korea, March 16, 2021.
See: “Ri Pyong Chol Expresses Deep Apprehension over U.S. President’s Statement Faulting DPRK’s Regular Testfire,” KCNA, March 27, 2021; and “N.K. says Biden’s remarks on recent missile launches a ‘provocation’,” Yonhap News Agency, March 27, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210327000800325.
“Statement of First Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK,” KCNA, March 18, 2021.
“Kim Jong Un Makes Commemorative Speech at Defence Development Exhibition,” KCNA, October 12, 2021.
Author translation of “조선로동당 제8차대회에서 하신 경애하는 김정은동지의 보고에 대하여,” KCNA, January 9, 2021.
“Third-day Sitting of 3rd Plenary Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun, June 18, 2021.
“Hypersonic Missile Newly Developed by Academy of Defence Science Test-fired,” Rodong Sinmun, September 29, 2021.
“Statement of First Vice Foreign Minister of DPRK,” KCNA, March 18, 2021.
“3rd Plenary Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Opens,” Rodong Sinmun, June 16, 2021.