Defuse the current impasse with North Korea


I spent 13 years dealing directly with senior North Korean officials, from 2003 to 2016, and believe the current unprecedented escalation of tension with North Korea could result in planned or accidental conflict on the Korean Peninsula, involving conventional and possibly tactical nuclear weapons.

North Korea has been clear in stating that it will not abandon its nuclear weapons and will continue to build more nuclear weapons and sophisticated ballistic missiles. Over the last two weeks, North Korea has conducted seven rounds of missile launches, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam and possibly beyond, a KN-23 short-range ballistic missile, modeled after Russia’s Iskander, capable of maneuvering in flight and flying low, to evade missile defense, and an underwater launch. North Korea said this barrage of nuclear-capable missile launches — and warplanes — were practice exercises for tactical nuclear strikes against South Korean and U.S. targets.

In September, Kim Jong-un announced a new nuclear doctrine, permitting the first use and preemptive use of nuclear weapons if an imminent attack by weapons of mass destruction against North Korea’s strategic targets or leadership is detected. This is a significant change, given that in 2013 North Korea’s nuclear doctrine was that their nuclear weapons were a deterrent to protect the North from an attack from a hostile power. Now, however, the North could preemptively use its nuclear weapons if there is an actual or perceived imminent threat against the North or its leadership. 

The United States and South Korea devote significant resources to maintaining a robust intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability to monitor North Korea to ensure that there are no military surprises. It’s unlikely that North Korea has a similar robust capability to monitor South Korea and the U.S., thus the concern that Pyongyang may mistakenly view a routine military drill or exercise as an actual threat and conduct a preemptive nuclear strike against the South. This, then, would be the opening volley in an escalatory nuclear  and conventional – military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.

Although Mr. Kim had clearly stated that North Korea will never abandon its nuclear weapons and will no longer engage in negotiations about its nuclear arsenal, it’s imperative that a greater effort be made to defuse the current impasse.

The goal is and must continue to be the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But this will take time. We knew this during the Six-Party Talks with North Korea and the resultant Joint Statement of Sept. 19, 2005, that memorialized North Korea’s agreement to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

In return, the United States stated that it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons and, inter alia, the six countries undertook to promote economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, and investment, bilaterally or multilaterally. Of note, however, is that the joint statement clearly said that it was to be implemented in a phased manner in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment and action for action.”

We knew in 2005, after over two years of intense negotiations with North Korea, that Mr. Kim would not agree to the “Libya model,” when dictator Moammar Gaddafi initially abandoned his nuclear program in anticipation of diplomatic recognition and other deliverables. In fact, Libya’s nuclear arsenal was in unpacked crates, never assembled and far from a nascent nuclear program. Eventually, as we know, Gaddafi was killed by his own people.  

These developments got the attention of North Korea and as negotiators, we were routinely told that North Korea would never initially abandon its nuclear weapons and programs (the Libya model) in anticipation of deliverables from the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Accordingly, all our discussions and the actual joint statement were clear in an “action for action” approach to denuclearization — as North Korea denuclearized, they received the promised deliverables, with the end goal being total denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic development assistance and normal diplomatic relations with the United States, only when the North also made progress on human rights toward its citizens.

At his Hanoi Summit In February 2019, President Donald Trump was unable to convince Mr. Kim that North Korea would have to abandon all its nuclear programs— not just the Yongbyon plutonium nuclear facility— before sanctions could be lifted. Mr. Kim was not willing to go that far, and discussions ceased. To date, negotiations have not resumed, despite U.S. efforts to engage North Korea unconditionally. And since 2019, North Korea has built more nuclear weapons and more sophisticated ballistic missiles — hypersonic, cruise and submarine-launched — and is reportedly preparing for a seventh nuclear test.

Given these developments, it would appear appropriate to use all the tools of diplomacy to defuse the nuclear escalatory impasse with North Korea. A message to Mr. Kim, directly or through China, indicating a willingness to discuss sanctions relief in return for the halting of all missile launches, nuclear tests and production of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons, in an action for action process would seem appropriate.

At a minimum, it would display continued U.S. flexibility, with the goal of not rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior but defusing the current nuclear escalatory tension, with the goal of the eventual complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

• Joseph R. DeTrani is the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea and the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.

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