If Denuclearization is a Fantasy, What Can North Korean Negotiations Achieve?

Toby Eli

At the end of December, having paid his respects to his ancestral heritage by riding a white stallion to Mt. Paektu, Kim Jong Un returned to Pyongyang to deliver a lengthy address to the North Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee. In the speech, Kim laid out his new strategic vision, one that puts little faith in denuclearization talks with President Donald Trump. North Korea, he stated, would no longer be bound by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and that soon “the world will witness a new strategic weapon.” More ominously, he committed to “reliably maintain the constant readiness for action of the powerful nuclear deterrent,” a destabilizing development that increases the likelihood of a nuclear detonation. The bottom line: North Korea will remain a state that possesses a deadly nuclear arsenal and plans to further modernize and expand it. Now what?

The “Big Deal” is Finished…

Kim’s speech puts the final nail in the coffin of Trump’s policy of seeking a “big deal” of fully verified and irreversible denuclearization in return for economic rewards. Kim’s pronouncements reaffirm the centrality of self-reliance and sufficiency in North Korea’s strategic doctrine and make clear it will no longer agree in principle to unilateral disarmament. Nor is it any longer committed to the denuclearization path it endorsed in previous agreements.



Instead, North Korea “will steadily develop indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons for national security until the United States rolls back its hostile policy and [a] lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.” Kim warned his citizens of “tightening our belts” in preparation for a long confrontation with the United States. Judging by this yardstick, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a remote possibility, certainly while Kim’s regime remains, and no matter how miserable international sanctions make life in North Korea.

In holding out for the big deal, unfortunately, the Trump administration — like its predecessors — sacrificed a more immediate and necessary operational objective: stopping North Korean progress toward a larger and more menacing nuclear arsenal that could reliably target the mainland United States. Pyongyang’s progress is worrying. U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten recently observed that “North Korea has been building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anybody on the planet with the 115th most powerful economy in the world. Speed itself is efficiency.”

The fruits of North Korea’s nuclear labor became evident as diplomacy stalled in mid-2019 with multiple tests of increasingly accurate short-range, solid-fuel ballistic missiles as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Talk of a “new strategic weapon” suggest other improvements, such as a large solid-fuel engine to power longer-range missiles. North Korea has shown it can significantly upgrade its arsenal even if the United States tries to undermine or slow it down — whether through “maximum pressures” sanctions, technology denial, or other covert “left-of-launch” activities.

… But There Are Still Reasons to Negotiate

There are still very good reasons for Washington to continue to seek to constrain further nuclear developments in North Korea, including through negotiations. Despite its progress, the North Korean arsenal is neither fully built nor highly reliable quite yet. It is also worth recalling the threat that North Korea could proliferate missiles or nuclear capabilities for profit or to create offshore production infrastructure. In addition, North Korea’s success in advancing its nuclear program while facing massive economic sanctions is a highly disconcerting role model that others (such as Iran) might seek to emulate.

Washington needs a more realistic strategy. Several long-standing U.S. demands and traditional approaches toward denuclearization ought to be set aside for now, with the aim of building toward them over time. These include rollback before rewards, eliminating short-range, conventionally-armed missile capabilities and liquid-fueled long-range missiles, providing a full declaration of facilities and stockpiles, and agreeing to “anytime, anywhere” inspections. It also makes little sense to prioritize a freeze on uranium enrichment. North Korea already has uranium stocks in abundance to feed a growing arsenal.

Realism also requires understanding what North Korea will negotiate. In his speech, Kim Jong Un stated that “the scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to [North Korea].” In other words, what might be negotiable at the outset are prospective arsenal developments, not existing capabilities. Even for modest constraints, however, Pyongyang will seek generous rewards in the form of relief from U.N. Security Council sanctions and additional (perhaps even more difficult) changes in American behavior and the posture of U.S. forces deployed in South Korea.

A New Negotiating Strategy

The primary U.S. negotiating objective should be a comprehensive freeze on those elements of the North Korean program that would greatly enhance its nuclear menace were they to be left unchecked. In effect, the aim would be to cap the North’s arsenal, qualitatively and quantitatively, to stop it from becoming even more potent and destabilizing.

The freeze would prioritize further development work and production of solid-fuel missiles, additional long-range nuclear delivery vehicles, and their launch platforms (including transport-launch vehicles and submarines). It should also capture the assembly of miniaturized thermonuclear weapons, and tritium production for its thermonuclear devices. The freeze should additionally cover military exercises with nuclear weapons and other steps that would increase the readiness, survivability, and reliability of the arsenal. The urgency of capping these capabilities derives not only from the threat they pose but also from the fact that they will constitute the upper limits of any interim deal.

To support the freeze objective, Washington and its allies must be prepared to put on the table a modular, multi-disciplinary, and above all credible financial assistance package to North Korea commensurate with whatever modest steps North Korea would agree to undertake. This offer must further be reversible in case North Korea violates its obligations under the deal. Involving multiple partners (China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the European Union, for instance) and channels for assistance strengthens the credibility of the United States in being able to deliver promised benefits. An important requirement for this assistance, however, is the need for North Korea to significantly rein in its massive criminal cyber-theft activities. Their restraint in this area can also be monitored and, if implemented, separately rewarded.

Verifying the freeze will be a challenging task, requiring a novel approach that departs from more orthodox systems. The verification of agreed limitations with 100% confidence of compliance with every single proscription is not achievable in North Korea. A more probabilistic method would be more practical and still yield high confidence with overall compliance while focusing on detecting militarily-significant cheating — activities that together produce a measurable upgrade in nuclear activities, rather than individual activities as such. Washington’s goal should be to dissuade North Korea from cheating on its obligations while providing early warning if and when it does. For Pyongyang to agree, verification cannot be so intrusive as to induce security paranoia about transparency or trigger its deep mistrust of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The scheme should be tailored to the specific features of the agreement, and narrowly focused on the capping rather than the rollback of its nuclear arsenal, banning proliferation activity, and monitoring imports and exports.

At the outset, Washington could stipulate willingness to discuss a vision for sustaining, and perhaps even augmenting through cooperation, North Korea’s future peaceful nuclear and space activities. Negotiations on such cooperation could commence once a nuclear cap is in place, as part of a second-phase agreement. Carefully designed and calibrated space and nuclear cooperation could help ensure it would not be abused for illicit activity, while also providing some transparency into ongoing programs. Positive future technical rewards could be a useful incentive to sustain North Korean cooperation during inevitable bumpy periods.

Peace gestures will be a necessary element of a successful strategy, meaning political and military measures to formally, symbolically, and, where possible, practically ease hostility on the Korean Peninsula. Several ideas have been on the table and both American and North Korean negotiators seem to now assume they are part of a package. In his December speech, Kim made reference to U.S. arms transfers to South Korea as well as U.S.-South Korea military exercises, indicating that they remain a North Korean priority.

Washington also ought to practice diplomatic triangulation to win Chinese and Russian support, which will be key to a successful agreement, but also helpful to sustain pressure on North Korea if it remains intransigent. As North Korea’s most important trading partners and hosts of North Korean workers, Beijing and Moscow are integral to shaping North Korea’s economic environment and both have been arguing for relaxation of U.N. sanctions. American triangulation should attempt to secure their commitments to sustain and fully implement existing sanctions on North Korea if it balks at more modest U.S. demands.

Finally, gaining traction with North Korea to move beyond its zone of comfort probably requires more than an enticing package, namely the credible, though conditional, potential for inflicting additional pain. U.S. officials could posit, for instance, resumption and even an increase in the tempo of American military exercises in the region, enhanced interdiction of illicit shipping, or more aggressive covert steps. A more belligerent U.S. posture would understandably increase risks of conflict, yet this threat could be an important incentive for North Korea to commit to negotiations. Coordination with South Korea, among others, on managing the risks of this approach would be paramount.

Realism not Naivete

A hardline strategy toward North Korea is baked into Washington foreign policy discourse. The reasons for this are many, found not least in Pyongyang’s record of provocation and cheating over decades. Yet, key among them is that it remains relatively cost-free for politicians to make unrealistic demands of others, whereas compromise involves political risks.

But the costs of three decades of failed nonproliferation policies are now clear: The United States faces a nuclear-armed North Korea whose arsenal could soon target more American cities, with greater reliability, accuracy, and lethality. This is a looming threat that requires prevention. There is no room for error or magical thinking in dealing with this problem.

Given North Korea’s tepid response to recent U.S. overtures, whether it would negotiate with the Trump administration or a potential successor on this basis is highly uncertain. However, ultimately Kim Jong Un wants and needs the U.N. sanctions to be lifted and therefore has motive to negotiate. His December speech clearly left open this possibility. And if and when he chooses to re-engage, asking of him to freeze rather than give up his nuclear insurance policy is a more realistic path to capping the North Korean threat.



Ariel (Eli) Levite is a nonresident senior fellow with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Toby Dalton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

Image: White House (Photo by Shealah Craighead)