An Outlook on the Denuclearization of North Korea --- How will the US move?

Lecturer Narushige Michishita
Vice President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

1. The 2019 US-North Korea Hanoi Summit

The second US-North Korea summit was a valuable occasion in the sense that the positions of the United States and North Korea have been clarified. The present status is that both sides hold fast to their own positions that they articulated at the meeting. This paper is intended to outline the details of their positions and assertions.

(1) North Korea's Position

1) North Korea wants substantial UN sanctions relief, in exchange for which North Korea will "permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear facilities in the Nyongbyon area in the presence of US experts and a joint work of technicians from both countries."

Initially, North Korea proposed the dismantlement of "all the nuclear material production facilities in the Nyongbyon area including plutonium and uranium." Yet soon after President Trump left the meeting expressing his dissatisfaction with the contents of the North's proposal, the alarmed North Korean side made a concession by changing the wording as above.

2) North Korea is prepared to declare in writing its commitment to a permanent halt of nuclear testing and long-range rocket launch tests.

3) "Even though the security guarantee is more important to us (North Korea), …we understood that it could be more difficult for the United States to take measures in the military field. That is why we proposed the removal of partial sanctions, as corresponding measures."

The reality, however, may be that North Korea suffers greatly from sanctions, and is in dire need of sanctions relief. Needless to say, since security issues are also an important agenda item in the negotiations, future developments should be watched carefully.

4) "The United States insisted that we (North Korea) should take one more step beside the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in the Nyongbyon area. Therefore, it became crystal clear that the United States was not ready to accept our proposal."

"One more step" seems to refer to the decommissioning of secret nuclear facilities, or of ICBMs and their factories.

5) "It is imperative that this first step process is inevitable for the journey to complete denuclearization, and we (North Korea) must go through the process of realizing our best practice."

This means a step-by-step approach, which is important to North Korea and constitutes the core of contention between the United States and North Korea. Kim Jong-un later paraphrased it as "stages and courses indispensable for the implementation of the June 12 DPRK-US Joint Statement." North Korea is determined to pursue a step-by-step approach.

(2) The United States' Position

1) Toward complete denuclearization, the permanent dismantlement of nuclear facilities in the Nyongbyon area proposed by North Korea is not sufficient; and it is necessary to include additional nuclear facilities specified by the United States.

The US side seems to have mentioned underground uranium enrichment facilities in Boonkang, Sowi-ri, and Kangsong near Pyongyang.

2) The United States required North Korea's comprehensive disarmament and delivered a list of requirements to North Korea. The United States demands the complete dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure; chemical and biological warfare programs, along with related military and civilian dual-use capabilities; ballistic missiles, launchers, and related facilities. Specifically, the listed requirements include (a) the removal of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials; (b) a complete reporting of nuclear programs and a full access to them by inspectors of the United States and international agencies; (c) the termination of all related activities and of construction of new facilities; (d) the disposal of all nuclear infrastructures, and (e) the conversion of all North Korean scientists and engineers involved in nuclear programs to civilian activities.

3) Meanwhile, the United States would be ready to provide assistance to help North Korea to become an economic power, if the North opted for complete denuclearization.

As an aside, President Trump is said to have discussed twice with Kim Jong-un the abduction issue between Japan and North Korea. He seems to have argued to the effect that if the problem were solved, North Korea could expect assistance from Japan.

(3) An assessment of the Summit

The cause of the failure of the second summit was that North Korea's demands were so high as to be incommensurate with a summit-level deal. North Korea expected that President Trump would make a substantial concession, as reported by the media in the West. Unexpectedly, Michael Cohen's congressional testimony took place on the evening before the summit meeting, and it was difficult for President Trump to take a weak stance on the denuclearization of North Korea. Consequently, the results were contrary to North Korea's expectations.

At the post summit press conference, President Trump revealed that the North Korean side was surprised when he mentioned North Korea's secret facilities. Apart from negotiation tactics, the reality may be that North Korea did not know that the US side was informed about the Boonkang facilities. An information war has already begun between the two countries.

Followers of two leaders seem to have had trouble keeping control of their unstable leaders. While the inability to control President Trump was feared, Kim Jong-un betrayed his lack of experience in negotiations. It will be worth seeing what Kim might learn from this recent failure.

For President Trump, the result this time was neither a loss nor a gain. Although the failure to reach an agreement was unexpected, American citizens did not rate the summit very low, because they were concerned more about the risk of the President's rushing into a "bad deal." On the other hand, Kim Jong-un lost face and is trying to exonerate himself from disgrace, blaming the United States for the failure of the summit. That said, however, since Kim safeguarded things that could not be conceded, it may be said that the summit was not a debacle for him.

Related information:

The number of North Korean nuclear facilities that the United States is monitoring is 104 in all, of which 40 are core facilities.

  • a. 15 nuclear research institutes and command facilities
  • b. Eight uranium mines
  • c. Five uranium smelting plants
  • d. Five nuclear power plants
  • e. Nuclear related facilities and uranium enrichment facilities in the Nyongbyon area
  • f. Two nuclear test plants
  • Nyongbyon: Nuclear facilities / nuclear fuel production plants, reactors, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plants
  • Sowi-ri: Uranium enrichment facilities near Nyongbyon
  • Boonkang: Uranium enrichment facilities near Nyongbyon
  • Kangsong: Uranium enrichment facilities adjacent to a power plant / Chollima Steel Works
  • Taechon County: Nuclear power plant facilities
  • Punggye-ri: Nuclear test sites. All six nuclear tests were conducted in this area.
  • (Sanumdong: ICBM production facilities)

2. A Subsequent Chronology after the Hanoi Summit

(March 2019)

  • The United States and South Korea announced the termination of the combined field training exercise "Foal Eagle" and the command post exercise "Key Resolve." Meanwhile, Chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff General Park Han-ki and Commander of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command Robert Abrams issued a joint comment on March 3, "It is important for professional armies to train and maintain to a standard of readiness."
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a status report on North Korean nuclear facilities. According to it, there is (a) no indication of the operation of a graphite-moderated reactor; (b) no indication of reprocessing activity, while (c) the construction of an experimental light water reactor is underway, and (d) uranium enrichment facilities are continuing operation.
  • According to the United Nations, North Korea's food production in 2018 decreased by 9% or 500,000 tons to 4.95 million tons, which is the lowest level since 2009.
  • An analysis was announced that the missile facilities in Tongchang-ri have resumed normal operation.
  • Several senior officials in the US administration stated that the United States would not give "rewards" to North Korea at each stage of a step-by-step denuclearization. "No sanctions will be lifted until North Korea has completely denuclearized." "No one in the administration was advocating for a step-by-step approach to denuclearization." President Trump "has been very clear that the United States would not advocate for any removal of sanctions on North Korea until the North actually achieves final, fully verified denuclearization." The US side also said that they are "not considering" the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism and the Kaesong industrial complex proposed by South Korea.
  • When voices were raised for additional sanctions, President Trump said, "North Korea is suffering greatly. I don't think that additional sanctions at this time are necessary."

(April 2019)

  • Special vehicles were identified near the uranium enrichment facilities and radiochemical laboratory in Nyongbyon.
  • Kim Jong-un inspected the test shooting of a new tactical guided weapon.
  • North Korea criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton with the alleged intention of alienating them from President Trump.

(May 2019)

  • North Korea launched flying objects toward the Sea of Japan. The maximum flight distance was estimated to be 200 km. It is likely that 300mm multiple rocket launchers and short-range ballistic missiles have been tested.

3. A Future Outlook

The big picture basically shows a stalemate between the United States and North Korea, where each sides' patience is tested. The US government will demand a big deal by using sanctions as a leverage. President Trump will utilize North Korean issues as a political tool. It should be noted that the denuclearization policy of the US government and President Trump's behavior are evolving independently of each other, following different logics. North Korea will pursue a step-by-step approach, in the hope that the political situation in the United States will change, prompting President Trump to change his mind.

Whether hard or soft, policy measures to be taken by President Trump will hinge on the US domestic political situation. Generally speaking, it may be safer for President Trump to take a tough stance given the upcoming presidential election, but if the anti-Trump groups criticize him for "the failure of his North Korea policy," their criticism would have an influence over President Trump's choice of policy measures. If President Trump's North Korea policy does not become an issue in the 2020 presidential election, it can be said that there is a good opportunity to solve the North Korean issues. In such a scenario the US North Korea policy will be stable, creating an environment for professionals to handle the issues.

Among possible future scenarios are:

(1) If North Korea temporarily accepts the implementation of the "listed requirements," will the United States show its readiness to adopt a "snap-back" approach or a step-by-step approach in the process of the implementation of the requirements?

(2) How will President Trump respond if North Korea compromises on the ICBM issue?

(3) How will the United States respond if North Korea lowers its demands for sanctions relief and claims regime guarantee? Recently, Kim Jong-un has stated that "the stand-off with the United States will naturally assume the protracted nature and sanctions by the hostile forces will also continue." In this case, there is a possibility that President Trump will agree with North Korea on the disintegration (weakening) of the US-ROK alliance in exchange of the denuclearization of North Korea. President Trump is attempting to dissolve the US-ROK alliance, while working simultaneously on North Korean denuclearization. Since the current South Korean administration is not pro-American but rather wants to reduce US influence over the country, there is a likelihood that the above measures may proceed with impunity. If President Trump actually tries to undermine the US-ROK alliance, how will South Korea respond? Setting aside the incumbent South Korean administration, the South Korean establishment will not tolerate such a move. We should observe what will happen then.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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