North Korea and Denuclearisation: What Are the Obstacles, and What’s Next?

This article was authored by Edward Howell at the University of Oxford.

The US State Department’s recent report, 2020 Adherence and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disagreement Agreements and Commitments, concluded that the US continues to have ‘significant concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear program.’ The report advocated the maintenance of existing US approaches to the DPRK’s nuclear programme, with the goal of the ‘final, fully verified denuclearisation’ (FFVD) of North Korea, achieved through diplomatic means. Yet, dialogue has now stalled between Washington and Pyongyang, not least owing to the United States’ increasing disdain for multilateralism in the first Trump administration. With the US-ROK alliance being framed by the President as a financial burden – rather than a strategic asset – dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang has stalled. Despite the ongoing international calls for the DPRK to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – from which it claims to have withdrawn in 2003 – the DPRK shows few signs of abandoning its nuclear arsenal.      

The Trump Administration has exhibited a notable lack of flexibility to concede on its overarching aims of FFVD – and ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement’ (CVID) – for any negotiations with the DPRK. In turn, North Korea does not wish to abandon its nuclear arsenal. For future policy to bear fruit, there must be greater recognition of how the DPRK interprets the notion of ‘denuclearisation,’ which has become a key obstacle to future US-DPRK dialogue following the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019. Moreover, divergences between Washington and Pyongyang regarding the sequencing for any possible denuclearisation of the DPRK, must be considered carefully. 

Denuclearisation: The Dreaded Word

The DPRK has long-justified its nuclear ambitions owing to the deterrent role of such weaponised capabilities against any possible conventional or nuclear pre-emptive attack from an adversary such as the United States or South Korea. A recent leaked report from an independent panel of experts monitoring United Nations sanctions concluded that the DPRK had ‘probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles.’ Such a conclusion corroborated an earlier report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency, written in 2017, which highlighted how the DPRK had ‘produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.’ 

Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are based around plutonium and highly-enriched uranium production. In March 2019, the South Korean National Intelligence Service concluded that the DPRK’s main plutonium and uranium producing facility at Yongbyon has been dormant since late 2018. Yet, a lack of access by the International Atomic Energy Agency to the facility has not ruled out possible chemical reprocessing. Amidst the speculation of Kim Jong Un’s disappearance and ‘reappearance’ at a phosphate fertilizer factory in early May this year, questions around the dual use of these materials remain. Open-source evidence shows how the DPRK has engaged in the production of phosphate fertilizer, and is likely to continue doing so: a process which, through uranium extraction from phosphoric acid, provides a key source of yellowcake uranium, instrumental in nuclear weapons development. 

North Korea has, in the past, committed itself to the ‘denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’, a term which it prefers to the ‘denuclearisation of North Korea’, as stressed by the international community. These definitional differences continue to hamper progress in US-DPRK negotiations. Although ‘denuclearisation’ according to the definition of the international community refers to the renunciation of nuclear facilities and stockpiles – subsequently verified by the IAEA – North Korea’s preferred terminology refers to the abandonment of the US security guarantee over the Peninsula, a withdrawal of US troops from South Korea, and the fraying of the US-South Korean alliance. The latter ambition has only exacerbated in light of Trump’s increasing disregard for US alliances more widely. In other words, denuclearisation on North Korea’s terms does not involve any substantive disarmament of the state’s nuclear programme.  

Sequencing of Denuclearisation

The sequencing of denuclearisation presents a challenge for any deal with North Korea. North Korea has always maintained a preference for an approach of synchronous measures between the DPRK and other parties. The multilateral Six-Party Talks, from 2003 to 2008, saw the DPRK pledge to abandon nuclear weapons and comply with the NPT, and IAEA safeguards, in return for normalisation of relations with the United States and energy assistance from the other five parties. The Talks collapsed owing to conflicts over verification and sampling, with the DPRK unwilling to allow IAEA inspectors to collect samples at its Yongbyon facility. 

Today, Washington’s target of FFVD, an extension of its former aim of CVID, seeks to provide the DPRK with benefits, such as sanctions easing, only after complete denuclearisation has occurred, in line with the ’maximum pressure’ campaign of the Trump administration. A complete declaration of the North’s nuclear facilities and stockpiles – many of which are hidden – would precede dismantlement, and subsequent international verification. Pyongyang’s view of sequencing, however, sits opposite this all-or-nothing approach, tied to the idea of ‘action for action.’ The DPRK will only take steps towards denuclearisation if the US adopts corresponding measures. Such an approach is not new: the 1994 US-DPRK Agreed Framework, which saw the freezing of plutonium production at Yongbyon, was premised around the idea that plutonium production would be suspended in return for the provision of light-water reactors to the DPRK, the latter which were never provided. 

One Step Forward: Two Steps Back? 

North Korea has criticised the United States for failing to uphold its commitments under Article VI of the NPT, on numerous occasions. In contrast, according to North Korea’s perspective, the DPRK has, in fact, demonstrated its commitment towards denuclearisation, especially after April 2018, when Kim Jong-un declared the state’s nuclear programme to have been ‘completed.’ Yet, importantly, the actions taken by the North are easily reversible, of which two examples are worth mentioning. Despite the destruction of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on 24 May 2018, other test sites unbeknownst to the international community are likely to remain. After the inter-Korean summit in September 2018, North Korea committed to dismantling the missile engine test stand at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, but later claimed to have conducted a missile engine test on 8 December 2019. Similarly, reports from the inconclusive Hanoi Summit reveal how US-DPRK talks ended after the DPRK refused to make further concessions beyond Yongbyon, and the US was unwilling to offer the North partial sanctions relief. The likely possibility that the DPRK may have nuclear facilities beyond Yongbyon, too, must not be discounted. 

North Korea remains unwilling to engage in CVID and continues to utilise its position outside of the NPT to justify its ongoing nuclear ambitions. Few are holding out for an eleventh hour deal between the US and DPRK, prior to the US presidential election in November this year. For future US-DPRK negotiations to bear fruit, Washington must take a more adaptable approach, or else face a continuation of the status quo, given Pyongyang’s recalcitrance towards any negotiations which it deems to be solely for US domestic political gain. 

Although the DPRK is unlikely to abandon its nuclear development or rejoin the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, a US approach that offers a ‘small deal’ may be more acceptable to North Korea. For instance, such a deal could see the DPRK offer sections of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for a scaling down of US-South Korean annual military exercises. At the same time, even despite the weakening alliance between the United States and South Korea, a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea is highly unlikely. Changes in the US administration since the Hanoi Summit – such as the departure of hawkish US National Security Adviser John Bolton – may induce the US to engage in a less rigid approach towards negotiating with the DPRK. Yet, without any substantive understanding of North Korea’s outlook on denuclearisation, it remains unlikely that any deal will take place: it takes two to tango, after all.

N.B.: This article was written by a BASIC collaborator. Views expressed  belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

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