April 20, 2015 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
In what is now something of an annual rite on the Korean Peninsula, 2015 dawned with perceived “signals” of North Korea’s supposed desire to resurrect diplomatic ties with the United States and South Korea. Some advocates of renewing such ties believe that the only way to constrain Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal is to rush back to nuclear negotiations without insisting on preconditions. While the U.S. should remain open to diplomatic engagement, such an approach must be undertaken in conjunction with sanctions and targeted financial measures in response to North Korea’s violations of U.S. law and U.N. resolutions.
In what is now something of an annual rite on the Korean Peninsula, 2015 dawned with perceived signals of North Korea’s supposed desire to resurrect diplomatic ties with the United States and South Korea. Although these signals were met with predictions of another inter-Korean summit, Pyongyang’s offer to refrain from nuclear tests in return for a freeze on allied military exercises was quickly—and correctly—rejected. The regime subsequently added ever more preconditions, ultimately rejecting even the possibility of talks with either Washington or Seoul.
By late February, hopes of improved inter-Korean relations and a diplomatic resolution to the North Korean nuclear problem had, once again, dissolved. On the eve of the latest annual U.S.–South Korean military exercises in March, Pyongyang abandoned its charm offensive and threatened to wage a “merciless, sacred war” against the United States.
Some advocate that the only way to constrain Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal is to rush back to nuclear negotiations without insisting on preconditions. But there is little utility to negotiations when Pyongyang rejects the core premise of such talks—North Korea’s abandonment of all its nuclear weapons and programs.
While the U.S. should remain open to diplomatic engagement, such an approach must be undertaken in conjunction with sanctions and targeted financial measures in response to North Korea’s violations of U.S. law and United Nations resolutions. Washington must also ensure sufficient defenses for itself and its allies against the growing North Korean military threat. Yet the Obama Administration has only weakly enforced U.S. laws, and underfunded America’s defense requirements, both of which have left the United States vulnerable.
In January, North Korea called on the United States to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula by “temporarily suspending joint military exercises in and around South Korea this year, and [in return] the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is ready to temporarily suspend the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned.” The North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. hinted that “many things were possible” if the military exercises were cancelled this year.
Seoul and Washington correctly rejected this proposal. Canceling the combined exercises would have degraded U.S. and South Korean deterrence and defense capabilities necessitated by North Korea’s previous invasions—terror attacks; its forward-deployed, offensively positioned military forces; and repeated threats of attacks, including nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies.
Furthermore, North Korea’s offer was, on its face, illegitimate, as Pyongyang was attempting to barter over something it does not legitimately possess. Numerous U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions preclude North Korea from conducting any nuclear or ballistic missile tests. Specifically, in 2013, U.N. Resolution 2094 “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms” the last DPRK nuclear test, which was in “violation and flagrant disregard” of the previous UNSC resolutions. The UNSC declared that the test constituted a challenge to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and international efforts at strengthening non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and “posed a danger to peace and stability in the region and beyond.”
By proposing that it receive a benefit for not testing nuclear weapons, North Korea sought to be rewarded for doing what it was already obligated to do under UNSC resolutions. Pyongyang claimed that its proposal was aimed at reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But it would be far more effective if the regime:
In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong-un declared it possible to
resume the suspended high-level contacts and hold sectoral talks if the South Korean authorities are sincere in their stand towards improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue…. And there is no reason why we should not hold a summit meeting if the atmosphere and environment for it are created.
Yet his speech contained a clear prerequisite to holding such talks: The U.S. and South Korea would have to end their combined military exercises, which Kim labeled the “the root cause of the escalating tension on the peninsula and the danger of nuclear war facing our nation.” Kim declared: “There can be neither trustworthy dialogue nor improved inter-Korean relations in such a gruesome atmosphere in which war drills are staged against the dialogue partner.”
As North Korea’s official Nodong Shinmun media affirmed, “Unless the South and the United States stop their nuclear war games aimed at a northward invasion, it is clear that no talks between the two Koreas or between North Korea and United States can progress.”
Pyongyang subsequently made its offer of dialogue contingent on Seoul preventing its citizens from sending leaflets via balloons into North Korea, and revoking sanctions imposed in May 2010 after Pyongyang sank a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors. North Korea condemned the balloon launches as an “intolerable provocation hurting the dignity of North Korea’s leadership” and warned a South Korean activist that he would “pay for his crimes in blood” if copies of the movie The Interview were smuggled into the country. Additionally, the North Korean National Defense Commission threatened to “deliver ruthless punishment” and even warned Seoul not to “criticize” Pyongyang’s proposals for dialogue.
Such threats are consistent with previous North Korean threats against South Korean constitutionally protected rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. In April 2013, North Korea predicated dialogue on Seoul both stopping, and apologizing for, public anti-North Korean demonstrations. The Korean People’s Army warned that, if the demonstrations continued, “[o]ur retaliatory action will start without any notice from now.” In April 2012, the regime threatened South Korean newspaper and TV stations with military attacks for their articles deemed to be insulting to the North Korean leadership.
Furthermore, the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea declared in January 2015:
If the South Korean government is sincerely interested in humanitarian issues [reunions of families separated during the Korean War], it should first remove the ban that was imposed for the purpose of confrontation.… Without solving this issue [sanctions], any kinds of talks, contacts, or exchanges are impossible.
Then the regime shut the door on dialogue completely. As Kim Jong-un declared in February, “We are unwilling to sit down with mad dogs anymore who keep howling that they are going to use the method of change to bring down our socialist system.” The National Defense Commission avowed:
It is the decision of the army and people of the DPRK to no longer have the need or willingness to sit at the negotiating table with the U.S. [Also] it is only too apparent that no major change or transformation could be achieved in inter-Korean relations even if we were to sit down a thousand times with such government officials.
North Korea then warned that the United States “should be mindful that the time of nightmares is coming nearer when they will meet the most disastrous, final doom on the U.S. mainland [with] smaller, precision and diversified nuclear striking means [as well] as cyberwarfare capabilities.”
Not long ago, many experts blamed the George W. Bush Administration for the North Korean nuclear impasse. But Pyongyang’s equally obstreperous behavior toward President Barack Obama—including nuclear and missile tests despite U.S. offers of engagement—resulted in a belated epiphany that blame for the North Korean nuclear problem lies squarely with the regime itself.
Through words and actions, North Korea has made clear that it has no intention of abandoning the nuclear weapons programs it has pursued for 60 years:
North Korea also declared that its previous commitments in international accords to denuclearize as well as previous diplomatic agreements with South Korea were null and void. For instance:
Pyongyang asserts its nuclear weapons are a response to the U.S. “hostile policy” and nuclear threat. The regime has an insatiable list of demands to ameliorate their perception of hostility and to improve the atmosphere of negotiations. These demands have included:
North Korea’s extensive requirements for security assurances and proof of U.S. non-hostile intent transcend, and are incompatible with, previously agreed-upon parameters of Six-Party Talks agreements. Beyond that, Pyongyang has demonstrated that nothing will satisfy its demands because it perceives nuclear weapons as the only way to prevent North Korea from becoming another Iraq, Yugoslavia, or Libya. As Pyongyang has made clear, the “treasured sword” of nuclear weapons is what defends North Korea, and indeed enables economic development. For example:
Diplomacy. The U.S. should reject North Korean claims that tensions on the Korean Peninsula are the result of America’s “hostile policies.” Instead, the presence of U.S. military forces in South Korea is a direct response to Pyongyang’s past attacks and continuing threats.
While the United States should remain open to conditional diplomacy—based on principles of conditionality, transparency, and reciprocity—such efforts should be part of an integrated, comprehensive strategy utilizing all the instruments of national power. Specifically, such diplomacy should be used along with policies that:
Washington should not reward Pyongyang for simply obeying previous agreements, U.N. resolutions, or international law. Nor should it go down the bottomless rabbit hole of offering concessions to “improve the negotiating atmosphere” or “prove lack of U.S. hostility.” After all, it is not the U.S. and South Korea that have repeatedly violated UNSC resolutions, conducted deadly military attacks, and habitually threatened the government and populace of rival nations. Such behavior has been the province of Pyongyang.
Indeed, Pyongyang has indicated that no level of allied offers of economic and energy assistance can provide the security assurances necessary for denuclearization. As such, there is no utility in offering such assistance, at least for denuclearization purposes. Similarly, since North Korean nuclear weapons are supposedly a response to the U.S. “nuclear threat,” no South Korean offers of security measures and economic assistance can dissuade Pyongyang from its nuclear programs.
Diplomacy can still be used to ascertain whether North Korean public statements reflect actual negotiating positions and whether the North Korean requirements for security assurances is less than the totality of cumulative regime statements. Diplomats could also determine if there is a different set of North Korean demands for capping their nuclear programs in the near term, while, in the long term, still pursuing complete denuclearization.
However, U.S. diplomats would need to make clear to their North Korean counterparts that even an interim solution would still require an extensive and intrusive verification regime to monitor Pyongyang’s uranium-based nuclear weapons program—an operation whose components are more easily concealed than plutonium-based production and reprocessing facilities. The Six-Party Talks collapsed in late 2008 when Pyongyang refused to accept a less vigorous inspection regime than would be required today.
While working-level diplomat talks are practical, there should not be senior-level (Undersecretary of State and above) talks absent some indication of progress with Pyongyang. Nor should there be a formal resumption of Six-Party Talks without a North Korean public affirmation of intent to abide by its prior denuclearization commitments.
Sanctions. Given North Korea’s obdurate obstructionism, diplomatic denuclearization of the regime currently appears unattainable. Pyongyang previously acceded to the 1992 North–South Denuclearization agreement, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the Agreed Framework, three Six-Party Talks agreements, and the Leap Day Agreement, all of which ultimately failed.
Therefore, the United States and other nations should maintain and expand sanctions, law enforcement, and targeted financial measures to uphold U.S. and international law; impose penalties on violators; constrain import of items for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; impede proliferation; and moderate regime behavior including compliance with agreements and U.N. resolutions.
Additionally, the United States should enhance punitive measures against North Korea to the same degree as has already been applied against other rogue regimes, including Iran and Burma. The pursuit of legal remedies, the implementation of U.N. resolutions, and efforts to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missiles are not negotiable and should continue—at least until North Korea ceases its belligerent behavior. Specifically, Washington should:
Security. Because international diplomacy and U.N. resolutions have not prevented North Korea from continuing to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, the U.S. should:
Human Rights. A year after the release of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report detailing North Korea’s crimes against humanity, the Obama Administration has yet to take any action. The U.S. has penalized other regimes for similar violations, including direct sanctions against two presidents; yet, America has still not taken similar action against Kim Jong-un or his regime. To this end, the U.S. should:
North Korea may be willing to talk—but not about the topic of paramount U.S. concern: the denuclearization required by U.N. resolutions and to which Pyongyang has already committed. Some experts assert that the U.S. should return to negotiations since otherwise North Korea will continue augmenting its nuclear arsenal. However, Pyongyang has repeatedly shown it continues to build weapons both during negotiations and even after signing agreements to abandon its nuclear programs.
While successive U.S. Administrations sought to diplomatically curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, recent studies conclude the North Korean nuclear threat is growing rapidly. Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former Director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, concluded that North Korea could have 20 nuclear weapons by 2016. The Korea Institute at School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) predicted a worst case scenario of Pyongyang having 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
The Obama Administration has only timidly and incrementally increased U.S. sanctions and targeted financial measures against North Korea’s repeated violations of U.S. law and U.N. resolutions, refusing to impose the same measures as already applied to other countries. President Obama and Congress imposed sequestration-mandated cuts to U.S. defense spending that have degraded America’s defense capabilities. As a result, the United States and its allies now face an unprecedented danger.—Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.
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 The Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, Article 9 states: “South and North Korea shall not use force against each other and shall not undertake armed aggression against each other.” Jethro Mullen, “North Korea Vows End to Nonaggression Pacts After U.N. Vote,” CNN, March 8, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/08/world/asia/north-korea-sanctions/index.html (accessed March 21, 2015).
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 Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article II states, “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
 For a more extensive list of recommended targeted financial measures that should be applied to North Korea, see Bruce Klingner, “Time to Get North Korean Sanctions Right,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2850, November 4, 2013, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/time-to-get-north-korean-sanctions-right.
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 Joel Witt and Sun Young Ahn, “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures: Technology and Strategy,” US-Korea Institute at SAIS, February 2015, http://38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/NKNF-NK-Nuclear-Futures-Wit-0215.pdf (accessed March 21, 2015).