North Koreans want to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. They also want normal diplomatic relations with the United States. Kim Jong-un knows that if he wants a normal relationship with the U.S., with an immediate peace treaty similar to his current request, North Korea will have to dismantle all of its nuclear programs and eventually resolve issues related to the north’s human rights and illicit activities programs. There was positive movement on these issues with the September 2005 Joint Statement. Unfortunately, since 2008, there has been no meaningful dialogue with North Korea. And since 2008, North Korea has conducted numerous nuclear tests and missile launches.
During a private discussion in Beijing during a 2004 plenary session of the Six Party talks, the North Korean deputy head of delegation said the United States should treat a nuclear North Korea as it treats a nuclear Pakistan, emphasizing that North Korea could become a good friend of the U.S. He was told the United States would never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
During a series of private meetings leading up to the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement on denuclearization, the North Korean head and deputy head of delegation said North Korea wanted a normal relationship with the United States. That, they said, was their leadership’s goal. They were told that comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization had to precede a bilateral discussion with the United States dealing with the human rights situation in North Korea and the government’s involvement in illicit activities. Only with significant progress on these issues would normalization of relations be possible.
On that day, North Korea and the other five countries — the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — signed a joint statement committing North Korea to complete and verifiable dismantlement of all its nuclear programs in return for security assurances and economic and energy assistance.
During the next two years, North Korea halted its plutonium program at Yongbyan and received significant amounts of food aid. Task forces were established to implement the joint statement. Progress came to an abrupt end in 2008 when North Korea refused to sign an agreement permitting nuclear monitors to go anywhere, anytime.
Since then, Six Party negotiations have ceased and North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests (2009, 2013 and 2016), while claiming success at miniaturization. North Koreans have had numerous long- and medium-range missile launches, including putting a small satellite in orbit in April 2011. Reportedly, North Korea is close to launching a long-range, solid-fuel, mobile missile capable of reaching the United States. Last month, North Korea reportedly conducted a successful submarine missile test. Estimates of the number of nuclear weapons in North Korea varies, with the Institute for Science and International Security claiming that by 2020, North Korea could have up to 100 nuclear weapons. Permitting North Korea to retain its nuclear programs is a regional and global threat. It is also a proliferation threat if a nuclear weapon or fissile material is provided to a rogue state or terrorist non state actor. North Korea did in fact proliferate nuclear technology to Syria, providing assistance in the construction of a nuclear reactor at Al Kibar which, fortunately, was destroyed by Israel in 2007. Moreover, it is widely believed other countries in the region will seek their own nuclear weapons if North Korea retains and enhances its nuclear arsenal.
The Jan. 6 North Korean nuclear test probably was an upgraded atomic bomb using boosted fission, rather than a hydrogen bomb. But that in itself is significant. It’s also likely North Korea is pursuing a hydrogen bomb program.
Given China’s close relationship and economic leverage with North Korea, Beijing could do more to moderate Kim Jong-un’s behavior. And given North Korea’s long-term interest in having a normal relationship with the United States, it’s also obvious that a dialogue with North Korea could possibly prove productive. Additional sanctions on North Korea will have some impact, but it will not prevent Kim Jong-un from pursuing his nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea is not Iran. But with Iran, the United States and others spent considerable time negotiating an agreement that prevents Iran from fabricating a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. North Korea has nuclear weapons and is aggressively increasing the number and quality of its nuclear weapons. Convening an exploratory meeting of the Six Party talks countries could prove productive.
When Ambassador Stephen Bosworth and I met in Singapore last January with North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho for two days of unofficial talks, Mr. Ri was personally amenable to an official meeting to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. An unconditional official meeting with North Korea could prove productive.
• Joseph R. DeTrani is president of the Daniel Morgan Academy. He was the special envoy for Six Party talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed are his and do not reflect the views of any government agency or organization.