- - Thursday, March 5, 2020

At the February 2003 second Plenary Session in Beijing of the Six Party Talks with North Korea, and the United States’ first private bilateral meeting with the North Korean delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Kwan, the delegation’s leader, and Ambassador Yi Gun, his deputy, told me, the new U.S. Special Envoy, that North Korea wanted the United States to accept them as a nuclear weapons state, similar to U.S. policy with a nuclear Pakistan.

They cautioned, however, that if the United States refuses to accept the North as a nuclear weapons state, then they could test nuclear weapons and possibly even sell them. Both were told that the United States would never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and if they sell a nuclear weapon that’s used against the United States or an ally, we would know, with grave consequences for the North.  

A similar message was conveyed to me in a Track 1.5 meeting in Kuala Lumpur in late 2016. This time, Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol made it very clear that North Korea wanted the United States to treat North Korea in a manner similar to their treatment of Pakistan: Despite U.S. initial opposition, Pakistan is now accepted as a nuclear weapons state with normal relations with the United States. Mr. Han was told U.S. policy hasn’t changed: North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear weapons state.

So, from 2003 to 2016, North Korea’s policy was consistent: The pursuit of nuclear weapons. During this 16-year period, North Korea conducted five nuclear tests and a multitude of ballistic missile launches. Partial agreements were reached, in September 2005 with the Six Party Talks, only to be discarded in 2009, when the North refused to sign a Nuclear Verification Protocol permitting monitors to visit suspect non-declared nuclear facilities and in 2012, with a Leap Day Agreement that ended soon after the North launched a rocket to put a satellite in orbit.

With the arrival of a new U.S. president in 2017, the North conducted another nuclear test (assessed to have been a thermonuclear test) and numerous ballistic missile launches, to include an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the whole of the United States.



2018 was a year of hope, with a historic summit in Singapore between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un. An agreement was reached, with the United States committing to eventually normalizing relations with the North and ending the Korean War with a Peace Treaty. The North committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and returning the remains of U.S. service members from the Korean War.  

A subsequent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February 2019 failed to move the process forward. North Korea initially proposed a halt to its plutonium activities at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for the lifting of sanctions. The United States countered with a proposal to lift sanctions in return for the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, and an end to its chemical, biological and cyber programs. Mr. Kim did not accept this U.S. counter proposal, and the United States then cancelled a planned luncheon meeting and ended the summit.

This in effect ended negotiations with North Korea. One working-level meeting was held in Stockholm in 2019, with no positive results. The North resumed launching more than 20 short-range ballistic missiles and conducted a submarine ballistic missile launch, all in 2019. Mr. Kim’s 2020 New Year’s message was clear: North Korea would continue pursuing its nuclear and missile programs, while working to improve the economic well-being of the people. 

On March 3, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles that traveled more than 250 kilometers and landed in the Sea of Japan. This could be the beginning of future missile launches, to possibly include intermediate and long-range ICBM launches. Hopefully, however, North Korea will refrain from another nuclear test, which has to be considered, by the United States and others as a red line. North Korea crossing this line would and should result in significant consequences, principally from the U.N. Security Council.

So, where do we go from here? It’s obvious that North Korea will do its best to retain some if not all of its nuclear weapons and facilities. Sanctions alone will not get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and facilities especially if sanction enforcement is problematic. Mr. Kim’s survival depends, in great part, on his nuclear and missile programs. However, a potential package of deliverables possibly could get Mr. Kim back to the negotiation table: The prospect of normal relations with the United States, security assurances from the United States, to include negative security assurances (no use of conventional or nuclear weapons to attack or invade the North and a commitment not to pursue regime change), the eventual lifting of sanctions, a peace treaty ending the Korean War and economic development assistance. These deliverables could be provided, in an action-for-action process, as North Korea dismantles all nuclear weapons and facilities and returns to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state.

This process possibly could proceed smoothly if China is supportive, which means the United States will have to work closer with China on a strategy for the dismantlement of nuclear weapons and facilities in North Korea. More than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, and more than 90 percent of its crude oil and petroleum imports are from China. So, a China willing to use these levers can help to convince North Korea that retaining nuclear weapons is not an attainable goal.

Currently, North Korea appears confident that it will prevail and eventually be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. The challenge now is to convince North Korea that the United States and China, with the international community, will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea and the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.

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