- - Wednesday, September 9, 2020

North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, a goal it’s pursued for the last 26 years of failed negotiations. Eventually, the leadership in Pyongyang thinks it’ll accomplish this goal, despite the U.S. and others demanding complete denuclearization.

But despite our efforts, North Korea has progressed exponentially with its nuclear and missile programs, defying international sanctions. North Korea is playing the long game, convinced we’ll eventually cave, as we did with Pakistan, and accept them as a nuclear weapons state, which would be a monumental strategic mistake.

North Korea with nuclear weapons would be a nuclear proliferation threat to the region, with other countries, like South Korea and Japan, seeking their own nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes, despite U.S. extended nuclear deterrence assurances. Also, the possibility that a rogue state or terrorist organization will get its hands on a nuclear weapon or fissile material for a dirty bomb would become more of a reality.

Consider some of the facts. North Korea now has an arsenal of nuclear weapons, reportedly between 20 and 60, using plutonium and highly enriched uranium, from fissile material produced at a number of undeclared sites in the North. These nuclear weapons reportedly can be mated to a fleet of ballistic missiles, ranging from short- and mid-range Scud and Nodong missiles capable of targeting Seoul and Tokyo, to intercontinental ballistic missiles (Hwasong 14 and 15) capable of reaching the whole of the United States.

North Korea continues to upgrade its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, while maintaining its conventional long-range artillery deployments in the Kaesong Heights area north of the DMZ, targeting Seoul, with a population of 10 million. Over the last few months, North Korea refrained from conducting another nuclear test and launching a ballistic missile, but it continued to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, while continuing to upgrade its submarine fleet.

Much attention correctly has focused on the North’s nuclear and missile programs, but their chemical and biological programs reportedly are still operational, as witnessed by the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the older brother of Kim Jong-un, using VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Also of concern is North Korea’s history of human rights abuses, with estimates of more than 100,000 people in political detention camps throughout the country.  

North Korea continues to support its military programs and the lifestyle of its elites through a continued aggressive illicit activities program.  Previously, the North sold ballistic missiles to rogue regimes like Libya, Syria and Iran, while also providing the Assad regime in Syria with nuclear materials and assisted with the construction of a nuclear reactor in Al Kibar that, just prior to going operational, was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

The North’s criminal cyber programs, most evident in 2014 with its attack on Sony Pictures, and its ongoing extensive and sophisticated attacks on banks and cryptocurrency facilities, is a principal source of its illicitly acquired revenue. Previously, it was North Korea’s sophisticated counterfeiting operations that enriched its leadership, starting with the counterfeiting of the U.S. $100 bill and its industrial scale counterfeiting of cigarettes and pharmaceuticals.

This is the North Korea we continue to deal with, hoping to convince its leadership that dismantling its nuclear weapons and facilities and halting its ballistic missile and chemical and biological programs, while ceasing its criminal cyber and related programs, will provide the North with security assurances, a peace treaty ending the Korean War, economic development assistance and a path to normal relations with the United States.

To date, we haven’t been successful, although we had periods of temporary success, in 1994 with the Agreed Framework, in September 2005 with the Six Party Talks Joint Statement and the June 2018 Singapore Summit Joint Statement.

What we learned from this history of talks and fleeting successes is that North Korea currently is not prepared to dismantle its nuclear weapons and facilities. This could change, which is why we continue to negotiate with the North, in search of a peaceful resolution of issues, knowing that conflict on the Korean Peninsula would result in catastrophic losses.

But what should be clear is that the North will not agree to dismantle all of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs prior to receiving security assurances and the lifting of sanctions, on an action-for-action basis. The 2019 Hanoi Summit failed exactly on these issues. Kim Jong-un said he was prepared to halt activities at its Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for the lifting of sanctions imposed after 2016. When Mr. Kim was told that he had to include all of the North’s nuclear facilities, in addition to its ballistic missile and chemical and biological programs, Mr. Kim refused, bringing the Hanoi Summit to an abrupt end.

As we approach the November presidential election, there should be some public discussion of how the respective candidates will manage the North Korean nuclear issue. It’s an issue that affects the security of the U.S. and its allies in South Korea and Japan. Past efforts have failed to resolve an issue that has become more of a threat, thus requiring greater creativity and leadership, working even more closely with our allies and partners. The candidates owe it to the public to address this important national security issue.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency. 

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