Resetting the Terms of North Korea Talks

The Pyongyang Declaration changes little but hints at a path forward.

By Phillip Orchard

Roughly thirteen years ago, in a joint statement released at the conclusion of the fourth round of six-party talks on North Korea’s budding nuclear program, Pyongyang pledged to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” Less than a year later, the North tested its first nuclear device. In 2008, to revive the diplomatic process and ease Western sanctions pressure, the North Koreans blew up a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex under the watchful eye of international inspectors and provided the U.S. what they claimed was a full inventory of their nuclear activities. Since then, of course, the North has tested five additional nukes, each larger than the last, plus three intercontinental ballistic missiles (albeit with only partial success).

On Wednesday, in a joint statement following two days of landmark meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un again reiterated his oft-misinterpreted commitment to “turn the Korean peninsula into the land of peace without nuclear weapons or nuclear threats.” Notably, Kim also offered to dismantle the Yongbyon complex altogether (provided the U.S. takes certain reciprocal actions), as well as a key missile test site and launch pad. He even pledged to allow international inspectors in to verify that they did it. In response, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the U.S. was ready to restart talks with the North immediately and asserted that denuclearization of the North would be complete by 2021.

It’s natural to see the Pyongyang Declaration as merely another iteration of the North’s well-established pattern of duplicity. Skepticism is certainly warranted about any measures of good faith proffered by Pyongyang. But what’s different this time around is that the North is negotiating as, for all intents and purposes, a nuclear power. And when weighed against its broader geopolitical imperatives, the North’s behavior over the past year, not to mention Kim’s own rhetoric, has made Pyongyang’s intentions perfectly clear: It’s willing to talk about steps it can take to make it easier for the U.S. to stomach a nuclear North without violating Washington’s own imperatives on the matter. But absent dramatic moves that the U.S. is not ready to take, the North will remain nuclear. A core goal of last week’s declaration – for both Pyongyang and Seoul – was to reset the terms of the negotiation around this reality.

Fanciful Ambitions

As we’ve noted previously, the U.S. and North Korea mean different things when they talk about denuclearization. In the Trump administration’s view, denuclearization needs to be complete, verifiable and irreversible – CVID for short. In Pyongyang’s view, denuclearization means effectively the same thing as what the U.S. agreed to in 1968 when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires Washington and other nuclear states to pursue disarmament – someday. Kim’s lofty pledge in last week’s declaration to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons and, crucially, nuclear threats was no different.

Pyongyang may get serious about denuclearization if U.S. forces leave the peninsula and Washington somehow convinces the North that South Korea and Japan no longer sit under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. That’s why “nuclear threats” (read: from the U.S.) was included in the Pyongyang Declaration. But Seoul and Tokyo are nowhere near ready for such a move, and certainly won’t be by 2021. Moreover, the North would still have ample reason to hold onto its nukes. The only country to give up an existing nuclear arsenal, South Africa, did so because it lost its strategic rationale for its nukes, rendering them more expensive than they’re worth. The North would still be living in a hostile neighborhood, with a long memory of being used as a pawn by stronger powers, and nuclear weapons would remain the ultimate deterrent against invasion. (Not to mention, the loss of the U.S. nuclear umbrella would make Japan and possibly South Korea more likely to go nuclear.)

The only other way the North would disarm is if the U.S. addressed the issue directly by going to war – or, at least, convincing Pyongyang that war is imminent – but the U.S. isn’t willing to do that.

Avoiding war is the most immediate goal of South Korea, Japan and China too. Sanctions were never going to be enough to force Pyongyang to capitulate, and the sanctions regime is now weakening anyway, perhaps irrevocably. Thus, what can realistically be negotiated falls far short of the denuclearization question. So long as the North refrains from proving the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with any degree of certainty – and its missile program is still not at the point where it can – the U.S. can live with a nuclear North, just as it has lived with a nuclear Pakistan. The North needs sanctions relief and security guarantees from the U.S. to stay the diplomatic course, and the U.S. has political interests at stake in how the process unfolds. But these are surmountable obstacles to a deal, even if it’s never more than a tacit one.

Concrete Measures

As could be expected, then, none of the moves outlined in the Pyongyang Declaration would amount to a major step toward complete disarmament. However, they do hint at a path forward for both sides.

The impact of dismantling nuclear facilities at Yongbyon would depend on what actually gets dismantled. Yongbyon is a large complex containing several key facilities, including a fuel enrichment plant, a 5-megawatt reactor, an experimental light water reactor, and a reprocessing facility used to extract uranium (and plutonium) from spent fuel rods. Destroying uranium enrichment facilities would make little practical difference. The U.S. believes the North has at least two other enrichment sites elsewhere. (Indeed, there’s some thought that the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, which began operating in 2010, was built in part as a bargaining chip to be traded away in negotiations.) Destroying the reactors and the fuel reprocessing facility would be more tangible concessions, since doing so may limit the production of weapons-grade plutonium needed for thermonuclear bombs. (It’s unknown whether the North has another covert reactor elsewhere.) On the other hand, the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, which began operating in the 1960s, is believed to be nearing the end of its lifecycle anyway, so this too may not really be much of a concession.

The wording of the declaration is vague, to say the least, and open to interpretation about what’s actually on the table. In fact, there are reports that the line on Yongbyon was included at Moon’s urging, suggesting Pyongyang wasn’t exactly making a concrete proposal here. (Nor does the declaration elaborate on what “reciprocal actions” Pyongyang would expect in return.)

As always with these things, the devil is in the details. It’s also worth noting that the North hinted at a willingness to invite inspectors to witness destruction only of a missile launching site, not Yongbyon. In a tweet on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump proclaimed otherwise, and it’s of course possible that Pyongyang has made such a pledge to the U.S. behind closed doors. But this is not what was announced in the Pyongyang Declaration. Whatever measures Pyongyang takes at the complex, international verification would be critical.

The offer to dismantle the Sohae missile launch site, which has been used to test both space launch and ICBM engines, is likewise less than meets the eye but not wholly insignificant.

Closing the site would do nothing to hamper the North’s ability to mass produce the types of long-range missiles it has already tested. The North has ample room for advances in missile engine technology, but the engines it has tested already are enough to give it a viable long-range deterrent; its problem is it has yet to prove mastery of re-entry technology, the most difficult part of missile development. Nor would it constrain the North’s ability to launch most types of missiles (whether as tests or in a conflict scenario). The last several test launches by the North were all conducted on road-mobile launchers, which are critical in sustaining the ability to retaliate following a strike by an outside power.

Disassembling the site (and giving inspectors access) would, however, hamper the North’s development of a space launch program to a degree. This is important, since there are concerns about the North potentially gaining the ability to put a nuke into space and conduct an electromagnetic pulse attack. Yet, this too would be only a limited concession, since the North has two other satellite launch sites, and launch sites are easy to rebuild anyway. Moreover, some smaller space launch vehicles (though perhaps not ones large enough to carry a nuclear payload) can be launched from mobile erectors.

In short, what the North is offering is low-hanging fruit, and mostly symbolic, but it’s a start.

These moves are intended to signal to the U.S. that there’s room to negotiate on the shape and size of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Nothing more, nothing less.

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