The US must consider giving nuclear no-first-use assurance to North Korea in return for non-use and no further missile or nuclear tests.
By Rakesh Sood*
A new round of belligerence, including missile tests and an assassination, make it clear that the Trump administration needs to focus on North Korea before events spin out of control. Reports that Washington is considering military action may be speculation, but nevertheless underline the situation’s increasing gravity.
DPRK’s autocratic ruler, 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, has accelerated both the nuclear and the missile programs, coupled with hostile rhetoric. Two nuclear tests were carried out in 2016, with a total of five tests since 2006. One was claimed to be a thermonuclear test though analysts suspect that it was more likely a boosted fission device. Further, they assess that North Korea miniaturized the device, enabling it to be mounted on a missile. Estimates of fissile material available to North Korea suggest that the country has enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium for up to 15 nuclear devices.
North Korea has also accelerated its missile program, undertaking 24 tests in 2016, though not all were successful. These include intermediate-range missile systems, both land-based and road-mobile. Of these, the Musudan is significant with an estimated range of 3500 kilometers. Last year, North Korea also successfully tested a solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile, believed to have a range of 1000 kilometers.
The missile tested 12 February, first described as an extended Musudan, is now suspected to be a variant called Pukguksong 2. The cold launch was successful – the missile was lifted off the ground using pressure before igniting. Experts suggest that by the end of 2018, Kim could achieve his declared goal of having a long-range missile capable of striking the US mainland.
During the election campaign, Donald Trump had said that he would be willing to talk to Kim, indicating that former President Barack Obama’s policy of concentrating on tighter sanctions and regime isolation had not worked. As president, Trump took a harder line and declared that he will prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear-capable missile that can reach the United States. Both Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson maintain that China must do more and apply leverage. This echoes an enduring US policy objective for the last 25 years, but there are clear limits to the pressure China is prepared to exert on the isolated regime. In a possible opening for the Trump administration, however, these limits may be shifting, as indicated by China’s ban on import of North Korean coal.
One indication is the fallout of the terrorist-style killing of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. In recent years, Jong-nam had been staying in Macau, under Chinese protection. He was reported to have been critical of Jong-un’s accession and subsequent ruthlessness. Since Jong-un took control in 2011, the number of executions reportedly exceeds 300, contributing to paranoia among North Korea’s elite. Another high-profile execution was Jang Song-thaek in December 2013. The 67-year-old was married to Kim’s father’s sister and de-facto second in command as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He had been a mentor to young Kim, and the falling-out was on account of rumors of his proximity to Chinese authorities.
Kim Jong-un has neither been invited to nor visited China since assuming power in 2011.
Following Jong-nam’s killing, China has for the first time blocked coal imports from North Korea. China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner accounting for more than 80 percent of its foreign trade. Coal briquette exports to China account for $1 billion, more than one third of North Korea’s exports. Without naming China, the Korean Central News Agency accused a “neighboring country, which often claims to be friendly” of taking inhumane steps against North Korean social system and “dancing to the tune of the US.”
China has long sought to dilute the UN Security Council’s sanctions on the grounds that these could lead to instability and increase prospects of a humanitarian crisis. Politically, China will still resist regime change in North Korea, which along with Laos and Vietnam, are Asia’s only Communist countries. But patience with Kim Jong-un is wearing thin. For Kim, the nuclear and missile programs and the spate of executions ensure regime survival.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 heightened concerns about regime survival. Having joined the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1985 under the Soviet Union’s prodding, North Korea announced its decision to withdraw in 1993 – a reaction to the US decision to resume joint US-South Korea military exercises that had been suspended the previous year to encourage a thaw on the Korean peninsula. The 1993 crisis led to an Agreed Framework in 1994 under which North Korea agreed to freeze nuclear activities in return for the US pledge to build two light-water nuclear-power reactors. The Bush administration annulled the agreement leading to another crisis in 2003, when North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT. The United States had refused to engage in direct talks, after including North Korea as part of what former President George Bush called an “axis of evil,” but agreed to join the China-Russia initiative of the Six Party Talks in 2004. The Joint Statement issued in 2005 reiterated commitment to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and negotiation of a peace treaty – with the US and North Korea committing to work towards normalizing relations even as the US agreed to provide a security guarantee while North Korea agreed to return to the NPT. The US imposed sanctions on North Korea later that year, and the DPRK undertook its first nuclear test in October 2006, effectively derailing the Six Party Talks process.
During the past decade, DPRK has made steady progress on nuclear and missile programs, undertaking nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and two in 2016. In addition to reprocessing plutonium, North Korea developed enrichment capabilities, part of the Chinese-sanctioned barter with Pakistan in return for missile technology and later Iranian help. In addition to the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, another underground facility is being developed at Mt. Musan.
A major drawback in seeking agreement with North Korea has been the West’s inability to address the regime’s security concerns. US policy has oscillated among sanctions in response to nuclear and missile tests, dilution by China, talks about closer defense ties with Japan and South Korea, while citing additional threats and tests. Thus, the cycle repeats.
Given China’s stakes, US expectations that sanctions would lead to regime collapse were misplaced, and unification is unlikely. Military strikes on North Korean facilities are politically impossible because of the proximity of South Korea and Japan, major economies and US allies. Dialogue is the only option for eliminating North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
For North Korea, the nuclear negotiations have a political objective – regime acceptance and normalization of relations with the US which imply a lessening of tensions in relations with Japan and South Korea. Therefore the dialogue must be in two stages – first, building a degree of trust, leading to spelling out objectives of the negotiations and, then, actual negotiations with specific working groups. To kick-start the process, the US should consider providing a nuclear no-first-use assurance in return for North Korea agreeing to a freeze on its program – no further tests or exports and non-use. Such a negotiation also requires close, sustained coordination among the United States, South Korea and Japan which has been lacking so far. Sustained dialogue remains the best safeguard against political miscalculations that could spark an unintended crisis.
*Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He has more than 35 years of experience in foreign affairs, economic diplomacy and international security. He served the Indian Foreign Service in Brussels, Dakar, Geneva and Islamabad in various capacities and as deputy chief of mission in Washington, DC. He set up the Disarmament and International Security Affairs Division in the Foreign Ministry and led the division for eight years through 2000 – in charge of multilateral disarmament negotiations, bilateral dialogues with Pakistan, strategic dialogues with other countries, including the US, UK, France and Israel. He served as India’s first ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations in Geneva and was a member of the UN Secretary General’s Disarmament Advisory Board from 2002 to 2003. Subsequently, he served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Nepal and France and during 2013-14, as the prime minister’s special envoy for Disarmament and Non-proliferation. Since retiring, he writes on India’s foreign policy, the economic dimensions, and regional and international security issues.
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