North Korea Rejects U.S. Proposal
U.S. and North Korean negotiators met for the first time in seven months Oct. 4-5 to continue talks on denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula, but the prospects for further negotiations remain unclear as Pyongyang continues to reiterate that the Trump administration must change its position for the process to continue.
The State Department characterized the talks in Stockholm as “good” and said the U.S. negotiating team brought new proposals to the table to address all of the goals laid out in the June 2018 Singapore summit declaration. The U.S. team also expressed its willing to return to negotiations in two weeks.
However, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Oct. 5 that it has “no intention to hold such sickening negotiations” until the United States makes a “complete and irreversible” revocation of its “hostile” approach to North Korea. “The fate of the future DPRK-U.S. dialogue depends on the U.S. attitude,” the statement said, and noted that the “U.S. side maintained its former stance.”
After the abrupt end to the Hanoi summit in February, North Korea blamed Washington’s approach to negotiations and refusal to consider sanctions relief early in the process for the failure, whereas the Trump administration said North Korea’s own proposal at Hanoi was imbalanced. North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un said in April 2019 that the United States must change its position and agree to an approach that is beneficial to both sides before the end of the year or the “prospects for solving a problem will be bleak and very dangerous.”
Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to resume working-level negotiations after meeting at the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea in June 2019, but the two leaders did not announce agreement on an approach for negotiating specific steps toward the goals agreed to in Singapore.
Trump said in September he was open to a “new method” for talks and U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun stated Sept. 6 that there are “immediate actions” that both sides can take to “elevate relations from a place of hostility and distrust toward an agreed end state that fulfills the vision of our two leaders – provided that there is a clear commitment to fulfill all the areas of agreement made by our two leaders in Singapore.”
In response to Trump’s comments on a “new method,” North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil voiced optimism that the United States could propose the “right calculation method” and praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach. Kim Myong Gil said that a new method appears to be the “best option” and that “both the DPRK and the U.S. solve feasible matters first, one by one in stages, while building confidence in each other,” likely referring to North Korea’s preference for an incremental approach that exchanges steps on denuclearization for actions by the United States to lift sanctions and address Pyongyang’s security concerns.
Ahead of the Oct. 4-5 meeting, Vox reported that the Trump administration would propose waiving UN sectoral sanctions on textile and coal exports for three years in exchange for North Korea’s verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and another measure, likely halting uranium enrichment. Previously, the administration maintained that sanctions relief would not be granted until denuclearization was complete.
If the U.S. negotiating team did make an offer along the lines reported by Vox during the meetings, it appears not to have satisfied North Korea’s demands for a new approach that benefits both sides. “The breakdown of the negotiations without producing any results is entirely due to Washington’s failure to abandon its outdated stance and attitude,” North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil explained. He said North Korea’s “great expectations” were disappointed.
Kim Myong Gill cautioned Oct. 7 of the “terrible incident” that would result from a U.S. failure to aptly prepare for continued talks.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
North Korea Tests New Ballistic Missile
North Korea tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Pukguksong-3, for the first time Oct. 2. The launch appears to have been a success and the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Oct. 3 said the test “scientifically and technically confirmed the key tactical and technical indexes of the newly-designed ballistic missile.”
The Pukguksong-3, a solid-fueled, two-stage SLBM, was first displayed in 2017. The nuclear-capable missile was launched underwater, likely from a submerged barge, and flew on a lofted trajectory before splashing down in Japan’s economic exclusion zone. The estimated 2,000-kilometer range of the Pukguksong-3 exceeds the 1,200-kilometer estimated range of North Korea’s first SLBM, the Pukguksong-1, which was tested six times in 2015-2016.
Despite the declaration in KCNA that the test “comes to be of great significance as it ushered in a new phase in containing the outside forces' threat to the DPRK and further bolstering its military muscle for self-defence,” North Korea will need to test the system from a submarine (construction of a ballistic missile submarine is ongoing) and remains years away deployment. However, developing and deploying a reliable SLBM would make it easier for North Korea to evade regional missile defense systems and could eventually provide the country with a second strike capability.
The Oct. 2 test may also be a signal to the United States that North Korea intends to follow through on threats to resume nuclear and long-range missile testing if the United States does not change its approach to negotiations by the end of the year. North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil reiterated this point after working-level talks with U.S. officials Oct. 5, saying that whether or not North Korea breaks its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing “entirely depends on the stance of the United States.”
The estimated 2,000-kilometer range of the Pukguksong-3 does not violate the voluntary test moratorium on long-range missiles announced by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April 2018, but the launch does violate UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from developing ballistic missiles.
After an Oct. 8 UN Security Council meeting to discuss the SLBM test, the European members of the Security Council condemned the test as a “clear violation” of Security Council resolutions and called on North Korea to engage in good faith negotiations with the United States and take concrete steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. While the Security Council meeting was closed, Germany’s Ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, said that all members were critical of North Korea’s missile launch but expressed hope in the negotiating process.
U.S. President Donald Trump, however, has downplayed North Korea’s recent missile tests and continues to hold up Pyongyang’s commitment to refrain from long-range missile testing as a positive outcome of the negotiating process.
While North Korea has refrained from testing its intermediate and intercontinental range systems, Pyongyang resumed short-range missile launches in May 2019 after a 17-month testing hiatus. Since then, the Pyongyang has conducted 17 short-range ballistic missile launches and the SLBM test.
After the Oct. 2 test, the U.S. State Department urged North Korea to “refrain from provocations” and said Washington is still committed to negotiations. While the Trump administration’s continued commitment to talks is positive, Trump’s failure to condemn Pyongyang’s illicit missile activities risks normalizing North Korean tests and allows the country to continue to develop and refine its shorter-range systems.
Responding to the Oct. 8 Security Council meeting and an early October U.S. Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test, a spokesperson from North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened Oct. 10 to resume long-range missile testing, saying, “the DPRK can give tit for tat, but exercises restraint.”
“There is a limit to the patience of the DPRK,” the spokesperson warned.
Trump Suggests New North Korea Approach Post-Bolton
After John Bolton’s abrupt departure as National Security Advisor Sept. 10, U.S. President Donald Trump criticized Bolton’s approach to negotiations with Pyongyang and appeared to indicate that Washington may be willing to adopt more realistic expectations for talks. Bolton consistently took a more hawkish line on negotiations, insisting that North Korea follow the so-called “Libya model” which would require the country to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program before the United States takes any actions to address Pyongyang’s security concerns or lift sanctions.
Speaking to reporters Sept. 11, Trump criticized Bolton’s preference for the "Libya model" and implied that Bolton’s approach posed an impediment to a future U.S.-North Korea deal. Trump later added that he disagrees with some of Bolton’s foreign policy “tactics” and “ideas,” and that “North Korea has tremendous potential.”
North Korea also welcomed Bolton’s departure. North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, said that Bolton was a “burdensome troublemaker” with “outdated” ideas.
Leaked details on a proposal exchanging limited UN sanctions relief for a verified closing of the Yongbyon nuclear complex suggest that the Trump administration may be adjusting its expectations and objectives in negotiations with North Korea going forward. While working-level talks ended Oct. 5 without an agreement and Pyongyang continues to criticize the United States for not putting enough on the table to address North Korea’s concerns, willingness to consider limited sanctions relief earlier in the process, before complete denuclearization, is a step in the right direction that demonstrates greater flexibility in the Trump administration’s approach.
UN Panel Reports on Sanctions Evasion
A UN Panel of Experts charged with assessing the implementation of Security Council sanctions on North Korea issued a report Aug. 30 that concluded that Pyongyang continues to engage in acts designed to evade sanctions, including the procurement of technologies and materials relevant to its weapons of mass destruction programs. The experts also concluded that North Korea’s resumption of ballistic missile testing in May 2019 enhanced the country’s capabilities.
The report noted that North Korea exceeded the cap on coal exports set by the Security Council and continues to use ship-to-ship transfers to evade sectoral sanctions. The panel also noted that not all member states have taken steps to implement measure designed to restrict Pyongyang’s access to the international financial systems.
The experts also called attention to North Korea’s increase in cyber activities and said that Pyongyang continues to generate funds through cyber-attacks and hacking. The United States sanctioned several new North Korean entities in September for their involvement in cyber-related theft.
What We’re Reading…
James Byrne, Hamish Macdonald, and Gary Somerville, “Project Sandstone Report 4: Down and Out in Pyongyang and London,” RUSI, Sept. 26, 2019