North Korea, United States Issue Threats as Deadline Approaches
The window for negotiations between the United States and North Korea appears to be closing, as both sides are resorting to threats ahead of the end-of-the-year deadline for progress imposed by Pyongyang in April.
North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song cautioned Dec. 2 that “what is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will get,” likely referring to North Korea’s willingness to continue diplomacy if the Trump administration changes its approach to talks or the resumption long-range missile and nuclear tests if Washington does not.
In what appeared to be a signal of Pyongyang’s resolve to resume testing in 2020, North Korea tested a large rocket engine Dec. 7 at the Sohae Satellite Launch Site. In a Dec. 8 statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, the Academy of National Defence Science said that test was a success and of “great significance.” The statement also said the test “will have an important impact on changing the strategic position” of Pyongyang.
U.S. President Donald Trump has discounted North Korea’s threats. He tweeted Dec. 8 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has “far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way.” Speaking to reporters Dec. 3, Trump touted his relationship with Kim but appeared to make a veiled threat of his own if North Korea fails to abide by the 2018 Singapore declaration's commitment to denuclearization and tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula. He said “hopefully” the United States will not have to use “the most powerful military we have ever had,” but “if we do, we’ll use it.”
North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui gave Washington the opportunity to clarify Trump’s remarks, saying Dec. 5 that it would be “fortunate” if the comment “was a spontaneous slip of the tongue, but the problem would be different if it was a deliberate provocation aimed at us.”
Choe said that if Trump’s words were intentional North Korea would view it as a “calculated provocation towards us by the U.S., we will also begin to reciprocate against the United States with abusive language.”
Kim Yong Chol, chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee said Dec. 10 that Trump was a “heedless and erratic old man.” He said North Korea has been clear that it will approach Pyongyang’s relationship with the United States from “a different angle” if Trump persists with “irritating expressions stoking the atmosphere of confrontation.” He also said Kim Jong Un’s “understanding of [Trump] may change.”
Trump has mixed his threatening rhetoric with statements of support for negotiations and has continued to modify U.S.-South Korean military exercises that North Korea views as provocative (see below for details). He also said Dec. 7 that Kim “knows I have an election coming up” and will not want to interfere, implying that a return to hostility may harm his chance of reelection.
U.S. Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun told Senators Nov. 22 that the Trump administration continues to prioritize diplomacy with North Korea, but recent statements “have caused us to ponder a bit about what's exactly going on in Pyongyang.” He said that the Trump administration “does not have an end of year deadline” for talks.
The Trump administration has also blocked a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea’s human rights abuses for the second year in a row, in a likely attempt to blunt global criticism of Pyongyang.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Allied Military Training Exercise Suspended
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Nov. 17 the postponement of a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise scheduled for December, saying that the decision was reached in an effort to “to enable peace, to shape… to facilitate a political agreement – a deal, if you will – that leads to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, Washington postponed the drill to “give the North Koreans an opportunity to reconsider some of their recent provocations and to come back to the negotiating table.”
This was the third U.S.-South Korean exercise suspended in 2019.
It appears that for Pyongyang the suspension of exercises is not enough to signal Washington’s willingness to alleviate the “U.S. hostile policy” that North Korea blames for the stalemate of bilateral negotiations. North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, chairman of the Korea-Asia Pacific Peace Committee demanded Nov. 18 that “the U.S. quit the [December exercise] or stop it once and for all,” adding that “the suspension of the drill does not mean ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula and is not helpful to the diplomatic efforts or the settlement of issues.”
“It will be possible to consult the denuclearization only when confidence-building between the DPRK and the U.S. goes first and all the threats to the security and development of the DPRK are removed,” Kim Yong Chol said. According to a spokesman for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission on Nov. 13, routine military training exercises between the United States and South Korea are largely to blame for “the repeating vicious circle of the DPRK-U.S. relations.”
In addition to suspending the December “Combined Flying Training Event,” a scaled-down version of the annual “Vigilant Ace” exercise, the United States and South Korea also suspended the “Foal Eagle” and “Key Resolve” training exercises in early 2019.
Biegun Discusses North Korea During Nomination Hearing
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun testified during his Nov. 20 nomination hearing for Deputy Secretary of State that he would continue to lead the U.S. negotiating team in talks with Pyongyang. He said that being second in command at the State Department would be viewed as “elevating further the priority on North Korea” and would send a message to Pyongyang that his counterpart should be “a person at a sufficient level of leadership” to make decisions.
Biegun said that “there is no meaningful or verifiable evidence that North Korea has yet made the choice to denuclearize,” but said the United States is closer to that goal than 15 months ago. When questioned about the lack of progress to date, Biegun said the Trump administration must “convince the North Koreans to open space below the leader level” for negotiations. He confirmed that there is “no evidence to suggest” that North Korea has stopped producing fissile materials and said that the short-range ballistic missile tests likely contribute knowledge and information relevant to longer-range systems.
He appeared to keep the door open for the United States to offer sanctions relief earlier in the process, a shift reported on ahead of the most recent meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials in Stockholm Oct. 4-5. When asked about the “maximum pressure doctrine” Biegun said that the Trump administration will maintain the “complete set of sanctions on North Korea” However, Biegun said Trump “would be pleased to have the opportunity to move forward in a balanced way” if “we could begin to make progress on the real issues, the tangible issues of denuclearization.”
Biegun said that the United States has not proposed another head-of-state summit but said that Trump is open to one if the two sides reach a deal or are close to one.
Satellite Imagery Shows Nuclear and Missile Activity Throughout 2019
Imagery analyzed over the past several months provides evidence that North Korea has continued both nuclear and missile development throughout 2019.
Images analyzed by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation suggest that North Korea began testing the cooling system for its experimental light water reactor (ELWR) in 2019. Elliot Serbin and Allison Puccioni wrote in 38 North Dec. 6 that images from 2019 show a steady stream of liquid flowing from the piping of the generator building for at least three months. They concluded that the volume and duration were indicative of testing the cooling system.
North Korea began construction of the reactor in 2010 and initially said it would be completed in 2012, but the reactor is not yet operational. When the ELWR is functioning, it could provide additional plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Images from October and November analyzed by 38 North show activity at the Yongbyon complex, which houses North Korea’s uranium enrichment plant, its radioisotope production facility, its plutonium-producing 5MWe reactor, and its ELWR. Analysts Peter Makowksy, Frank Pavian, and Jack Lui conclude in a Nov. 27 analysis that the images indicate that Pyongyang continues to enrich uranium but that operation of the 5MWe reactor, which produces plutonium, has not yet resumed.
38 North published an analysis in September revealing two underground and previously unknown facilities near Yongbyon. Visual signatures suggest these underground areas may be used for uranium enrichment. North Korea is known to enrich uranium at an identified facility within the Yongbyon complex but is also suspected to have several secret enrichment facilities.
Analysis of satellite imagery also reveals North Korea’s progress in developing its ballistic missile force and expanding its ability to deliver a nuclear weapon. In September, 38 North tracked the construction of submerged barges at the Nanpo Shipyard used to test submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Several days later, Oct. 2, North Korea tested an SLBM from another submersible barge, located near the Wonson Bay.
Satellite imagery analyses depicting North Korea’s nuclear activities and missile development stand as an important reminder that Pyongyang has not sacrificed the expansion of its nuclear weapons program while upholding the April 2018 voluntary nuclear and long-range missile testing moratorium.
IAEA Reports on North Korea
Acting IAEA Director-General Cornel Feruta told the UN General Assembly Nov. 11 that North Korea’s nuclear activities are a cause of “serious concern” and a “clear violation” of UN Security Council resolutions. He called on North Korea to meet its Security Council obligations and “cooperate promptly” with the agency to resolve outstanding issues.
North Korea’s Ambassador the UN, Kim Song, said Nov. 11 that Pyongyang “categorically rejects” the IAEA’s conclusions and said the statement “discloses ignorance of the prevailing reality” on the Korean Peninsula. He said Feruta’s comments show that the IAEA has “not yet removed prejudice, distrust and unfair attitude.” Kim noted that the country has not tested a nuclear device nor a long-range missile since November 2017 and said that North Korea’s moratorium is a clear expression of goodwill.
In a Nov. 22 statement to the agency’s Board of Governors, Feruta said that the IAEA is “ready to play an essential role in verifying” North Korea’s nuclear program if “a political agreement is reached among the countries concerned.” He noted that the agency continues to monitor North Korea’s nuclear activity using satellite imagery.
In an August 2019 report to the IAEA’s General Conference, Feruta said that the agency has increased the frequency of satellite imagery collection and noted that the North Korea team has “intensified their efforts to enhance the Agency’s readiness to play an essential role” in verifying North Korea’s nuclear activities. He said the IAEA is ready to return to North Korea in a “timely manner” if requested to do so.
The August 2019 report noted that there have been no activities indicating the operation of North Korea’s 5MWe reactor since December 2018. The report concluded that the length of the shutdown would be sufficient to remove spent fuel and refuel the reactor. The IAEA did not notice any reprocessing activity over the past year.
The IAEA report said that imagery suggested North Korea tested the cooling infrastructure of the light water reactor under construction at the Yongbyon site in March 2018 but concluded that the reactor does not yet appear to be operating.
U.S.-North Korea Negotiations: A Year in Review
2019 appears poised to end on a much less optimistic note than it began. A look back at the year in review indicates that both Washington and Pyongyang missed opportunities to make progress on the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding agreed to in the joint declaration issued at the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore summit.
Despite these three rounds of meetings, no concrete progress has been made toward the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the peninsula agreed to by Trump and Kim at their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018. The Hanoi and Stockholm meetings indicate that the crux of the diplomatic stalemate between the United States and North Korea centers on a disagreement over sequencing, particularly if and when sanctions relief should be offered, and which side should take the first step toward meeting the goals agreed to in Singapore.
Currently, the prospect for another round of negotiations appears unlikely. On Dec. 3, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister for U.S. Affairs issued a statement via the state-run Korean Central News Agency warning Washington that time to reach a settlement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is running out. Pyongyang’s fast-approaching deadline increases the risk that North Korea may revert to conducting nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests, breaking a testing moratorium that North Korea has observed since April 2018.
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