North Korea Reiterates End to Test Moratorium
North Korea will no longer observe its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, a counselor to Pyongyang’s mission at the United Nations in Geneva said Jan. 21. The April 2018 moratorium was designed to “build confidence with the United States,” but given that Washington “remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development” of North Korea, Pyongyang has “no reason to be unilaterally bound” by its past commitment, Ju Yong Chol said.
The statement did not indicate if or when North Korea would resume nuclear or long-range missile testing. Recently captured satellite imagery suggests activity at North Korea’s Sanumdong missile research center that is consistent with activity recorded before earlier North Korean missile tests, according to a U.S. official quoted by CNN. Independent analysts at 38 North, however, are skeptical that the imagery suggests an upcoming test.
The Geneva remarks closely echoed those of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Dec. 28-31 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, where Kim announced the provocative but anticipated shift in North Korean policy toward talks with the United States. Kim indicated in April 2019 that North Korea’s approach to diplomacy with Washington would change if the United States did not adopt a more flexible negotiating position by the end of the year.
The state-run North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Kim as telling the committee “there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” so long as the United States maintains its “hostile policy.”
The report on the 5th Plenary Meeting was published Jan. 1, 2020, by KCNA seemingly in lieu of the much-anticipated annual New Year’s Day address that North Korean leaders have delivered in years past.
In stark contrast to his Jan. 1, 2019, speech, Kim’s tone shifted after the failed Hanoi summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and signaled Pyongyang’s diminished confidence in continued diplomacy with Washington.
Kim began 2019 by reiterating his commitment to “neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor to use and proliferate them,” and his “firm will to… advance towards complete denuclearization.” Closing the year, Kim warned instead that North Korea would “steadily develop indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons for national security” in 2020. He also said that that North Korea’s steps to bolster the country’s nuclear deterrent will “be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude” toward Pyongyang.
North Korea will now focus on “self-reliance,” guided by a new strategic vision built on advancements in science and technology. In 2020 “developing the ultra-modern national defence science would make [North Korea’s] military and technical power irreversible,” he said.
When asked about North Korea’s development of new strategic weapons, in reference to Kim’s statement at the 5th Plenary Meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Jan. 24 that North Korea is “trying to build a long-range ballistic missile with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead,” and that the United States is “watching very closely.”
“At this point, we need to get back to the negotiating table and really figure out the best way forward to denuclearize the peninsula,” Esper urged.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Author’s Note: Given the current stalemate in U.S.-North Korean negotiations, the Denuclearization Digest will no longer be published on a monthly basis. The Arms Control Association will send out the digest as needed in response to significant developments.
U.S.-North Korea Negotiations in 2020
The Trump administration remains open to continued dialogue on denuclearization and peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula, despite North Korea’s new approach to talks. U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told Axios Jan. 12 that the United States used “various channels” to convey to North Korea “that we would like to continue the negotiations.” He said he was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for talks, given that North Korea did not conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test after ending the moratorium.
President Donald Trump also sent Kim a birthday card in early January via a South Korean liaison. It is unclear what the message contained, but it does not appear to have impacted Pyongyang’s position on the resumption of talks.
According to Kim Kye Gwan, an adviser for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, it is “absentminded to expect that we may return to the dialogue with the US by taking advantage of such relations” between the two leaders, referring to the card. He said, “the reopening of dialogue between the DPRK and the US may be possible only under the condition of the latter’s absolute agreement on issues raised by the former.”
The Foreign Ministry adviser’s comments likely refer to Pyongyang’s position that the United States must end its hostile policy before denuclearization.
Recent changes to Pyongyang’s defense and diplomatic leadership appear to reinforce the more hardline position. On Jan. 22, Army General Kim Jong Gwan assumed a new post as North Korea’s Defense Minister and former senior Colonel Ri Son Gwan was appointed Jan. 23 as North Korea’s Foreign Minister.
“It is the unwavering will of the DPRK to further increase the strength of justice for defending its sovereignty and security and safeguarding the global peace and stability,” Ri Son Gwan said in his new role Jan. 23. The former military official is reportedly revered for his hardline stance on the United States and South Korea.
Moon Calls for Talks with North Korea
South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed concern that inter-Korean relations “could suffer a setback amid the stalemate in the talks between North Korea and the United States,” during his Jan. 7 New Year’s address.
Moon said that it has become more urgent to “find realistic ways to further advance inter-Korean cooperation” and support the U.S.-North Korean talks, given the stalemate in negotiations between the two countries. He suggested that progress on the inter-Korean front could ease the way for North Korean sanctions relief and mentioned reconnecting railways and roads between the two countries and jointly hosting the 2032 Olympics as possible options. He also referenced transforming the demilitarized zone between North and South Korean into “an international pace zone” to “guarantee mutual security for the two Koreans.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also reiterated that talks between Seoul and Pyongyang and inter-Korean projects could complement and could revive U.S.-North Korean negotiations. Speaking to reporters Jan. 15 after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, she said that the inter-Korean process does not have to wait for progress in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
The U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, however, said that in order to “avoid a misunderstanding that could trigger sanctions” South Korea should run its proposals for inter-Korean projects though the U.S.-South Korea working group on sanctions.
U.S. Exaggerates Missile Defenses
General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Jan. 17 that he has “100% confidence” that current ballistic missiles defenses will protect the United States against North Korea’s missiles. Speaking at a Jan. 17 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hyten said that the missile defense systems are “built for” North Korea and “they’re going to work against North Korea…if we ever have to.”
Given the performance of U.S. systems against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Hyten grossly exaggerated U.S. capabilities. The U.S. ground-based midcourse defense (GMD), designed to protect the continental United States against long-range strategic ballistic missiles, has a record of 11 successful intercepts in 19 tests and the 2019 U.S. Missile Defense Review concluded that the United States is only “protected against a limited ICBM attack.”
Missile defense experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) assess that the system “would offer little to no protection in any realistic scenario” and argue that countermeasures could easily defeat the GMD system. False confidence in U.S. missile defenses is “potentially dangerous,” they argue, as it may lead policymakers to act in ways that increase the risk of conflict.
UN Sanctions Deadline Missed
China and Russia failed to meet a UN deadline calling for the repatriation of North Korean workers by Dec. 22, 2019. In addition to capping petroleum imports and banning certain exports, UN Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017) attempted to stifle currency revenues earned abroad by foreign workers from financing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
According to the United States, Pyongyang has earned close to $500 million annually from North Korean workers abroad, including those in China and Russia. Representatives from Beijing and Moscow stated their intent to comply fully with Resolution 2379 and noted that efforts are ongoing to repatriate North Korean citizens.
The United States passed additional sanctions on North Korea in December. The Otto Warmbier North Korea Nuclear Sanctions and Enforcement Act of 2019 was included in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law Dec. 20. The law expands sanctions targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with U.S.-designated North Korean entities, gives the United States more flexibility to designate entities that engage with North Korea, and puts more pressure on states to implement UN sanctions, including reporting on how foreign governments comply with restrictions.
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