North Korea Announces Plans to Boost Nuclear Deterrent
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a May 24 meeting of the Seventh Central Military Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, who discussed national efforts to bolster the country’s armed forces, including “new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on high alert.” According to a statement released that day by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), officials worked to refine a strategy to “reliably contain the persistent big or small military threats from hostile forces.” The KCNA statement did not provide details on what specific steps North Korea will take to strengthen its nuclear deterrent.
In response to the KCNA statement, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien cautioned Pyongyang against continued nuclear weapons development. During a May 24 interview with CBS News, O’Brien voiced the long-held Trump administration position that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons program altogether to achieve both economic prosperity and a normalized diplomatic relationship with the United States.
Asked about the significance of the May 24 high-level meeting in Pyongyang, O’Brien said that Washington would continue monitoring developments, but would also continue reaching out to North Korean officials. He extolled U.S. President Donald Trump’s past efforts to negotiate with North Korea on its nuclear program and said, “the President’s engaged in some excellent personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.”
During the stalemate in negotiations, the Trump administration is continuing its “maximum pressure” campaign toward North Korea. The Justice Department announced May 28 charges against 28 North Korean and five Chinese individuals for involvement in a scheme that laundered $2.5 billion for North Korean activities, including the nuclear weapons program.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also commented on the status of U.S.-North Korean relations, saying “continued communication and dialogue between the DPRK and the United States is important for resolving their differences and a key stepping stone to settling issues on the Korean Peninsula.”
However, Wang criticized the U.S. failure to reciprocate North Korea’s meaningful steps toward denuclearization and diplomacy with Washington. Likely referring to Washington’s refusal to respond to Pyongyang’s April 2018 self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing with a reciprocal concession, Wang said “this is the main reason for the ongoing stalemate in DPRK-US dialogue.” Pyongyang formally renounced that moratorium in January 2020 but has not tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile since then. North Korea has tested short and medium-range ballistic missiles over the past year.
Speaking at a press conference in Beijing May 24, Wang referred to a co-sponsored Chinese-Russian resolution circulated at the United Nations Security Council in 2019 proposing efforts to de-escalate hostilities and work toward North Korean denuclearization. That tabled resolution includes provisions for an easing of certain economic sanctions on North Korea, as an inducement for denuclearization.
“We hope that the two sides will resume meaningful dialogue and engagement as soon as possible,” Wang said,” adding that, “the parties must follow a dual-track approach of pursuing both denuclearization and a peace mechanism, and work out a road map for phased and synchronized actions. This rare opportunity for solving the issue should not be missed again.”—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant
North Korea Cuts Communications with South Korea
North Korean officials announced June 9 that Pyongyang would cease all formal diplomatic and military communication with Seoul. A statement published that day by the state-run Korean Central News Agency clarifies the North Korean position that South Korea should be “forced to pay dearly” for the deterioration of North-South relations. According to the statement, North Korean officials met June 9 ahead of the announcement to discuss “phased plans for the work against the enemy.”
A day earlier, North Korea failed to answer an inter-Korean phone call for the first time since that channel of communication opened in 2018 (North Korea cut the lines in 2016). Several days before (June 6), a group from South Korea scattered anti-regime leaflets across the border between the two countries. In a statement, North Korean officials expressed their belief that South Korean authorities connived the “anti-DPRK move.”
Following Pyongyang’s June 9 announcement, South Korean Defense Ministry Spokesman Choi Hyun-soo revealed North Korea did not answer a call via the military communications hotline that day. Since 2018, North Korean and South Korean military officials have held scheduled phone calls twice per day. The decision to cut the lines came several weeks after an exchange of gunfire took place at the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea May 3, though it is unclear whether shots were fired intentionally.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in did not comment on North Korea’s failure to partake in the regularly scheduled calls between diplomatic and military officials, and on Pyongyang’s decision to cut communication lines altogether. The South Korean government has not reported any use of the line by Moon.
Last month, Moon said that communication between the two countries continued but he admitted it was “not smooth.” Despite the challenges, Moon said May 10 he still hopes to pursue inter-Korean projects that he laid out in a January speech, including reconnecting roads and railways between the two countries. Such projects “will not only lead to international cooperation but will also provide a big boost to the resumption of inter-Korean tourism.”
Moon also mentioned a proposal for “joint quarantine cooperation” to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He said the quarantine proposal did not breach U.S. sanctions, which has been a source of tension between South Korea and the United States in the past. The Trump administration continues to maintain that sanctions on North Korea will remain in place until the country denuclearizes.
IAEA Notes No Activity at Reactor in 2019
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) annual report on safeguards implementation worldwide concluded that there were “no indications” that North Korea’s 5MWe reactor operated in 2019. The 5MWe gas-graphite reactor produces the plutonium that North Korea uses for nuclear weapons. Experts assess that the reactor mentioned in the report is capable of producing 6 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per year when operating at full capacity.
The IAEA also concluded that there was no sign of operations at the facility that separates plutonium from the spent fuel produced by the reactor over the course of the year, suggesting that North Korea’s plutonium production program could be stalled. Uranium enrichment activities appear to be ongoing, and the IAEA reported there were “indications consistent with the use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility” in 2019.
The IAEA report stated that the agency intensified efforts to enhance readiness “to play its essential role in verifying” the country’s nuclear program once a political agreement is reached. North Korea asked IAEA inspectors to leave the country in April 2009, and the agency has not conducted on-site inspections since that time. However, the IAEA continues to monitor North Korea’s nuclear activities using tools such as satellite imagery.
South Korea Tests New Missile
South Korean media reported in May that the country tested a new, more powerful ballistic missile. The Hyunmoo-4 missile was tested twice in March, once successfully, according to the reports. The missile has an estimated range of 800 kilometers and a payload capacity of up to two metric tons, which is larger than other North Korean systems. The missile’s specifications are unconfirmed, but analysts have estimated that the Hyunmoo-4 is solid-fueled and similar in design to the Hyunmoo-2 missile, although with a considerably larger payload.
The Hyunmoo-4’s payload capacity is made possible by a 2017 revision to U.S.-South Korean missile guidelines that eliminated a payload cap of 500 kilograms for missiles with ranges of 800 kilometers.
Initially, when South Korea joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in January 2001, it negotiated an agreement with the United States dictating that it would limit its ballistic missiles to a 300-kilometer range and a 500-kilogram payload. In 2012, Seoul and Washington reached a new deal whereby South Korea could extend the range of its missiles up to 800 kilometers while keeping the 500-kilogram payload.
Experts have recently speculated that although the Hyunmoo-4 meets the 800-kilometer-range limit, the missile’s booster could be used to develop a longer, medium-range missile with a lighter payload in the future.
Satellite Images Suggest Missile Facility Progressing
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Janes Intelligence Review published an analysis of satellite imagery indicating that North Korea is completing a facility related to the country’s ballistic missile development.
According to the May 5 analysis, the facility is large enough to contain an elevated Hwasong-15, the intercontinental-range ballistic missile that North Korea tested in November 2017. The authors conclude that the size of the facility indicates that it “can be used for, the assembly of ballistic missiles from components delivered by rail from nearby ballistic missile component factories” and it can “accommodate all known and anticipated North Korean ballistic missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers (TEL)” for storage and maintenance.
The full analysis is available on the CSIS website, Beyond Parallel.
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