North Korea’s new nuclear gambit and the fate of denuclearization

FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
Editor's note:

With the Biden administration’s North Korea policy yet unclear, Kim Jong Un and the North Korean regime are doubling down on their efforts to change the focus of U.S.-North Korea dialogue from denuclearization to arms control, writes Evans Revere. This piece originally appeared in the East Asia Forum.

In March 2012, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told a group of U.S. experts and former officials that North Korea would not denuclearize until the United States removed its “threat.” He defined this as the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

“If you remove the threat,” Ri said, “we will feel more secure, and in 10 or 20 years we will be able to consider denuclearization.” “In the meantime,” he declared, “we can sit down and engage in arms control talks as one nuclear power with another.”

Ri’s remarks provided valuable insight into North Korea’s strategy and goals at the time. Today, his words shed light on why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has doubled down on nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Faced with a new U.S. president whose North Korea policy remains unclear, Kim Jong Un has decided to pre-empt the outcome of the ongoing U.S. policy review by ending all prospects of denuclearization and expanding his nuclear and missile capabilities instead. In doing so, Kim hopes to compel Washington to engage in “arms control talks” if it hopes to slow the North’s nuclear program.

Kim’s gambit to change the main topic of U.S.-North Korea dialogue from denuclearization to arms control was hiding in plain sight in his January 2021 address to the Korean Workers Party Congress. He described North Korea’s nuclear weapons development as the nation’s “strategic and predominant goal” and an “exploit of greatest significance in the history of the Korean nation.” Declaring North Korea a “responsible nuclear weapons state,” Kim’s message was that the regime is now a permanent nuclear power and Washington must deal with it as such.

No less important was Kim’s announcement of a plan to enhance his nuclear and missile arsenals by developing “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons,” multiple-warhead missiles, and solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kim’s remarks signaled his determination to make a dangerous threat even more potent.

Much has been said about the Biden administration’s ongoing North Korea policy review. But Kim Jong Un’s remarks to the Party Congress suggest Pyongyang has conducted its own review, the result of which will be a major challenge for a new U.S. administration still finding its feet.

Kim Jong Un’s costly move to modernize weapons of mass destruction comes as North Korea is in the grip of an economic crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated trade with China — the regime’s economic lifeline. The state planning system is broken, foreign exchange holdings are down, state revenue is shrinking, growth is declining, and international sanctions and bad weather are taking a toll on the economy. Despite this, Kim Jong Un is forging ahead, apparently convinced that the benefits will outweigh the economic risks.

One benefit would be sanctions relief — if he can convince the United States this is the price it must pay to limit Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Kim failed to do this at his February 2019 summit with former U.S. president Donald Trump in Hanoi. But increasing Washington’s sense of nuclear threat might yield a more favorable result.

North Korea’s new approach, rooted in an old strategy, shifts the focus of dialogue with Washington from denuclearization to a new question: how can North Korea and the United States manage their relations in light of Pyongyang’s new status as a de facto nuclear weapons state?

In pursuing this approach, North Korea hopes to exploit the view held by many U.S. experts and officials that denuclearization is no longer achievable. Instead, Washington should focus on “managing” North Korea’s nuclear threat and constraining the growth of its arsenal. This view is surely music to Pyongyang’s ears, since it would draw Washington into a dialogue not about whether North Korea should have nuclear weapons, but about how many it should possess.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will take the bait and pursue an arms control approach with Pyongyang. If it does, President Joe Biden will no doubt assure us that he does not “accept” North Korea’s nuclear program, but rather wants to limit it quantitatively and qualitatively. Such an argument ignores the fact that denuclearization agreements in 1994, 2005, and 2007 failed to freeze the nuclear program because of Pyongyang’s evasiveness about monitoring and verification. As a fully-fledged nuclear power, North Korea will probably be even more reluctant to accept intrusive inspections today.

With the door to North Korea’s denuclearization closing, Kim Jong Un believes he can shut it forever and open a new one that will lead the country to become a permanently nuclear-armed state. If the Biden administration decides to take the slippery slope leading to arms control talks with Pyongyang, it will find an eager “partner” in Kim Jong Un.