North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Tests and the Six-Party Talks: Where Do We Go From Here?

In testimony before Congress on June 17, senior fellow and CNAPS director Richard Bush described how North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests have transformed the challenge faced by the international system. Dr. Bush testified that it is now clear that North Korea bases its security on nuclear weapons, and the hope that it will abandon the nuclear option has disappeared.

Chairman Faleomavega, Chairman Sherman, it is a great pleasure to testify before you today. Chairman Faleomavega, it is a particular honor to testify before your subcommittee. I was privileged to work on its staff for nine and a half years under Steve Solarz, who was – and still is – a mentor to us both.

I have submitted a written statement, which I ask be included in the record of this hearing. Orally, I wish to make six points.

First of all, the game in Northeast Asia has changed.

North Korea’s tests of a long-range ballistic missile on April 5th and a nuclear device on May 25th have transformed the challenge it poses to the international system. Since North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was discovered some twenty years ago, there was hope that a negotiated solution might offer enough incentives to get Pyongyang to abandon the nuclear option. That hope has now disappeared – for the foreseeable future.

Consequently, for now the Six-Party Talks have lost their rationale. The assumption of the Six-Party Talks was that North Korea might give up its nuclear programs. The only question was how to induce it to do so. The Six-Party Talks were a worthwhile venture, but the North Korean statements and behavior make clear it will not denuclearize. The working assumption of the Six-Party Talks no longer exists. We should remain open to a negotiated solution, but only under the right conditions.

Second, North Korea’s missile and nuclear choice exacerbates two dangers. The first is the transfer nuclear technology, fissile materials, and/or nuclear weapons themselves to countries or parties that are hostile to the United States. The second is destabilizing the security situation in Northeast Asia.

Both of these dangers are serious. How we respond depends on the relative seriousness of each. But neither can be ignored. In addressing the proliferation threat, for example, we should not downplay the importance of Japan’s and South Korea’s confidence in our defense commitment.

Third, even though the prospects for the Six Party Talks in the near term are bleak, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia should remain committed to a negotiations process should conditions change for the better. By that I mean North Korea changing from its current course and affirming in a credible way its commitment to the goal of the talks—denuclearization—and to its past pledges.

Fourth, China’s role in the North Korea issue is crucial but complicated. Its trade with and investment in the DPRK have expanded substantially during this decade. If Beijing imposed a trade embargo, it could bring the country to its knees (and there are reports that it has reduced oil exports over the last two months).

But China has been reluctant to impose severe economic sanctions. It has doubted they would elicit a positive response. It worries that too much external pressure might cause the collapse of the DPRK regime, producing, among other things, a large flow of refugees into Northeast China, Beijing values domestic stability over everything. It probably believes that it is impossible to calibrate precisely how much pressure would both stimulate positive policy change by the DPRK but avoid political instability. Thus, North Korea’s dependence on China is in fact a kind of reverse leverage.

Before 2009, China took an even-handed approach to the effort of securing the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, believing that both Pyongyang and Washington were each responsible for the slow pace of progress.

After the recent tests, by all reports China is quite angry at Pyongyang. The DPRK has both trashed the Six-Party Talks, which China created, and given the United States, Japan, and South Korea reasons to stiffen their defense postures in the region, which undermines China’s security. Unlike before, China agrees that for now the premise of the Six-Party Talks – that North Korea might denuclearize – has disappeared.

China’s anger at the DPRK and its understanding that we are in a new situation was clear in the sanctions the UN Security Council passed on June 12th. These sanctions are not perfect, but they are detailed and far-reaching. They could not have happened without the agreement of China and Russia. The test will be in the implementation, but the Obama Administration understands that. I do not believe that Beijing would have agreed to this text if it planned to treat it as a dead letter. Still, we should not assume that China will impose sanctions on the DPRK that might create domestic instability within its own borders.

Fifth, if there is to be a change for the better in North Korean policy, it is unlikely to come quickly or in response to modest amounts of pressure. That is because of the converging and reinforcing factors that led the DPRK to its current policy:

  • A brinksmanship approach to negotiations;
  • The need to test to make credible its so-called deterrent.
  • And the likely connection to the political succession to Kim Jong Il that is now underway, which increases the clout of the military.

We do not know which of these factors is more salient. It is my estimate, however, that any change in policy will only come after the succession to Kim is complete, which will be sometime after his death. The current stakes are high for the DPRK, so it is likely willing to absorb modest punishment for the time being.

Let me be clear. The end of the Kim dynasty will create the possibility—and only the possibility—of a more favorable DPRK approach. The international community should prepare for the possibility that North Korea may never be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, perhaps through multilateral containment.

My sixth and final point:

Even if the international community does nothing, North Korea will change after the death of Kim Jong Il. No-one knows how change will occur, but one possibility is collapse – with profound consequences for the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China. It is my impression that these countries have yet to engage in the consultations necessary to prepare for rapid and destabilizing change. Yet we ignore the danger of collapse at our collective peril.