The North Korea Challenge

Editor’s Note: Evans Revere recently gave a presentation at a U.S.-China-Japan Trilateral Track II Conference co-hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Tokyo Foundation in Japan. His remarks on how to deal with the challenge posed by North Korea to regional stability are below.

The United States, China, and Japan are at a pivotal juncture in their longstanding efforts to deal with the serious challenge to regional peace and stability posed by North Korea. How they deal with this challenge in the coming months may well determine whether or not the international community will have to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea for many years to come.

Before assessing the major elements and implications of this challenge, it is worth reviewing North Korea’s current actions.

North Korea is in the midst of an unusually intense period of diplomatic outreach. In recent months, the world has witnessed high-profile diplomatic engagement by the Pyongyang regime on a number of fronts. DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong traveled to New York City in September to address the UN General Assembly (UNGA) — the first such participation by a North Korean foreign minister in the UNGA in 15 years. While Ri scrupulously avoided contact with U.S. officials, and his staff turned away requests by influential American experts and former officials to meet with him, Ri did meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and delivered a letter to Ban from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Other senior North Korean official have also been busy on the diplomatic front.

For months, Pyongyang has been engaged in intense talks with Japan to resolve the fate of missing and abducted Japanese citizens. In September, the North Korean Workers’ Party secretary for international affairs, Kang Sok Ju, travelled to Europe as a special envoy of the North Korean leader, meeting with senior officials in several capitals.

More recently, Pyongyang released one of the three Americans being held for alleged offenses committed in North Korea in a gesture that some have interpreted as an effort to jump-start talks with the United States.

There have also been reports of intensified Russia-North Korea dialogue aimed at improving relations and expanding economic cooperation.[1]   North Korean diplomats in New York and Geneva have also been unusually active and outspoken in defending their country’s human rights record, and Pyongyang has even indicated a willingness to engage in discussions of its human rights record.

But perhaps the biggest diplomatic “splash” by the North occurred in relations with South Korea when three senior DPRK officials (Choe Ryong Hae, Hwang Pyong So, and Kim Yang Gon) travelled to Incheon to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games. The dispatch of Hwang and Choe, generally regarded as the second- and third-ranking figures in the North Korean regime, to the South to meet with ROK counterparts made major headlines in the South Korean press and was viewed by many in the South as a harbinger of the resumption of long-suspended North-South high-level talks.

What explains this North Korean activism? Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive seems motivated by at least three factors.

The first is the DPRK’s desire to reduce its political and economic isolation. While international sanctions, including UN Security Council measures, have not been able to end the regime’s ability to fund its nuclear weapons- and missile-related development programs, sanctions have nonetheless had some “bite.” They have constrained the regime’s ability to finance these programs, compelled the Pyongyang to expend increasingly scarce financial resources on them, and reminded the regime of the inherent contradiction of its policy of pursuing simultaneously economic and nuclear weapons development.

By reaching out to the international community, Pyongyang may be acknowledging that isolation has taken a toll, one that requires the regime to engage in creative diplomacy in the hope of easing sanctions and creating the possibility of new sources of trade and aid.

The second factor involves the state of the regime’s difficult relations with China. Beijing has been conspicuously absent as a target of Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive, probably reflecting the current coolness in bilateral ties and the DPRK’s desire to look elsewhere for support.

China’s leader has yet to hold a summit with North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un, even though President Xi Jinping has already met South Korean President Park Geun-hye five times, including during a state visit to the ROK (the first time a Chinese leader has ever travelled to the South before visiting the North). Senior Chinese officials have voiced concern over provocative North Korean language and actions, and many analysts believe China is holding off on a summit or improvement in ties as a way of pressuring the DPRK not to carry out a nuclear test or other provocations.

Nevertheless, China remains one of the DPRK’s few “lifelines,” providing essential aid, a modicum of diplomatic support, and a safe environment for North Korean firms to operate away from the watchful eye of international sanctions monitors. The net effect of international sanctions and isolation on the North has been to increase this dependence on China – a situation that does not sit well with a Pyongyang regime that prides itself on its independence, self-reliance, and unique brand of hypernationalism. Accordingly, and particularly in the absence of the valuable endorsement that a PRC-DPRK summit would offer, Pyongyang appears to be seeking to diversify its political and diplomatic lines of communication in an effort to ease its growing reliance on its huge neighbor.

The third factor represents an important new phenomenon: the potential for international concern over North Korea’s abysmal human rights record to affect the DPRK regime.

Close observation of the recent North Korean diplomatic outreach suggests strongly that the major driver of this initiative has been the regime’s profound concern over the international attention being given to the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI’s) devastating report on the DPRK’s human rights situation. Pyongyang seems deeply fearful that the UN General Assembly, and even the Security Council, might take action on the COI’s report and hold the North and its leadership accountable for the regime’s human rights record.

North Korea’s vehement denunciation of the report suggests that the inquiry has struck a raw nerve in Pyongyang, compelling the regime to mobilize its diplomatic resources in an unprecedented way to prevent further UN action, including by inviting human rights monitors to visit the country. The COI report has thus shown a remarkable ability to mobilize the international community’s outrage over the DPRK’s treatment of its people.

Importantly (and ironically), years of international pressure on the regime over its nuclear and missile programs, its violation of its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its military provocations against its neighbors, and its threats to use nuclear weapons against others have not elicited the reaction that the COI report has received from the international community. As the international community ponders ways to affect the regime’s behavior in the future, the value of pursuing action based on the North’s long history of human rights abuses – which have now been authoritatively and definitively documented in the COI report – should not be underestimated.

Yet for all of its attempts to expand its diplomatic room for maneuver and ease international pressure and isolation, North Korea’s current offensive seems unlikely to succeed. The level of international concern over its human rights record is proving too strong and the DPRK’s concerted efforts at UN fora in New York and Geneva are unlikely to stop it. And it is hard to imagine how the notoriously defensive and closed regime could ever satisfy the demands of human rights organizations. At the end of the day, the fate of the UN’s action on the regime’s human rights record is much more likely to be determined by a Russian or Chinese veto than by the North’s strident rejection of the COI report.

Meanwhile, attempts to parley high-level diplomacy into renewed talks with Seoul (and restart the aid benefits that might flow as a result of these talks) have already fallen short. The ROK has proven unwilling to meet the North’s conditions and the military provocations in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and in the waters of the West Sea that accompanied the North’s outreach clearly unnerved Seoul, causing it to back away. Despite Seoul’s keen interest in renewed dialogue, the North will have to do much more to ease the ROK’s concerns prior to any resumption of bilateral dialogue.

It also remains to be seen whether North Korea will be able to meet the high expectations that many Japanese have for talks on the fates of the many Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by Pyongyang. At the same time, the release of a single American as a humanitarian gesture while others are still being held seems unlikely to sway the minds of U.S. policymakers, who remain determined to hold North Korea to its past denuclearization commitments and who will not in any event be interested in “trading” a moderation of this principled position for incarcerated Americans.[2]

But perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive is that the DPRK’s position on its weapons of mass destruction programs remains unchanged, and therefore unacceptable to the international community. North Korea appears as committed as ever to the development of its nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. North Korea’s nuclear weapons status has now been enshrined in its constitution and the enhancement of this capability now stands as one of the two pillars (the other being economic modernization) of its national development program.

North Korean envoy Kang Sok Ju did little to ease international concerns over the regime’s nuclear aspirations when he suggested to some European interlocutors that North Korea was prepared to engage with the United States in dialogue as “one nuclear state to another” and when he suggested that as a nuclear weapons power the DPRK was prepared to adopt a “no first use” policy.

Meanwhile, according to reliable reports, North Korea is working on new delivery systems for its nuclear weapons; has constructed new launch facilities for medium- and long-range ballistic missiles; is engaging in materials and explosives testing necessary to miniaturize an effective, deliverable nuclear weapon; and may now have a second uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon – giving it additional capacity for producing fissile material for weapons.

As the only country to have threatened the use of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, North Korea is a unique outlier in the international community. North Korean officials have told their American and other interlocutors that the regime intends to keep its nuclear weapons, which they describe as a “strategic deterrent.” Despite its formal commitments in 1994, 2005, and 2007 to freeze, open for international inspection, and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons production facilities, North Korea has rejected the idea of returning to Six-Party Talks designed to implement these commitments.

This track record leaves the international community, and the three countries represented at this forum, with a series of major challenges.

First is the strong likelihood that the DPRK will conduct individual or multiple nuclear weapons tests.  Having paid a significant political price for its determination to have nuclear weapons, and having repeatedly stressed the centrality of these weapons to its national survival, North Korea must at some point demonstrate that its “strategic deterrent” actually works. The international community should be prepared for the DPRK to take this step at a time of its own choosing.

The international community should also prepare for further testing of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles by Pyongyang. There is little credibility to a “strategic deterrent” that cannot be accurately delivered over significant distances. At some point the North will demonstrate that it has this capacity.

Another major challenge is the North’s propensity to proliferate nuclear technology and materials.  Pyongyang has a demonstrated track record in this regard, and as its technical capabilities improve there is reason to be concerned that the regime will once again be tempted to share its know-how, or work with others in the development of nuclear weapons.

As we reflect on the complicated and difficult history of past denuclearization negotiations with North Korea (negotiations that have seen the United States and others offer significant inducements to Pyongyang), another challenge the international community may face is the possibility that there is no inducement or package of inducements that can deter North Korea from continuing its single-minded pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. If everything that might be offered has been offered, and if it has not succeeded in convincing the DPRK not to pursue nuclear weapons, what does that say about the future of negotiations with Pyongyang?

Meanwhile, we are faced today with the absence of a diplomatic dialogue process that might stop, or even slow, North Korea’s pursuit of a greater nuclear weapons capability. The Six-Party Talks have been in suspense for six years and the failed U.S.-DPRK “Leap Day” dialog in early 2012 left a bitter taste in the mouths of U.S. negotiators, who appear determined not to go down that path again.

Where does this leave us — the United States, China, and Japan — at this juncture? What are the implications of these challenges for us?

When North Korea does finally demonstrate that it has the credible capacity to do what it has threatened to do – use nuclear weapons against regional targets – it will have a profound effect on the region:

      • It will change the security calculus and perceptions of many of the region’s actors, who will now have to take into account a new dimension of threat and instability.
      • It will raise concerns among North Korea’s neighbors about their vulnerability to intimidation and nuclear blackmail by Pyongyang.
      • It will raise questions among United States allies about the U.S. deterrent and about the assurances they have received from Washington to come to their defense.
      • This could, in turn, spark a debate in Seoul and Tokyo about whether the ROK and Japan need to consider developing their own deterrent.
      • Uncertainty among U.S. allies and partners will require the United States to make its deterrent commitments and assurances even more explicit.
      • It will also probably require the United States to take other measures, including new missile defense-related deployments, as well as conduct additional exercises and consider the deployment of other necessary technologies and forces in order to provide adequate deterrent capabilities in the region and reassure U.S. allies and partners.
      • Despite U.S. assurances to the contrary, some of the steps that the United States might take may be perceived by the PRC as directed at China or as a way of neutralizing China’s own strategic forces, using the pretext of a North Korean threat. This could undermine trust between the United States and China and seriously complicate bilateral relations.

This presentation has sought to highlight the increasingly complicated nature of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – a threat that shows every sign of becoming more serious in the months and years to come. The prospect that this threat could also roil intra-regional relations, as well as undermine peace and stability in the region, is quite real.

If nothing else, perhaps today’s discussion will offer an opportunity for American, Japanese, and Chinese experts to exchange views about how to more effectively contend with this rising challenge. It is not for this author to tell the Chinese and Japanese colleagues gathered here today how their governments could work better together and with the United States to deal with this challenge. But let me suggest in closing that it is essential that we do so, including by working together to convince Pyongyang that it cannot succeed in its attempt to pursue economic modernization and nuclear weapons development. If we can demonstrate solidarity in showing Pyongyang that its game plan is unachievable, we may also be able to convince the DPRK that its only real choice is a negotiated end to its nuclear weapons ambitions.

[1] Subsequently, Choe Ryong Hae, Workers’ Party Secretary and close confidant of Kim Jong Un, travelled to Moscow as the North Korean leader’s personal envoy.

[2] In the event, the subsequent release of the remaining two American “hostages” (the word used by President Obama upon their release) does not seem to have altered U.S. insistence that the DPRK needs to take a concrete step to reaffirm its commitment to denuclearization before multilateral talks can recommence.