North Korea’s nuclear weapons have taken on a low profile this year. Kim Jong Un is no longer conducting nuclear testing or testing ballistic missiles, as he feels out the benefits of ongoing U.S.-North Korea and inter-Korean diplomacy. But even as President Trump remains convinced that "total denuclearization” has “already started," North Korea is building out its nuclear arsenal.
It’s determined to pursue its economic development under the safety of its nuclear deterrent, and that heightens the urgency for the United States to limit what North Korea can accomplish with its nuclear weapons.
The administration continues to push for the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” which, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s repeated assertions, Kim did not agree to at the Singapore summit.
In fact, North Korea has been explicit that it won’t be giving up its nuclear weapons unilaterally—that is to say without the United States and other nuclear states giving up their own weapons.
“If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue,” Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s first vice-minister of foreign affairs, declared in May, and there’s been no substantive change since.
Kim Jong Un himself was even clearer during his New Year’s Day address, when he celebrated the completion of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and unequivocally noted that his country “has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse.”
All is not lost, however. Diplomacy continues, with another Trump-Kim summit now anticipated, and it would be useful for the United States to look to the example of recent inter-Korean progress, working to limit the quantity and quality of North Korea’s arsenal.
The two sides should engage in serious military-to-military talks on managing their deterrent relationship. Critics may allege that this would grant North Korea's arsenal recognition, but the costs of refusing to do so could prove catastrophic in a crisis.
These talks could complement the ongoing U.S.-North Korea diplomatic effort. While they need not deal with the issue of disarming North Korea completely, they can reduce the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe on the Peninsula.
For instance, as detailed by Bob Woodward's recent book Fear and in recent reporting by The Daily Beast, the United States is pursuing potentially massively destabilizing efforts to disable and destroy North Korea's missiles before it's able to use them.
While this might serve U.S. goals to protect the mainland and allied soil from attack, it risks encouraging Kim's hand toward dangerous command and control arrangements. As far as we know today, Kim—and only Kim—is capable of authorizing a nuclear launch. If he senses that U.S. offensive cyber capabilities are likely to sever him from his nuclear arsenal in a crisis, his incentives grow to pre-delegate launch authority to field commanders.
Kim's relatively small arsenal and limited capabilities leave him with an itchy trigger finger and the U.S. should do all its can to ease his anxieties in peacetime and in a potential crisis; talking to North Korea would make this likelier.
Similarly, the United States has a limited understanding of North Korea's nuclear doctrine and posture, relying primarily on statements made by North Korean officials in public forums and through state media propaganda. A serious effort at military-to-military dialogue could help U.S. military leaders better understand the nature of the deterrent relationship with Pyongyang by encouraging North Korea to share its doctrine.
These are preliminary steps. President Trump has acknowledged that talks with North Korea won’t be crunched by a timeline. The United States should use that opportunity to push on the right door with Pyongyang: instead of insisting on the unrealistic goal of short-term disarmament, the goal should be to reduce and manage tensions, while encouraging North Korea’s restraint.
As far reducing and managing tensions on the Peninsula goes, the good news of late has come on the nonnuclear side of the ledger. North and South Korea have started to put into place a remarkably comprehensive agreement on reducing conventional military tensions on land, at sea, and in the air. Even as the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons remains, these measures will have the benefit of reducing the possibility of conflict.
During the fifth inter-Korean summit, which took place on September 19 in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed their defense ministers' signing of a comprehensive military agreement. Whatever else would have emerged out of that summit, this outcome was always likely. It was the product of weeks of sustained military-to-military dialogue between general officers of the Korean People's Army and the Republic of Korea Army that convened shortly after the April 27 inter-Korean summit, the first between Moon and Kim this year.
While skeptics of this year's inter-Korean diplomacy have noted that a lot of what Moon and Kim had accomplished is retreading familiar ground, the military agreement treads considerably new ground. For instance, last week the two sides in coordination with the U.S.-led United Nations Command (UNC) finished the removal of landmines at a small portion of territory along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) separating them known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). (This is also known as Panmumjom, where the first inter-Korean summit this year took place.)
According to the agreement, the de-mining is to be followed by other tension-reduction measures, including the total demilitarization of the JSA itself, through the withdrawal of guard posts and firearms. This would be the most significant reduction of tensions at the JSA since the reorganization of the area in 1976, following the infamous murder of two U.S. service members by North Koreans with axes.
What's significant about the changes at the JSA is the involvement of the UNC, which is the multinational unified command structure put in place at the onset of the Korean War in 1950 to support South Korea. The UNC is led by the same four-star U.S. general—currently Gen. Vincent K. Brooks—who leads U.S. Forces Korea and the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the inter-Korean military agreement does not appear to have included the UNC, which has since reviewed the agreement to determine how it may affect its operations. Of particular concern is the mutually agreed military no-fly zone (NFZ), which will take effect on the first day of November. Even if the two Koreas observe the NFZ, the agreement is not binding on U.S. forces stationed in the south.
This raises the prospect of the well-intentioned inter-Korean agreement creating a new scope for crisis. For instance, the U.S. Air Force stationed U-2 surveillance aircraft at Osan Air Force Base in South Korea. North Korea, with its limited intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, might detect a U-2 flight following the implementation of the inter-Korean agreement and interpret it as a South Korean defection from the inter-Korean deal.
To reduce the possibility of such a miscalculation, the United States might find its hands tied on intelligence collection out of North Korea—perhaps explaining why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was reportedly unhappy with the conclusion of the military pact without full consultation within the alliance.
Even with this hiccup, however, there's no denying that this year's inter-Korean diplomacy has served to reduce military tensions between the United States and North Korea. In a little-noticed development, the deputy commander of the UNC, Canadian Lt. Gen. Wayne Eyre, confirmed earlier this month that the hotline between the UNC and the Korean People's Army is now active again after going dark for more than five-and-a-half years. (North Korea disabled its use in early 2013 after its third nuclear test.) A little more than a year after Trump stood up at the United Nations and threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea, the KPA and UNC are on the phone twice daily, per Eyre.
Despite President Moon's insistence that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal, it continues to appear overwhelmingly more likely than not that, whenever this current round of diplomacy runs its course, North Korea will still have its nuclear weapons. The inter-Korean process has shown that it is possible to use the calmer environment on the Peninsula in 2018 to produce sustainable and useful confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of a conflict. That lesson needs to be applied to North Korea's nuclear weapons as well.