North Korea Marches Ahead with Advanced Nuclear Weapons Program

Will Trump administration blink first?

Evidently, the punishing sanctions imposed on North Korea, as well as President Trump’s personal relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, are not slowing down North Korea’s continuing march to becoming a full-scale nuclear-armed state. Not only has North Korea continued to test launch ballistic missiles, albeit with a short-range reach. According to a report of a new upcoming Japanese white paper, North Korea has managed to miniaturize nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit on ballistic missiles. Japan’s defense officials have described North Korea’s apparent success as a “serious and imminent threat.” The United States and South Korea have sounded similar alarms. Indeed, a confidential U.S. intelligence report back in 2017, which was leaked and reviewed by The Washington Post, said that the intelligence community "assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles."

Tensions have been rising since President Trump’s last meeting with Kim in June. “We haven’t gotten back to the table as quickly as we would have hoped, but we’ve been pretty clear all along, we know there’ll be bumps along the way,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday. He expressed displeasure with the North Korean regime’s launching of short-range missiles, which threaten U.S. allies in the region and violates UN Security Council resolutions. “I wish that they would not,” he said. Referring to UN sanctions targeting key North Korean imports and exports, Secretary Pompeo added, “These are a global sanctions regime, and we hope Chairman Kim will come to the table and get a better outcome. It’ll be better for the North Korean people, it’ll be better for the world.”

Kim does not appear to be listening too attentively. He was not happy with the scaled down joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that have just ended. While these exercises consisted mostly of computer simulations, North Korea claims that President Trump has breached his alleged promise to suspend the exercises altogether.

"This is an open denial and an outright challenge to the historic DPRK-U.S. joint statement in which commitments were made to establish new DPRK-U.S. relations and build lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said last week, using the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It added that the joint military exercises "are not favorable for building mutual trust and can entail countermeasures by the DPRK" and "may render tense the situation on the Korean Peninsula again. The right answer for removing all the potential and direct threats posed to the security of our state is the constant development of powerful physical means and their deployment for an actual war. The U.S. should keep in mind that our repeated warnings are not hot air."

Kim Jong-un is also growing impatient with the sanctions that are crippling his country’s economy. He is testing the resolve of the Trump administration to keep its maximum pressure policy of tough economic sanctions in place until North Korea moves well along the path of achieving complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization. Now that the joint military exercises are over, Kim may decide to pursue the two-track policy of resuming dialogue with the United States at the working level while also proceeding with North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs below what he believes is the threshold that would force President Trump’s hand. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun’s visit this week to South Korea after the joint military exercises were completed has led to speculation that a resumption of working-level talks may be in the offing. “We are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea,” Mr. Biegun said after meeting with South Korean officials.  “I am fully committed to this important mission. We will get this done.” But at what cost will we “get this done”?

If talks with North Korea do resume, the Trump administration must not blink first. Unfortunately, Mr. Biegun last June already signaled some readiness to do so. He talked about moving towards the end goal of denuclearization in a "simultaneous and parallel" manner. 

Mr. Biegun’s hint at a quid pro quo approach is troubling. Mr. Biegun, who took himself out of the running for an ambassadorship to Russia in order to stay focused on his North Korea assignment, used diplomatic buzzwords that mean essentially exchanging some sanctions relief for relatively insignificant gestures by the North Korean regime followed by further mutual confidence-building steps. Such gestures could include a more permanent freeze on testing nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles and/or dismantling North Korea’s nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. The Trump administration has rejected such gestures before and with good reason. We have been down this road in the past with no success. Once any UN sanctions are lifted, they will be virtually impossible to reimpose, given the likelihood of vetoes this time by China and Russia. On the other hand, North Korea would be able to continue carrying out and accelerating many parts of its nuclear arms and missile development program, largely undetected. North Korea will almost certainly not agree as part of an interim deal to submit a list of all its nuclear-related facilities and capabilities for fear of handing the U.S. a potential military target list. Even if North Korea decided to submit some sort of list, it will likely be far from complete.

Earlier this month President Trump praised a "beautiful letter" he said he received from Kim Jong-un and wrote that he looked forward to “seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future.” Not so fast this time. While the president may dismiss the short-range missile launches as unimportant, even if Secretary Pompeo expresses concern, he cannot dismiss the report of North Korea’s apparent success in miniaturizing nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit on ballistic missiles. Coupled with North Korea's development and successful launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. homeland, Kim Jong-un's “beautiful” letters and offers of any inconsequential concessions are not worth the paper they are written on.