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former IAEA Director-General
North Korea

North Korea Pushes for Sanctions Relief

There is talk of a second Trump-Kim summit as diplomatic efforts stall over next steps.


December 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea is stepping up pressure on the United States in its push for the Trump administration to grant sanctions relief early in the denuclearization process.

A South Korean government photo taken November 15 shows President Moon Jae-in meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore. The South Korean government said the two discussed recent diplomacy with North Korea and preparations for a second meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. (Photo: South Korean government)In addition to canceling the meeting scheduled for Nov. 8 in New York between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his negotiating counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, North Korea drew attention to its military capabilities by announcing that it tested a new, unspecified “ultramodern tactical weapon.”

These steps come as Pyongyang is ratcheting up its condemnation of U.S. sanctions policy and calling for relief earlier in the process. (See ACT, November 2018.)

Although Pyongyang’s voluntary testing moratorium only covers its long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, until now North Korea has refrained from military activities and testing in 2018 that might be viewed by South Korea or the United States as provocative. This Nov. 16 test might be a signal to Washington that North Korea will test military systems if talks do not produce results soon.

North Korea did not provide details about the weapon, but emphasized that it was a tactical system. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was described in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) as “expressing great satisfaction” in the test and noting that it was a “striking demonstration” of the “rapidly developing defense capability of the country.”

The Trump administration downplayed the test, and the State Department issued a statement saying that the United States remains confident the promises of the Singapore summit document will be fulfilled.

The State Department initially blamed the meeting cancellation on scheduling difficulties. After North Korea announced it had canceled the meeting, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, said Pyongyang was not ready and so the talks had to be postponed. No new date has been announced.

The cancellation comes as North Korea and the United States continue to trade barbs over the pace of sanctions relief and next steps in the process.

Initially it appeared that North Korea was seeking U.S. agreement on a peace declaration ending the Korean War, but it increasingly looks like Pyongyang is now prioritizing sanctions relief. North Korea may be emboldened by support for sanctions removal from Russia, China, and, to a lesser extent, South Korea, all of which are calling for the United States to ease restrictions earlier in the negotiating process.

KCNA quoted Kim on Nov. 1 as saying that “vicious sanctions” imposed by “hostile forces” stand in North Korea’s way “toward promotion of peoples well-being and development.”

The following day, KCNA ran a commentary criticizing U.S. sanctions and saying that the United States “should not forget what it promised” in Singapore and that there is “no justification for sanctions” after the “active and preemptive” steps taken by North Korea.

The steps likely referred to North Korea’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing issued in April and dismantlement of the nuclear test site in May. (See ACT, June 2018.)

Haley said on Nov. 8, however, that it is North Korea’s turn to act and said that the United States has “given a lot of carrots up until now” and will not “get rid of the stick because they have not done anything to warrant getting rid of the sanctions yet.”

The United States continues to press for full sanction implementation until the denuclearization process is completed, but there is already evidence that adherence is slipping.

The annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, released in November, concluded that “Beijing appears to have already started to loosen enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, undermining the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.”

The report recommended that the Treasury Department provide a report assessing Chinese enforcement and a list of entities that continue to conduct trade with North Korea.

Haley called out Russia after a UN Security Council meeting for pushing to lift certain sanctions on North Korea, particularly as they apply to what Russia describes as “serious humanitarian problems.” The Russian mission to the United Nations said in a statement that the current situation is “absolutely unacceptable” because it violates decisions made by the council that sanctions should not be directed at the North Korean people.

Haley said that the U.S. goal is to ensure that humanitarian aid is not compromised and that the Trump administration is “taking our time in vetting that very carefully.”

Despite the stalled progress, planning appears to be continuing for a second summit between Trump and Kim.

Vice President Mike Pence said on Nov. 15 in an NBC interview that the summit was going to happen and the two leaders would decide on a “verifiable plan” for North Korea to make a declaration detailing its nuclear and missile capabilities.

Contrary to expectations, Pence said that the United States will not require that North Korea provide a complete list of its nuclear weapons and missile sites ahead of the second summit. The Trump administration reportedly had been pursuing such a declaration from North Korea since Pompeo went to Pyongyang in July after the Singapore summit. (See ACT, September 2018.)

 

North Korea Denuclearization Digest, November 16, 2018

Planned U.S.-North Korea Talks Postponed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed at an Oct. 7 meeting in Pyongyang to form working groups and intensify talks on the Singapore summit’s priorities but the subsequently scheduled meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart was postponed. The meeting, originally slated for New York Nov. 8, will now take place “when our respective schedules permit,” according to a Nov. 7 State Department press release . The Trump administration initially said the talks were postponed due to Pompeo’s schedule but...

U.S., North Korea Agree to Intensify Talks

Disagreements over the timing of sanctions relief may complicate the diplomatic process.


November 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States and North Korea agreed in October to intensify negotiations after a months-long impasse following the historic June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but disagreements over the timing of sanctions relief may complicate the diplomatic process.

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un hosts a working lunch with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang on October 7.  (Photo: U.S. Department of State)North Korea has sent mixed signals about its potential terms for nuclear-related concessions. After initially pressing for a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which would be a largely symbolic U.S. political concession, Pyongyang is shifting to indicate it wants to receive tangible financial benefits sooner than envisioned by the Trump administration.

North Korea has signaled that its initial moves toward denuclearization, such as dismantling its nuclear test site and a rocket launch facility, should bring relief from tight U.S. and UN economic sanctions. The Trump administration maintains that sanctions should remain intact as a main source of pressure. “The sanctions will stay in place until denuclearization occurs,” Trump said in remarks to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25.

During an Oct. 7 trip to Pyongyang, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Kim, where the two sides agreed to hold more frequent, higher-level working group meetings. Pompeo told the media on Oct. 9 that he hoped this process would “deliver some good outcomes” at a second Trump-Kim summit.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described Kim’s meeting with Pompeo as “productive and wonderful” and said that the two discussed detailed “proposals for solving the denuclearization issue and matters of concern of both sides.”

The meeting appears to indicate that talks are back on track after faltering over disagreements between North Korea and the United States on the next steps following the Singapore summit. The Trump administration wanted to see North Korea take additional steps toward denuclearization while North Korea emphasized that a declaration ending the Korean War should be the next step. (See ACT, September 2018.)

The stalemate led Trump to cancel Pompeo’s scheduled visit to Pyongyang in August. Pompeo indicated in September that Washington’s position on pursing a declaration and its willingness to engage in a step-by-step process shifted, helping pave the way for his Oct. 7 visit.

Pompeo confirmed that he discussed the prospect of a second Trump-Kim summit during his visit, but did not provide any details as to the location or timing. U.S. State Department officials have been quoted in the press saying the summit will not take place before early 2019.

Heightened disagreements over the timing of sanctions relief, however, may complicate negotiations going forward.

In initial statements after the June 12 summit, North Korea downplayed its interest in sanctions relief and focused on a peace declaration as the next step that the United States could take to create an environment more conducive to further denuclearization steps. Yet, in recent statements, Pyongyang has criticized the continued U.S. pressure campaign and begun to put more emphasis on the importance of sanctions relief earlier in the process.

A KCNA commentary published on Oct. 20 stated that although Pompeo’s visit was a “great achievement,” U.S. talk of sustaining sanctions is “heard so much” and “unpleasant to the ear.”

The piece urged the United States to “act in the elementary give-and-take principle” and said Americans should stop asserting that pressure is the “main card” in the U.S.-North Korean relationship.

North Korea is not alone in advocating for sanctions relief. Russian and Chinese officials raised the prospect of revisiting UN sanctions in recognition of steps taken by Pyongyang to halt nuclear and long-range missile testing during a Sept. 27 Security Council meeting on North Korea.

When officials from North Korea, Russia, and China met in Moscow on Oct. 9, the trilateral statement issued after the meeting said that “taking notice of the significant, practical steps for denuclearization taken by [North Korea], the three parties reached a consensus on the need for the [UN Security Council] to activate the process of adjusting sanctions upon [North Korea] in time.”

The United States has consistently maintained that sanctions will not be lifted until the denuclearization process is complete. It remains unclear if the United States will make any exceptions to allow joint projects between North Korea and South Korea to go forward.

South Korea reaffirmed its commitment to abide by all UN sanctions during the Sept. 27 Security Council meeting, but President Moon Jae-in has also raised the prospect of easing measures if Pyongyang takes steps toward denuclearization rather than waiting until the end of the process to lift restrictions.

After an Oct. 15 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Moon said that “if North Korea’s denuclearization is judged to enter an irreversible phase, its denuclearization should be further facilitated by easing UN sanctions.” Moon said on Oct. 19 that the Security Council is the appropriate forum for discussing easing sanctions and humanitarian assistance if North Korea takes the appropriate steps toward “irreversible” denuclearization, but he did not provide any details about what that would constitute.

Moon has clearly stated his interest pursing infrastructure projects to link North and South Korea and resuming operations at Kaesong, a joint development complex, as part of the inter-Korean process. These actions will require sanctions waivers.

It is also unclear what next steps the United States is looking for North Korea to take on denuclearization. The Trump administration asked for a declaration detailing the scope of North Korea’s nuclear program after the Singapore summit, but it is unclear if the United States is still pursuing this path.

Moon announced after the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September that North Korea was willing to allow inspectors at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

After his meeting with Kim, Pompeo confirmed that North Korea invited inspectors to visit its nuclear test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled, with the visit to occur “as soon as we get it logistically worked out.”

North Korea voluntarily pledged to halt nuclear testing in April and in May demolished with explosives test tunnels at the site. Yet, after initially saying that members of the press and experts could observe the closure, North Korea limited the invitation to select media outlets. As a result, there has been no independent expert confirmation of the extent of North Korea’s actions.

Pompeo did not specify if the inspections will be conducted by the United States or a multilateral team or if the group will include representatives of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which has protocols for conducting on-site inspections after suspected nuclear tests.

North Korea has not provided any details in its public statements regarding expert inspections.

The Pyongyang declaration issued by Kim and Moon said North Korea would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which houses the reactor and reprocessing facility that North Korea uses to produce separated plutonium for nuclear weapons and a uranium-enrichment facility, in return for “corresponding measures” by the United States.

Neither South Korea nor North Korea provided much detail on what measures Pyongyang is seeking, and Pompeo did not provide any additional details on the prospects for actions to be taken at Yongbyon after his talks in Pyongyang.

 

 

MEDIA ADVISORY: Head of CTBTO Describes Inspection Option for North Korea Nuclear Test Site

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New Analysis by CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo Published in Arms Control Today

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New Analysis by CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo Published in Arms Control Today

For Immediate Release: Oct. 18, 2018

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, publisher, Arms Control Today, 202-463-8270 ext. 107; Kirstie Hansen, CTBTO Public Information Officer in Vienna, [email protected]

(Washington, D.C.)—Earlier this year, North Korea committed to closing its nuclear test site and invited journalists to view the destruction of test tunnels at its main nuclear test site.

As Dr. Lassina Zerbo writes in a new article in the journal Arms Control Today, “although the declared closure is welcome, those present lacked the skills and necessary specialized equipment to assess the activities that took place.”

The U.S. State Department issued a statement Oct. 7 indicating that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “invited inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled.” To date, it is not clear who would inspect the site and under what terms.

“The CTBTO and its technological tools,” Zerbo writes, “are uniquely placed to provide adequate verification and to monitor an end to nuclear tests in North Korea.”

Zerbo, who is serving in his second term as the Executive Secretary of the CTBTO, describes in detail the technologies the CTBTO can provide to verify the closure of a nuclear test site, and, he explains the value of North Korean signature and ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) for the denuclearization process.

“The path to the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula runs through the CTBT,” Zerbo writes. The CTBT has been signed by 184 states and ratified by 167. North Korea is not yet a signatory.

A large group of foreign ministers issued a joint statement Sept. 27 organized by Japan, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands urging North Korea “to sign and ratify the CTBT as a matter of priority.”

“It is vital not to miss this opportunity to demonstrate to the world the value of the treaty and the efficacy of one of the most sophisticated and far-reaching verification regimes ever devised,” Zerbo says in the article.

The Nuclear Test Ban and the Verifiable Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” by Lassina Zerbo will appear in the November 2018 issue of Arms Control Today. It is available in advance online here

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Pompeo Must Seize the Diplomatic Opportunity with North Korea

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Hesitation on the part of either side at this point could collapse the fragile diplomatic opportunity that currently exists.

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The stage is set for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to jump-start the stalled denuclearization and peace negotiations with North Korea. As outlined in the Sept. 19 North-South Pyongyang Summit Declaration, Kim Jong-un has said he is willing to permanently dismantle the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures, such as supporting a joint political declaration on the end of the Korean War.

The Yongbyon complex is North Korea's major nuclear weapons production site. It includes a 5-megawatt research reactor that produces spent fuel; a reprocessing plant that separates weapons-usable plutonium; and a uranium enrichment facility, among other facilities.

A verifiable shutdown of Yongbyon would make it harder for North Korea to further expand its fissile stockpile which could be enough for 16 to 60 nuclear warheads, create momentum for further action-for-action steps, and help buy time for the long and difficult negotiations on further steps on the road toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.

As the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia, the European Union, and dozens of other states suggested in a joint statement last week, North Korea should take another denuclearization step: signing and ratifying the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and allowing experts from the CTBT Organization to visit the Punggye-ri test site to confirm its closure.

A joint end of war declaration would ease tensions, build confidence and in no way adversely affect the very strong U.S.-South Korean political and defense alliance, or the ability of U.S. forces in South Korea to deter and defend from any North Korean military provocation.

Hesitation on the part of either side at this point could collapse the fragile diplomatic opportunity that currently exists.

For further information, see the Arms Control Association’s Oct. 3 edition of the “North Korea Denuclearization Digest” available online at https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2018-10-03/inaugural-issue-north-korea-denuclearization-digest-october-3-2018

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INAUGURAL ISSUE: The North Korea Denuclearization Digest, October 3, 2018

Pompeo to Pyongyang Following UN Confab After a long pause in U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearization and peace, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Japan, China, North Korea, and South Korea Oct. 6-8. He will visit Pyongyang Oct. 7 and is expected to meet with Chairman Kim Jong-un. Pompeo’s trip could potentially jump-start action-for-action steps designed to advance the objectives agreed to by President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim at their Summit in Singapore -- and possibly pave the way for a second summit later this year. The meeting in Pyongyang follows a busy round...

North-South Summit Eases Korean Tensions

The terms and timing for denuclearization remain uncertain.


October 2018
By Daryl G. Kimball

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, following talks in Pyongyang, reiterated their shared desire to see the Korean peninsula “turned into a land of peace that is free of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in walk together during a visit to Samjiyon guesthouse on September 20, during their summit held in Pyongyang. (Photo Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)In their Sept. 19 joint statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to take tangible steps toward resolving the nuclear issue, stating that “substantial progress toward this end must be made in a prompt manner.”

Moon’s diplomacy puts additional pressure on North Korea and the United States to resolve their diplomatic impasse over the terms for Kim giving up his nuclear arsenal on a short timetable. At the same time, Moon’s active efforts to lower tensions and expand cooperation contrasts with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, including sanctions intended to squeeze the Kim regime economically.

To advance steps intended to remove “the danger of war” and move toward “a fundamental resolution” of hostile relations, the defense ministers of North and South Korea signed a document committing the two sides to a series of military confidence-building measures. Further high-level bilateral talks are planned, including a visit to Seoul by Kim this year for what would be the first visit to the South by a North Korean leader.

Moon met Sept. 24 with Trump at the UN to discuss next steps with North Korea. Moon, speaking through an interpreter, flattered Trump by saying “thanks to your bold decision and new approach, we’re in the process of solving a problem that no one has been able to solve in the decades past.”

The Kim-Moon meeting on Sept. 18–20, officially the third inter-Korean summit, follows the June summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, at which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sept. 20 that Kim agreed to “rapid denuclearization” by 2021. The exact nature of that understanding has been unclear, and a follow-on visit to Pyongyang by Pompeo, planned for August, was abruptly canceled by Trump, who cited a lack of progress on denuclearization.

Although the Pyongyang summit builds on the agreements and commitments made through the prior Moon-Kim summit held in Panmunjom in April, it is not yet clear whether the latest meeting will lead to tangible progress between the United States and North Korea on denuclearization and peace on the peninsula.

Aside from an offer to allow “experts from relevant countries” to observe the dismantling of a missile testing facility at Dongchang-ri, North Korea did not commit to any new denuclearization steps. Before the Singapore summit, North Korea voluntarily announced a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests and destroyed tunnels at a site used for nuclear testing. Since that summit, Pyongyang has begun dismantling facilities used for rocket and missile engine tests and launches at Dongchang-ri.

In the Korean summit statement, Kim said North Korea is willing to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, “as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit” of the Kim-Trump statement in Singapore. That statement linked progress on denuclearization to further “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime,” and North Korea has since called on the United States to agree to a joint political declaration on the end of the Korean War.

The verifiable decommissioning of Yongbyon, the site of North Korea’s main nuclear weapons material production complex, would be a major breakthrough. The facilities there, including a five-megawatt research reactor, a spent fuel reprocessing facility, and a uranium-enrichment facility, are still being used to produce bomb-grade nuclear material. North Korea is believed to operate at least one other uranium-enrichment facility.

Ahead of his visit to Pyongyang, Moon had expressed concern about the stalled U.S.-North Korean talks. North Korea “is willing to denuclearize and therefore willing to discard existing nuclear weapons,” and the United States “is willing to end hostile relations with the North and provide security guarantees,” Moon said Sept. 13. “But there is a blockage as both sides are demanding each other to act first,” he said, adding that he thinks they “will be able to find a point of compromise.”

In postsummit remarks to the news media Sept. 20, Moon said that Kim “expressed his wish that he wanted to complete denuclearization quickly and focus on economic development.” Kim said he hoped that Pompeo would visit North Korea soon and that a second summit with Trump would take place in the near future to advance the denuclearization process, according to Moon.

In his Sept. 20 remarks, Moon urged Trump to pursue a second summit with Kim, and he urged all parties to declare the end of the war as soon as possible. A peace treaty would be sealed, as well as normalization of North Korean-U.S. relations, after the North achieves “complete denuclearization,” he added.

Trump, in a Sept. 20 tweet, called the results in Pyongyang “very exciting!” Pompeo issued a formal statement Sept. 21 praising the outcome and offering to resume the bilateral dialogue based on North Korean commitments.

“This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform U.S.-[North Korean] relations through the process of rapid denuclearization…to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean peninsula.

Trump administration officials have not explained how they define “rapid denuclearization,” and it remains unclear whether such steps can be achieved in the next 27 months. It also does not appear that there is a common understanding between North Korea and the United States on what denuclearization would involve.

With Pompeo now planning to travel to Pyongyang in October, Trump eased previous demands for "rapid" denuclearization, assuming North Korea doesn't resume nuclear and missile tests. Trump said he doesn't want to get into a "time game," and the United States will maintain sanctions. "If it takes two years, three years, or five months, it doesn’t matter," he said.

Even as U.S. officials say they are open to further talks, the Trump administration is seeking to tighten implementation of international sanctions on North Korea. Pompeo chaired a foreign ministerial-level session of the UN Security Council on Sept. 27 focused on North Korea.

A UN panel of experts monitoring sanctions compliance reported that there is ample evidence that North Korea is still managing to sell arms illicitly, secure prohibited fuel shipments, and engage in financial dealings to help sustain its economy.

 

CTBT Grows Amid Calls on N. Korea to Join

Thailand becomes 167th country to ratify the treaty.


October 2018
By Shervin Taheran

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has gained some renewed attention as nations called on North Korea to join the treaty as a way to demonstrate its sincerity in declaring an end to its nuclear testing.

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo (2nd from right) looks on as the prime minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on September 25.  With the addition of Tuvalu, the number of signatory states grew to 184. Thailand became the 167th country to ratify the CTBT. (Photo: CTBTO)Meanwhile, Thailand became the 167th country to ratify the CTBT. With the Sept. 25 signature by the island nation of Tuvalu, the number of signatories was brought to 184. But the treaty will not enter into force until it is ratified by the eight remaining nations listed in its Annex 2: China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United States.

At a ministerial-level meeting of the “Friends of the CTBT” states Sept. 27, the foreign ministers of Australia and Japan, who co-chaired the meeting, and of Belgium, Finland, Iraq, Japan, and the Netherlands called on North Korea to ratify the CTBT.

The meeting reinforced a message sent to North Korea in June by the foreign ministers of Belgium and Iraq urging a “legally binding and irreversible end” to its nuclear testing, such as through the signature and ratification of the CTBT, as part of a denuclearization agreement. Belgium and Iraq are co-presidents of the 2017 Article XIV Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the CTBT and will continue in this role until the next Article XIV conference in 2019.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini reaffirmed this sentiment in remarks at the meeting, urging North Korea to join the CTBT “without delay.” She noted that verifying the closure of the North Korean nuclear test site “could benefit” from the technical assistance of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

There has not been much public discussion about what the technical verification of the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear test site would look like, and questions remain about the roles of the CTBTO and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in such a process. At a Sept. 6 UN event marking the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo said that the organization is ready, if called upon, “to contribute to the process of verifiable denuclearization.”

Miroslav Lajčák, president of the UN General Assembly and Slovakia’s foreign minister, at the Sept. 6 event noted that North Korea’s decisions to suspend nuclear and missile tests were positive steps. Still, he said that signing and ratifying the CTBT “would lead to progress on the Korean peninsula.”

Thailand’s ratification is the last for a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “thereby reaffirming ASEAN’s long term goal of making the region of Southeast Asia a nuclear-weapon-free zone,” said Virasakdi Futrakul, Thailand’s deputy foreign minister.

North Korea’s Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

Why Pyongyang’s chemical weapons also require attention.


September 2018
By Cristina Varriale

Although its nuclear and missile programs are frequently in the headlines, North Korea’s other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and their role in Pyongyang’s security strategies draw less discussion and analysis.

A South Korean rescue team wearing chemical protective suits participates in an anti-terror drill as part of a disaster management exercise at the COEX shopping and exhibition center in Seoul on May 20, 2016. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)Expanding analysis to include a consideration of North Korea’s chemical weapons capabilities allows for a better understanding of the doctrine around its unconventional weapons and thus for development of more tailored policies to deal with the WMD threats and risks they pose.

North Korea has never confirmed publicly that it maintains a chemical weapons stockpile, although the U.S. government and others have long assessed that Pyongyang has a variety of lethal chemical agents and related missile and artillery delivery systems. In 1989, Pyongyang signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare but does not ban production or stockpiling. North Korea signed that accord with reservations, outlining its right to dismiss the protocol in the case of another party that violates the use prohibition. North Korea has not joined the more comprehensive 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which extends the prohibition to include production and stockpiling.

In considering North Korea’s strategic drivers, three main elements are common throughout its history: deterrence and reunification, which are recognized as supporting the principal goal of protecting national sovereignty, and survival.1 There has been much debate on the role of nuclear weapons in this context but much less focus on the role of chemical weapons.

By developing a long-range nuclear capability and maintaining regional WMD assets, Pyongyang is able to take advantage of a difference between the United States and South Korea in calculation of strategic risks. A key South Korean security concern, as it relates to North Korea, is the use of conventional and WMD capabilities with regional ranges. U.S. officials, as North Korea’s long-range missile program develops, will have an increasing interest in protecting the continental United States, which may include a lessened desire to retaliate on behalf of South Korea. Such a divergence of strategic interests could weaken the U.S.-South Korean alliance and thus reduce the adversarial risk to Pyongyang, a motivation for North Korea to pursue capabilities that can achieve this result.

North Korea’s strategic goals have also been shaped by founder Kim Il Sung’s vision of leadership over a unified Korea and the use of military force to achieve it.2 This thinking is often used to understand the role of nuclear weapons under Kim Jong Un, the late Kim’s now-ruling grandson. Such a goal could be pursued through military actions or coercion under the shadow of nuclear weapons. Although the latter is not explicitly referenced in current North Korean discourse,3 it should not be assumed to be absent from the regime’s internal thinking.

Yet, the goal of reunification in the South Korean soldiers take part in a chemical weapons drill during a military exercise in Seoul on July 28, 2010. (Photo: Park Ji-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)short term likely has declined. The same may be true of the long-term vision, although reunification remains imbedded in North Korea’s Constitution and the North Korean psyche. At the same time, given the economic and military buildup in South Korea and increased U.S. military presence in the region, the North’s worry about a potential territorial attack has increased, likely elevating deterrence for regime survival above reunification. This does not equate to a renunciation of reunification but does suggest a shift in strategic priorities, especially in the short to medium term, that prioritizes nuclear weapons.

The two overarching elements of North Korean strategic thinking—deterrence and reunification—are used to support the enduring goal of regime survival. Beyond repelling external efforts to remove the regime, it also encompasses the elimination of internal threats, economic development, and, secondarily, reunification.4 The three strategic priorities are interlinked; deterring adversaries helps preserve the regime, which is key for any possibility of reunification.

These strategic motivations have driven consecutive North Korean leaders to pursue asymmetric military assets. Given the great asymmetric value of nuclear weapons in relation to conventional military threats on the peninsula and the option of balancing perceived nuclear threats from the United States, these capabilities have visibly taken priority.

Understanding strategic goals in the context of North Korean priorities in the past, present, and future is important for understanding the role played by weapons of mass destruction. As the nuclear capability has advanced, it is worthwhile to consider what this means, if anything, for North Korea’s chemical weapons capabilities.

History of Chemical Weapons

Although North Korea’s chemical capabilities briefly hit the headlines in 2017 following the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un, there has been concern for decades about North Korean chemical weapons efforts.

In 1961, Kim Il Sung’s “declaration of chemicalization” formally initiated a dual-use chemical industry in North Korea.5 The declaration came at a time when the North was attempting to recover from the Korean War, investing heavily in agricultural and industrial development,6 as well as seeking to expand military capabilities to support opportunities for reunification by force and to defend against similar attempts from the South.

By 1979, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment reported that North Korea had acquired a defensive chemical capability.7 This assessment coincided with a 1980 statement reportedly made by Kim Il Sung to the Korean Worker's Party Central Military Committee that “poison gas” would be effective for use in combat,8 boasting that North Korea had “succeeded in producing poisonous gas and bacterial weapons through our own efforts supported by Soviet scientists in the field.”9

Information on how such activities have continued to evolve is sparse. Assessments relating to the North’s chemical weapons stockpile suggest that Pyongyang has developed chemical capabilities across a spectrum—vesicants, nerve, cyanogen, and choking agents.10 Arguably the most publicly visible of these has been nerve agents, not only appearing in the Kim Jong Nam assassination but also featuring in Chinese media reports that suggested a detected leak of sarin.11 Defector testimonies have also included accounts of prisoners being victims of chemical testing.12 Such defector accounts should be read with caution in terms of reliability, but not disregarded.

Amid evidence that chemical weapons capability exists, stockpile estimates vary, with a range of 2,000 to 5,000 tons of agent. A 2009 report noted that there had been no indication of growing storage facilities that would be necessary in the case of an expanding chemical arsenal and estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 tons of agent would be sufficient to significantly impact a war with the South.13 The South Korean Ministry of National Defense has cited similar stockpile estimates since 2008, with a relatively consistent but broad range of 2,500 to 5,000 tons of agent.14 It is widely assumed that North Korea can deliver chemical weapons via a range of systems, including artillery, multiple rocket launchers, ballistic missiles, and aircraft.

Although there is little doubt that North Korea has produced chemical weapons, a comprehensive and public understanding of the current condition of inventories and infrastructure is limited, with some analysts citing the capability as aging and rudimentary.

In his 2015 New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un highlighted the chemical industry as an area of potential for North Korean growth and independence. In 2017 and 2018, he referenced the chemical industry as successful and expanding. Given the dual-use nature of chemical production, assessing the facilities for weapons production through open sources is challenging.

There is a widespread belief that North Korea was behind the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam at a Malaysian airport by attackers using VX, an extremely potent nerve agent. The nature of the attack challenges the assumption that North Korea is technically limited to producing rudimentary unitary munitions; two perpetrators used cloths to smear a substance on Kim Jong Nam’s face. It is unclear whether both cloths contained the same substance, providing a double dose for increased lethality, but each cloth may have been dowsed with a corresponding binary agent. (With a binary agent, the two components become lethal only when combined.)

Nerve agents are especially sensitive to impurities and thus prone to instability. The higher the quality, the more stable and thus the longer the shelf life. Applying this to the Kim Jong Nam case, the agent used was produced relatively recently or was of a high quality. Either of these possibilities would refute claims that North Korea only possesses degraded or rudimentary chemical capabilities.

A recent U.S. Department of Defense report on North Korea states that although the investigation of the assassination is ongoing, evidence supporting North Korea’s role would demonstrate that North Korea has a chemical weapons stockpile from a long-standing chemical weapons program.15 This case alone cannot confirm whether this agent was syphoned from a military-scale program or stockpile or was produced in a small quantity for this specific act. The agent used may not have been produced via the same program that supports a broader military chemical weapons development. The assassination was likely orchestrated by special operations personnel, potentially requiring separate production of the nerve agent in a small quantity.

Role of Chemical Weapons

Despite the focus on the nuclear weapons program to strengthen deterrence and support regime survival, chemical weapons likely continue to have value for the Kim regime. Historically, chemical weapons most likely filled a deterrence gap prior to the development of an adequate nuclear capability.16 Some scholars have observed that the threat of U.S. nuclear use in the Korean War helped drive the desire for a chemical capability; although acquisition of nuclear weapons was probably a long-term aspiration for Kim Il Sung, chemical weapons were recognized as a weapon of mass destruction that could provide deterrence as well.17

With the Korean War still very much in recent memory, Kim Il Sung focused on bolstering the military capabilities necessary for reunification of the peninsula. There have been allegations that the United States during the war used biochemical weapons against the North. To be able at least to respond in kind to such capabilities in any future military conflict, the Kim Il Sung regime believed it would need to develop WMD capabilities to successfully reunify the peninsula. With the military alliance of the United States and South Korea developing at a rate that North Korea could not match conventionally, chemical weapons could have provided an appropriate asymmetric capability less costly than nuclear weapons and that could be developed quickly with help from allies such as the Soviet Union, China, and East Germany.

A key change came in the early 1990s, following the U.S. Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. Pyongyang likely concluded from observing that event that chemical weapons could not sufficiently deter U.S. military intervention, something only a nuclear arsenal could achieve. This shift has resulted in nuclear weapons becoming North Korea’s main tool of deterrence today.

Still, chemical weapons have not become redundant or irrelevant for North Korean deterrence or its strategic thinking more broadly. Such weapons contribute to asymmetric capabilities, especially early in a conflict where a move to nuclear weapons use might be too rapid an escalation, but asymmetric tactics are required for defensive protection or offensive gain.

It has been Kim Jong Un’s intention to strengthen the asymmetric strategy of North Korea,18 and chemical weapons continue to act as a conventional-force multiplier. Chemical weapons likely would be used to hinder the movement in war of the adversary’s conventional land forces. Despite much superior conventional strength, South Korean and U.S. armed forces would be hindered for three reasons. First, chemical weapons use could deny or delay access to key areas crucial for the forward movement of on-peninsula forces, as well as to key ports needed for incoming support. Second, it would slow hostile forces by forcing them to operate in chemical protection suits. Third, it would add complexity to the military engagement because it would be impossible to distinguish between incoming conventional and chemical warheads.

The deterrence role of chemical weapons persists given the uncertainty about North Korea’s military capabilities. The ambiguity can play to North Korea’s favor by complicating an adversary’s calculus. Chemical weapons continue to back up North Korea’s conventional capabilities and underpin the nuclear deterrent through increasing the risks associated with military action to overthrow the regime. By complicating how a military scenario on the Korean peninsula could play out, chemical weapons increase the risks associated with military action and contribute to calculus against this option, thus assisting in the preservation of the regime.

Further, chemical weapons have a role for the regime in sustaining international relationships and revenue generation. Maintaining a chemical program allows North Korea to retain marketable proliferation skills and assets. A recent notable example was the 2016 visit of a North Korean technical delegation to Syria. The visit included the transfer of special resistance valves and thermometers that are known for use in chemical weapons programs.19

Although this is likely a secondary benefit of chemical weapons capabilities, it brings added value and justification for maintaining chemical weapons even as the nuclear program has grown. Proliferation of chemical weapons-related equipment and know-how will continue to be a valuable asset for North Korea, particularly if the international norms against use of such weapons continue to erode, as seen in Syria.

Despite recent diplomatic developments, North Korea has not moved formally to rollback its nuclear capability. The prospect of complete North Korean nuclear disarmament seems implausible. For North Korea’s leadership, chemical weapons alone do not have a strong enough deterrent value to provide assurance of regime survival. Nuclear weapons have not made a military chemical weapons capability redundant; a military chemical weapons program will likely continue to be maintained at least as an insurance policy against attack by superior conventional forces.

Asymmetric Advantages

Arms control discussions that focus on just one of these capabilities might not be able to lead to the removal of other types of weapons of mass destruction. Given the differing but complimentary roles of chemical and nuclear capabilities, approaching North Korea with the idea of limiting or removing these capabilities together, as some U.S. officials have proposed,20 likely would not produce fruitful results. An approach to remove both or signal an intent to remove one and then the other without significant shifts in the security context would make North Korea reluctant to engage.

Even if the current dialogue around the nuclear program can produce tangible results in at least capping the nuclear program, the opportunity for including chemical weapons will be low. North Korea has consistently maintained that it does not possess a chemical weapons program and to shift to a position of acknowledgment and a willingness to limit these capabilities will only be possible with a dramatic shift in the security environment in which North Korea sees itself and as part of a much longer-term strategy.

To limit the threat from the possession of chemical weapons in the more immediate term, policymakers must focus on two main areas. First, a priority should be to continue to engage with North Korea to reduce hostilities, thus weakening the potential for military action on the peninsula. This is where risk reduction of chemical and nuclear weapons indirectly ties together. It is widely acknowledged that any conflict on the Korean peninsula would be devastating, but inclusion of chemical weapons use would have broad implications for the international nonuse norms that have been built since the opening for signature of the CWC. Making sure the nonuse norm does not have another arena for degradation will be vital.

Second, the international community should work to ensure the chemical norm does not further erode outside of the Korean peninsula and should attempt to restore it in light of events in Syria. Getting Pyongyang to agree and explicitly commit to no onward proliferation for chemical weapons is unlikely. If the premise is accepted that much of North Korea’s onward proliferation is driven economically at least in part, reinstating the norm against chemical weapons could help reduce the risks of North Korea’s chemical program by stemming the demand side of the equation. Recent initiatives to expand the scope of investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be the start of the normative shift back toward nonuse.
 

ENDNOTES

1.  Victor D. Cha, “North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Badges, Shields or Swords?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2002): 214.

2. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, U.S. Department of Defense, “North Korea Country Handbook,” MCIA-2630-NK-016-97, May 1997, p. 43.

3. Léonie Allard, Mathieu Duchâtel, and François Godement, “Pre-empting Defeat: In Search of North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine,” European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017, p. 5.

4. See Choi Kang and Kim Gibum, “A Thought on North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine,” The Korean Journal of Defence Analysis, Vol. 29, No. 4 (December 2017): 495-511; Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “North Korea’s Development of a Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series, 2015, p. 8, https://www.38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/NKNF_Nuclear-Weapons-Strategy_Bermudez.pdf. See also Joel S. Wit and Sun Young Ahn, “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures: Technology and Strategy,” North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series, 2015, https://38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/NKNF-NK-Nuclear-Futures-Wit-0215.pdf.

5. “North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs,” Asia Report, No. 167 (June 18, 2009), p. 5.

6. Bermudez, “North Korea’s Development of a Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” p. 9.

7. “North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs,” p. 6.

8. Ibid., pp. 5–6. The germ weapons reference here refers to North Korea’s biological weapons program, although this capability is not being covered here.

9. “North Korean Security Challenges, A Net Assessment,” IISS Strategic Dossier, July 2011, p. 162.

10. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July Through to 31 December 2006,” n.d., https://www.odni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/Acquisition_Technology_Report_030308.pdf; “Chemical Weapons Program,” Globalsecurity.org, n.d., https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/dprk/cw.htm; Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “North Korea’s Chemical Warfare Capabilities,” 38 North, October 10, 2013, https://www.38north.org/2013/10/jbermudez101013/.

11. “China Detects Nerve Gas at Its North Korean Border,” The Epoch Times, October 10, 2009.

12. For example, see “Testimony of Ms. Soon Ok Lee,” June 21, 2002, https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/lee_testimony_06_21_02.pdf (before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration hearing titled “Examining the Plight of Refugees: The Case of North Korea”).

13. “North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs,” p. 7.

14. Although these estimates explicitly refer to chemical weapons stockpiles, the information may be skewed by the inclusion of biochemical capabilities.

15. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: Report to Congress,” 9-6009878, 2017.

16. Bermudez, “North Korea’s Development of a Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” pp. 9–10; Wit and Ahn, “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures,” p. 11.

17. Bermudez, “North Korea’s Development of a Nuclear Weapons Strategy,” p. 10.

18. Seong-Yong Park, “North Korea’s Military Policy Under the Kim Jong-un Regime,” Journal of Asian Public Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2016): 71.

19. UN Security Council, S/2018/171, March 5, 2018.

20.  John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, floated that idea on a CBS “Face the Nation” broadcast July 1, 2018. Hyonhee Shin and Doina Chiacu, “U.S. Has Plan to Dismantle North Korea Nuclear Program Within a Year: Bolton,” Reuters, July 1, 2018.


Cristina Varriale is a research analyst in proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

U.S., North Korea at Odds Over Talks

The Trump administration seeks rapid steps toward denuclearization.


September 2018
By Kelsey Davenport

With the United States and North Korea at odds over how negotiations should proceed, the next steps will be critical to the diplomatic process.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during an August 15 ceremony in Seoul marking the 73rd anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Moon said that his planned September visit to Pyongyang will be a “bold step” towards formally ending the decades-old war with the North. (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at their Singapore summit, called for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and for “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the peninsula.

Yet, in failing to set out detailed steps or sequencing, the two leaders set the stage for misread signals and faulty expectations, as now seems to be the case. Both sides are showing some impatience with their diplomatic engagement, although it is unclear whether that is a bid for negotiating advantage or a danger sign from the two nuclear-armed adversaries.

Washington is seeking concrete action toward denuclearization by Pyongyang. North Korea complains that the United States is demanding unilateral disarmament while dragging its feet on steps to end the Korean War and build a peace regime on the peninsula. Trump told Reuters on Aug. 20 that he anticipates holding another meeting with Kim, but did not say when.                  

Before the June 12 summit, North Korea voluntarily announced a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests and destroyed tunnels at a site used for nuclear testing. Since the summit, Pyongyang has begun dismantling a test stand used for satellite launches at a missile test site.

Pyongyang describes these actions as “practical denuclearization steps” that demonstrate North Korea’s goodwill and commitment to the process. But these actions have a limited impact, are quickly reversible, and have not been verified by on-site inspectors.

U.S. officials, including White House national security adviser John Bolton, have called on North Korea to do more. Bolton said the United States is still looking for “performance on denuclearization,” not rhetoric. In another interview, he said North Korea has not taken “effective steps” toward denuclearization.

Reporting on the negotiations, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July visit to Pyongyang, suggests U.S. proposals may be asking for too much, too soon. Vox reported on Aug. 8 that Pompeo has repeatedly proposed that North Korea give up 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear arsenal within six to eight months.

Given the uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it is unclear how the United States would verify that North Korea met such a target, even in the case that Pyongyang were to agree.

A North Korea Foreign Ministry statement Aug. 9, while not specifically mentioning the Pompeo proposal, denounced the “unilateral demand of denuclearization first” made by U.S. officials during a July visit to Pyongyang. The statement also asserted that North Korea had taken “practical denuclearization steps” but the United States had failed to deliver on other elements of the Singapore statement.

The Trump administration appears to prioritize getting a nuclear declaration from North Korea that provides information about the scope of North Korea’s nuclear program and activities. Such a disclosure is needed for verification although, given the loose talk of preventive strikes by members of the Trump administration, Pyongyang may fear that providing such a declaration so early in the process would amount to handing over a targeting list to the United States.

An Aug. 18 statement from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called for “bold action” by Trump to break the “current deadlock.” KCNA said the lack of progress is “clearly attributable to the political scramble” in the United States, as “those opposed to dialogue” are trying to derail it with “a fiction” about secret North Korean nuclear facilities.

Some sites are well known, such as the Yongbyon facility where North Korea’s five-megawatt plutonium-production reactor is located, but evidence points toward additional uranium-enrichment facilities at undisclosed locations. Using open sources, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and The Diplomat publicly located in August what the United States suspects is a covert uranium-enrichment facility at Kangson.

Unsurprisingly, North Korea continues to produce fissile material, a fact confirmed by Pompeo at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 25.

Securing a verifiable halt in fissile material production would be a logical next step for the Trump administration. Not only would that prevent Pyongyang from further expanding its stockpile of weapons-usable materials, it would also test whether Kim will abandon his Jan. 1 call for North Korea to ramp up mass production of nuclear weapons and missiles.

While the Trump administration is pushing for additional steps on denuclearization, North Korea wants to see progress on formally ending the Korean War.

A KCNA statement on July 25 said that “adoption of the declaration on the termination of war is the first and foremost process in the light of ending the extreme hostility and establishing new relations” between North Korea and the United States. The agency said that the issue “should have been settled long before,” given the Singapore summit and inter-Korean dialogue.

There are some indications that South Korean President Moon Jae-in intends to proceed toward ending the war, regardless of progress in U.S.-North Korean negotiations.

In an Aug. 15 speech, Moon said that, at the next inter-Korean summit, scheduled for September, the two sides will “take an audacious step to proceed toward the declaration of an end to the Korean War and the signing of a peace treaty, as well as the complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. Moon said advances in inter-Korean relations will drive denuclearization.

North Korea also has lashed out against continued implementation of sanctions as poisoning the prospects for further talks. North Korea accused the United States of responding to its “practical steps” on denuclearization with “highly despicable actions,” including increased sanctions and hindering the activities of international aid organizations working in North Korea.

A KCNA statement on Aug. 10 called out enforcement of U.S. sanctions on North Korea as “beyond common sense and so outrageous” when Pyongyang has showed “sincere goodwill” by repatriating the remains of U.S. troops July 27 and shutting down its nuclear test site. The statement argued that sanctions are illegal and unlawful because Pyongyang has suspended the nuclear tests and missile launches that prompted UN Security Council sanctions.

The Security Council passed additional sanctions in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests, but the resolutions clearly require North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” manner. The resolutions also demand that North Korea return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

China has supported North Korea’s bid to reduce sanctions pressure, and there are signs that other states are backing off enforcement of sanctions on North Korea.

South Korea may need to request waivers on certain sanctions to go forward with inter-Korean projects referenced in the Panmunjom Declaration reached by Kim and Moon at their first meeting in April. Moon said on Aug. 15 that he wants to reconnect the railroads between the two countries by the end of 2018.

Although Trump declared an end to the U.S. “maximum pressure” approach after the Singapore summit, U.S. officials have consistently maintained that sanctions will remain in place and be fully implemented pending denuclearization.

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