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North Korea

Perry, Markey Urge Talks with North Korea to Halt and Reverse Its Dangerous Nuclear and Missile Programs



For Immediate Release: June 29, 2017

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 102.

(Washington, D.C.)—On the eve of a critical meeting between recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump here in Washington, two leading figures outlined a pragmatic strategy for coordinated to U.S.-South Korean efforts to address the growing threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, beginning with direct talks aimed at constraining, rolling, back and ultimately reversing North Korea’s programs.

In a teleconference call with reporters convened by the Arms Control Association, Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who is the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, along with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry described their recommended approach. (The audio of the teleconference is available online. A transcript of the speakers' opening remarks is below.) 

"President Moon's visit is an historic opportunity for the Trump administration to restart direct negotiations aimed at addressing the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. The Trump administration should adopt a strategy of active and direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea, backed by rigorous sanction enforcement by China and a robust military deterrence posture in cooperation with our regional partners, especially South Korea." Senator Markey said.

Earlier Thursday President Moon met with senior Congressional leaders including Senator Markey. Last week, a bipartisan group of Senators issues a resolution welcoming President Moon and endorsing a diplomatic approach to achieving a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula and working together for the enforcement of existing sanctions on North Korea.

Perry reiterated several points that he made in a June 28 open letter to President Donald Trump along with a distinguished group including Amb. Robert L. Gallucci, former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Sigfried Hecker, former Sen. Richard G. Lugar, former Gov. Bill Richardson, and former Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, George P. Shultz.

"Experts with decades of military, political, and technical involvement with North Korean issues, strongly urge the start of discussions with North Korea in the near future. This is the only realistic option to reduce dangers resulting from the current high state of tensions and prevent North Korea’s ongoing development and potential use of nuclear weapons."

"This diplomatic effort should begin with informal talks—with no preconditions—to explore options for more formal negotiations," Perry and his colleagues recommend.

"There is no guarantee diplomacy will work. But there are no good military options, and a North Korean response to a U.S. attack could devastate South Korea and Japan. Tightening sanctions can be useful in increasing pressure on North Korea, but sanctions alone will not solve the problem," Perry cautioned.

"Time is not on our side. Diplomacy should at the top of the list of options on the table," Perry said.

"The June 29-30 summit between Trump and Moon is an opportunity for both presidents to recalibrate and coordinate their approaches toward North Korea," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which hosted the teleconference call.

"A strategy of coercive diplomacy, focused on freezing further nuclear and missile tests, and then ultimately rolling back Pyongyang’s illicit programs, offers the best prospect for success," Kimball said.


Former Secretary of Defence William Perry
[Start 2:30 on the audio, as delivered]

The primary goal of North Korea is extending the Kim dynasty. They have shrewdly done this for many decades (the regime is not crazy as some people think). They are the last Stalinist regime standing and that demonstrates I think, in the view of what has happened to all of the other Stalinist regimes, they have played their cards very shrewdly.

They do have a modest nuclear arsenal and they’re making many more, they have a large arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles and are developing an ICBM. My judgment is that they will not use their nuclear weapon in the first strike because they know it will mean death to the leaders and great devastation to the country.

Their nuclear weapons therefore are useful but only if they do not use them.

Therefore, I do not recommend a preemptive strike. The cost of the strike, the downside of the strike is much greater than any value, any benefit that it would give. Beyond that, I argue that the preemptive strike cannot possibly take out all of their nuclear weapons. Therefore if we make it to preemptive strike, they are going to end up with nuclear weapons, which will be very, very dangerous. They will respond militarily to a preemptive strike and the response will be very, very damaging to South Korea, not only from the nuclear possibility from them using their remaining nuclear weapons, but also because of the very large number of conventional artillery they have within range of Seoul.

Finally, and most importantly, I believe that there may now be a window opened for diplomacy. China, which has not participated with us as constructively, now fully recognizes the possibility of a military conflict which would be very detrimental to their own interests. They also recognize the possibility of Japan and/or South Korea going nuclear, which would be very detrimental to their own interests. In addition to that, North Korea may now believe that a preemptive strike is credible, which will I think focus their attention on negotiation. That is, I believe that North Korea is now open to a reasonable diplomatic approach.

Diplomatic success will contrast with anything we tried in the past: will need new carrots and new sticks than approaches in the past. China has the sticks, and we together with South Korea and Japan have the carrots. So I think we can put together a very attractive approach today compared with the previous attempts.

China, however, in my judgment will not offer those sticks on their own; they will not participate in the diplomatic approach simply on their own. It’s not enough to say to China, “you solve the problem.” We must be able to partner with China and I think if we do that and we do that with quiet diplomacy, we can get China to participate in a meaningful, diplomatic approach.

If we had a diplomatic approach, and if it succeeded, it would have to be in two phases. The first phase being a freeze, which would be valuable in and of itself because it avoids the possibility of North Korea going from the bomb they now have to a hydrogen bomb and it also prevents them from getting an ICBM. A freeze, if successful, would not only would be valuable in and of itself, but it would be a platform for a second phase, which would be the roll back… of their nuclear program. So that’s what I’m recommending.  

[Start 12:45 on the audio, as prepared]

I was deeply disturbed yesterday afternoon when General H.R. McMaster announced that President Donald Trump has asked for new military options to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.

There is no military solution in North Korea. A second Korean War would be an incomparable tragedy, jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, and possibly could escalate into a nuclear war.

In March of this year, I sent a letter to President Trump, urging him to take a bold new approach to address the threat from North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. I called on him to adopt a strategy of active and direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea, backed by rigorous sanctions enforcement by China and a robust military deterrence posture in cooperation with our regional partners.

Last year alone, North Korea tested two nuclear devices and carried out numerous ballistic missile tests. It is now accelerating efforts to develop a missile capable of striking the territory of the United States with a nuclear warhead.

These growing capabilities represent a grave threat to the security of the American people, and to our allies and partners in the region.

Existing policy to address this threat has not succeeded. Sanctions and deterrence, while essential, have failed — on their own — to induce the Kim regime to constrain its nuclear and missile ambitions.

Without a direct diplomatic track by the United States, North Korea is likely to continue exploiting divisions in the international community to steadily advance its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

Only a comprehensive strategy of diplomacy — one that brings together economic pressure, military deterrence, and active negotiations — stands a chance of achieving a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

When Secretary Tillerson told the United Nations Security Council in April that the United States is open to negotiating toward a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, and the Trump adminisration announced its strategy of, quote, “maximum pressure and engagement” I was hopeful that level heads had prevailed.

But General McMaster’s remarks could indicate that the President has veered back onto a dangerous war path. And President Moon’s visit could not come at a more critical time.

President Moon’s visit is an historic opportunity for the Trump administration to restart negotiations aimed at addressing the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

President Moon made direct engagement with North Korea a core part of his electoral platform, and a recent survey showed that more than three-fourths of South Koreans want a resumption of dialogue with the North.

China has also wanted the United States to launch direct talks with North Korea for many years, so direct diplomacy could make it easier to get China to enforce sanctions and pressure North Korea to negotiate seriously on denuclearization.

If the Trump administration is serious about its strategy of pressure and engagement, it must strengthen existing sanctions and bolster deterrence. But it must also reach out to North Korea to begin talks aimed at constraining, rolling back, and ultimately eliminating its nuclear and missile programs.

Without diplomacy, however, pressure is unlikely to succeed. I reiterate my call for Donald Trump to stop what looks like a rush to catastrophic war and to get serious about implementing the strategy his administration announced – to pressure North Korea into engagement and negotiate denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.


In a conference call with reporters, Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and former Secretary of Defense William Perry shared their interest in having the U.S. and South Korea pursue talks with North Korea on halting and reversing its dangerous nuclear and missile programs.

Country Resources:

North Korea’s New Missile Tests South Korea

June 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea’s test of a ballistic missile capable of longer ranges poses an immediate challenge to newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on an engagement-oriented approach to dealing with Pyongyang. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is showing no sign of making that easy as he continues to defy international demands that he halt nuclear weapons activities and missile testing.

The missile tested May 14 is a new system that North Korea debuted a month earlier at its parade celebrating the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. (See ACT, May 2017.) Known as the Hwasong-12, the missile likely is an intermediate-range ballistic missile, meaning its range is between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers, which would put Guam within striking distance but fall short of reaching the continental United States. The test was intended to verify “the tactical and technological specifications” for a system “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear weapon,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

This May 14 picture from the official Korean Central News Agency shows leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile before a test launch. The test was intended to verify “the tactical and technological specifications” for a system “capable of carrying a large-size heavy nuclear weapon,” according to the state-run news agency. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)North Korea tested the missile at a lofted trajectory, so it flew higher than a normal flight pattern and traveled about 700 kilometers to splash down in the Sea of Japan. David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, used data from the test to calculate a 4,800-kilometer range at a standard ballistic missile trajectory, according to his organization’s blog, “All Things Nuclear.” The lofted trajectory was likely used to avoid the missile splashing down too close to another country.

The test came just four days after Moon won South Korea’s presidential election on May 10. He was sworn in immediately to fill the vacancy left by Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in December 2016.

Moon described the missile test as “deeply regrettable” and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit North Korea from testing ballistic missiles. Despite saying that South Korea must “act decisively against North Korean provocations,” Moon said he remains open to dialogue with North Korea when Pyongyang “changes its attitude.” That dialogue cannot begin while North Korea continues to conduct ballistic missile tests, he said.

Moon’s openness to talks with Pyongyang marks a change from Park’s more hard-line policy toward North Korea. Moon has described his policy as moving away from the “pressure only” to “pressure with pragmatic engagement.”

For instance, Moon has suggested that he might reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kaesong, located on the North Korean side of the border, provides space for South Korean companies to manufacture products using North Korean labor. The complex was closed in 2016 during a period of increased tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul following nuclear and missile tests by North Korea.

The Unification Ministry in South Korea also called May 17 for re-establishing the hotline between North Korea and South Korea. North Korea cut off the hotline in February 2016 in response to the closing of Kaesong.

Pressure Plus

Moon’s approach of pressure plus engagement sounds similar to the policy approach of “maximum pressure plus engagement” described by the United States after the Trump administration completed its policy review on North Korea. (See ACT, May 2017.) Moon, however, opposes U.S. talk about using military force without South Korean consent if diplomacy fails.

North Korea has pressed for talks with the United States without preconditions that it halt nuclear and missile activities. North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui told reporters in Beijing on May 13 that Pyongyang would talk to the United States “if the conditions are there.” Choe did not specify what conditions North Korea is expecting from Washington and did not speculate on whether North Korea would reach out to South Korea for talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated the U.S. policy toward North Korea when meeting with South Korea’s special presidential envoy, Hong Seok-hyun, on May 18. Tillerson was reported in the South Korean press as saying that talks with North Korea can begin if Pyongyang refrains from nuclear and missile testing and is willing to trust that Washington not undertake hostile acts toward it.

Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in greets supporters in Seoul after his victory was confirmed May 9. (Photo credit: Jean Chung/Getty Images)Washington’s statement after the missile test, however, took a more strident tone. The White House statement on May 13 called North Korea a “flagrant menace” and said all states must implement stronger sanctions against North Korea. The statement also noted Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to U.S. allies.

Moon will come to Washington in late June for a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. In announcing the summit, Moon’s office said on May 16 that the two states will look for “bold and practical” steps to take on North Korea.

UN Security Council President Elbio Rosselli of Uruguay issued a statement on behalf of all 15 members that “strongly condemned” North Korea’s ballistic missile launch. The May 15 statement called for Pyongyang to end its ballistic missile tests and for all UN member states to enforce sanctions on North Korea.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters ahead of a May 16 consultation on North Korea that the United States is ready to “tighten the screws” on Pyongyang and will target sanctions against any country that is “supplying or supporting North Korea.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin also condemned the missile test and said on May 15 that Moscow is “categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear states, including through the Korean Peninsula.” But Putin, who was on a trip to China at the time, said that “intimidating” North Korea was not the right path forward.

Missile Defense

Moon’s administration may review the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. The missile defense system became operational on May 2, according to U.S. officials.

Despite the operational status of the system, U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that he was aware that there were procedural concerns over the THAAD deployment.

McMaster’s comments came after Hong told him that South Korea’s National Assembly  needed to discuss the THAAD deployment. Moon made comments to that effect, namely that the correct procedure was not followed for deciding to deploy the THAAD system, during his campaign.

The United States and South Korea agreed on the THAAD deployment in July 2016 to the displeasure of China and Russia. (See ACT, September 2016.)

South Korea is working on its own ballistic missile defense, known as the Korea Air and Missile Defense System. Moon told the military to speed up development of the system after the North Korean ballistic missile test on May 14.

North Korea’s New Missile Tests South Korea

Missile Defense Can't Save Us From North Korea

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New Leadership, Opportunities on the Korean Peninsula

The election of Mr. Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s next president could lead to an important and helpful shift in the international community’s approach to halting and reversing North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear and missile programs. If Moon stays true to the policies outlined in his campaign , South Korea’s approach to North Korea will likely shift from “pressure only” to “pressure with pragmatic engagement.” This could improve the chances for lowering of tensions with North Korea and the resumption of talks designed to verifiably halt and then, later, reverse North Korea’s nuclear...

North Korea Review Completed

May 2017
By Kelsey Davenport

The Trump administration completed its review of U.S. policy toward North Korea and will pursue a strategy of increasing pressure and engagement, according to U.S. officials.

The details of the review have not been released, but Susan A. Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters in an April 17 teleconference that there is not a “specific precondition” for talks and that the “focus is on getting some tangible signal from the North Korean regime that it is serious about engaging in talks.”

U.S. Army General Vincent K. Brooks, commander of United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his family near the Demilitarized Zone, April 17. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Sean K. HarpAbsent a signal from North Korea, she said, the international community likely will be resolved to “just continue ratcheting up the pressure to try to make it clear that there is no path forward without a discussion of denuclearization.”

This policy sounds similar to the Obama administration’s approach called “strategic patience,” which entailed increasing pressure through sanctions and engaging only once North Korea takes steps toward meeting the denuclearization pledge it made during multilateral negotiations in 2005.

But the Trump administration has injected a degree of uncertainty about U.S. intentions, including a threat of pre-emptive strikes, and Vice President Mike Pence declared during an April 17 reassurance visit to ally South Korea that “the era of strategic patience is over.” President Donald Trump faces an important test in light of North Korea’s growing stockpile of nuclear weapons materials, its increasing pace of missile development and testing, and the prospect that it soon may test a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile able to reach the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. policy review comes amid increasing tensions with North Korea and an April 6 meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which the two leaders agreed to cooperate more closely on seeking a way to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Trump has made clear that he wants China to persuade North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to halt nuclear and missile development and to re-engage diplomatically while the United States keeps open “all options,” including military action.

The Trump administration gave a false impression in early April that a U.S. Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson—what Trump called “a very powerful armada”—was en route to the Korean region, although in fact the ships were first completing a naval exercise more than 3,000 miles away.

Despite the announcement, North Korea attempted to test a ballistic missile April 16, but it exploded shortly after the launch.

Thornton said that she does not think there is a “realistic expectation” of serious engagement from the international community while North Korea is conducting provocative and illegal activities, such as launching ballistic missiles barred by UN Security Council resolutions.

New Missiles Displayed

Despite Security Council prohibitions, North Korea is continuing to develop and test its ballistic missile capabilities. Pyongyang used its annual April 15 military parade to show off several new ballistic missiles.

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in an April 17 interview that the parade was “designed as a show of strength and power” for domestic and international audiences. North Korea’s display of short-, medium-, and intercontinental-range missiles also sent the message that “no country is off the hook” as a target for Pyongyang’s expanding ballistic missile program, she said.

Hanham noted that, in comparison to past parades, North Korea displayed more solid-fueled missiles, which require “less time to launch and fewer support trucks.” Unlike liquid fuel, which can be corrosive, solid fuel can be stored in ballistic missiles, eliminating the time spent fueling at the site of the launch and the need for fuel trucks.

North Korea also used more domestically produced vehicles with treads to transport its missiles, which could signal that Pyongyang is having problems importing wheeled vehicle chassis that it used in the past, she said. The move to domestically produced transport erector launchers for ballistic missiles, however, will allow North Korea to deploy and move more missiles as Pyongyang is no longer restricted by the number of vehicles it can import, Hanham said.

North Korea displayed a domestically manufactured tracked vehicle for transporting and launching a mobile ballistic missile in February. (See ACT, March 2017.)

The use of smaller, tracked vehicles with a sharper turning radius, combined with solid fuel, gives North Korea “more flexibility for moving and storing its ballistic missiles,” Hanham said. This, in turn, makes tracking movement using surveillance satellites more difficult due to less distinct imagery, she added.

North Korea also displayed what could be a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) variant and two canisters on mobile platforms it used in the past to transport ICBMs that Pyongyang has developed but not tested, known as the NK-08 and the KN-14. Hanham said that the new missile looks like a variant of the KN-08.

Canisters can be used to launch ballistic missiles, and North Korea used a canister for the launch of the solid-fueled medium-range Pukguksong-2 earlier this year. (See ACT, March 2017.) Experts caution against reading too much into the new canisters and said that they might not contain new missiles.

Michael Elleman, a missile expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in an April 17 email to Arms Control Today that “displaying canisters leaves us guessing what, if anything is inside” and whether the canisters are to house an existing ICBM design or if a new design is under development. If the canisters are for a new design, Elleman said, that raises the question of why North Korea would pursue a new model and if it abandoned the KN-08 and KN-14 or is developing several designs in parallel.

Elleman said the idea that the canisters suggest North Korea is developing a solid-fueled ICBM is reasonable as a “long-term goal” but Pyongyang is “at least a decade, if not more, from developing a viable, solid-fueled ICBM.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this year that the country could test an ICBM by the end of the year. If so, Hanham said, the KN-08 is the most likely system because “elements of the missile have already been tested.” Any new system designed for the canisters displayed in the parade would need component tests first, she said.

North Korea Review Completed

Nuclear Mad Men

May 2017
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Less than 100 days into the administration of President Donald Trump, the war of words and nuclear threats between the United States and North Korea has escalated, and a peaceful resolution to the slow-moving crisis is more difficult than ever to achieve.

This undated picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via KNS on March 7, 2017 shows the launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)On Jan. 1, North Korea’s authoritarian ruler Kim Jong Un vowed to “continue to build up” his country’s nuclear forces “as long as the United States and its vassal forces keep on [sic] nuclear threat and blackmail.” Kim also warned that North Korea was making preparations to flight-test a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Two days later, Trump could not resist laying down a “red line” on Twitter, saying, “It won’t happen.”

North Korea has not yet tested an ICBM, but it has restarted its plutonium reactor and appears to be ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test explosion. Unless there is a deal to halt and reverse those efforts, Pyongyang’s nuclear strike capabilities will become more reliable with a longer range and less vulnerable to attack.

Last month, Trump and his team announced a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” to try to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions and its ballistic missile program. However, as Vice President Mike Pence told CNN on April 19, the United States is not seeking to negotiate with North Korea “at this time.”

Better enforcement of existing UN sanctions designed to hinder North Korea’s weapons procurement, financing, and key sources of foreign trade is very important. Such measures can help increase the leverage necessary for a diplomatic solution. But it is naive to think China will help apply maximum pressure without a serious opening for talks between Washington and Pyongyang or that pressure alone can force North Korea to change course.

Worse still, Trump has begun to issue ultimatums to China and threats of overwhelming military force against North Korea. On April 3, Trump told The Financial Times that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” As North Korea paraded its ballistic missile arsenal, including canisters for new ICBM variants, last month, senior U.S. officials warned that “[a]ll options are on the table.”

Such language implies that U.S. strategic forces, including nuclear weapons, could be employed to counter North Korean aggression or possibly to launch a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear facilities and missiles if North Korea tries to conduct an ICBM test. Just as the North Korean nuclear problem cannot be outsourced to China, the United States cannot eliminate the North Korean threat through military means.

Pyongyang has responded to the U.S. statements with its own, even more bellicose rhetoric. Following press reports that a U.S. carrier strike group was being sent toward the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations warned on April 17 that “a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment” and that his country is “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the United States.”

Attempts by Washington to demonstrate its resolve to use military force to defend allies against aggression may assure nervous leaders in Seoul and Tokyo, but they will not compel Kim to shift course. In fact, repeated threats of U.S. military force only give credibility to the North Korean propaganda line that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter U.S. aggression, and it may lead Kim to try to accelerate his nuclear program.

That should not come as a surprise. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, U.S. “atomic diplomacy” has consistently failed to achieve results. As Jeffrey Kimball and Bill Burr document in their 2015 book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, the historical record shows that U.S. nuclear threats during the Korean War and later against China and the Soviet Union, as well as Nixon’s “madman” strategy against North Vietnam, failed to bend adversaries to U.S. goals.

The comprehensive new study Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy by Todd Sechser and Matthew Furman provides further confirmation that nuclear coercion is difficult to achieve. Furthermore, as the taboo against nuclear use has become stronger, most leaders come to recognize that the role of nuclear weapons must be limited to deterring first use by others.

Similarly, with respect to North Korea, the threat of pre-emptive U.S. military action is not credible, in large part because the risks are extremely high. North Korea has the capacity to devastate the metropolis of Seoul, with its 10 million inhabitants, by launching a massive artillery barrage and hundreds of conventionally armed, short-range ballistic missiles. Moreover, if hostilities begin, there is the prospect that North Korea could use some of its remaining nuclear weapons, which could kill millions in South Korea and Japan.

Trump and his advisers need to curb the impulse to threaten military action, which may increase the risk of catastrophic miscalculation. A saner and more effective approach is to work with China to tighten the sanctions pressure and simultaneously open a new diplomatic channel designed to defuse tensions and to halt and eventually reverse North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear and missile programs.

The monthly “Focus” editorials from Arms Control Today are available for reprint on a non-exclusive basis
with permission from the Arms Control Association and link to the original publication online.


Less than 100 days into the administration of President Donald Trump, the war of words and nuclear threats between the United States and North Korea has escalated, and a peaceful resolution to the slow-moving crisis is more difficult than ever to achieve.

The North, the South, and U.S. Nukes

With the South Korean election just weeks away, Pyongyangs’s recent provocations are making it clear that the new president will need to quickly develop a strategy to address the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. The May 9 election will likely take place amid rapidly escalating tensions, as U.S. President Donald Trump exchanges inflammatory, bellicose comments with the regime of Kim Jong-un. In this environment, South Korea stands to embark on a sensitive recalibration of its policy toward North Korea. While the Trump administration is in the process of finalizing its own North...

Would More Sanctions Sway North Korea?

April 2017

By Kelsey Davenport

The United States is considering broader sanctions on North Korea, although it is unclear how effective the additional measures will be in curbing Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear and ballistic missile programs and in pushing North Korea to negotiate restrictions on these programs.

Absent a broader strategy, clear objectives, and consistent implementation, additional sanctions are unlikely to change North Korea’s behavior. Focusing on implementation of existing measures, however, could help disrupt the illicit networks Pyongyang uses to circumvent sanctions and import and export restricted goods.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Sohae Satellite Launching Station for a test of a new high-thrust rocket engine in a photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 19. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)The accelerating pace of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs is bringing renewed urgency to efforts to pressure Pyongyang to return to denuclearization negotiations before it tests a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Donald Trump indicated in a January tweet would cross what he considers a red line. “It won’t happen,” he declared in the three-word tweet, and he has met several times since then with his national security team to develop a new strategy on North Korea.

Trump has yet to provide details on his administration’s overall North Korea strategy or the role that sanctions will play in achieving his objectives. If Trump chooses to pursue talks, his administration has various options, such as seeking an interim agreement designed to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs until a more comprehensive agreement is reached or negotiating a denuclearization agreement at the outset. Absent a clear objective for the sanctions regime, it will be difficult to assess the value of additional restrictions, although there is some value in imposing sanctions to demonstrate to Pyongyang that there is a cost to flouting its international obligations.

Pyongyang is already subject to UN sanctions for its continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions, including Resolutions 2270 and 2321, passed in 2016 in response to North Korean nuclear tests. Some countries, including the United States, have imposed their own sanctions on Pyongyang for these activities.

The Trump administration and Congress are considering additional sanctions in response to recent North Korean provocations such as its missile launches on Feb. 12 and March 6. (See ACT, March 2017.) A senior U.S. official was quoted by Reuters on March 21 saying that the administration is considering “broad sanctions” against North Korea that may include measures to increase pressure on Chinese banks and firms that do business with Pyongyang.

This is consistent with recent comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson said in his confirmation hearings in January that he supported additional sanctions to fill gaps in the existing sanctions regime on North Korea. During a March 17 press conference in Seoul, he told reporters that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear activities, ranging from sanctions to pre-emptive military action.

Members of Congress are also calling for additional restrictions. In a Feb. 14 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for the United States to take actions that, if enforced, “could more effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the hard currency it uses to finance its illicit nuclear program.” The suggested actions include investigating whether North Korea “merits re-designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” enforcing penalties against banks that provide correspondent services to North Korean banks, denying North Korean banks access to financial messaging services, investigating Chinese banks that conduct transactions with North Korea for violations of U.S. law, and freezing assets of any Chinese entity with assets in the United States that is importing coal from North Korea. Four other Republicans signed the letter.

Limited Benefit

Pursuing additional sanctions may not be the best tactic for influencing North Korean behavior, particularly given the poor enforcement of existing measures. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said on March 21 at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that “sanctions are highly unlikely to work” and noted that, despite an uptick in restrictions on Pyongyang, North Korea’s economy is improving under Kim Jong Un.

Andrea Berger, a senior program manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said at the same event that assessing the sanctions’ effectiveness depends on their objectives. She said sanctions have not been very effective in encouraging North Korea to resume negotiations on its nuclear program, but noted that there are critical subsidiary objectives for sanctions, such as preventing North Korea from accessing technologies for its programs and stemming North Korea’s illicit trade networks.

The Obama administration’s approach to North Korea put a return to negotiations on denuclearization as the objective of the sanctions regime. The policy, known as strategic patience, included increasing pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, while stating a willingness to resume negotiations after North Korea takes steps toward denuclearization.

One expert on North Korea sanctions, who formerly served on a Security Council panel of experts in charge of assessing implementation of UN sanctions, criticized the Obama administration’s approach. In a March 21 email, he said that, without “buy-in on enforcing sanctions” from the international community and “an offer of carrots” for Pyongyang, sanctions alone were unlikely to influence North Korean behavior.

The expert, who asked not to be named because he holds a position in government, said he is not optimistic that sanctions would work any better for a Trump administration, particularly prior to developing a strategy toward North Korea. He said that “sanctions are tool, and tools work best if you know what you’re trying to build” and Trump does not have a clear plan.

Enhancing Enforcement

Although there may be limits to the effectiveness of additional sanctions, focusing on enforcement of existing measures could curb Pyongyang’s access to the materials and technologies necessary for advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea has developed a range of domestic capabilities for producing sensitive dual-use technologies, but it still relies on imports of certain technologies for its rockets. Analysis of debris recovered by South Korea from the rocket used by North Korea to launch a satellite in February 2016 shows that Pyongyang is using certain components sourced to foreign countries, including pressure transmitters manufactured in the United Kingdom.

Berger also described the current sanctions regime as “a sieve” and said that the focus should be on building capacity to enforce existing measures, such as ensuring that countries have the domestic legal frameworks for implementing UN measures.

China is frequently cited for poor enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea’s trade and has tended to resist moves in the Security Council to increase sanctions, in part reflecting its long-standing concerns about triggering instability and a humanitarian crisis in the neighboring country.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se during a press conference on March 17 in Seoul. (Photo credit: Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images)Beijing has complied recently with caps set by UN Security Council sanctions on imports of North Korean coal, Pyongyang’s largest export item. China said in February that it was suspending all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year.

But the former panel member said that it is too early to say if Beijing’s compliance is “merely cosmetic or signals a shift” in sanctions enforcement. He noted although coal imports from North Korea were cut, China continued its imports of certain metals in early 2017. Security Council Resolution 2321, passed in September 2016, bans countries from importing copper, nickel, silver, and zinc from North Korea. In assessing China’s performance, he said, the “real test is time.”

China is not the only country that can take steps to enhance enforcement of UN sanctions. Only 76 states reported to the Security Council on their implementation of the March 2016 sanctions resolution on North Korea. That is an increase in reporting since the prior resolution, but a majority of states fail to provide information about efforts to implement UN restrictions.

The most recent report from the panel of experts that assesses implementation of UN sanctions for the Security Council recommended steps to improve global compliance. One was that countries “rigorously implement the now legally binding ‘catch-all’ provision for items which could contribute to the country’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.”

Another former member of the panel of experts, George A. Lopez, wrote in a March 13 column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the February report’s recommendations “go beyond the weak, oft-heard call that nations must increase their vigilance in enforcing sanctions.”

Lopez noted that the report recommends that states “clarify their methods of implementing sanctions where trade in minerals is concerned; share more information regarding cases of sanctions evasion; and regularly update their lists of companies and ships that adopt aliases to avoid identification as they pursue illicit activities.”

South Korea Gets Missile Defense System

A U.S.-supplied missile defense battery for South Korea is scheduled to become operational as soon as this month, amid growing tensions with North Korea, opposition from China, and mixed signals about how a new government in Seoul will view the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. 

The arrival of the THAAD components in early March occurred over the objections of China, which describes the deployment as a provocative move. Beijing’s concern, in part, is that the system’s powerful radar would enable the United States to quickly detect and track Chinese missile launches. The United States denies that THAAD deployments to South Korea and Japan pose a threat to the security of China, which has shown its displeasure by curtailing some business and tourism ties with South Korea.

The THAAD system is intended to provide a limited defense for South Korea from North Korean ballistic missile attacks. That threat was highlighted by Pyongyang’s missile tests during March as the United States and South Korea conducted joint military exercises in which about 3,600 U.S. service members were deployed to join the 28,000 U.S. troops already based in South Korea. 

With South Korea due to hold presidential elections May 9, frontrunner Moon Jae-in has sought to smooth relations with China and signaled that if he wins, his government would review the deployment. A negative decision by the liberal Korean politician would mark a rift with the United States, which is committed to defending South Korea under a mutual defense treaty. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to formulate a new North Korea policy that would end years of diplomatic stalemate while the country had advanced its missile and nuclear weapons capabilities in defiance of UN Security Council prohibitions. The issue has become more urgent as leader Kim Jong Un has increased his country’s production of nuclear weapons and is seeking the capability to extend his threats to the continental United States with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. 

The Trump administration has abandoned the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which envisioned out-waiting Pyongyang while ratcheting up pressure on North Korea through sanctions and covert actions, without a decision on what will take its place.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said March 17 in Seoul, during a trip that included consultation in Tokyo and Beijing. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.”

North Korea gave no indication that it is impressed by such talk, firing back with threats of its own and a publicized test of a new, high-powered rocket engine under the watchful eye of Kim himself. The test on March 18 coincided with Tillerson’s talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, timing that amounted to a rebuff of the pressures from the United States and China, its main economic lifeline and ally.

Kim’s actions raise the stakes for the meeting tentatively planned for early April between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump has criticized China repeatedly for not doing enough to pressure Kim to return to negotiations on denuclearization. 

Standing alongside Tillerson in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reflected his government’s concerns about the Trump administration when he urged the United States to be “cool headed” in order to “arrive at a wise decision.”

Better enforcement of sanctions could curb Pyongyang’s access to the materials and technologies necessary for advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

ZTE Fined for Sanctions Evasion

Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp. agreed to pay U.S. civil and criminal penalties totaling $1.2 billion for illegally shipping telecommunications equipment to Iran and North Korea, the largest fine and forfeiture penalty ever imposed in a U.S. export control case. ZTE pleaded guilty to violating U.S. export and sanctions regulations and obstructing justice with “false and misleading” statements during the investigation of its activities, the U.S. Commerce Department said in a March 7 statement. The regulations control the sale of sensitive U.S.-origin technologies.

ZTE “conspired to evade” the U.S. embargo on Iran between 2010 and 2016 in order to “supply, build, operate and/or service large scale telecommunications networks in Iran” using U.S.-origin equipment and software, the Commerce Department said. “As a result of the conspiracy, ZTE was able to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with and sales from such Iranian entities.” ZTE also made 283 shipments of items to North Korea, including items controlled for national security purposes, such as routers, microprocessors, and servers, according to the statement. ZTE engaged in evasive conduct designed to prevent the U.S. government from detecting its violations, the Commerce Department said. 

ZTE Chairman and CEO Zhao Xianming said in a March 7 statement that the company acknowledged “the mistakes it made” and is instituting new “compliance-focused” procedures. Under the settlement, ZTE will be subject to audits and additional compliance requirements. The terms specify that $300 million of the penalty will be suspended if ZTE abides by all regulations during a seven-year probationary period. 

Chinese telecom giant ZTE agreed to pay U.S. penalties of $1.2 billion for shipping equipment to Iran and North Korea.

VX Use in Assassination “Reprehensible”

April 2017

The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) expressed “grave concern” March 10 about the apparent use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea’s dictator, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The OPCW called the use of VX, as announced by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry on March 3, “reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community,” amid speculation that dictator Kim Jong Un was behind the Feb. 13 attack. Kim Jong Nam died about 20 minutes after two women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese, applied VX on his face, according to Malaysian authorities, who said the women had been recruited by a team of North Koreans. The OPCW offered to provide technical assistance to Malaysia’s investigation. Ri Tong Il, a senior North Korean diplomat who flew to Kuala Lumpur to collect the body, attributed the death to a possible heart attack due to a history of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Malaysian officials said they would delay the transfer of the remains temporarily while awaiting word from immediate family living in Macau and China.


The Executive Council of the (OPCW) expressed “grave concern” March 10 about the apparent use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong Nam.


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