Tuesday, September 11, 2018


It was one year ago in September 2017 that North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test of a claimed thermonuclear weapon. This was followed in November with the launch of a Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, capable of reaching the continental United States.

Since that launch, North Korea has refrained from any missile launches or nuclear tests. And since the January 2018 New Year’s speech of Kim Jong-un, we’ve had significant separate interaction between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump. These meetings resulted in two seminal agreements: The Panmunjon Declaration with South Korea and the Singapore Agreement with the United States. Both agreements committed North Korea to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and all parties to work toward a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

Despite these meetings and agreements, and the subsequent negotiations between the United States and North Korea, there’s currently dissatisfaction in the United States with the lack of progress made in getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and weapons facilities. Reportedly, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are still active, with the continued production of fissile material.

So, three months after the June 12 Singapore Agreement, there has been no apparent progress on the stated goal of “complete denuclearization.” Some claim that Mr. Kim wants sanctions relief, with no intention of abandoning his nuclear weapons program. There’s 25 years of failed negotiations to justify this view.

Having worked the North Korea nuclear issue since 2003, I believe we’ve made significant progress this year in addressing the nuclear threat from North Korea. One year ago we were looking at the potential of stumbling into conflict, possibly nuclear conflict, on the Korean Peninsula. Now we’re impatient with the lack of progress in settling this issue, three months after the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore.

The imposition of U.N. Security Council hard-hitting sanctions and the enhanced joint U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises in 2017 no doubt contributed to Kim Jong-un’s decision to seek a negotiated settlement of issues with the United States and South Korea. Also important was Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea, after its sixth nuclear test and launch of an ICBM, now had a nuclear deterrent and thus could now focus on economic development of a North Korea that couldn’t feed its own people.

But Mr. Kim knows economic development would be possible only with the lifting of sanctions and a normal relationship with the United States and others, and access to international financial institutions. Although North Korea ideally would want both, nuclear weapons and a normal relationship with the United States, Kim Jong-un knows this would never happen. Permitting North Korea to retain nuclear weapons is not an option. If Mr. Kim wants sanctions relief and a normal relationship with the United States, then complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and facilities is necessary.

It now appears that Kim Jong-un made the strategic decision to focus on economic development and an eventual normal relationship with the United States. Important for Mr. Kim and his regime, however, are security assurances and a path to normal relations with the United States. Indeed, these are the issues currently being negotiated.

North Korea initially wants a peace treaty ending the Korean War, with some sanctions relief and a path to normal relations with the United States. (The U.S. military presence in South Korea technically is not affected by a peace treaty. Rather, our military presence is based exclusively on a bilateral agreement between South Korea and the United States. This was repeated to me many times, in response to my questions, by senior South Korean officials during a recent visit to Seoul).

The United States insists that North Korea immediately provide a nuclear declaration listing all its nuclear weapons and facilities, with a verification protocol that will permit nuclear monitors to inspect non-declared suspect nuclear sites. The approach the United States pursued in the Six Party Talks Joint Statement of September 2005 was “actions for actions, commitments for comments.”

Thus using this or a similar approach, the United States would provide a declaration stating an intent to eventually sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War and North Korea simultaneously would provide a comprehensive declaration of all its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities and sign a verification protocol that would permit monitors to commence with the monitoring of the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities.

Also necessary would be the cessation of the production of fissile material. This, and the possible establishment of liaison offices in the respective capitals, to facilitate dialogue, would be the beginning of a process that would result in the complete and verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, all within the next two years, in accord with Kim Jong-un’s statement this past week to a visiting South Korean senior delegation that complete denuclearization could be achieved during Mr. Trump’s first term.

Currently, we are at an important inflection point, requiring patient but intensified negotiations and perseverance, hopefully resulting in a just and peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with North Korea. This and progress on chemical, biological and cyber issues would then facilitate a dialogue to normalize relations with North Korea, which would require progress on issues dealing with human rights abuses in North Korea and their involvement with illicit activities that affect the United States and its allies.

We’re at an important and encouraging beginning of a journey with North Korea. Hopefully, we’ll reach our final destination, through negotiations.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not of any government department or agency.

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