In 1991, President George H.W. Bush ordered the withdrawal of all U.S.-based tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. In 1992, South Korea and North Korea agreed not to test, manufacture, produce, secure, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons and not to possess facilities for nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment.
Currently, North Korea reportedly has between 40 and 60 plutonium or enriched uranium-based nuclear weapons, with the capability to mate these nuclear weapons to an array of short, medium and long-range ballistic missiles. In 2022, North Korea reportedly launched over 100 ballistic missiles, to include the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of targeting the whole of the U.S.
Kim Jong-un recently declared that North Korea will exponentially increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, to include tactical nuclear weapons, and enshrined a new law permitting the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons automatically if its leadership or command and control centers are threatened.
The United Nations Security Council has passed nine resolutions sanctioning North Korea since the North’s first nuclear test in 2006. Currently, however, China and Russia have vetoed efforts to sanction North Korea for its recent flagrant launching of ballistic missiles, all in violation of UNSC resolutions.
South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Biden have agreed that U.S. extended nuclear deterrence – nuclear umbrella – commitments need to be enhanced, with the active participation of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultative Group.
It should be clear that over the past 32 years, efforts by the U.S., with active support of South Korea and Japan, have failed to halt North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The withdrawal of U.S.-based tactical weapons from South Korea in 1991 and the North–South Nuclear Agreement of 1992 had no impact on North Korea’s determination to build nuclear weapons. Moreover, the 1994 Agreed Framework, which committed the U.S. to provide North Korea with two light water nuclear reactors for peaceful energy in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility, was violated by the North when the intelligence community discovered in 2002 that North Korea had a clandestine highly-enriched uranium program for nuclear weapons.
And indeed, North Korea’s assistance to Syria for the construction of a secret nuclear reactor in Al Kibar that Israel bombed in 2007 was a major act of nuclear proliferation by North Korea.
The U.S. has been unable to get North Korea to return to negotiations since the failed 2019 Hanoi presidential talks. China apparently has been unwilling – or unable – to get Kim Jong-un to agree to permit his representatives to meet with U.S. counterparts. Rather, Mr. Kim apparently decided to double down on his nuclear arsenal and build more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them.
What’s needed is a new strategy for dealing with North Korea — a strategy that not only focuses on enhancing extended nuclear deterrence but also enhancing missile defense capabilities in South Korea, Japan and the U.S.
A second THADD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defense – should be discussed with Seoul. The Patriot and other missile defense systems should also be discussed with Japan, which understandably is enhancing its own military capabilities. Japan has committed to spend 2% of its GDP on military defense purposes.
Also necessary is a discussion with South Korea on the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons there amid North Korea’s threatening behavior. This would complement the enhanced joint military exercises, with strategic naval and air assets participating in these exercises.
The U.S. should also change its focus in dealing with North Korea. While complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should remain a goal, a more core focus must be on the dismal human rights situation in North Korea.
A recent United Nations report stated that over 40% of the people in North Korea are malnourished, indicating significant food insecurity in the North, with some reports – and comments from Kim Jong-un — comparing the current situation to the Arduous March in the 1990s when famine claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to food insecurity, the medical situation in the North is equally dismal.
Compounding this is North Korea’s strict surveillance system and arbitrary judicial system. Indeed, the songbun system of classifying citizens, based on their direct ancestors and relatives into certain castes and sending thousands of citizens to labor camps, some for life, as political prisoners or for minor offenses, is heartbreaking.
On January 23, 2023, the National Institute for Public Policy (nipp.org) published a strategy paper authored by Ambassador Robert Joseph and six colleagues that presented a new National Security for Countering North Korea, with a focus on human rights and the imperative of providing all people – to include the 25 million people in North Korea — with truthful reporting on global issues and Korean Peninsula developments.
If negotiations with North Korea are resumed, human rights should also be discussed, with expectations that North Korea must make progress on human rights, in addition to committing to a halt in nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches in return for sanctions relief, on a path to eventual complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea and the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.
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