The ICAS Lectures


State of North Korean Affairs: Challenges and Outlook

Joseph R. DeTrani

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 11 2013 Friday 1:15 PM - 4:30 PM
Mortara Center Conference Room
3600 N Street NW (36 and N)
Georgetown University
Washington DC 20057

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Joseph R. DeTrani

State of North Korean Affairs: Challenges and Outlook

Joseph R. DeTrani

Ambassador and President, Intelligence and National Security Alliance

It has been 20 years of negotiations with North Korea and all we have is a worse situation. Those who follow events with North Korea and those responsible for resolving issues with North Korea are fatigued and frustrated.

Those moments when you thought you accomplished something, like the Agreed Framework in 1994 and the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, were fleeting. With that fatigue and frustration comes a sense that resolving issues with North Korea has been too frustrating and has taken too much of our time. This sentiment is understandable and technically correct.

In reality, however, it's wrong. It's wrong because there are 23 million people in North Korea who deserve a better life. It's wrong because a North Korea with nuclear weapons is a security threat to Northeast Asia, the US and the international community. And the only way to address these humanitarian and national security issues is to expeditiously resolve the core issue with North Korea - their nuclear programs.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, there was significant starvation in North Korea. Currently, there are reports of food shortages in the provinces, with significant malnourishment and cases of starvation. Militarily, North Korea reportedly is building more nuclear weapons, with the reconstitution of their plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. Their uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons reportedly continues, with centrifuges spinning in Yongbyon and in other facilities.

North Korea is expected to launch their intermediate range Musudan missile, with a range of 4,000 kilometers, and their mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang previously had declared that they are working on miniaturization of their nuclear weapons, which would enhance their ability to eventually mate these nuclear warheads to missile delivery systems.

The nuclear proliferation threat from North Korea is also real. We witnessed this in Syria at Alkabar, where North Korea was assisting Damascus with the construction of a plutonium reactor. Fortunately, this reactor was destroyed by Israel in September 2007, just prior to going operational.

When Kim Jong-eun replaced his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011, there was hope. The new young leader replaced many of his father's senior military advisors. He appointed a younger generation of military and party leaders and put a senior party official, Vice Marshall Choi Ryong-hae, in charge of the Korean People's Army (KPA), as the new Director of the KPA's General Political Department.

Hope faded, however, when North Korea launched missiles in April and December 2012, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and then conducted a nuclear test in February 2013. Vitriolic commentary from Pyongyang followed, with threats of a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the US and South Korea.

Fortunately, these threats have ceased and Pyongyang appears to be on a peace offensive, especially with South Korea.

The Kaesong Industrial complex recently was re-opened, with the establishment of a joint North-South committee to oversee activities at Kaesong, while determined to internationalize Kaesong and open it up to international investment. The initial agreement to permit family reunions between separated families in the North and South was, unfortunately, cancelled by Pyongyang, as was the visit of ambassador Bob King to Pyongyang to discuss the release of Kenneth Bae, an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Hopefully, North Korea will permit these family reunions and release Kenneth Bae and see the value in improving relations with the new leadership in South Korea.

North Korea recently said they wanted to return to six-party talks. They said they were prepared to discuss denuclearization and other issues. Understandably, there's skepticism about resuming talks with North Korea; talks over 20 years that have been frustrating and useless. There's concern that with the resumption of talks, North Korea will continue to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities and push to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. According to media reports, there's no interest in returning to six-party negotiations with North Korea.

I believe there would be interest in returning to negotiations with North Korea if Pyongyang stated that they were prepared to implement the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. That in return for security assurances, economic assistance and the eventual provision of light water reactors, when they return to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, and ultimately establish normal relations with the US and other countries, North Korea was prepared to comprehensively and verifiably dismantle all of their plutonium and uranium enrichment nuclear weapons programs and that they were prepared to immediately cease all missile launches and nuclear tests as they engage in six-party negotiations.

The leadership in North Korea has the power and opportunity to reverse the downward spiral of relations with the international community and return to meaningful negotiations.

This page last updated October 16, 2013 jdb