The ICAS Lectures


State of North Korean Issues, Regional Security, and US National Security

Joseph R. DeTrani

ICAS Winter Symposium

February 26, 2015, 2:15 PM - 5:15 PM
Rayburn House Office Building Room #2456
Capitol Hill Washington DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Joseph R. DeTrani

State of North Korean Issues, Regional Security, and US National Security

Joseph R. DeTrani
Ambassador and President, INSA
February 26, 2015

On January 18 and 19, six North Korean officials, with its Vice Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho, in the lead, met with me and three colleagues for unofficial track 2 discussions on the poor state of relations between the U.S. and North Korea (DPRK). Our last meeting with this group was in October 2013.

The discussions were cordial and candid. North Korea’s objective was clear: Argue for the suspension of joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, in return for a moratorium on nuclear tests. Vice Minister Ri said military exercises were a threat to a North Korea convinced that its objective was regime change. Suspending military exercises would build trust, he said, with North Korea then halting nuclear tests and efforts to miniaturize its nuclear weapons. Ri’s initial comments also dealt with efforts to improve North Korea’s economy and efforts to improve relations with countries in Europe, Africa and Latin America. He mentioned China once, saying relations were normal, while noting that relations were improving with Russia. He contrasted U.S. improved relations with Cuba and Iran with its hard line policy toward North Korea. He said the lead role of the U.S. in condemning North Korea in the United Nations for human right violations and, separately, for the hacking of Sony Pictures were proof of a hostile policy.

My colleagues and I told Vice Minister Ri that the North’s recent proposal to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea was unrealistic. The U.S. and South Korea are allies and have conducted these joint military exercises for over 40 years, insuring that the U.S.-South Korea Joint Military Command is prepared to respond to any military provocation from the North. Regime change in the North is not the objective of these military exercises. Indeed, the exercises are between allies and never part of denuclearization negotiations.

Much time was spent telling Vice Minister Ri that in our opinion no one in Washington currently is interested in a dialogue with North Korea. That since Kim Jong Un took over in December 2011, relations with the U.S. and the international community have deteriorated to its lowest level. Launching missiles, conducting a nuclear test, threatening the U.S. with a pre-emptive nuclear attack and its recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures convinced the U.S. that North Korea was and is a threat to regional and global security. The subject matter experts who follow North Korea also are convinced that North Korea will never dismantle its nuclear weapons program and thus dialogue and negotiations with North Korea would be useless. That the North’s decision to enshrine its nuclear program in the state’s constitution, in line with its Byongjin policy of pursuing economic development and nuclear progress, was further proof that North Korea would never dismantle its nuclear weapons.

In that context, Minister Ri was told that any remote chance of a dialogue with the U.S., in our unofficial view, would at a minimum require a commitment from North Korea that the leadership in Pyongyang was and is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in line with the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement signed in Beijing, between North Korea and the other five countries part of the Six Party Talks negotiations. Thus any North Korea overture to the U.S., via unofficial or official channels, must include, in our view, a statement that North Korea is committed to the ultimate objective of the comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Vice Minister Ri said that many in Pyongyang don’t like the September 2005 Joint Statement, maintaining that the Joint Statement requires that the North dismantle its nuclear weapons and nuclear programs before they accrue any benefits. Vice Minister Ri was told that his colleagues in Pyongyang who negotiated this agreement know that it’s based on an “action for action” formula, whereby all actions by the six countries are taken simultaneously, with North Korea receiving security assurances and economic assistance as they take steps to dismantle its nuclear programs, with an eventual dialogue on the provision of light water reactors, as they make progress with dismantlement. Vice Minister Ri rhetorically asked if normalization of relations with the U.S. would follow the dismantlement of its nuclear programs. He was told what he knew: Normalization is a bilateral issue and with denuclearization, bilateral discussions with the U.S. would be possible. These discussions would focus on North Korea’s illicit activities, i.e. counterfeiting of U.S. currency and pharmaceuticals and detailed discussions on human rights issues, to include transparency and benchmarks on progress dealing with this issue, and time lines for progress. It was mentioned that with such a dialogue and with progress on these important bilateral issues, the establishment of Interest Sections or Liaison Offices in our respective capitals could be possible, in our unofficial view, prior to the establishment of normal relations.

After two days of these frank but cordial discussions, Vice Minister Ri left us with the clear impression that he would share with his leadership our view that North Korea must include, in any overture to the U.S., a statement committing North Korea to the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in line with the September 2005 Joint Statement. With this commitment, we said, there may be a better chance that the U.S. would be willing to enter into direct official discussions with North Korea.

For someone like me who has been working and following issues with North Korea since 2000, it would seem prudent to meet officially with North Korea if they express a willingness to dismantle all of its nuclear programs, to include their uranium enrichment program, and pursuant to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, eventually permit IAEA monitors and inspectors into North Korea to insure that dismantlement of these programs is comprehensive and verifiable. Given enduring religious and territorial conflict in the Middle East and the escalating terrorist threat in that region and in Africa and Russia’s moves in Ukraine, it may develop that issues with North Korea prove to be less enduring and resolvable. Only be engaging with North Korea will we be able to make this determination.

The reality is that if we do not engage North Korea and halt their nuclear and missile programs, they will fabricate more nuclear weapons and missiles, to include the test launching of its KN-08 mobile, solid fuel missile capable of reaching the whole of the U.S. Additionally, North Korea's neighbors, like South Korea and Japan will, in my view, pursue their own nuclear weapons programs which will result in a nuclear arms race in the region. Compounding these negative developments is the reality of proliferation. It's possible, some say likely, that North Korea will sell these missiles and possibly even nuclear materials to rogue states which, possibly, could get into the hands of non-state terrorist actors bent on harming the U.S. and its allies and partners. In short, not engaging North Korea to determine if denuclearization is possible is not a viable approach. Rather, engaging and hopefully committing North Korea to comprehensive and verifiable denculearization, in return for security assurances, economic deliverables and, ultimately, a dialogue on the provision of light water reactors and, bilaterally, the normalization of relations, is a preferable path forward. If North Korea refuses to denuclearize and implement the September 2005 Joint Statement, then the international community will have to manage this unfortunate development, to ensure peace and security in the region and globally.

Thank you for the invitation to speak at the 2015 ICAS Winter Symposium. I commend Dr. Kim for his humanitarian efforts to resolve issues with the DPRK. J. DeTrani

This page last updated March 5, 2015 jdb