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Can North Korea Surrender Its Nuclear Arsenal?

June 27, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The whole world breathed a collective sigh of relief on June 12, when US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un signed an accord in Singapore that had four vital stipulations. First, Washington, DC and Pyongyang are now on good terms. Second, they’ll strive to achieve lasting peace. Third, both countries promised to keep working toward “denuclearization.” Fourth and last, North Korea agreed to repatriate the remains of Americans killed in the Korean War.

No matter what the critics dish out, the breakthrough in Singapore meant the risk of destructive conflict in East Asia has subsided–for now. But there’s still uncertainty about North Korea’s pivot from its brinkmanship. Will Pyongyang even be nice enough to surrender its nuclear arsenal?

Here are a collection of insights and views shared in the post-Singapore afterglow.

Doubt and skepticism are par for the course when making sense of Trump’s foreign policy choices. He did, in fact, abruptly announce that US war games in South Korea were to stop soon after his one-on-one with Kim Jong Un. But some post-Singapore assessments were dryer than others. A fine example is Andrei Lankov’s review for NK News that didn’t mince words.

“Well, what have the two sides agreed on?” Lankov wrote. “The short answer is: pretty much nothing. The final statement is devoid of any references to concrete measures and largely consists of nebulous declarations.”

The same author also offered a grim warning. According to Lankov, “The North Koreans will never surrender their nuclear weapons… the DPRK elite sincerely believes that without nuclear weapons it is doomed.”

These sentiments were echoed by Uri Friedman for The Atlantic in Trump Got Nearly Nothing From Kim Jong Un that dismissed the summit’s outcome. “[Trump] has little of substance to show for it beyond chummier relations with Kim—for the moment, at least,” he wrote.

A less pessimistic and remarkably hopeful outlook was offered by a resident expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Victor Cha was convinced a global crisis was averted and this is what mattered. “Despite its many flaws, the Singapore Summit represents the start of a diplomatic process that takes us away from the brink of nuclear war that we were potentially headed toward only six months ago,” he said. “North Korea is the land of lousy options, and while the Singapore Summit’s outcome is not great, it is less bad than the path to war.”

To some extent Pyongyang has already reciprocated Trump’s generosity–he cancelled joint military exercises with South Korea–by deactivating a facility for testing rocket engines. The US, on the other hand, expects another less sensational meeting to be held in July between handpicked negotiators, including the US’ own Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and North Korean officials where the nuts and bolts of denuclearization are laid down.

But two weeks later and it appears the meeting in Singapore was just for appearance’s sake. No less than Pompeo himself admitted that no schedule is in place for North Korea’s disarmament. It’s worrisome because the accord signed by Trump and Kim was only two pages and a little over 400 words long; it didn’t contain detailed provisions on how both sides will transact “denuclearization,” which the US insists must be complete, verifiable, and irreversible.

Another reason why concrete steps toward relieving North Korea of its nuclear weapons must happen–though many experts believe this is impossible–is because so little is known about this fledgling arsenal. The best public intelligence on Pyongyang’s nukes don’t reveal how many are deployed and where their locations are. What is certain, however, is what used to be a large collection of short-range rockets has now grown to include the intermediate and intercontinental-range Hwasong missiles.

The motivations driving North Korea’s WMD program aren’t clear either. But at least two credible assumptions seem plausible. First is building a more powerful offensive capability that surpasses its withered air force and naval fleet. Second, and in light of its frantic missile tests from 2016 until 2017, is making sure an attack from South Korea that’s led by the US never materializes since it can target American cities on the West Coast and maybe even the Midwest in retaliation.

Since its first nuclear test in 2006 the scale of nuclear weapons production in North Korea is believed to be modest, with a high estimate reaching several dozen warheads. Its present arsenal of missiles have ranges between 500 and 1,500 kilometers while an unverified quantity comprise newer models that can travel from 4,000 to 11,000 km.

The thaw following events in Singapore might be short-lived if no other concessions are made by Pyongyang and Washington, DC this year. It’s worth remembering North Korea hasn’t moved its conventional artillery from the DMZ, although this is being discussed at the moment, nor has it been open about its research into chemical and biological weapons.

It’s worth adding how, amid the fire and fury of nuclear missile tests last year, the world overlooked Kim Jong Un’s efforts at modernizing his country’s armed forces. So beyond the hope of “denuclearizing” an incorrigible rogue state at some point, what has actually changed? Can Kim give up his nukes? There’s a good chance he won’t. Ever.

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