As South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un prepare for their meeting on Friday, the world will be watching in awe. But has North Korea really agreed to “denuclearize,” as US President Donald Trump tweeted on April 22?
Even international wire service reports have forwarded the breathless narrative that North Korea is ready to ditch its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But what North Korea’s leader actually said in his recent cited speech is quite different and doesn’t by any honest measure amount to a promise to give up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
North Korea’s supposed announcement was actually part of a much longer April 20 speech made by Kim at a plenary meeting with the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang.
In that now widely cited speech, Kim also spoke about the role of education in his nation’s socialist construction and the need to be self-reliant before dropping his supposed bombshell on the country’s WMD program. The text of the wide-ranging speech appeared on the website of the official Korea Central News Agency’s website two days later.
What Kim actually said was “no nuclear test and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] now, given that the work for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets was verified as the whole processes of developing nuclear weapons were carried out in a scientific way and in regular sequence, and the development of delivery and strike means was also made scientifically…The mission of the northern nuclear test ground has thus come to an end.”
In other words, North Korea has completed its nuclear testing program and its missiles are now reputedly capable of delivering atomic bombs. So, then, how to interpret Kim’s vow to dismantle the test site on North Korea’s eastern coast and to disarm, both of which were also mentioned in Kim’s speech?
Skeptics would argue that dismantling a test site does not amount to more than just that. After France carried out six nuclear tests on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in French Polynesia from September 1995 to January 1996, Paris likewise announced it would dismantle its test sites because its nuclear testing was complete.
But that doesn’t mean that France is no longer a nuclear power and that it doesn’t maintain a stockpile of nuclear devices. All of the world’s other nuclear powers have done the same but remain nuclear-capable. India and Pakistan — the world’s two newest nuclear powers — are the only countries apart from North Korea that have carried out nuclear tests in recent decades.
As for denuclearization, Kim said merely that “the discontinuance of the nuclear tests is an important process for worldwide disarmament, and the DPRK will join the international desire and efforts for a total halt to the nuclear tests.” That, however, hardly amounts to a promise of unilateral denuclearization.
Rather, all North Korea will purportedly work for is world peace and halt its tests if other nuclear powers do the same. Kim actually made it quite clear that North Korea has no plans to denuclearize: “The DPRK will never use nuclear weapons nor transfer nuclear weapons or nuclear technology under any circumstances unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocation against the DPRK.”
As long as the US maintains its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang will face what it sees as a nuclear threat. US denuclearization, of course, is not on the table.
North Korea exploded its first of progressively more powerful nuclear devices at the Punggye-ri Test Site on October 9, 2006. Outside observer laboratories in Russia, China and the West estimated its yield at 0.7-2 kilotons. That was followed on May 25, 2009 by the test of a stronger, 2-5.4 kiloton device.
The third test, carried out on February 12, 2013, had a yield of 6-16 kilotons while the fourth, on January 6, 2016, hit somewhere between 7-16.5 kilotons. The fifth, on September 9, 2016, had a yield of 15-25 kilotons and estimates of the supposedly final sixth test on September 3, 2017, a hydrogen bomb, varied widely between 70 and 280 kilotons.
North Korea’s missile tests follow a similar pattern. From the firing of its first, basic SCUD-type missile in 1984, the technology and reach of its projectiles has gradually improved.
After 117 tests, North Korea now possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets not only in the Asia-Pacific region, including American bases in Japan, Guam and the US island state of Hawaii, but also the continental US.
That is all that North Korea would need to “reliably guarantee the security of the state and the safety of the people”, as Kim also said in his April 20 speech. That capability is also the driving force behind Trump’s aggressive approach to North Korea, including threats delivered by Twitter of regime change, targeted strikes and even nuclear war.
Kim also referred in his speech to decisions made at the 7th congress of the WPK, held in May 2016: “The main spirit…is to further accelerate the advance of our revolution under the unfurled banner of self-reliance…[and] simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of a nuclear force and thus attain ahead of schedule the higher goal of socialist construction set forth at the 7th Congress of the WPK.”
North Korea is once again playing a clever diplomatic game with the outside world – as it did in the 1990s and 2012 – when it managed to negotiate badly needed foreign aid in exchange for temporarily halting its WMD tests. None of those past agreements, however, brought an end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Indeed, North Korea secretly continued its research into nuclear weapons and other WMDs while initial deliveries of mostly Western aid took place. This time the stakes are higher with Kim’s upcoming meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in preparation for a possible, though not yet guaranteed, Kim-Trump summit.
Judging by North Korea’s past behavior, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of Kim’s intentions. Despite excited media reports and Trump tweets, there is no indication yet that North Korea has any plan to denuclearize or dismantle its now wide arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Those programs have merely been completed, not ended.