North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. Photo: KCNA

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, North Korea has been a black hole for US foreign policy. For President-elect Joe Biden, that hole threatens to be deeper and darker than ever.

US administrations have come and gone, but all have failed to cap Pyongyang’s ever-expanding atomic arsenal since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.

While “denuclearization” dominates US policy toward the state, its political and practical challenges are colossal and probably insurmountable. Politically, few believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will abandon his “sacred sword.”

Technically, no precedent exists for a country with nuclear programs as advanced and as extensive as in North Korea to denuclearize. And even if denuclearization was underway, “verification to zero” is physically impossible, experts say.

This, they say, leaves the incoming Biden administration minimal space for a win on North Korea. Moreover, upon entering office, it is likely to have its hands fully occupied with Covid-19 containment domestically and China policy abroad.

Yet hope springs eternal.

American and South Korean experts speaking at the government-sponsored 2020 International Symposium/Webinar on Sustainable Peace on the Korean Peninsula at Seoul’s Yonsei University on Thursday not only laid out the challenges but also indicated that Biden’s experience and team are well geared to deal with North Korea.

The strongest suggestions to emerge were for the US to de-prioritize the end game – a denuclearized North Korea – and instead focus on a viable front game of thawing relations via confidence-building baby steps towards a “peace regime” on the peninsula.

Impossible, unprecedented tasks

The standout acronym used among wonks engaged in North Korean nuclear policy is CVID, an acronym for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”  

But the concept is practically inapplicable to North Korea, said one expert, even if North Korea did decommission its nuclear facilities.

“At the end of the day, North Korea will always be a threshold state – they know how to produce fissile materials and ballistic missiles,” said Robert Gallucci, the lead US negotiator of the “Agreed Framework” nuclear deal of 1994, which was eventually quashed by the George W Bush administration.

“Once it has built (nuclear facilities) it will be able to do it again – there is nothing that makes sense in ‘irreversible denuclearization.’”

What makes “verification to zero” impossible, he said, is the size of a warhead’s nuclear core.

“The amount of fissile material you need to blow up a city in Japan is the size of a baseball,” Gallucci said. “How many baseballs can you hide in North Korea? Are we going to be sure we have every baseball collected?”

A screengrab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020, shows what appears to be a new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile during a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

Siegfried Hecker, a US expert who formerly directed the Los Alamos Laboratory, the premier US nuclear weapons design facility, reckons Pyongyang now possesses about 45 nuclear devices, while other estimates are higher.

Moreover, the vast scale of the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile infrastructure that North Korea has amassed is not grasped by most.

“I see the term denuclearization being used loosely without people really understanding what it means,” said Hecker, who has been granted high-level access to North Korean nuclear facilities on seven visits to the state.

The process of acquiring nuclear arms first requires uranium to be converted into nuclear fuel, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU).

In addition to uranium mining operations, large facilities including reactors for plutonium and centrifuges for HEU are required, as is a processing plant. The central North Korean nuclear facility, Yongbyon, some 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, holds all these, though two other centrifuge sites are believed to exist elsewhere in the country.

“These are enormous operations, with hundreds of facilities and several thousand people,” said Hecker, who was shown inside the North Korean HEU lab in 2010.

A design bureau comprising scientists and computers is required to weaponize the materials. In North Korea, this is the Nuclear Weapons Institute, Pyongyang’s equivalent to Los Alamos. Devices then need to be tested are done at its underground site at Pungye-ri.

For the common nuclear delivery vehicle – a ballistic missile – design bureaus, factories and rocket motor testing facilities are required, as are massive mobile launchers. The end results are overseen by the military’s Strategic Missile Forces.

“It is a huge technical and military enterprise and they are very competent and very professional – most things are indigenously built,” Hecker said. It is not just resources. “Enormous pride” has been invested, he noted.

“Some people see North Korea as a poor destitute country … but North Korea has done this,” he said. “Very few countries in the world would have been able to do it.”

The denuclearization of an eco-system this vast “has never happened in history,” Hecker said. Only four countries have verifiably denuclearized – Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Ukraine – and none had anything close to the capabilities North Korea has amassed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un points to a device with the characteristic two-hemisphere peanut shape of a fusion bomb in an image released by North Korean state media in 2017. Officials in Pyongyang said the object was a hydrogen bomb. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/AGU

And the foregoing are just the technical issues, Hecker said.

“Militarily and politically, it is even more difficult as they rely on these weapons for the security of their regime and their country,” he said. “The military-nuclear complex is not going to be happy with denuclearization.”

Now it’s Joe’s turn

Not only did the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all fail to halt North Korea’s nuclear advances, North Korea inexorably increased the size and sophistication of its deterrent during all those terms, Hecker noted.  

Washington’s toolbox is looking barren. “Maximum pressure through sanctions has had a limited effect,” said Kim Joon-hyung of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. And due to the stupefying risks of a nuclear war in Northeast Asia, there is no feasible military option.

That leaves diplomacy. So what does Biden bring to the table?

“Many say the Biden administration will be a lot like the Obama administration in its approach to North Korea and will go back to what is called ‘strategic patience,’ but that is misplaced in my view,” said Joseph Yun a former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan.

“Biden’s instinct is to engage with anyone and everyone. He really does believe in diplomacy.”

Indeed, Biden’s prior foreign policy expertise outweighs not only Donald Trump’s, but also Barack Obama’s, who entered the White House with largely domestic experience under his belt.

Biden’s interest in North Korea dates back to the early 1990s when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. “I know he has maintained his interest in North Korea,” said Yun. “He is coming to the job fully aware that North Korean denuclearization is not going to happen any time soon.”

Yun was “very encouraged” by Biden’s appointment of Antony Blinken as incoming secretary of state, noting the depth of the latter’s experience in Northeast Asia as deputy secretary of state.

Then US Vice-President Joe Biden looks through binoculars towards North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette during a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, near the border village of Panmunjom, on December 7, 2013. Photo: AFP/Lee Jin-man

Experts were critical of the Trump administration’s strategy, under which Pyongyang would receive economic benefits only after first denuclearizing.

“I don’t think we were wise to insist that North Korea identify all its facilities and tell us where they were, so we could expect dismantlement before sanctions were lifted, and before the normalization of relations,” said Gallucci. “That struck me as nuts.”

“‘No sanctions relief until after denuclearization’ was a non-starter,” added Kim. “You don’t have to be a fan of Kim Jong Un to see why North Korea refused the deal.”

There was also criticism of Trump’s “all or nothing” negotiating stance.

While many observers had anticipated a “small deal” during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in 2019, when Pyongyang had offered a pledge to decommission Yongbyon, Trump negotiators held out for a “big deal” to include all facilities.

The summit imploded and there have been no substantive breakthroughs since.

Even so, Trump, the first US president to open a direct line of communication with a North Korean leader, set a precedent that experts recommend Biden to follow.

“Denuclearization has not found momentum through summits so far, but I would like Biden to consider a summit meeting,” said Lee Jeong-seok, a former South Korean Unification Minister. “That would make a great format to start a peacebuilding process.” 

And such continuity would help paper over cracks between the outgoing and incoming administration, cracks which perplex Pyongyang.

“Every time power is transitioned in US politics, things change abruptly and that leaves confusion,” Lee said. “North Korea sees the US as a whimsical country.” 

New approach needed

Yun argued against Trump’s bilateral approach, which frequently ignored Seoul and Tokyo.

“It is becoming clear that the US cannot do this all alone,” he said. “US power is not what it used to be – China has come up, South Korea has come up and North Korean capabilities have increased – so it makes sense to be more multilateral.”

Biden is widely expected to consult more closely with US allies than did Trump. And when Biden takes power, it will be the first time since the tail end of the Clinton presidency that democratic parties have held power in both Seoul and Washington.

“I don’t see a discrepancy between Moon and Biden,” said a senior presidential advisor on national security and international affairs, Moon Chung-in (no relation). “They are on the same path of dealing with the North Korea problem.”

South Korea President Moon Jae-in with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (right). Photo: AFP/KCNA/KNS

While Trump bypassed Moon to deal directly with Kim, and the current status of Kim’s relationship with Moon is unclear, Seoul has a key role to play as an intermediary.

“Even though you may worry about the agenda of an intermediary, if they are helpful it is very much accepted,” said Yun. “South Korea has a special role to play. I know Washington expects it and I think Pyongyang expects it.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s agenda on North Korea is not restricted to denuclearization.

It encompasses peacekeeping via ongoing deterrence, delivered by the Seoul-Washington alliance, peacemaking through an end-of-war declaration and transition from the 1953 armistice to a lasting peace regime and peacebuilding through a “peace economy” – i.e., cross-DMZ commerce and investment.

Kim of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy calls the challenges facing Moon “a structural trilemma.”

“Moon believes he can maintain deterrence through the alliance and actively pursue a peace regime and denuclearization,” Kim said.

Deprioritizing denuclearization

Yun anticipates the incoming administration will conduct a review of North Korea policy to last until March or April. He fretted about the dangers posed by an impatient North Korea during the period of the review.

“I am very worried about what North Korea will do in the meantime,” Yun said. “If it is the case like 2017, when North Korea welcomed a new president through provocations such as missile launches or nuclear tests, then all bets are off and we are going to be back to pressure.”

To placate Pyongyang in the interim, the Biden camp could reaffirm the 2018 Kim-Trump Singapore Declaration, or invite North Korean officers as exercise observers during spring military drills, suggested Harry Kazianis, a Korea specialist at the National Interest and a member of the foreign policy team for Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Moon wondered whether the Covid-19 crisis could provide an excuse to ditch 2021 drills – always a sensitive issue for Pyongyang, which considers them invasion preparation. That could provide momentum for trust-building between Biden and Kim. Moon said: “Paradoxically, we might be able to have ‘Corona peace.’”

A longer-term strategy could be to return to Kim’s 2019 Hanoi offer. That offer, said Moon, was “screwed up” at the summit by Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. 

“We should repackage Hanoi,” said Kim – i.e., North Korea would undertake the monitored decommissioning of Yongbyon while freezing its strategic weapons programs. In return, the international community would lift sanctions and offer Pyongyang a security guarantee.

Although Yun admitted it is a political impossibility for a US president to publicly accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, in terms of actual policy, denuclearization should be de-prioritized, speakers suggested.

Yun suggested the new administration should take a phased, arms-control style approach to North Korea, in tandem with the kind of peace-building steps championed by Seoul.

“An arms control-type negotiation is moving step-by-step from small agreements to a big agreement, and making sure there are confidence-building measures,” Yun said.

A satellite image of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in North Korea. Photo: AFP/GeoEye

Others agree.

“I think we have to stare the ghost in the face and ask what if North Korea is never going to denuclearize,” said Kazianis. “Does that mean all our jobs on sustainable peace are done?”

“Biden needs to take a step back and put denuclearization at the end of a normalization process with North Korea,” Kazianis said, proposing that a peace treaty to end the Korean War be followed by the opening of liaison offices and then embassies.

Still, nothing will be easy for Biden given the long, dark history of distrust. “Making North Korea keep their promises is very difficult,” said former Unification Minister Lee. “The last 70 years of mistrust cannot be resolved by a handshake.”

Moon, the presidential advisor, insisted that if mistrust can be overcome, denuclearization is feasible.

“There is growing pessimism on the denuclearization of North Korean facilities, materials and weapons, but it’s a matter of conditions,” he insisted.

Citing what he believed to be sincere offers delivered by Kim during the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2018, Moon said: “If North Korea trusts the US, it will go for denuclearization, but not under a hostile environment. The whole issue is how to get rid of the hostile environment.”

Given that denuclearization will inevitably be the end goal for Washington, Hecker, the nuclear scientist, offered an alternative to simple decommissioning.

“I talk about ‘cooperative conversion,’” Hecker said. Under that protocol, the US would “set a security environment that will allow them to convert to a civilian nuclear program – nuclear electricity and nuclear medicine – and turn their missile program into a space program.”