On November 16, 2022, as part of the project “Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament”, the Academy held a special briefing exclusively for Congressional staff on the topic of North Korea. Chaired by project leader Steven E. Miller, the panel featured experts Mark Fitzpatrick (International Institute for Strategic Studies) and Suzanne DiMaggio (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), with introductions from Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), co-chair of the Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group (C-NSWG), and Representative Bill Foster (D-IL), former co-chair of the C-NSWG.
From the outset, speakers agreed that there are many world events, not least the current war in Ukraine, that have overshadowed other developments in world politics. In this light, North Korea’s steady progress on nuclear and missile technologies has largely flown under the radar of public attention. It was also noted that Congressional attention span behaves in much the same way: if an issue is not imminently influencing the next election it tends to be under-investigated, with little concern given to low-probability/high-risk events. This of course is a particular danger regarding nuclear weapons: Congressional voices urged the Academy to continue to provide briefings, share expertise, and highlight important developments.
Both speakers observed the unprecedented number of missiles that North Korea has launched this year: between 75-85 tests of different technologies, including Inter-Continental Ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the continental U.S. and hypersonic and short-range missiles, all delivered from a wide range of platforms. It is assumed that the leadership is intent on deterring any kind of pre-emptive strike by adversaries, in demonstrating that North Korea can quickly escalate across diverse platforms and sites. One speaker estimated that North Korea has enough fissile material – both uranium and plutonium from its indigenous and self-sufficient nuclear fuel cycle – to build approximately 50 nuclear bombs. Furthermore, they are miniaturizing the warheads to equip the range of missiles in their arsenal. Both speakers noted that it is largely expected North Korea will test a nuclear weapon again in the near future, for the seventh time in the relatively short history of its nuclear program but first since 2017.
Due to North Korea’s "first-use" policy, many of its nuclear weapons are on ‘hair-trigger’ alert, a dangerous situation that leaves room for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. Nuclear weapons are central to the North Korean sense of regime survival and are assumed to be directed at deterring a U.S. or South Korean invasion. Most recently, on September 9, 2022, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung Un, announced that the country’s status as a nuclear weapons state is “irreversible” and that they would never relinquish their nuclear weapons in future negotiations (something they previously had agreed to in negotiations with the US, as recently as the 2018 Singapore summit but stretching back to the 1994 Agreed Framework).
This leaves the United States and allies, who have maintained a policy for over thirty years that the Korean peninsula must be “denuclearized,” in a difficult position. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, speakers observed that there has been an uptick in nuclear rhetoric and North Korea is seeking to exploit the deterioration in great power relations. Both Russia and China have played important and constructive roles in multilateral diplomacy on North Korea in the past, but there seems little prospect for cooperation amid a zero-sum atmosphere.
Unfortunately, as one speaker framed it, the chances of misperception and miscalculation are greater today than even one year ago. However, both speakers emphasized that bilateral diplomacy between the US and North Korea is worth pursuing, presuming that Congress can provide the Administration with a little breathing space in recognition of the very different global context and the utmost importance of avoiding any conflict in Northeast Asia. It is worth beginning with a different approach of what is realistically possible. Emphasis should be placed on a proactive effort to establish a reliable and sustained communications channel with Pyongyang. Beyond that, focusing on risk reduction and outlining incremental steps where denuclearization is a long-term objective rather than a precondition would seem to offer the best path forward to progress.