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A nation must think before it acts.
The narrative that the U.S. has made major concessions to North Korea while gaining very little in return is now the mainstream view in the Western expert commentary on the June 12 Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Indeed, the North Korean leader left Singapore having won an enhanced international stature and Trump’s promises to halt “war games” on the Korean peninsula. By contrast, Trump got from Kim almost nothing, except for a vague pledge “to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” However, critics of the Singapore rendezvous overlook the basic fact that the summit itself—and the negotiation process that had led to it—was already premised on a very significant concession from the North: since late 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been observing a de facto moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. The last missile test, that of the Hwasong-15, was carried out in late November, while the last nuclear explosion was conducted in early September.
Admittedly, the much advertised demolition of the Punggye-ri testing site is largely symbolic, as North Korea’s nuclear deterrent may not need any more explosive tests. The six nuclear blows that the North had already conducted since 2006 may have already provided it with sufficient knowledge and data to maintain and advance its military nuclear technology. After all, India and Pakistan conducted about the same number of tests, and no one doubts their nuclear capabilities. But when it comes to delivery systems such as missiles, it is impossible to gain a reliable capability without a robust program of testing including multiple flight-tests. So far, North Korea test-fired the rockets purported to be intercontinental ballistic missiles only three times (two tests of Hwasong-14 in July 2017 and one test of Hwasong-15 in November). As many rocket experts point out, there will always be serious limits to what North Korean engineers will be able to achieve without an ongoing test program. According to one of them, Scott LaFoy, “There is only so much certainty a state can get on a system that has barely been tested. The -14 and -15 need more tests to be credible to foreign states, as well as to give the scientists, engineers, and military more faith in their own system.”
By introducing the testing moratorium, North Korea has stopped just short of developing an operational ICBM that could pose a credible threat to the continental U.S. According to the U.S. military assessments as of December 2017, the North Korean ICBM program was making progress, but was not yet an imminent threat. This evaluation is shared by some Russian military experts. Former Chief of Staff of Russian Strategic Rocket Forces Viktor Yesin estimates that the DPRK does not possess an operational ICMB yet, but would be able to deploy one within two or three years. Every new launch of an ICBM-range rocket would move the North closer to being able to target the U.S. Therefore, the North Korean moratorium on missile flight-tests, which is likely to be observed as long as the negotiations process is on, makes America safer, at least in the interim.
Another underappreciated reality is that while North Korea has frozen the core part of its missile program, the U.S. continues to expand and improve its military capabilities that can be used to neutralize the North’s nuclear deterrent. It goes without saying the U.S. keeps developing and testing its missile defense systems, with investments in such systems set to rise considerably. The same goes for its various ISR and offensive strike capabilities that can—and do—target the North.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action generated much discussion that the withdrawal would kill any chances of reaching an agreement with Pyongyang. However, so far, there is little evidence the Iran question has appreciably influenced North Korean strategic thinking. In the run-up to the Singapore summit and during the summit itself, Iran did not seem to be a major factor. This is not surprising. The DPRK decision-makers have been studying the U.S. since the late 1940s, and they are well aware that Washington can do about-faces on foreign policy issues. The North Koreans have experienced American policy U-turns themselves when, for example, the George W. Bush administration walked away from the 1994 Framework Agreement negotiated under Bill Clinton. In this regard, the Iran situation tells them nothing new. And the North Koreans are smart enough to understand that America’s relations with Iran are set in the unique context of the Middle Eastern geopolitics, quite different from the circumstances of Northeast Asia.
Since the U.S.-DPRK summit has finally taken place, more top-level meetings are expected. Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited Kim to visit Russia, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reportedly keen to meet the North Korean either in Pyongyang or Vladivostok. For all its political and symbolic significance, the North Korea bilateral summitry has its flaws. A particularly serious concern is that, given the deficit of trust, negotiations on a complex security problem—if conducted exclusively in bilateral formats—may raise suspicions that their participants are pursuing hidden agendas to the detriment of the other parties’ interests. Trump suggested that Kim’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early May in Dalian was the reason behind the sudden toughening in the DPRK’s stance. Trump expressed a similar concern about Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang. In the same vein, Beijing and Moscow are likely worried that their strategic interests in Northeast Asia could be shortchanged as a result of the U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks. A multilateral format, when all the important issues are discussed collectively, could alleviate such mutual suspicions.
To ensure its security, North Korea has traditionally relied not only on its military deterrent, but has also performed a skillful game playing on differences among the big powers. A major reason why the Six-Party Talks format—launched in 2003—suited the North was that such an arrangement, in essence, institutionalized the mechanism of checks and balances between the key players in Northeast Asia and made Pyongyang more confident. It can be predicted that the DPRK will again show an interest in restarting multi-party talks in some form for the same reason. If the nuclear problem of the Korean peninsula is to be solved, there are very few, if any, viable alternatives to multi-party negotiations. The phase of spectacular bilateral summitry should serve as a prelude to multilateral (Six-Party?) diplomatic process.