North Korea: No Missile Tests, But Is Kim Jong Un Capable of Denuking?


Last IAEA Team in North Korea, April 2009

When President Trump and President Moon talk in New York, they should take a moment to reflect on the improved situation with North Korea.  No missile tests for 10 months.  And very intense negotiations on denuclearization.  It’s excellent progress.  So why aren’t the press and analysts cheering?


The lingering worry from a military perspective is, what is Kim Jong Un hiding?  North Korea has put long-range artillery in caves for decades.  What if Kim is hiding missiles and nuclear weapons in the caves?  Can the world ever be sure?  It might take an army of IAEA inspectors to check every cave.  And history shows its basically impossible to find all weapons of mass destruction hide sites – that’s what kept the US and Coalition in Afghanistan for so long after 2001. Many in Washington dismiss all activity from North Korea because of previous disappointments stretching back to the Bush and Clinton administrations.   Washington insiders have long regarded North Korea as a problem no one could solve.  Obama, as we know, gave up.  The result in the “strategic patience” period from 2009 to 2016 was 88 missile shots and 4 nuclear test detonations.


Now it’s all stopped.  The reason is the UN sanctions, Trump’s military pressure and the firm cooperation of  South Korea, Japan, Britain, China and Russia and others.  Trump and Mattis were right to warn Kim they’d retaliate if necessary after Kim launched another 25 missiles in 2017 and conducted a very large nuclear test.  To be sure, Kim Jong Un declared his nuclear and missile arsenal “complete.”  This was big talk.  Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Paul Selva has twice said the North Korean intercontinental missile tests did not include warhead re-entry or a realistic targeting trajectory.  North Korea still has an iffy “rogue” arsenal which the US ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California were designed to take down. 


Kim Jong Un has the chance to trade nuclear weapons for economic development and revitalization of North Korea.  Maybe that option began to look good in the fall of 2017 after the US, China and others applied firm pressure.  Maybe Kim started thinking about how to keep his job.  In January 2018, Kim delivered a speech touting economic growth.  By the time of the Pyeonchang 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim, his sister and the North Korean elite decided if they want to stay in power, it’s time to talk. 


Negotiations are at a crucial stage. President Moon of South Korea has poured more political capital into the blossoming inter-Korean dialogue.  Moon has been a staunch ally, with 28,000 US forces in South Korea and a working THAAD missile defense system, which Moon deployed in 2017, despite China’s bullying. 


Kim Jong Un has done just enough to keep on track with the denuking pledged in Singapore.  Closing up part of the missile test site is a legitimate step. But the next step is a big one: entry of IAEA inspectors.  The IAEA (created by the UN) has a Safeguards team at the ready.  Japan offered to pay the bill.  Now Kim Jong Un must allow in an IAEA team, deliver an inventory, and prepare to ship out spent uranium fuel rods.   I’m not sticking up for him, but this is a truly tough step for the young Stalinist dictator.  It took Ukraine four years to denuclearize in the early 1990s under Sen. Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative. 


All signs from Pompeo, Pres Moon and Kim himself indicate this is exactly what is being discussed in high-intensity private discussion.  You know they are burning up the phone lines keeping this moving.  China appears to be on board, even as they are reeling from the shock of the US pushing back on trade for the first time in 20 years. 


So be glad every time you hear nice words about President Trump coming from North Korea.  It’s a signal there’s still hope.  The sanctions and military pressure are holding.  The one thing that will make denuclearization work now is good will between Trump and Kim.  President Moon of South Korea is giving it his all – and so should we.