OPINION — It should be crystal clear:  North Korea has nuclear weapons not only for defensive deterrence purposes but, according to Kim Jong-un, to respond to any perceived threat to North Korea and its leadership. 

Kim made these comments at the April 25th military parade in Pyongyang, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.  Kim then doubled down on April 30, as reported by North Korea’s state media, warning that Pyongyang could preemptively use its nuclear weapons to counter hostile forces. 

This is a significant paradigm shift for North Korea.  During almost thirty years of negotiations with North Korea, their message was consistent:  Their nuclear weapons were for deterrence, self-defense, never to be used against the United States or any other country.  Kim’s recent pronouncements make it abundantly clear that their nuclear weapons could be used for offensive purposes, to include its preemptive use against any perceived threat.

Kim is sending the United States and South Korea a message:  The self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and nuclear tests is over, and we are going to build more nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them as far as the United States.  The 13 missiles launched this year included the gigantic Hwasong-17, capable of reaching the whole of the United States, Hypersonic ballistic missiles potentially capable of defeating missile defenses, short-range solid fuel, and cruise missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  This is the overt part of North Korea’s nuclear program.  What we don’t see is the continued production of fissile material for the nuclear weapons these missiles are capable of delivering.

It’s likely the North will conduct its seventh nuclear test within the next few weeks.  The last test was in 2017, assessed as a successful thermonuclear test.  And work continues at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site that was closed and partially dismantled in 2018, during the Trump-Kim summits and North Korea’s goodwill gesture to refrain from any nuclear and ICBM tests.  That did not, however, impede the North from testing short and mid-range ballistic missiles, an existential threat to our allies in South Korea and Japan and to Guam.

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On May 10th, President-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol will be sworn in as South Korea’s new president, replacing Moon Jae-in.  Yoon, a conservative member of the People Power Party, narrowly defeated his liberal opponent from the Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myung. Yoon has made it clear that his focus will be on a close strategic alliance with the United State and improved relations with Japan.  The message to North Korea is equally clear:  Complete and Verifiable denuclearization is the goal and sanctions should not be lifted until the North moves forward with denuclearization. No doubt Yoon’s comment about a preemptive strike when the South detects signs of a (missile) launch from the North also got Pyongyang’s attention.  Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, had criticized in early April South Korea’s defense minister, Suh Wook, for publicly talking about preemptive strikes on North Korea, made after North Korea launched the Hwasong-17 on March 24, ending the North’s four-year moratorium on ICBM launches.

Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war in Ukraine has Kim Jong-un’s attention.  In 1994, Ukraine gave up over 1,900 nuclear warheads to Russia, in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.  That agreement, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, obviously didn’t prevent Russia from invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 and seizing part of the South-Eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.  It certainly didn’t prevent Russia from its 2022 invasion of and war with Ukraine, an independent and sovereign country that willingly gave up its nuclear weapons for so-called security assurances – a commitment that Russia brazenly ignored.

So, assuming we get North Korea back to the negotiation table, it will prove that much more difficult convincing Pyongyang that relinquishing their nuclear weapons will make North Korea more secure and prosperous.  Our negotiators will have to be flexible and creative, with the goal of building trust and confidence that a path to normal relations with the United States will provide North Korea with the security assurances and economic development opportunities that a heavily sanctioned North Korea with nuclear weapons will not have.  But that’s a long way from here, especially now, when all indications are that North Korea has given up on negotiations and is determined to build more nuclear weapons and stay tethered to China and Russia.

China’s Special Representative on the Korean Peninsula, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, arrived in Seoul on Sunday for meetings with officials in the Moon Jae-in government and the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration.   At an impromptu news conference, Liu said the United States and North Korea are responsible for resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and China and South Korea are important cooperation partners in seeking a political solution.

Hopefully, in private discussions in Seoul, Liu also talked about China’s efforts to get North Korea to return to unconditional negotiations with the United States and to refrain from additional missile and nuclear tests.  A China that provides North Korea with over 90% of its crude oil and petroleum products and over 90% of its foreign trade has the leverage to be successful – if they try.

Ignoring nuclear developments with North Korea is not an option.  Whether we like it or not, North Korea is a priority issue that must be dealt with – by China, the United States, South Korea and Japan and the international community.  When a nuclear weapons country like Russia puts their nuclear forces on high alert we correctly are concerned.  When Kim Jong-un talks of preemptively using nuclear weapons we should also be concerned.

This piece by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joe DeTrani was first published in The Washington Times

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