Every effort should be made to stop the surge in North Korea's missile capabilities, according to Mark Fitzpatrick.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS-Americas

Cold temperatures in much of the United States in mid-March have coincided with renewed attention to the concept of seeking a freeze on development of North Korea’s strategic-weapons systems as an interim goal. The idea attracts scepticism for good reason, but given the problems with all of the other policy options, freeze options need to be considered.

While denuclearisation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) must remain the goal, it has become increasingly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Pyongyang may once have been willing to trade elements of its nuclear programme for economic or diplomatic benefits, but five years’ experience with Kim Jong-un strongly suggests that this is no longer the case. Nuclear-armed status is now enshrined in the North Korean constitution, in Kim’s signature policy slogan and in the DPRK’s boasts about new weapons developments.

The past 12 months have seen a remarkable surge in North Korea’s capabilities. More than two dozen missile tests have included a medium-range Musudan missile that could reach all of Japan, a submarine-launched missile that could present multiple new approaches for attack, and solid-fueled systems that can be launched quickly. Tread-tracked launch vehicles provide off-road mobility, making detection far more difficult. A ground test of a warhead heat-shield simulated successful atmospheric re-entry. There was also a ground test of a propulsion system for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

It could soon get much worse. Within the next 12 months, North Korea may well conduct flight tests of warhead re-entry and of an ICBM. There is also a significant possibility that North Korea could conduct a live test of a nuclear-armed missile, exploding it in the ocean. That would certainly get our attention.

Every effort must be made to stop this progress or, second-best, to slow it. The first ICBM test would probably fail, but trying it would cross President Donald Trump’s tweeted red-line. A test of a nuclear-armed missile would cross a brighter redline that all concerned states surely ascribe to, explicitly stated or not. 

Escalating pressure on North Korea via tougher sanctions and other means, overt and covert, is in the works and clearly advisable. North Korea needs to face a clear choice between nuclear weapons and a sustainable economy. But pressure alone will not suffice. Even if concerned states could agree to pressure tactics that would get Kim’s attention without starving his people, such tactics would not prompt a policy change quick enough to stem what Pyongyang surely has in store over the next year. And without an engagement strategy that provides Kim with an off-ramp, he will see no option but to keep his foot on the accelerator. 

Military options are also on the table. They have not been tried before, so as not to spark resumption of the Korean War, with devastation of Seoul via the hundreds of conventional artillery pieces across the nearby demilitarised zone. Discussion of pre-empting North Korean missile tests must take into account the probable North Korean reaction. Diplomacy, morality and common sense dictate that the US not take military action against North Korea without full buy-in from the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, which would bear the brunt of the retaliation. Seoul and Tokyo are highly unlikely to agree unless the pre-emption is directed against a missile being readied for attack against them, not just a test launch. 

Engagement is the least bad of the available options, and should be combined with pressure. A freeze on nuclear and missile tests as well as plutonium- and enrichment-related activity at Yongbyon should be an immediate objective. It would be best to freeze all fissile material production in North Korea, but in reality it is hard to see North Korea agreeing to the necessary verification measures beyond the known facilities at Yongbyon. A moratorium on those facilities and on nuclear and missile tests can be verified externally via satellite imagery and other ‘national technical means’.   

Moratoria are imperfect, including because they can be broken any time. The last one, agreed to on Leap Day 2012, lasted 15 days before Pyongyang announced a space launch that violated the US understanding of the deal. An earlier freeze on the DPRK nuclear programme under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework lasted for several years before Pyongyang violated it by pursuing a uranium-enrichment route to nuclear weapons. This does not mean the deal was a failure. In the eight years before the Agreed Framework officially collapsed, the nation’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium was significantly retarded. That freeze had real value.
Critics of the freeze idea contend that seeking only a moratorium would signal acceptance of North Korea as nuclear-armed. DPRK state media would surely portray it as such. But why should anybody accept North Korean propaganda? Any freeze proposal must continue to be coupled with demands for full denuclearisation, whether achievable or not.

The largest question concerns what price to pay for a freeze. China’s proposal for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for a halt to major US-ROK joint military exercises was appropriately rejected, as it would give in to North Korean extortion. Adjustments to future exercises could be considered, however, such as by not flying in nuclear-capable aircraft. At some point the US should also be willing to consider re-opening a process for concluding a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War.   

No such quid pro quos should be offered without the support of the ROK government, which would rightly want a seat at the table in any peace-treaty talks. Seoul may also want to ensure that a peace treaty did not mean the withdrawal of US forces or an end to the US-ROK alliance.

The current ROK government is skeptical of freeze proposals. Meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Munich on 21 February, ROK Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that a mere freeze on North Korea's nuclear programme would be meaningless in light of its nuclear advances to date and the verification problem with regard to fissile-material production. The way the South Korean media framed the story suggested Tillerson had to be dissuaded from considering a freeze. In his most recent pronouncement, however, the Secretary of State said diplomacy has failed and that is time to ‘take a different approach’. 

The ROK position may soon change. When South Koreans choose a new president on 9 May, the betting is that they will elect a left-leaning candidate inclined to pursue engagement. As the Trump administration reviews policy options regarding the DPRK, the freeze idea should be kept in the mix.

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