The recent and successful ICBM test by North Korea demonstrates the urgency of a strategy to prevent further provocations.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

North Korea’s 4 July launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strengthens the imperative for major nations to coalesce on a strategy to forestall further destabilising missile and nuclear tests. The stakes call for irresistible pressure combined with a diplomatic gambit should leader Kim Jong-un choose a peaceful path. The least of the bad options may be a variation on China’s proposal, backed by Russia, that the United States and the Republic of Korea suspend joint military exercises in exchange for North Korean suspension of nuclear and missile tests.

The US has good reasons to dislike the proposal. Suspending exercises would undermine Washington’s policy of exerting maximum pressure without producing any permanent benefit. I will get to other downsides shortly. Yet it is worth first considering the upsides.

The benefit of a freeze is that without flight testing, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot develop a missile that is reliably capable of hitting major US cities with nuclear weapons. A moratorium on long-range missile tests would also lower tensions and, by removing the incentive for a preventive US attack, preserve peace. 

Most observers believe that rolling back the nuclear-weapons programme is unattainable for the time being. If so, then stopping North Korea from developing better bombs and longer-range missiles is a worthy secondary goal. Former secretary of defense Bill Perry argues passionately for this approach: ‘it is my strongly held view that we don’t have it in our power today to negotiate an end to the nuclear weapons program in North Korea, but we do have it in our power, probably, to lessen the danger, and the number one objective of that would be to stop ICBM testing, stop nuclear testing.’

Talking to China about its freeze proposal will be a necessary condition for it to join in putting heavy pressure on North Korea. China has made it clear that greater cooperation over North Korea hinges on a sincere US effort to negotiate with Pyongyang. In a 28 April speech to the United Nations, for example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that UN resolutions call both for carrying out sanctions and resuming Six-Party Talks.

In addition to a freeze on ICBM and nuclear tests, Perry and others would add a ban on exports by the DPRK of nuclear technology. These three moratoria would all be verifiable remotely by US national technical means. A freeze should also include long-range missile launches short of an ICBM and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment, plus the return of IAEA inspectors, measures that would not pose verification problems and which North Korea had accepted in the 2012 Leap Day Deal. Although that deal very quickly went sour when Pyongyang unilaterally decided that space launches were not included, its acceptance of the other conditions offers a precedent upon which to build. 

Downsides of a double freeze

The arguments against negotiating a freeze are not insurmountable. Critics argue that it would simply lock in North Korea’s strategic advances and give de facto recognition of a nuclear-armed status. The threat to Japan and South Korea would remain undiminished, perhaps giving the misimpression that the US cares only about protecting its own homeland from DPRK missile attacks. Halting joint exercises is out of the question because of the need for military forces to maintain operational readiness. The US also argues that the exercises are purely defensive and thus should not be traded for a halt to DPRK missile launches that are offensive and, under UN resolutions, illegal. 

Opponents of the double suspension proposal note the past cases when negotiated moratoria on missile tests were broken and point to the difficulty of verifying a freeze on fissile material production and missile development activity that should be part of a negotiated freeze. If North Korea is able to continue such work, a freeze that could be broken at any time would not create real security. Critics also worry about the precedent set if North Korea’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were seen to be swept under the rug. 

Freeze first, denuclearise later?

The latter concern is among many reasons why any freeze must be tied to a denuclearisation goal. As long as North Korea rejects this basic premise, the double suspension proposal will go nowhere. An issue is whether North Korea would have to declare the denuclearisation goal before any talks ensued, as has been US policy. The answer is to begin, without conditions, talks about talks.

Aiming for a freeze, as an initial step would not cede the goal of denuclearisation. Nor would talking to North Korea confer recognition of a nuclear-armed status, implicitly or otherwise. Whatever North Korea might boast, a de facto status is only in the mind of the beholder; its negotiating partners would continue to insist on denuclearisation as the goal. 

Rather than halting joint exercises, they could be reduced in scale and length or moved, if military professionals judge that this can be done without undermining their readiness purpose or the affirmation of US deterrence commitments that they represent. Drills practicing ‘decapitation’ might be omitted, for example, as well as overflights by nuclear-capable aircraft, which are only for show. Scaling back the exercises in other ways could be tied to military confidence-building measures that might also relieve North Korea of some of the expense of conducting large-scale exercises. 

Just what the US should be willing to trade for a freeze is contentious. For most American experts, the answer is ‘not much’, given that North Korea is already obliged to stop testing under successive UN Security Council resolutions, and that a freeze is a far cry from the denuclearisation goal. DPRK demands for sanctions relief, removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defence system (portions of which were installed in South Korea earlier this year for protection against DPRK missiles) and any hint of accepting North Korea as a nuclear-armed state should all be rejected. 

It would at least be possible, however, to offer the food assistance that was unofficially tied to the Leap Day deal. The offer was for 240,000 tonnes of ‘nutritional assistance’ such as high-protein biscuits, ‘with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need’. At an estimated cost of US$200 million–US$250m, this was a bargain.

No matter what the quid pro quo, North Korea may not be inclined to consider any limits until it has developed a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the continental US. By then, however, there would be far less value for the other side in a launch moratorium. As Lord Powell explained at a session devoted to the North Korea nuclear issue at this year’s IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, the DPRK would have greater leverage in any negotiations if the topic were broached before it is too late. 

The G-20 summit in Hamburg on 7–8 July is an opportunity for world leaders to unite in putting firm pressure on North Korea. To achieve anything meaningful, however, will require some back-room deal-making on a variation of the double-freeze option.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts