Almost two months have passed since the historic meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea that took place in Singapore on June 12. Nuclear weapons in the possession of Kim Jong Un, that are theoretically capable of reaching the continental U.S., as well as the Trump administration’s desire to make history, especially before midterm elections in November, have brought President Donald Trump to the negotiation table.
As the result of the meeting, the parties signed a joined agreement that laid our four points for a foundation of establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula by denuclearizing DPRK. While the declaration has a historical significance, the White House must not hurry to uncork a champagne to celebrate an “eliminated nuclear threat from North Korea,” as Pyongyang continues its course of nuclear development despite the promises that its leader gave in Singapore.
If we want to truly bring lasting peace to the Far East region, we must analyze the ongoing processes in North Korea thoroughly and objectively. Let us look closely at the real steps that have been taken by the North Korean political establishment in its international and domestic policy regarding its nuclear and missile programs that the Trump administration must watch closely and react accordingly.
Kim’s New Year’s address:
An address that Kim presented on New Year’s Day before his nation was a tremendous step viewed as a beginning of the new era in the relations between the Koreas that have been split for many decades. The rouge leader said “the prevailing situation demands that now the north and the south improve the relations between themselves and take decisive measures for achieving a breakthrough for independent reunification without being obsessed by bygone days.” Thus, the nuclear missile launches, threats and provocations were meant to be over. Kim was satisfied with the results of the nuclear advancements and put a halt on any further nuclear tests before the Olympic Games hosted by South Korea.
Then, the world watched with relief as the leaders of the two Koreas shook hands in a village of Panmunjom located in demilitarized zone this April. In their joint release, Kim and Moon announced their “common goal” of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, which was the clearest such commitment ever agreed upon by the two nations.
On the other hand, in the same New Year’s address, Kim practically laid a groundwork for North Korean industry: “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action.” Obviously, that does not sound like a regime willing to give up its nuclear ambitions and take course on a denuclearization.
It looks like Kim tries to outplay Trump by temporarily freezing old and secondary nuclear facilities to focus on the development of new ones that are now being upgraded. These include, for example, plants for solid-fuel ballistic missiles production and secret sites for production of enriched uranium. North Korea remains a threat, and the U.S. must continue to view it as it is.
Kim’s nuclear capabilities and advancements.
There is already evidence of Kim’s unwillingness to disarm. This evidence became public thanks to leaked reports of U.S. intelligence agencies. According to it, North Korea has increased its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months — and that Kim may try to hide those facilities as he seeks more concessions in nuclear talks with the Trump administration. Reports indicated, that Pyongyang’s main nuclear site, Yongbyon, is up and running. This site is a centerpiece of artificial plutonium production. According to the approximate estimates, Yongbyon has already produced 24 nuclear warheads.
It is likely that an underground nuclear facility in Kaesong whose capabilities surpass ones of Yongbyong twice, also remains fully functional. Currently, one can only speculate whether the remaining facilities in Pakchon, Chonma-san and Yongjo-ri were shut down. Thus, production and enrichment of nuclear fuel in North Korea were ongoing even during the Singapore Summit.
Simultaneously with his nuclear program, Kim continues to make advances in his missile program that aims to develop solid-fuel missiles that are more efficient than liquid-fuel ones in terms of launch time and fueling. On the positive note, Kim has started to dismantle key facilities at his main satellite launch site in Sahae, but the site’s foundations have not yet been removed.
On April 20, Kim directed the closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and announced that North Korea would cease testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. He, however, did not reverse his order to produce new missiles and warheads. Also, Magunpo Rocket Engine Test Facility and Hamhyung University of Chemical Industry — key sites for solid-fuel missile development and testing, are intact. Moreover, a missile-manufacturing plant in Hamhyung had been expanded after the Singapore Summit. It produces key engines for solid-fuel ballistic missiles as well as other missile components, including re-entry vehicles for warheads.
Currently, Pyongyang possesses two types of solid-fuel ballistic missiles — Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-2, both are medium-ranged. The missiles’ range makes them best suited for use against targets in Japan, including U.S. military installations on Japan’s four main islands and Okinawa. According to a recent assessment released by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center, North Korea has continued to produce vehicles and support equipment for its Pukguksong-2.
Conclusions for the U.S.
It’s significant that this disturbing activity of Pyongyang does not directly violate the Singapore declaration, since North Korea did not take any legal obligations to give up its nuclear weapons.
In the near future, the parties will need to work on a “road map” that would specify concrete steps of denuclearization. Till then, North Korea will likely continue to develop and expands its nuclear capabilities, simultaneously closing some nonessential sites in smoke and mirrors. But we must understand, that even destroyed Punggye-ri may be rebuilt, as there are still intact entrances and tunnels. If threatened, Kim would easily dismiss a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear testing.
Comforting ourselves with the idea that North Korea has became peaceful and friendly is simply dangerous. The Trump administration must not ignore a new-growing threat from Pyongyang. Denuclearization of North Korea is essential for the international peace, thus is must be organized and controlled consistently and thoroughly, and not to be faked.
Lastly, we may assume that the brazen policy on Pyongyang is partially inspired by Beijing that relived the sanctions on DPRK after the Singapore Summit. Obviously, China has more leverage to control its Eastern neighbor than the U.S., and may try to loosen a leash on Pyongyang as a revenge for the tariffs’ war with the U.S.
No matter what, the U.S. remains the only superpower and can deal with these challenges in its best interests if it stays persistent and vigilant.
Kyrylenko, a PhD from Odessa National University, is a Research Associate at GeoStrategic Analysis in Arlington, Va.
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