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Will North Korea denuclearise?

24 April 2018 Karl Dewey

Although North Korean calls for denuclearisation have sparked hopes of resolving its nuclear programme, such calls are not new. Pyongyang views itself as a fully-fledged nuclear state and has traditionally seen calls to denuclearise in the context of global denuclearisation - a point that has been emphasised through Kim's references to "worldwide disarmament" and the "total halt of nuclear tests."

It is likely that key conceptual differences will remain in interpreting the term "denuclearisation" between North Korea and the US. For example, last year China and the US agreed that efforts to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula should be "complete, verifiable and irreversible." Such an outcome is only possible through a complete declaration of North Korea's nuclear infrastructure by Pyongyang and the permitting of intrusive inspections to verify that sites have indeed been dismantled or converted to alternative uses. Where there is doubt that North Korea's declaration is inaccurate or incomplete, the international community will require a mechanism to investigate and gain confidence that North Korea's has not simply established parallel facilities in which to continue its nuclear activities.

North Korea's several recent conciliatory gestures to support its stated desire to disarm include the discontinuation of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests. It is important to note, however, that such language allows North Korea to resume such tests as required, and does not commit North Korea to cease the development work on such weapons behind the scenes.

Similarly, although Pyongyang has stated it will dismantle the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the site itself is suspected of having structural issues and this may simply be a prudent decision from safety perspective. Furthermore, Punggye-ri's closure does not preclude the possibilities that North Korean engineers are satisfied with the design of their nuclear devices (and thus no longer need to test); that a second facility could be established or the North could escalate to an atmospheric test still. In this sense, North Korea's interpretation of denuclearisation is likely to revolve around decreasing the saliency of nuclear and missile tests in its diplomacy, rather than the complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament desired by the West.

Indeed, resolutions passed following Kim's address to the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) still emphasised the role of nuclear weapons in guaranteeing North Korea's security, stating that "The DPRK will never use nuclear weapons … under any circumstances unless there are nuclear threats and nuclear provocation against the DPRK." While this marks a small clarification to North Korea's April 2013 law on Consolidating the position of nuclear weapons state for self-defence, it hints at the permanence of North Korea's perceptions.

Talks will have to address all of these issues, yet remain mindful of the fact that North Korea is a sovereign state that desires to be regarded as an equal power. In denuclearising the Korean peninsula, North Korea will likely expect reciprocal gestures, which may prompt further debate between the US and its regional allies over what level of forces are necessary to guarantee their security but also signal willingness to engage with Pyongyang.

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