Is North Korea Balking at Denuclearization?
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comJuly 5, 2018
Highlights
  • The political framework for North Korean denuclearization has been worked out at the top level, but the technical details still need to be fleshed out. 
  • Even if North Korea continues to overhaul parts of its nuclear program, the lack of any concrete agreement means that there will not necessarily be a return to the heightened tensions of 2017. 
  • The current situation is a continuation of the negotiation dynamic between the two countries in which the United States signals it is aware of all the details of North Korea's activities. As there is more disclosure, this dynamic will continue.
  • As long as the political framework precedes the technical concerns, there will be hope for a lasting breakthrough.   

The Key Takeaway

It appears that North Korea has, at least until recently, been conducting activities that contribute to the development of its nuclear and missile programs. However, with no agreements yet in place, such activities do not necessarily signal unwillingness to reverse course in exchange for trade-offs from the United States. Signs will emerge in the coming negotiations between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart that will show whether Pyongyang is truly committed to denuclearization – namely, through the disclosure of sites and clearer public statements by North Korea. 

What Happened

According to recently released satellite imagery acquired by the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, North Korea appears to have expanded one of its missile manufacturing plants, the Chemical Material Institute located in the city of Hamhung, between April and June.

The plant produces solid-fueled ballistic missiles and warhead re-entry vehicles, both of which are essential components in North Korea's development of a credible nuclear deterrent. The imagery, released July 2, shows the construction of several new buildings on the site, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited in August 2017 to review expansion activities. It also revealed construction at two facilities nearby; a new entry road was built at one and demolition work was completed at the other.

Some Background

At the historic June 12 summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington and Pyongyang agreed to cooperate toward the eventual goal of ensuring the total denuclearization of North Korea. But they didn't establish any formal details or agreements.

In the weeks following the Trump-Kim meeting, speculation – especially in the U.S. media – has been mounting over whether North Korea truly intends to denuclearize and what exactly the process of denuclearization would look like.

The first of the lower-level post-summit meetings between the United States and North Korea began July 1, when officials from both countries met in the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also rumored to be preparing for a trip to North Korea soon, perhaps as early as July 6. This negotiation phase will be critical in determining whether the two sides can make real progress or whether they will fall back into the well-trodden territory of enmity.

The Broader Picture

The July 2 satellite imagery comes after a week of other reports that North Korea is continuing its missile and nuclear development program. The country has reportedly upgraded facilities around reactors at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and, according to U.S. intelligence leaks, maintained the operation of secret uranium enrichment sites while continuing to manufacture Transporter Erector Launchers for medium-range missiles. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency is also reportedly circulating an internal assessment that North Korea does not intend to engage in full denuclearization.

What Really Matters

In the wake of these reports, the media has speculated that North Korea's construction activities indicate a lack of dedication to the denuclearization process. But as Stratfor noted even before the June 12 summit, the most difficult part of making progress in an outreach effort such as this is always the technical details. And those concrete details can't even be arranged without the greater political will and open communication of those at the top. 

This will be a back-and-forth process, in which North Korea attempts to bluff and the United States uses a variety of tools to call Pyongyang out. 

The United States and North Korea have provided evidence of that political will, and they are beginning the process of hammering out the details. And since no formal deals have yet been made, the North Korean actions between April and June cannot be construed as violations of any agreement.

The first concrete action in the process of denuclearization will be for North Korea to disclose the full scope of its weapons program and facilities. Washington is worried that Pyongyang may try to obfuscate that information. And indeed, it's possible that the week of media leaks about North Korean actions may be an organized attempt by the United States to show that it already has a deep knowledge of the country's weapons program.

Is North Korea Balking at Denuclearization? is republished with permission from Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence platform.

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