2017 was the year of threats of war and aggressive sabre-rattling statements from Pyongyang and Washington triggered by a nuclear test in September and 16 missile launches demonstrating the dizzying pace of Pyongyang’s missile development. The first year of the new Trump administration in the US saw the first ICBMs developed in the DPRK successfully tested placing the United States mainland in range of nuclear strike from a new world power for the first time in decades. The year also saw the two most provocative launches ever seen from the peninsula; missiles flying over northern Japan triggered sirens and warning systems to be activated. Tensions grew to near unprecedented levels as the world watched the most heated rhetoric between nuclear powers since the cold war. Talk of so-called ‘surgical strikes’ on the DPRK from the US led to threats of immediate retaliation and attacks on South Korea. All these tensions came to a head in November when Pyongyang unveiled the Hwasong-15, a missile with a potential range of 13,000km and a payload capacity of around 1,000kg (according to some analysts). This test marked the demise of the long-running US pledge that North Korea would never be allowed to develop nuclear missile technology able to strike the United States.
A postage stamp from the DPRK in 2017 produced in the aftermath of the Hwasong-15 ICBM testflight
2018 was the year just gone has seen a remarkable turnaround in foreign policy from Pyongyang. The Marshall Kim Jong Un gave his annual address at the new year in which he signalled the completion of the national nuclear force and a renewed focus on raising standards of living for his people and the development of the socialist economy. Participation in the PyeongChang winter olympics marked the start point of months of high-level diplomacy between the two Koreas and between the DPRK and United States. History was made this year, with Chairman Kim Jong Un crossing the military demarcation line in the DMZ and meeting with a sitting US President. However, analysts tend to agree that most of the agreements made have been largely symbolic and as the year comes to a close, the DPRK and US have yet to agree on the meaning of ‘denuclearisation’ leaving the talks in a deadlock. Officials in Washington and Pyongyang have occasionally voiced their frustration, although the US administration insists that talks are progressing despite outbursts from their opposite numbers in Pyongyang that the US has acted ‘gangster-like’ and has acted in bad faith in recent weeks and months.
Marshal Kim Jong Un meets with President Trump in Singapore 2018, the first meeting between sitting leaders of each respective country
So what can we expect in 2019? What options exist of the current round of talks fail? Well, luckily, there is a precedent for almost all of the options we face since this is not the first time that high-level talks have been held between the DPRK and various members of the international community. But first of all:
What is most likely to occur in 2019?
There are some major decisions to be made in the coming months, not by Pyongyang, but by Seoul and Washington. The first and most pressing issue is likely to be sanctions relief. Ever since the North-South summit at Panmunjom, Marshall Kim Jong Un made it clear to President Moon Jae-in and others that his country would only denuclearise if they no longer felt threatened by foreign powers and if such a move were done alongside sanctions relief from the US and international community. So far, sanctions from Washington and the UN have remained in place. This creates 2 major issues for the ongoing negotiations:
1) Pyongyang, so far, has no guarantee that if it relinquishes it’s nuclear arsenal it will see sanctions lifted on it’s economy and therefore it has no significant incentive to dismantle it’s nuclear weapons program. Lifting some of these these sanctions would be a gamble by the US since it would have to trust that it would result in some concrete steps towards denuclearisation from the DPRK and hope that funding from the partially rejuvenated economy is not funnelled into the nuclear program once again. Many prominent analysts have already made it clear that they believe there is no genuine will to denuclearise in Pyongyang, and this overture for peace is simply an attempt to secure sanctions relief. If this is true, then lifting sanctions is a bad idea since it is unlikely that any genuine steps towards denuclearisation would be made and the ‘maximum pressure’ policy of the US would be greatly undermined.
2) Seoul is unable to move forward it’s peace process with Pyongyang whilst certain sanctions remain in place. In recent weeks, a team of experts entered the North and inspected the rail network with a view for potential future modernisation projects in an effort to help Pyongyang build up it’s infrastructure. However, no actual work can begin until sanctions are removed and so 2019 could see a stall in the currently fruitful inter-Korean talks as they become increasingly unable to keep promises made at previous summits and their agreements become more and more symbolic.
If sanctions are not lifted, then it risks an increasingly disinterested Pyongyang which sees private negotiations with Russia and China, who have already begun unofficially lifting sanctions, as more realistic opportunities for rebuilding their economy. Building stronger ties with Russia and China is potentially the best move for the government of the DPRK since they have the capacity to act as a deterrent to the US, preventing any military action against the DPRK and, as two countries who share a relatively friendly border with North Korea, they have the ability to circumvent UN sanctions and illegally work to prop up the economy in the country. All of this could come without any demand for complete, irreversible denuclearisation and the ground work is already in place with Marshall Kim Jong Un having visited Chinese President Xi Jingping three separate times this year and preparing for a rumoured visit to Russia next year.
Marshall Kim Jong Un meets with President Xi Jingping during a flurry of diplomatic activity in 2018
Russian FM Sergei Lavrov visited Pyongyang this year
What options exist for Washington if denuclearisation talks fail?
High level talks with Pyongyang are not unprecedented. The nuclear issue has been a long-running issue in the region and so we have an example of what happens in the aftermath of talks collapsing. In 2003 the DPRK withdrew from the NPT prompting speculation that a nuclear weapons program was active inside the country. The six-party talks were an attempt to curb the nuclear ambitions of General Kim Jong Il through peaceful negotiations involving the DPRK, the ROK, China, Japan, Russia and the US. Despite the unnecessary bureaucracy of involving so many nations in the negotiations, some agreements were made however the talks collapsed due to disagreements and miscommunication between the US and DPRK prompting Pyongyang to perform a satellite launch against the demands of the international community and a month later performing a nuclear test underground. In the aftermath of this failure heavy sanctions were placed on the country. So, what if a similar situation occurred today?
In the last decade, Pyongyang has proven it’s ability to withstand sanctions through illegal trade and other illicit activities. Alongside this, there is growing concern amongst the international community that further sanctions will do nothing but punish the ordinary population in the country since fuel is already in high demand due to restrictions on oil imports which has resulted in fuel being diverted to government and military personnel. This would do nothing more than strengthen the party line that the international community is seeking to destroy the republic and likely raise tensions once again on the peninsula. Sanctions have yet to actually prove effective at forcing the DPRK to the negotiating table since many analysts believe that the ‘maximum pressure’ policy of Trump was not what brought Pyongyang to the table, instead believing that the purpose of the nuclear program was for the DPRK to come to the negotiations and make a deal with the US and it’s allies from an equal standpoint, that of a recognised nuclear power. Sanctions didn’t prevent the DPRK developing weapons last time, and using them again would only antagonise the government further encouraging them to continue building their arsenal.
What about the dreaded military option that was thrown around during the ‘Fire and Fury’ days of 2017? The term ‘surgical strike’ came in the weeks following a successful strike on a Syrian airbase in the wake of a suspected chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces against the US-backed rebels. Could a similar tactic work against the DPRK if talks fail? Probably not. Syria doesn’t have the capability to respond in any meaningful way against the US. The idea of a surgical strike sounds attractive until you begin to look into the details:
1) Targets – Little is known about the location of much of the nuclear weapons program. The main centre of operations is believed to be the Yongbyon nuclear development centre. However, it is not known whether this is the only location where nuclear weapons are able to be produced and the location of already constructed nuclear weapons is not known. The DPRK operates a few dedicated missile launch sites however recent tests have featured TELs (Transporter-Erector-Launcher Vehicles) which negate the need for a fixed launch site for the missiles. One of the ICBM tests over Japan reportedly launched from the Sunan international airport just north of Pyongyang. This means that striking the launch sites would have no real impact on the ability of the Korean People’s Army to respond effectively. Even targeting the leadership is a risky strategy since the movements of the top brass are not published until after their visits and so the likelihood of removing Kim Jong Un and his inner circle are incredibly unrealistic and even an attempt at striking such targets would likely trigger unspeakable retaliation from the DPRK. So, in short, the location of weapons bunkers, development sites and other areas related to the program are pretty much unknown and so any attempted strike would fail to hamper weapons development or weapon deployability.
2) Retaliation – Even before the development of ICBMs, there was still a genuine threat from the DPRK since the southern border is lined with heavy artillery within range of Seoul. Any strike, or even a perceived future strike, could have dire consequences for the southern capital since little could be done in the short term to neutralise the threat caused by these artillery pieces. With the development of missile technology, many other cities in the south of the peninsula are within range of conventional and nuclear strikes. Busan, Pohang and other major ports could see total destruction should the DPRK feel as though it is making a final stand against the US, not to mention the numerous bases operated by the US military which would be prime targets during a conflict with Pyongyang. For these reasons, the Republic of Korea has never supported the idea of any military action against the DPRK. However, in recent months with the development of ICBM technology, the United States could be even more wary of any military action as analysts believe the US mainland to be in range of missiles from Korea and the ability to affix nuclear weapons to these missiles and the development level of other required technology such as heat shields and so forth is unknown. In a worst case scenario if the DPRK believes that it has entered a state of all-out war with the US, it could believe that a nuclear strike is a realistic possibility and launch numerous warheads against the mainland United States. The US anti missile defence systems are still in their infancy and so a large scale attack could not be realistically defended against. This mutually assured destruction is what Pyongyang is banking on to protect itself even in times of high tension. Another important issue to take into account is the Chinese position. China and the DPRK are technically still both bound to a 1961 treaty in which they pledged to defend each-other from outside attack, as relations begin to improve between Beijing and Pyongyang, the alliance could render any military action by the US as a ‘suicide strike’.
Yongbyon nuclear facility – a likely target in any surgical strike attempt by the United States
A map showing the extent of the artillery placed on the northern side of the DMZ
My prediction for 2019
One of the first indicators of the direction of DPRK foreign policy for 2019 will be the annual speech from Marshall Kim Jong Un. It was this forum in which, last year, he extended an olive branch to the Republic of Korea and the United States and began the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. This speech will be analysed by countless experts to determine the policy agenda of the government in 2019 in all areas including foreign policy, the economy and military policy. After months of stalled diplomacy, this speech gives Marshall Kim Jong Un an opportunity to appear keen to negotiate and many predict he will call on the US to properly implement the agreement made in Singapore which included resetting US-DPRK relations and working towards a solid peace process, something which Pyongyang likely believed would include a formal end to the Korean war and the relaxing of some key sanctions.
In my opinion, if the US continues with the maximum pressure policy against the DPRK then there is likely to be little progress in 2019 with regards to denuclearisation. The two Koreas have been making progress on infrastructure and economic talks however these are once again hampered by sanctions. The longer this impasse exists, the less patience the DPRK will have for the US side and the more likely it is to walk away. Earlier this year will have already seen Pyongyang threaten to resume testing of their weapons and missiles and so there is a real chance that 2019 could see North Korea break their self-imposed moratorium on missile testing to prove a point to Washington and this could lead to the breakdown of talks and a potential splintering of the ROK-US alliance as the US fails to make headway whilst Seoul and Pyongyang continue to make improve relations.
The worst case scenario is a return to 2017, if talks fail for a second time in 20 years then there will be little appetite for resuming talks in the future. With many experts believing that Pyongyang has no real intention to abandon it’s weapons, we could be heading for a year of continued obstacles as it becomes increasingly clear that a deal suiting both parties is a pipe dream and can never be truly realised. This is the opinion that I will continue to hold until evidence suggests otherwise. However denuclearisation is not the only focus for the year ahead – the economy in the DPRK is set to take centre stage under a new economic development plan being enacted in which the living standards of the citizens could be seen to rise. Again, much of this is dependent on sanctions relief which is intrinsically linked to the ongoing nuclear talks, however 2018 threw up new and unexpected situations which so far have led us to a more peaceful Korea, my only hope is that spirit continues through 2019 and even if talks falter, all governments involved should not allow themselves to fall back into the warmongering days of years gone by and we should all keep looking and hoping for a brighter future.
That’s too optimistic… but it’s been a better year than last and what will happen next year remains to be seen.
Marshall Kim Jong Un in a selfie taken before the historic Singapore summit in 2018