Mansudae Korea

Denuclearisation: How we got here

28th November 2017 – 31st December 2017

After a 10 week break from missile testing at 3am local time on the 28th of November 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea first test launched the new Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile from somewhere near Pyongsong, the capital of South Hwanghae Province.

The missile was the second launch vehicle deployed by the DPRK to be classified as an ICBM following the unveiling of the Hwasong-14 missile on the 4th of July the same year.

The estimated operational range of the new Hwasong-15 was around 3000km further than the Hwasong-14 (a total of 13,000km) and was the first time a launch vehicle developed by Pyongyang was deemed capable of reaching the United States by the international expert community.

“A test-fire of the inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15 was successfully conducted on November 29 under the guidance of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong Un personally supervised the whole course of the test-fire.”

Korean Central News Agency

This marked the first of many failures by the United States administration to set a red line for North Korea; previously, US Presidents had stated that the DPRK would never be allowed to develop a missile capable of reaching the contiguous United States. They had.

Output from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) throughout December focused on the importance of this development. An article published on the 13th of December hailed the scientists and engineers who developed the missile and detailed how they had been commended for their work in person by the Marshall Kim Jong Un.

Data complied by analysts at NK Pro show us that of the 87 appearances made by the Marshall Kim Jong Un during 2017:

· 42 had been military-focused (48%)

· 23 had been economically-focused (26%)

· 15 had been politically-focused (17%)

· 7 had been either culturally-focused or other (8%)

This data lines up with the official party line; the Byungjin policy was still in full effect during 2017. Byungjin was the policy whereby the government planned to develop the national economy alongside the national nuclear force. 74 out of the 87 appearances made by Kim Jong Un were either focused on the economy or the military, as would be expected.

The significantly larger portion of time devoted to the military was likely due to the rapidly increasing tensions in the region. Earlier that year, the new US President Donald Trump had threatened “Fire and Fury” against the DPRK as well as suggesting the United States may be forced to “Totally destroy North Korea”. This increase in sabre-rattling from the US would explain the focus on military development shown by the data. If the Korean side was concerned that a surgical military strike, or ‘bloody-nose’ strike as the media deemed it, were a possibility, it would be rational for Pyongyang to want to publicise their military strength as much as possible as well as unveil the Hwasong-15 to prove they could retaliate with nuclear weapons should the US target the DPRK with military action.

At this point in time, Pyongyang’s strategy is unclear, there are two major schools of thought:

  • M.A.D – Mutually Assured Destruction

Pyongyang develops their weapons to a satisfactory level in the hopes of reaching a stalemate situation where neither the US nor the DPRK would risk starting a conflict for fear of being retaliated against with equal force. This is what held the world in balance during the Cold War and prevented nuclear conflict. This state of stalemate would act as a security guarantee for Pyongyang, something which would later become an important pawn in negotiations.

  • Forcing Washington to the table

Pyongyang develops nuclear weapons and missiles capable of targeting the United States. This forces Washington to the table as an equal, rather than as a superior power, allowing a more egalitarian negotiation to take place in which Pyongyang exchanges it’s weapons for sanctions relief and security guarantees.

1st January 2018 – 25th February 2018

The annual New Year’s Address by the Marshall Kim Jong Un often provides a rough outline of what will transpire in the year to come. In 2018, a noticeable change of tone came from Pyongyang. The speech contained numerous lines which were of interest to onlookers:

“An outstanding success our Party, state and people won last year was the accomplishment of the great, historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces. Our country’s nuclear forces are capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States, and they constitute a powerful deterrent that prevents it from starting an adventurous war. The whole of its mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.”

Marshal Kim Jong Un

These excerpts were important as they were not simply meant to threaten the US and its allies as in years past, but this time, to confirm the nuclear programme was complete. The suggestion that the programme was “perfected” suggested that future testing would cease now Pyongyang has reached a satisfactory stage and could threaten Washington directly. The period of mutually assured destruction had officially begun and sparked the beginning of a thaw in relations and the start of Pyongyang’s willingness to engage with the international community on the nuclear issue for the first time since the collapse of the 6-party talks in the early 2000s; these talks were aimed at forcing Pyongyang to denuclearise through a series of summits between the DPRK, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.

Later in the speech, the Marshal began to discuss the issue of inter-Korean relations. He outlined his wish for reconciliation and creating an atmosphere conducive to reunification.

“The north and the south should desist from doing anything that might aggravate the situation, and they should make concerted efforts to defuse military tension and create a peaceful environment. The south Korean authorities should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a detente, instead of inducing the exacerbation of the situation by joining the United States in its reckless moves for a north-targeted nuclear war that threatens the destiny of the entire nation as well as peace and stability on this land.”

Marshal Kim Jong Un

This was a sudden turn-around from the rhetoric of the previous year. Kim Jong Un also explicitly mentioned the Winter Olympics, due to be held in Pyongchang, South Korea in February:

“As for the Winter Olympic Games to be held soon in south Korea, it will serve as a good occasion for demonstrating our nation’s prestige and we earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success. From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures; with regard to this matter, the authorities of the north and the south may meet together soon. Since we are compatriots of the same blood as south Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them.”

Marshal Kim Jong Un

It would later transpire that a delegation from North Korea would join South Korea and compete under the flag of Reunified Korea. The team marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony as a single Korean team, highlighting the huge shift in relations which had occurred in only a couple of months.

Both sides of the argument like to claim that it was their own actions which brought the other to the table. By this point, international and unilateral sanctions were beginning to bite in the DPRK. The US administration would later claim their “Maximum Pressure” policy against Pyongyang had forced them to cease testing and come to the table; whilst the administration in Pyongyang would claim that the perfection of the nuclear force had forced the US administration to open negotiations, fearing a new nuclear-armed adversary in East Asia.

March/April 2018 – Inter-Korean Summit [Panmunjom]

During talks between representatives of Pyongyang and Seoul in the run-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the Marshal Kim Jong Un, delivered an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae In inviting him to Pyongyang for an Inter-Korean summit to discuss amongst other things, denuclearisation. This proposal eventually resulted in the Panmunjom Inter-Korean Summit.

On the 8th of March, a special delegation from South Korea travelled to Washington, having just visited Pyongyang for a meeting with a diplomatic delegation, to pass on an invitation to US President Donald Trump for a summit between the DPRK and United States. Trump immediately accepted the invitation and announced it publicly the same day.

This agreement can be seen as a significant step forward for Pyongyang. Trump was roundly criticised for agreeing so quickly and without preconditions since many saw the summit as giving something significant without any concession in return.

On the 25th of March, Kim Jong Un travelled to Beijing for a three-day summit at the invitation of the Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party. The summit was viewed with suspicion by the US and its allies since both countries were in the midst of complicated negotiations with Washington. The DPRK was laying the groundwork for the US-DPRK summit with Donald Trump in which it was hoped a denuclearisation framework would be agreed and China was deep in the midst of a trade war with the US.

The thawing of DPRK-China relations, which had been frosty for a few years prior, was likely a chance for the two allies to coordinate strategy before entering their respective talks. Both sides had incentives to rebuild the relationship;

Pyongyang needs the support of Beijing in order to secure the economic growth it hopes for in the future – almost all trade to and from North Korea passes through China and therefore the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship is paramount. China needs the DPRK as a ‘barking dog’ which could be used as leverage against Washington in trade negotiations.

Beijing’s unique ability to influence the DPRK was, at the time, a key focus for Washington who saw the ‘Maximum Pressure’ policy as unsustainable without the support of President Xi.

On the 4th of April, delegations from the north and south met at Panmunjom to discuss details. It was agreed that the summit would focus on denuclearisation, peace establishment and inter-Korean relations. It was also agreed that the summit would be held in the Peace House on the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom.

On the 27th of April 2018, the Marshal Kim Jong Un became the first Supreme Leader of the DPRK to cross the Military Demarcation Line into South Korea.

The summit took the whole day and resulted in the signing of the ‘Panmunjom Declaration’ which outlined the following:

1. Promotion of peace and reunification through continued improvement of Inter-Korean relations

2. Elimination of military tension and war risk

3. Establishing a permanent and peaceful peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

The agreement was largely symbolic with many analysts concluding that the agreement lacked substance and made no real progress in denuclearisation although it was hailed as a significant step forward in inter-Korean relations.

KCNA described it as follows:“The respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un together with President Moon Jae In signed the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula” and exchanged written declaration. Kim Jong Un had a significant souvenir picture taken with Moon Jae In and embraced him in congratulation of the birth of the historic Panmunjom Declaration reflecting the unanimous desire and demand of the Korean nation.”- Korean Central News Agency

The summit marked a significant change in attitude from Pyongyang. It could be concluded that the completion of the nuclear force meant they were able to turn their attention to sanctions relief through diplomacy.

South Korea was considered a potential partner in boosting the national economy. The New Year speech had outlined the importance of developing the “Socialist Economy” although many sanctions placed on the DPRK by the UN and other countries limited their ability to import and export goods.

The revival of various inter-Korean economic projects could potentially have bolstered the economy and helped pave the way for a lifting of sanctions. Some notable projects included the Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex and the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Region, both closed during the 2000s due to deteriorating relations.

During the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un announced the end of the Byungjin policy, instead pushing for a renewed focus on developing the economy and improving standards of living.

It would be short-sighted to assume, as some have, that the shift in policy was not genuine. Data complied by NK Pro analysts shows that during the 2018, only 4% of Kim Jong Un’s appearances were military focused whereas 27% were economically focused.

The ratio of military:economic visits starkly changes during this year, suggesting the change in policy was not merely a show designed to lull the international community into a false sense of security, but was instead a genuine change in strategy from Pyongyang.

May – July 2018

In May 2018, Kim Jong Un made a second visit to China, meeting President Xi in Dalian. Officially, the two leaders discussed denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and issues which were of mutual concern to the two countries. It is also widely believed however, that the two leaders once again met to coordinate strategy as both were still in the midst of negotiations with the US.

As part of a goodwill gesture, Pyongyang announced the closure and demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility, the site of every nuclear test conducted by the country. The government invited foreign media to watch the proceedings; this was considered by Pyongyang to be a significant concession, although Washington did not see it as such since it argued the lack of independent verification meant the site could not be confirmed to be fully destroyed.

Tensions with the US began to rise a few weeks in advance of the planned summit. A series of references by the Vice-President Mike Pence and President Trump resulted in the DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui to threaten a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown”. Trump announced the cancellation of the summit on the 24th of May. President Moon of South Korea was likely not briefing very far in advance of the cancellation, saying he was “perplexed” by the decision the President had taken.

Two days after the cancellation, Moon Jae In met with Kim Jong Un for a second time at Panmunjom. The spontaneous meeting was aimed at getting the talks back on track as well as pushing for the continuation of a few stalled talks, especially relating to military matters. As a result of the summit, and other talks which were ongoing between the DPRK and United States, the US-DPRK summit was uncancelled and set for the 12th of June after Donald Trump met with Central Committee member Kim Yong Chol in Washington.

May 2018 was a perfect example of the volatility of the situation on the peninsula. The reference to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya was a particularly careless move by the US administration – Libya voluntarily gave up its nuclear programme in 2003, only to have its government overthrown in 2011 with American support. With the aid of NATO airstrikes, Colonel Gaddafi was captured by rebels, abused and killed. Referencing this event on the eve of the first denuclearisation summit was a confusing move and demonstrated that even during this period of high-intensity diplomacy, the situation was far from resolved and all sides needed to tread carefully.

This theme of making reckless statements has been persistent throughout the negotiations. Pyongyang’s major method of communicating negativity is through its media outlets. Statements from government spokespeople would later prove to be the most common method of showing disapproval towards the US and South Korea throughout the negotiations; often publicising very scathing comments about the US’ DPRK policy.

Singapore Summit

At 09:05am local time, President Trump met, and shook hands, with the Marshal Kim Jong Un – the first time a sitting President had met the leader of North Korea. The leaders’ summit lasted all day and resulted in a joint statement which was signed at the end of the meeting by both leaders.


For many, the Singapore summit, much like the first Panmunjom summit, was heavy on symbolism but light on detail. The joint statement agreed the following points:

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

Many had hoped the summit would yield a more significant result such as a freeze on weapons production or a formal moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. Most had hoped at least for a roadmap for future negotiations to provide a general idea of where talks were headed and what each side hoped to gain from the negotiations.

However, aside from a weird video about ‘North Korea’s potential’ put together by the White House, no concrete agreements were made (a theme which would continue throughout the negotiation process).

Some analysts have posited the idea that Pyongyang has no intention to denuclearise and instead is using the negotiations to buy more time for weapons development without the risk of military action. Tactically, this would make sense – however, satellite photos in July 2018 showed that work had started surrounding the Sohae Satellite Launching Station which seemed consistent with demolition work. The dismantling of Sohae would be a major concession on Pyongyang’s behalf since it was from here that the space launch programme is based as well as a test stand used for testing missile engines.

In the aftermath of the Singapore Summit, Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping met once again. This constant series of meetings strongly suggests that the two leaders were working alongside one another and ensuring the other was well informed after any major event.

Over the following months, talks began to break down; lack of progress meant neither side was willing to make any concessions to the other. Pyongyang continued to stress the importance of confidence-building before any agreement could be made whilst the US administration, in dire need of a foreign policy win, was keen to push for a faster timetable to achieve denuclearisation.

One of Pyongyang’s major concerns throughout the whole process has been security guarantees. With nuclear weapons, the DPRK can rely on mutually assured destruction to protect its sovereignty. So long as it maintains its weapons, Washington dare not risk attacking for fear of nuclear retaliation. If Pyongyang agrees to denuclearise, it becomes vulnerable to nuclear attack from the US, especially since the US military has a significant number of assets stationed in the Republic of Korea. It is therefore, clearly in the interests of North Korea to agree a series of security guarantees before it gives up any of its nuclear weapons. However, the form these guarantees could take remains a mystery since it is unclear what Pyongyang would accept as a ‘guarantee’ of national security and sovereignty.

September – December 2018“Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), warmly greeted President Moon Jae In visiting Pyongyang for the historic north-south summit, at Pyongyang International Airport on Tuesday.”- Korean Central News Agency.

In September 2018, Moon Jae In visited Pyongyang for the third inter-Korean summit of his presidency. He arrived in the capital of the DPRK and was met at Sunan International Airport by the Marshal Kim Jong Un, his wife Ri Sol Ju and a political delegation. The summit lasted three days, culminating in a visit to Mt. Paektu in the far north – a sacred mountain in both north and south Korea, the visit was significantly symbolic of the desire for Korean unity and peace.

The summit, again, was heavy on symbolism but lacked concrete steps forward. One of the main aims of the summit had been to jumpstart US-DPRK nuclear talks, however the bulk of concrete measures taken afterwards primarily related to inter-Korean issues. Although, the talks may have been instrumental in reopening US-DPRK communications which would have been vital in organising the Hanoi summit which was held the following February.

In the wake of the summit, the following measures were implemented:

  • De-mining of the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom) in the Korean DMZ
  • Withdrawal of military personnel from the Joint Security Area
  • Destruction of guard-posts in the Joint Security Area
  • Opening of the Joint-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong
  • Joint survey of the DPRK’s rail network

One of the most significant results from the summit took place on the 12th of December when a dozen or so troops from both sides of the border crossed the military demarcation line for the first time in history in order to ensure the agreed guard-post demolitions had taken place.

The Pyongyang summit was a major win for Moon Jae-in’s DPRK-policy. Whilst the overarching aim was always publicly stated to be denuclearisation of the peninsula, President Moon’s inter-Korean policy took front and centre at this summit. He became the first South Korean President to address the North Korean public during his visit and as a result of the meeting, achieved a number of goals which were seen as laying the ground work for increased north-south cooperation.

However, sanctions became an issue for the Moon administration, putting it at odds with the US’ ‘Maximum Pressure’ policy. Moon Jae-in had wanted to initiate a series of joint-economic projects with the north as well as continuing the inter-Korean joint railway survey in order to advance some of his Sunshine Policy-style plans, however UN and US sanctions meant the projects were impractical.

These sanctions were potentially a major factor in the breakdown of inter-Korean relations over the following months.

Hanoi Summit – February 2019

After a long period of stalemate, it was announced during the 5th of February State of the Union address by President Trump that a second US-DPRK summit would be held in Hanoi Vietnam. In November the previous year, Pyongyang had announced that it would only partake in another summit if the US administration lifted all economic sanctions – it had not done so. As the summit began, the two sides were still very far apart on key topics, such as the definition of denuclearisation. The summit had been significantly over-hyped with President Trump suggesting he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. National Security Advisor John Bolton was front and centre during the summit, his belief that North Korea was untrustworthy was likely an important factor in the breakdown of the summit.

The Marshal Kim Jong Un travelled to Vietnam by train, via Beijing where he had met with Xi Jinping as has become expected before and/or after a major diplomatic event.

The summit began on the 27th of February with a brief 30-minute conversation between the President and the Marshal. It was announced that day that the two leaders would sign a joint agreement at the end of the summit – many had hoped that this agreement would contain the substance which had been lacking in the Singapore agreement the previous year.

The following day on the 28th, it was reported by Reuters that the US side had handed a note to the DPRK side in which it suggested the DPRK give up all its nuclear weapons in exchange for full sanctions relief, similar to the dreaded ‘Libya Model’. After this, the summit was cut short and no agreement was signed.

Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho gave a rare press conference in the aftermath of the meeting in which he cast doubt on President Trump’s account of the meeting. Trump stated that he walked away from the negotiating table after Kim Jong Un and his team had demanded all sanctions be lifted immediately; he claimed that he was offered a bad deal and alluded to the fact that his acute business skills meant he had to walk away. Ri Yong Ho however, said that the DPRK had only requested partial sanctions relief, demanding 5 out of 11 key UN Security Council Sanctions be lifted which were imposed between 2016 and 2017. He also stated that, in exchange for this, Pyongyang was willing to permanently dismantle Yongbyon, the main research reactor at the core of the DPRK’s nuclear programme. He also stated that the DPRK government was willing to codify the moratorium on nuclear and missile testing in writing but the US had demanded further concessions at which point the Koreans made it clear their conditions would not be changed, leading to the collapse of the summit.

Many of the issues throughout 2019 can be traced back to the failure to reach an agreement at Hanoi. The summit was intended to jumpstart the nuclear talks, eventually leading to a denuclearisation agreement; however, instead it left both sides worse off and communication between the DPRK and United States at an all time low.

In the aftermath of the summit, relations with the US State Department remained hostile, however the personal relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un appeared to be blossoming. This tactic was likely an attempt to play to Trump’s well documented ego. While working-level talks were effectively non-existent between the DPRK and US, the leaders continued to exchange letters, one of which Trump even described as “beautiful”. This divide between the President and his administration could have been an attempt to get beneficial treatment from Trump directly, bypassing his better-informed negotiation team.

DMZ Summit – July 2019

During a visit to South Korea, President Trump tweeted:
“If Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!”- Donald Trump – President of the United States [Twitter]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang then requested the United States give formal notice of the invite leading to a meeting between US special envoy Steven Biegun and Ri Yong Ho in order to prepare for the summit.

Kim Jong Un met Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom where Donald Trump became the first sitting US President to set foot on North Korean soil. The leaders then began a one-hour summit in which it was agreed to restart the stalled working level talks.

It could be theorised that the spontaneous meeting at Panmunjom was a last ditch effort by the Marshal Kim Jong Un and the Foreign Ministry to placate the ‘Reality TV President’. This summit was the last time the two leaders met and since then, the relationship has deteriorated significantly.

October 2019 – Present

On the 2nd of October, the DPRK tested a new Submarine-launched ballistic missile. This test represented the first launch of a significantly powerful missile since the Hwasong-15 in November 2017. During 2019, North Korea had tested a series of short range missiles in an apparent effort to put pressure on the United States who, at the time, were not considered to be making any concessions to the DPRK in negotiations. The launch of the Pukguksong-3 SLBM raised the stakes of the negotiation, reminding Washington that the moratorium on missile testing is voluntary and can be ended at any time.

The first working-level talks were held on the 5th of October in Stockholm and lasted one day. The North Korean side blamed the United States’ inflexibility and refusal to change their demands in exchange for denuclearisation. This criticism has been heard throughout the negotiations as Pyongyang has increasingly felt as though they are repeatedly being presented with the same denuclearisation plan by the State Department over and over again.

Since the collapse of the Stockholm talks, tensions have been rising between the US and DPRK once again. During November, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the DPRK will not engage with the US until it drops it’s hostile DPRK policy. These feelings were echoed the following day by Kim Yong Chol, the de-facto head of negotiations who met with Donald Trump during the Singapore Summit preparations.

On the 22nd, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that should denuclearisation talks fail, the blame should lie entirely with the United States.

On the 30th, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying he “may see a real ballistic missile in the near future and under his nose”.

On the 3rd of November:“The US will soon need to decide what kind of Christmas Gift it will receive from North Korea”- DPR Korea – Ministry of Foreign Affairs

and then, on the 8th of December, the DPRK’s envoy to the United Nations essentially slammed the door shut on denuclearisation:
“We do not need to have lengthy talks with the U.S. now and denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiating table”- Kim Song. DPR Korea UN ambassador

The marked shift in policy has been a long time coming; from Pyongyang’s perspective, the lack of concrete concessions from Washington has caused their confidence in the US administration to break down over time. Since the Hanoi summit, prospects for a denuclearisation deal have grown slimmer and slimmer as the failed meeting highlighted just how much progress was lacking in negotiations between the two sides. This was demonstrated a second time in Stockholm in October 2019. What happens next will be dictated by what the Marshal Kim Jong Un says during his New Years address in January.

Who knows what 2020 will bring.

Benjamin Weston

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