When South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in visits North Korea next week, hopes for a concrete step towards denuclearization will soar. The denuclearization of North Korea could put presidents Trump and Moon in the history books.
But President Trump is in no hurry. He has repeatedly said that denuclearization could go as fast, or as slow, as Kim Jong-un wishes. In April, Kim Jong-un floated a two-year timetable for denuclearization when he met President Moon. National Security Advisor John Bolton has publicly stated that denuclearization could be accomplished in as short a time period as a year. But the process of negotiating an agreement could take much longer.
Trump believes that time is on his side. The international sanctions are holding despite rumors of China’s occasional softening. The last thing China wants is a North Korean civil implosion on its borders. So it’s no surprise that trade in seafood, coal, oil, and other goods trickle through. But the economic reforms Kim initiated two years ago have stalled out and won’t be revivable as long as harsh Western sanctions are in place.
U.S. military power is still backing up the diplomacy. The Pentagon threw North Korea a bone by canceling just one major exercise: Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. Bomber presence missions from Guam continue, despite Trump’s grumbling at their cost. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is in place in South Korea. Recent revelations of North Korea’s attempt to cyber hack Lockheed Martin underscore just how important THAAD is to protecting South Korea, including the 28,000 U.S. forces there.
President Trump’s assertive posture in 2017 was a good way to remind China and Russia that the U.S. is a formidable Pacific power. Trump looked ready to use military force at any moment, and North Korea backed down on his threats to Guam. In January 2018, Kim gave a major speech about economic reform, and then suddenly Kim’s sister and eight senior North Korean officials showed up in South Korea ready to talk. This diplomatic thaw led to a historic summit of the leaders of the two Koreas as well as the fielding of a unified Korean team at the 2018 Olympics. It was obvious that talking to South Korea and the U.S. was essential if Kim wanted to find a way out of the squeeze Trump has put him in.
Over a year ago, Kim Jong-un declared that his country’s nuclear arsenal was “complete.” But it wasn’t. The global pressure forced him to stop short. Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman General Paul Selva said in January 2018 that North Korea didn’t complete crucial tests such as warhead re-entry. Stopping the missile tests was a major achievement. It means North Korea still has only the small number of “rogue threat” launchers which the National Missile Defense system was designed to intercept.
Then, after the fanfare of the 2018 North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore, the hard work began. North Korea thinks it’s taken significant steps towards denuclearization by blowing up a decrepit test site, dismantling missile test equipment, and even running a thoroughly denuclearized military parade on the 70th anniversary of its founding. It is not surprising that Pyongyang would like to trade small steps and gestures for major benefits such as a peace treaty or even an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
Kim Jong-un needs to be convinced that the pressure on his country will only intensify if he does not take concrete steps to denuclearize. This will probably require increased military as well as economic pressure.
The U.S. and its allies in Northeast Asia need to put additional constraints on Pyongyang. One way of doing this is to deploy additional missile defenses to protect the region and devalue North Korea’s missile force. The U.S. has deployed both the Patriot and THAAD missile systems to the Korean peninsula. Responding to an urgent operational needs statement from the U.S. commander of forces in Korea, the Missile Defense Agency is working to link these two systems together so data can be passed from all available sensors to either system.
Japan is seriously investing in theater missile defenses. It is converting all six of its existing destroyers to be able to operate the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (Aegis BMDS). The Japanese Navy is also acquiring two additional destroyers with the same capability. Last week, one of these ships successfully intercepted a short-range ballistic missile in a test of the Standard Missile-3 Block IB. The Japanese government is considering acquiring the Aegis Ashore system – the same one that is being built in Europe.
Japan recently awarded Lockheed Martin a major contract for the Long Range Discrimination Radar that would provide high quality missile track and targeting for Japanese missile defense systems. The U.S. and Japan are also co-developing an advanced variant of the Standard Missile- 3, the Block IIA, for the Aegis BMDS.
To further squeeze North Korea, Seoul needs to do more to build up its defensive capabilities against the North Korean missile threat. The South Korean Navy has three Aegis-capable destroyers, and the Army deploys a number of Patriot batteries and is upgrading their interceptors. South Korea should follow Japan’s example and deploy the Aegis Ashore system.
The denuclearization of North Korea will be no easy task. The Nunn-Lugar process of the early 1990s culminated in the transfer of uranium from former Soviet republics to U.S. fuel plants and finding new jobs for thousands of Russian nuclear workers. But what will make the North Koreans load spent fuel rods on railroad cars and find jobs for nuclear engineers? The answer is both the devaluation of their nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals and the prospect of an economic renaissance.
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