North Korea recently launched a series of missiles, ranging from hypersonic to rail-based missiles. Pyongyang could have engaged in such actions for the purposes of technology development, although it could also have launched the missiles in an effort to draw the attention of the United States, convey political messages, and prompt the resumption of talks between the two countries. Pyongyang may trust in the effectiveness of this escalation strategy due to the fact that it appears to have worked in the past.
As S. Paul Choi put it in an interview with The Washington Post, “The testing of these hypersonic missiles could be a way to signal, ‘Listen, we haven’t explicitly gone to ICBM, but this is just a reminder that technical expertise continues to exist, and we continue to test it and upgrade it.’”
However, if North Korea conducted the recent missile tests in order to draw Washington’s attention and convince the U.S. to return to the negotiation table, we would advise Pyongyang to quickly change strategy. Washington’s reluctance to negotiate with Pyongyang is not due to North Korea’s lack of nuclear weapons technology; rather, it stems from Pyongyang’s very low credibility when it comes to upholding related agreements.
As Washington has reason to suspect that North Korea will once again renege on any agreed terms after reaping the promised benefits, negotiating with North Korea would impose a heavy political burden on the Biden administration.
In part, Pyongyang’s repeated failure to stick to its commitments has brought about this situation.
North Korea secretly pursued uranium enrichment while receiving energy assistance following the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Moreover, despite signing the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement during the Six-Party Talks, it conducted its first nuclear test the following year and continued to clandestinely pursue uranium enrichment. After the signing of the so-called “Leap Day Deal” in 2012, in which North Korea agreed to “implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities,” Pyongyang successfully launched the Kwangmyongsong-3 rocket in December 2012 and conducted its third nuclear weapons test in February 2013.
Although North Korea has consistently claimed that the United States was the first to break its promises, the above-mentioned incidents have led to the perception that Pyongyang solely seeks to reap benefits and so feels no compunction about breaking its promises.
This negative perception has placed a political burden on the U.S. negotiating team, constraining it from offering adequate compensation. For example, due to the negative perception in Washington, Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator during the Six-Party Talks, was unable to include provisions concerning the light water reactor project that North Korea longed for in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. In addition, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir, during the 2019 Hanoi Summit, then-U.S. President Donald Trump was unable to accept Kim Jong Un’s small deal proposal due to concerns about North Korea cheating again.
Due to such circumstances, even if the U.S. and North Korea are able to renegotiate in the future, it will prove difficult for Pyongyang to obtain satisfactory outcomes.
The solution to this problem lies in North Korea’s hands. The more that North Korea is able to overcome its lack of credibility and shed its reputation as a serial liar, the better the outcomes of future negotiations will be. One approach that North Korea could apply to rehabilitate its reputation involves joining nuclear-related multilateral treaties such as the Nuclear Terrorism Convention (NTC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The NTC is a United Nations treaty that aims to both criminalize nuclear terrorism and promote cooperation in an effort to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts. For its part, the CTBT prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere in the world.
As these multilateral treaties do not require strong on-site verification, they would place less of a burden on North Korea, although signing them would allow Pyongyang to credibly signal its willingness to improve the situation by tying its own hands. Doing so would help to raise international expectations regarding North Korea’s good-faith fulfillment of the treaty terms.
For North Korea, this option appears both appealing and necessary for two key reasons.
First, the current stalemate in North Korea-U.S. relations will last until either Pyongyang decides that it can no longer withstand the imposed sanctions or Washington concludes that the sanctions should be lifted and dialogue resumed because North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are advancing too rapidly and without restriction. Unfortunately for North Korea, given its dire economic situation, it is unlikely to be able to withstand the sanctions indefinitely, while Washington’s interest in Pyongyang is waning.
Second, North Korea has previously used a crisis-escalation strategy to shift Washington’s interest and create an opportunity for bilateral talks. However, as Pyongyang played this card in 2017, the further application of a crisis-escalation strategy, including its recent launching of short-range missiles and possible launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles, would result in greater backlash from the Biden administration. Such a scenario would not affect the United States to the same degree.
For example, in an interview with MSNBC, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized the need for additional sanctions against North Korea, stating that “[T]hese tests are a violations of UN Security Council resolutions. Russia and China have to see North Korea’s actions not only as a threat to the west, but as a threat to their own security. It is my hope that we can press at the UN for a coordinated effort that sends a real message to Kim Jong Un that these provocations are not the way to get what he may ultimately want.”
Therefore, North Korea’s use of its traditional approaches would not allow Pyongyang to successfully divert Washington’s attention, provide the U.S. with sufficient justification to return to the negotiation table, or stimulate sufficient progress with regard to denuclearization to justify the easing of sanctions.
If North Korea remains interested in participating in diplomatic talks with the U.S., pursuing its traditional escalation strategy would represent a bad choice. On the other hand, joining nuclear-related treaties appears be a good option. In fact, we suggest that Pyongyang seriously consider pursuing the latter option in order to both demonstrate its sincerity concerning denuclearization and dispel its image as a cheater.