North Korea has worked on its nuclear weapons program for decades, seeking to develop a capability that would deter an attack by the United States. With the help of the Soviet Union, North Korea began work on a nuclear program, insisting it was for peaceful purposes. In 1985, North Korea joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In 1991, South and North Korea signed an agreement committing both countries to refrain from producing or using nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s tone changed soon after. In 1993, they threatened to quit the NPT after International Atomic Energy Agency officials accused the North of violating the Treaty and demanded access to nuclear waste storage sites for inspectors. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton decided to enter into negotiations with the North, resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for normalization of relations with the U.S. among other incentives.
In 2002, the Agreed Framework collapsed with the U.S. accusing North Korea of secretly enriching uranium and halting fuel oil shipments to the North agreed to under the Framework. North Korea formally withdrew from the NPT in 2003. Attempts to re-engage the North on their nuclear program through the Six-Party Talks — a forum that included China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. — cycled through moderate successes and complete breakdowns. With this cycle as the backdrop, North Korea began testing long-range ballistic missiles and conducting nuclear tests. In response, the United Nations imposed numerous economic and commercial sanctions.
Fast forward to 2017: North Korea ramped up its missile testing, conducting successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, and completed its sixth nuclear test. U.S. President Donald Trump responded to these provocations with inflammatory tweets, increased military pressure, and threats of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The two leaders volleyed threats back and forth until the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea ushered in a period of diplomacy and optimism. South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited North Korea to participate with the South in the opening ceremony, an offer North Korean leader Kim Jong-un accepted. By the closing ceremony, North Korea had signaled its willingness to meet with the U.S.
On June 12, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump met with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un. The joint declaration issued at the meeting’s conclusion committed both countries to work toward peace in Northeast Asia, including the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The next day, Trump declared “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat [sic] from North Korea.” He later claimed, “We will immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea.” While continued talks between the two countries is a positive sign, the nuclear threat from North Korea is far from eliminated and a large gap seemingly still exists over what denuclearization actually means.
Negotiating the peaceful resolution of the Korean peninsula crisis is not something that happens overnight. Diplomacy is difficult and takes time. Both North Korea and the United States, along with its allies, must continue engagement, working to make real progress and advocate for real steps toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Only a sustained diplomatic process can reduce the risks of catastrophic and potentially nuclear military confrontation.
It is essential for the U.S. and North Korea to keep moving forward and refrain from returning to the nuclear saber-rattling, escalatory rhetoric and threats of military action that defined relations just last year. And it is essential for us to make sure they do.
Days Since The Summit: 45
What’s happened since the Summit:
June 18: U.S. and South Korea announce suspension of August Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercise.
June 21: Commercial satellite imagery suggests improvements to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.
June 29: A report shows U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of enriched uranium for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites.
July 6: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Pyongyang, North Korea for talks. Pompeo states he is “seeking to fill in some details on these commitments and continue the momentum toward implementation of what the two leaders promised each other and the world.”
The two countries establish working groups to tackle details, including verification efforts for denuclearization, according to the U.S. State Department.
July 7: After talks, North Korea calls talks “deeply regrettable,” citing U.S. “demand for denuclearization.” Pompeo says talks were “productive.”
July 12: The U.S. asks the UN Security Council to order a halt to all deliveries of refined oil products to North Korea, citing NK violations.
Trump tweets out a July 6 letter from Kim claiming progress is being made. The letter says nothing about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
July 22: The U.S. and North Korea agree to restart field operations to search for the missing remains of thousands of Americans. U.S. officials say the North pledged to return 55 sets of remains on July 27.
July 23: Commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station shows North Korea has begun dismantling some structures, including a vertical engine test stand and parts of a launch pad.
CNN reports, citing an unnamed official, North Korea wants the United States to agree to a legally-binding peace treaty that would ensure the survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime before denuclearization talks can proceed further.
July 24: ASouth Korean defense ministry proposal to lawmakers includes plans to scale back guard posts and withdraw some military equipment along the border with North Korea.
July 25: In a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the North Koreans understand the U.S. definition of denuclearization and sanctions will continue to be enforced until “denuclearization as we have defined it is complete.”
July 27: North Korea returns the possible remains of 55 U.S. service members killed in the Korean War. The remains arrived at Osan Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base in South Korea, where U.S. forensic specialists will conduct in-depth analyst of the remains.
Recommended next steps for the U.S.:
- Appoint a lead negotiator and full-time assistant secretary of state for East Asia to ensure effective and consistent messaging and coordination.
- Consider incentives for North Korea to take steps to harness their nuclear program
Nuclear Crisis Group* recommendations for the Korean Peninsula:
- Refrain from nuclear threats and adopt nuclear no-first-use statements;
- Suspend flights by US strategic bombers and visits by strategic submarines in return for key commensurate restraints by North Korea;
- Resume humanitarian assistance to North Korea;
- Agree not to adopt new sanctions on North Korea;
- Fully and consistently implement communication links between DPRK and ROK military leaders;
- Refrain from provocative military actions that could escalate to nuclear conflict; and
- Reaffirm the September 19, 2005 Six-Party joint statement on denuclearization as part of multilateral negotiations.
NCG Follow-on steps:
- Pursue a permanent peace regime;
- End production/separation of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium under verification;
- Expand and enhance Track-II discussions by North Korea, the United States, and other regional states;
- Agree to a non-nuclear deployment pledge for the Korean peninsula from the United States, and North and South Korea;
- Create UN-endorsed multilateral security guarantees for North and South Korea from China and the United States;
- Implement progressive sanctions relief and economic assistance in parallel with progress in denuclearization;
- Suspend US-ROK joint military drills, establish US-DPRK diplomatic relations, and complete economic and energy assistance at the time North Korea’s denuclearization is fully implemented and verified (by the five parties in the Six-Party Talks and the IAEA); and
- Pursue negotiations to establish Northeast Asia as a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Updated July 27, 2018
*The Nuclear Crisis Group (NCG) is an independent, nonpartisan group of globally-recognized former military officials, diplomats and security experts dedicated to preventing crises from escalating to the use of nuclear weapons. For more information on NCG, click here.