The Winding Road to Disarmament

The Winding Road to Disarmament

A Denuclearized North Korea Remains the Goal, Despite Skepticism


Historic face-to-face meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have yet to produce a consensus on a way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. officials remain optimistic, however, that the talks in June 2018 in Singapore and February 2019 in Vietnam still could lead to smaller, trust-building agreements that eventually could lead to North Korea’s denuclearization.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center right, hold hands atop Mount Paektu in North Korea while flanked by their spouses. REUTERS

“There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen,” President Trump said in April 2019, speaking alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington, D.C., according to The New York Times newspaper. “Things could happen. You can work out step-by-step pieces, but at this moment we are talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons.”

The challenges on this winding road to disarmament are daunting. Since the talks, North Korea said in April 2019 that it test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon, The Associated Press (AP) reported. The test didn’t appear to be a banned intermediate- or long-range ballistic missile, AP reported, but rather an effort to show a domestic military audience that talks with Washington were not a sign of weakness. Then in early May 2019, North Korea appeared to test a similar tactical guided weapon, which experts believe to be a short-range ballistic missile, AP reported.

Adding to the challenge is North Korea’s lack of transparency. In November 2018, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., revealed that it had located 13 of an estimated 20 North Korean missile operating bases that had not been declared by the government.

Along the way, however, leaders of Japan and South Korea have stepped forward to help soften North Korea’s leadership and support the U.S. push for denuclearization at a time when Kim is securing increased support for his position from Russia.

Even while experiencing setbacks, the U.S. and its allies continue to press for a deal. In a September 2018 meeting in New York with South Korean President Moon, President Trump commended President Moon on conducting a successful third inter-Korean summit, while acknowledging there remained much work to be done. President Trump had just canceled a trip to North Korea by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late August 2018, citing the lack of progress on denuclearization. Presidents Moon and Trump agreed on the importance of maintaining vigorous enforcement of existing sanctions to ensure North Korea understands that denuclearization is the only path to economic prosperity and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Kim, however, criticized the sanctions, during a 30-minute speech on New Year’s Day 2019, and made explicit requests of the United States. He warned that North Korea may choose a “new path” if the United States continued to “break its promises and misjudges our patience by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure.” He also called for an end to U.S. and South Korean joint military exercises.

Through it all, skeptics continue to scrutinize every meeting and communique and remain quick to criticize each step. Some analysts, for example, say Kim’s promise to permanently close a major missile test site — in the presence of international inspectors — has no effect on the North’s capabilities to continue its missile and nuclear weapons programs. 

Closing the site “may not be completely cost-free, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a particularly big step toward disarmament,” Vipin Narang, an arms control researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who follows the North’s program, told National Public Radio (NPR) in September 2018. 

A military parade in Pyongyang features intercontinental ballistic missiles in April 2017. REUTERS

Narang noted that the site Kim has touted as permanently closing is the same site he promised to partially dismantle following talks with President Trump. “The fact that Kim is milking a single test site for basically months on end is pretty remarkable,” Narang told NPR.

The site also has multiple names: Tongchang-ri, Dongchang-ri and Sohae. Following talks with President Trump, it was largely referred to as Sohae. In a more recent statement from Kim, he referred to it as Dongchang-ri. Using different names is confusion by design, according to Narang. Rotating monikers could convince some that North Korea is making new concessions, Narang said, when, in fact, they are not. 


President Trump isn’t the only leader navigating a new and evolving relationship with Kim. Diplomatic ties between Kim and the South Korean president have also experienced a dramatic boost.

The North and South held five inter-Korean summits since 2000. The most significant outcome of the latest involved the signing by respective defense ministers of a deal to reduce military tension along the boundary separating the countries. The agreement calls for provisions to manage and lower the military presence in the air, on land and at sea, reported in September 2018.

North and South Korea completed withdrawing troops and firearms from 22 front-line guard posts in November 2018 as part of an agreement to reduce tensions at the Demilitarized Zone, AP reported. The agreement — reached in September 2018 — called for the implementation of steps to build trust, stabilize peace and move toward reconciliation. More contact between families separated by the Korean War will also take place, AP said. The warming relations have also led to proposals for the South to help build up the North’s infrastructure and open cross-border rail links.  

Kim and Moon concluded a September 2018 summit by standing together atop Mount Paektu, a volcano considered sacred by both Koreas and that has historically been a centerpiece of propaganda to legitimize the Kim dynasty. The leaders of the two Koreas held hands in a triumphant pose at the mountain’s peak.

“We have agreed to make the Korean Peninsula a land of peace that is free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threat,” Kim said, according to AP. “The road to our future will not always be smooth, and we may face challenges and trials we can’t anticipate. But we aren’t afraid of headwinds because our strength will grow as we overcome each trial based on the strength of our nation.”

Kim agreed to accept international inspectors to monitor the closing of a missile test site. Both leaders vowed to work together on a bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2032.

“We have lived together for 5,000 years and lived in separation for 70 years,” Moon said, according to AP. “I now propose that we completely eliminate the hostility of the past 70 years and take a big step forward in peace so that we can become one again.”


North Korea has maintained relatively warm relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with which it shares a border, and Russia.

President Trump and others have historically pressured the PRC to do more to tame North Korea’s bad behavior. Smugglers use the porous border between China and the North to bring black market goods and goods that are banned by sanctions into North Korea. The PRC has largely remained docile when urged to flex its big brother muscle to push North Korea toward better behavior. 

During a September 2018 United Nations Security Council meeting, then-U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called out the PRC and Russia for consistently skirting sanctions against North Korea. “Step by step, sanction by sanction, and time and time again, Russia is working across the board to undermine the sanctions regime,” Haley said, according to CBS News. 

She had called the urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to blast Russia and the PRC for not enforcing sanctions that pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. “Difficult, sensitive talks with North Korea are ongoing. But we are not there yet,” Haley said. “And until we get there, we must not ease the powerful worldwide sanctions that are in place.”


Some experts say North Korea and the United States have different views of the order and scope of implementing four articles of the June 2018 declaration to denuclearize.

“Pyongyang believes that halting missile and nuclear tests, decommissioning certain weapons sites and beginning the process of returning U.S. servicemen remains from the Korean War satisfies the agreement’s confidence-building measures,” Nate Kerkhoff wrote for Australia-based East Asia Forum in August 2018. “Now, Pyongyang is demanding progress on the remaining article and calling for the United States to make a ‘bold move’ towards establishing a peace regime.”

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, argued that North Korea’s engagement could be nothing more than puffery, and skeptics have good reason to cast doubt. 

“Few Korea specialists believed the North was prepared to yield its nukes. They offer prestige, are useful as a tool of extortion, and cement the military’s support for the regime. They also ensure that Kim and his cohorts won’t end up like Libyan leader Muammar Al Gaddafi,” Bandow wrote for The National Interest magazine in September 2018 in an article titled “North Korea Denuclearization Isn’t Free.” “After all, Gaddafi gave up his nuclear and missile programs only to end up starring in a gruesome YouTube video in which rebels found and executed him. Therefore, while Kim could reasonably make a deal on the margin — halt missile and nuclear testing, cap the number of weapons, allow some forms of safeguards/inspections, adopt other tension-reducing measures — getting rid of everything was a long-shot under the best of circumstances.”

Still, the possibility exists.

For Japan, however, that possibility is extremely low — at least for now.

An August 2018 Japanese defense white paper, and subsequent National Defense Program Guidelines published in December 2018, said North Korea remained a military threat. The August paper said Japan should add to its own missile capabilities and be fully prepared while watching to see whether North Korea keeps its promises.

“Its military actions have become unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat to Japan’s national security,” the August white paper said. “There is no change in our basic recognition about the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.”

North Korea tested multiple longer-range ballistic missiles in 2017, launching some over Japan. The North also possesses shorter-range Rodong missiles capable of hitting Japan, according to multiple reports. 

The August white paper conceded that the June 2018 meeting between President Trump and Kim had “major significance,” but “we need to carefully ascertain what specific actions North Korea will take toward abolition of nuclear and (ballistic) missiles from now,” it said.  

The weeks, months and years ahead are sure to be filled with unforeseen challenges and scrutiny from all sides. They will also be filled with progress, no matter how slow and deliberate, and the enduring hope that the Korean Peninsula will return to a state of unification and the North will denuclearize.

“The Korean people, both in the North and South, deserve to live together in peace, ruled by a democratic government which safeguards their welfare and safety,” Bandow wrote for The National Interest. “However, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is a reality that cannot be wished away. Nor can it be swept away even by a military as powerful as that of America without devastating cost. And maintaining the peace is the foundation upon which everything else depends.”