US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unprecedented four trips to North Korea in 2018. His mission for the fourth trip was quite clear — to sustain the momentum of the peace process started from the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. The trip indicated to the American people that there has been progress and improvement in the situation since the Singapore summit. Critics of the North Korean rapprochement are keen to see tangible results and Pompeo had a good head start with a cordial welcome from Chairman Kim and an agreement to hold the second Trump-Kim summit as soon as possible. The Trump administration is also keen to characterize their peace process as a possible victory.
It is important to know what weapons within the North Korean arsenal the negotiations are zeroing in on. The most important items are the ballistic missiles (especially the long-range ones that can hit the US) and also nuclear devices (atomic and perhaps even hydrogen ones). They include potentially the longest-range Hwasong-15, apparently the deadliest ballistic weapon with a range that can reach almost anywhere in the world. The Hwasong-14 is another feared long-range ballistic missile. The Hwasong-12 can hit the US territory of Guam. There are a few qualifications about them. First, their alleged ranges are projections based on tests that North Korea has carried out thus far. There has however not been any proven and unambiguous evidence that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize its nuclear warheads to fit these missile systems.
In addition, assuming the projected and calculated ranges are true and accurate, reaching Hawaii or Alaska may be possible, but reaching the US mainland seems unlikely for now, given the current levels of North Korean technology. This is especially since the US has a powerful network of allies in South Korea and Japan armed with a number of layers of anti-missile systems that forms a powerful shield over the Western Alliance. These anti-missile systems are either purchased from the US or indigenously developed. Thus, even if North Korean warheads and missile systems are developed, they still need to evade these missile interceptor systems.
While it is not known how many atomic devices Pyongyang possesses, it is likely to have a small arsenal of atomic devices. Delivery would still be a challenge. North Korea has also shown that it is capable of producing hydrogen bomb-like devices. It apparently detonated one in September 2017. All these weapons are prestige weapons and can greatly enhance fear and respect for a regime that possesses them. North Korea sees this as a guarantee against regime change. The North Korean regime fears a fate similar to Iraq, Libya, and other dictatorships that have experienced regime changes. The US denies having any intention of bringing about regime change in North Korea.
The nuclear option is but one of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Kim Jong Un’s arsenal. He has access to the chemical warfare option as well. They are mainly choking and nerve-attack chemicals like sarin gas. These weapons were easier to spot because they were allegedly exported to Syria and intercepted by the West. Other clues were gathered when Chairman Kim sent assassins and killed his half-brother by smothering him with a nerve agent. These samples were also analyzed. They form valuable clues with regards to North Korean capabilities in the field of chemical WMDs.
So far, most information and analyses about Pyongyang’s WMD capabilities were focused on nuclear and chemical weapons but not biological ones. There is much less intelligence or information about the North Korean biological weapons program. Some South Korean sources have written on this but evidence appears to be scant. Detection of chemical and biological WMDs capabilities are extremely complex. Chemical weapons are difficult to detect in terms of tests since they do not release any earthquakes, radiation or other physical telltale signs of activities involving them. It is difficult for regional monitoring equipment to detect any tests or leakage. Both chemical and biological WMDs are often the poor man’s WMDs because they are cheaper to develop, less sophisticated and can hit population centers with devastating consequences when they are used.
The North Korean desire is clear. They want a conclusive end to the 1950-53 Korean War instead of the current ceasefire which is the status quo in the bilateral relationship between North and South Korea as well as between North Korea and the US.
The delivery systems for dispersing chemical weapons is more diversified and basic. The North Koreans are able to deploy artillery shells, rockets, bombers, missiles and warships. Chemical weapons also have psychological effects as they can strike fear in civilian populations. It is unclear if chemical weapons will be included in any discussions on denuclearization. The US and Japan have always maintained vigilance over North Korean abilities to strike at US bases in Japan, or Japanese targets themselves. This is especially so for an unpredictable regime like Pyongyang’s.
Meanwhile, US President Donald J Trump is very optimistic about the relationship and has even claimed how the North Korean leader and him “fell in love.” Both sides are keen to inject another round of adrenaline to keep the momentum going. Chairman Kim has also expressed his desire to meet with President Trump. In order not to box themselves in and receive undue pressure, Trump and Pompeo are keeping the timeline for denuclearization open.
The US has several key personnel in place to deal with the issue of denuclearization process. They include Stephen Biegun, who is Pompeo’s point man on North Korean issues. Another vital member of the triad of officials is Sung Kim, the current US ambassador to the Philippines and the US representative to the preparatory stages of the Trump-Kim summit, and Andrew Kim who represents the North Korean working group at the CIA. The triad are keen to meet Kim Jong Un’s representatives in Europe.
Besides the triad of experts, Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are the public faces of the Trump administration’s North Korean policy in Washington DC. Not all in America are convinced of North Korea’s sincerity and are also concerned about its negative record of human rights violations including terrorism and the unresolved kidnap cases of Japanese citizens. These issues came into the forefront as talks intensified and started to penetrate the complex multi-layered levels of officialdom. Pompeo met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show the world the solidarity between the two strongest allies in East Asia. Pompeo brought up the issue on Tokyo’s behalf, assuring the Japanese leader and the public of US commitment to solidarity in a common stance against North Korea on this issue. Japan is not the only country with nationals kidnapped by Pyongyang. South Korea is also another victim.
The North Korean desire is clear. They want a conclusive end to the 1950-53 Korean War instead of the current ceasefire which is the status quo in the bilateral relationship between North and South Korea as well as between North Korea and the US. A conclusive end to the war would bring the first hot war of the Cold War era to an end. North Korean made concessions by returning the remains of American soldiers, not conducting nuclear and missile tests and also sealing off access points to their nuclear test sites by dynamiting them in front of international reporters. This was one of the symbolic acts hailed by the Trump administration in supporting the rapprochement and peace efforts outreach with the North Koreans.
Washington’s interest is for Pyongyang to submit an accurate and comprehensive list of nuclear and ballistic missile facilities so that qualified inspectors can enter those facilities to examine disarmed North Korean items or devices that have been taken apart. This will then contribute to the definition of the Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID) that the US has adopted as the standard for gauging the denuclearization process.