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New North Korean nuclear activity has been detected by United States (US) spy satellites this week, calling to question whether its denuclearization efforts are possible. The news was given by a US state official, almost a month after the Americans and North Koreans came to a broad agreement on denuclearization at a summit in Singapore. Reuters reports that the activity was detected at the Sanumdong facility outside Pyongyang, which also produced its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). According to this report, the spy satellites captured vehicle movements at the site. Following this news, Reuters also wrote that the United Nations (UN) has produced a confidential report, stating that North Korea has violated UN sanctions by continuing its nuclear program.
US estimates now suggest that North Korea has up to 60 nuclear weapons, including a hydrogen bomb which Al Jazeera reports would be 1,000 times stronger than the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII. Of this, its ICBMs have the capacity to reach most places on earth, excluding Latin America and Antarctica. Its threat to international security has also escalated in recent years, with the country conducting six nuclear tests in 2017. The US-North Korea Summit in Singapore on June 12th was the first glimmer of hope in North Korea’s gloomy nuclear history, with President Donald Trump optimistically claiming that the country no longer held a nuclear threat. Despite Mr. Trump’s claim, he has not yet retaliated to news of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear activity. Reactions to the Asian nation’s nuclear program have therefore been mixed, causing confusion on how states and the world can work towards a more peaceful Korean peninsula.
Thus far, all international and national efforts to denuclearize North Korea have been unsuccessful. This includes the heavy sanctions placed on the country since its first nuclear test in 2006. The United Nations Security Council and other sanctioning bodies have seriously weakened the North Korean economy, giving the country economic incentive to halt its nuclear program. As the world’s most influential country, the US has also employed various contrasting policies on the regime. This includes the calculated patience strategy used under the Obama administration, where US officials waited until North Korea voluntarily gave up its nuclear arms. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has used a rather scattered approach to the regime. Initially, Trump used a hard-line approach, which included poor diplomacy between the leaders and the use of aggressive threats. Twitter feuds also persisted, which included Trump referring to the supreme leader as “Little Rocket Man” in October 2017. Trump’s approach also involved a proposal of the bloody nose strategy to pre-emptively strike the country. However, in recent times as North Korea’s threat has risen, Trump has shifted to prioritize diplomacy between the states.
Due to Mr. Trump’s willingness to be diplomatic, the North Korea-United States Summit was able to occur last month. During the historic meeting in Singapore, the two leaders came to a number of conclusions. Al Jazeera reports that Jong-Un and Trump made a number of broad commitments, including to work towards peace and prosperity, stabilize the Korean peninsula, recover WWII remains and most importantly to work towards denuclearization in the region. While both states’ willingness to be diplomatic is of great success, there remains faults in the current approach to denuclearization. For example, North Korea’s current nuclear activity sheds light on whether the Singapore Summit was pure talk and no action. BBC News reports that the states’ agreements were vague, held no timeline for nuclear disarmament and failed to indicate whether the denuclearization process would be irreversible or verifiable. Additionally, the two parties may still have different understandings of what denuclearization actually means; with The Washington Post reporting that many analysts believe North Korea’s intentions may have been misread. While the summit should be commended, the US has now entered dangerous territory by legitimating North Korea’s supreme leader. The leadership of Trump is also highly questionable, particularly as he continues to praise Kim Jong-Un. This includes his tweet directed to Jong-Un on August 1st, which included thanking him for “keeping his word” on returning the WWII remains of US soldiers.
The nuclear situation in North Korea is highly complex. However, with the right leadership and foreign policies it could still be possible for denuclearisation to be achieved. While the US-North Korea Summit was a good starting point, Trump and Jong-Un need to be committed to implementing ongoing meetings which address their foreign policy needs. During these meetings, a clearly defined process on denuclearization should be drafted and later finalized. This should include a clear definition of what denuclearization is to be, whether it is complete disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, or disarmament of its most destructive only. The process should also include setting dates for goals to be met and ensuring once certain ones are met, rewards such as gradual sanction relief are given. Communication and transparency through these legal processes is crucial to ensuring that both nations have mutual trust. The United States should also be aware that complete denuclearization of North Korea will not happen instantly, and should rather be a slow and gradual process to ensure that its success is more likely.
Additionally, while negotiations between the United States and North Korea are bilateral, it will be important to include the diplomatic efforts of key countries (like South Korea) in the program. While North Korea and South Korea are currently in peace talks, multilateral engagement could help ease tensions between all countries which arose during the Korean war in the 1950’s. As reported by The Washington Post, the possibility of officially ending the Korean war would also significantly minimize North Korea’s need to hold nuclear weapons as a defense mechanism.
If North Korea breaks its promises and continues its nuclear program, however, consequences should occur. It should be made clear that heavy sanctions will continue to burden the country’s economy and any breach of a contract should be condemned. Trump’s recent praise of North Korea for meeting one agreement cannot overshadow its international violations regarding nuclear activity. States must address the good and bad while paving the way to denuclearize. Similarly, while North Korea has been virtually isolationist for the past 60 years, it must also be willing to give up parts of its sovereignty to gain the benefits of globalization. At the same time, it must be willing to uphold international standards; including halting its nuclear program and protecting human rights.
North Korea’s current nuclear activity remains an indicator of diplomatic faults which occurred at the Singapore Summit. This activity must be halted immediately until a clearly defined process to denuclearize is implemented. If a nuclear-free peninsula is to be possible, words must be turned into actions. Peace in the Korean Peninsula is therefore reliant on the actions of key leaders, particularly Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-Un, and where diplomacy should always be prioritized over aggression.