U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un held their historic first summit meeting in Singapore on June 12, 2018, convinced that forging new U.S.-North Korea relations would contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula and the world. Trump and Kim also recognized that mutual confidence building can help facilitate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and agreed on the following:
First, the United States and North Korea commit to establishing new U.S.-North Korea relations, in line with the desire of the peoples of both countries for peace and prosperity.
Second, the United States and North Korea will work together to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
Third, reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea commits to working toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Fourth, the United States and North Korea commit to the recovery of POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
On Feb. 27 and 28, 2019, Trump met with Kim for a second bilateral summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. The summit, however, was cut short abruptly in the middle of the second day, and the widely anticipated joint statement between the two leaders was not signed. The primary reason for the failure of the Hanoi summit was a significant mismatch in expectations between the U.S. and North Korea.
Following the collapse of the Hanoi summit, talks between the two Koreas as well as denuclearization negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea came to a complete halt. North Korea perceived that the image of its supreme leader had been seriously damaged, reinforcing its belief that the U.S. and South Korea were untrustworthy negotiators.
Although the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. had a historic face-to-face meeting after years of hostility, North Korea squandered a crucial opportunity to improve U.S.-North Korea relations and advance denuclearization. The fleeting optimism of 2018 quickly disappeared, and North Korea completely changed its course to pursue the survival of its regime through nuclear weapons and missiles.
Since then, North Korea’s nuclear doctrine has been evolving in an increasingly dangerous direction. During the 7th meeting of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly in 2022, North Korea announced a new law regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea’s status as a nuclear power was now irreversible, and that he held the sole authority to decide on the deployment of nuclear weapons. North Korea has been dedicating its efforts to the development of various types of missile systems, including the Hwasong-17 and solid-fuel Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as intermediate-range, short-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
On March 28, 2023, North Korean media reported that Kim personally supervised the weaponization project of nuclear warheads at an undisclosed location. One of the warheads, named Hwasan-31, is compatible with around eight delivery systems, such as missiles or submersible vehicles. Furthermore, on March 24, 2023, North Korea unveiled Haeil, its first-ever nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), commonly known as a nuclear torpedo. North Korea claims that the Haeil can be equipped with a Hwasan-31 tactical nuclear warhead. Despite its eventual failure, North Korea attempted to launch a new satellite vehicle called Chollima-1 on May 31 equipped with its first military reconnaissance satellite known as Malligyeong-1.
Most South Koreans think that North Korea’s nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to their country. Since North Korea’s nuclear threat became visible, the results of public surveys consistently demonstrate support for the development of an independent nuclear weapons capability in South Korea. Currently, the discussed nuclear options include independent nuclear weapons development, the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons by U.S. Forces Korea and a NATO-style nuclear-sharing agreement.
However, none of these options will likely be realized in the near future. The most realistic option for South Korea is to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence while enhancing its own conventional deterrence capability against North Korea. To achieve this, Seoul and Washington agreed to the Washington Declaration during the April 2023 summit. This declaration established the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), a bilateral consultative body between South Korea and the United States aimed at strengthening U.S. extended deterrence. As part of this agreement, South Korea commits to complying with Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) norms and giving up its own nuclear weapon development options.
Currently, both inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations are at their lowest point. Moreover, tensions in the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula seem to be rising in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In order to overcome the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, a multi-layered and creative approach is required. In the near future, South Korea should focus on crisis management on the Korean Peninsula and work toward materializing extended deterrence with the U.S. North Korea should not further exacerbate the situation on the Korean Peninsula through additional provocations, such as conducting its seventh nuclear test. Although challenging, the international community, including the U.S. and China, must intensify their efforts to resume denuclearization negotiations with North Korea before it is too late.
About the Author
Dr. Lee Sang-Hyun is President and Senior Research Fellow at the Sejong Institute in Korea. He also serves as President of the Korea Nuclear Policy Society (KNPS).
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
Image: Kim and Trump shaking hands at the red carpet during the DPRK–USA Singapore Summit (Shealah Craighead, White House)
This article was published in The Korea Times on 28 July 2023 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.