[APLN-KNDA-Conference] How to Break the Stalemate with North Korea (Full Ver.)
Video Analysis

[APLN-KNDA-Conference] How to Break the Stalemate with North Korea (Full Ver.)

KNDA-APLN Joint Conference

Geopolitics, Geo-economics, and the Denuclearization of North Korea:

Alternative Approaches


When faced with the question of why the Hanoi summit failed, Robert Carlin described it as a “process failure”, or a cascade of errors. This included a lack of working-level negotiations, which failed to anchor top-level talks; Kim Jong Un’s refusal to compromise on his demands; and a refusal to discuss the full range of materials in Yongbyon.

Dr. Hecker places blame on the divide in American strategy, including real differences between John Bolton and President Trump. He also highlighted a tactical failure by the North Korean negotiators to define what exactly they would be willing to trade regarding the question of nuclear security. Although an offer was eventually made, it was articulated only as “literally President Trump was walking out of the room”. Thus, while strategically both sides had the right idea, tactically they failed to execute it effectively.

Professor Moon Chung-in asked why, if the U.S. knew what a “big deal” Yongbyon was, they did not seek to rectify these tactical mistakes after Hanoi? Instead, a deal centered on Yongbyon and partial sanctions relief seem to have been simply dismissed.

Dr. Hecker concurs with the assessment that Yongbyon is a major component of the North Korea nuclear program since that appears to be the only facility capable of producing plutonium and tritium, which are critical to the production of more sophisticated weapons.

Robert Carlin added that as to why further negotiation failed to reach an agreement regarding Yongbyon, the American perspective seems to be that though plutonium and tritium production at Yongbyon are important, they are not enough, and that the DPRK must turn over its uranium enrichment programs as well. Since Kim Jong Un had already declared an end to missile tests and nuclear tests, it seemingly did not occur to the American delegation to reward them for those, whereas the North Koreans felt they’d already made the first move.

The news agency YTN then asked about the perception that Yongbyon was a small deal and therefore a bad deal. Dr. Hecker responded that Yongbyon is by no means a small deal, and that perception comes from two claims. The first is that the North Koreans have given up Yongbyon before, making further negotiations a case of “buying the same horse twice”. The second claim is that Yongbyon is too old to function properly, and is therefore not essential to the North Korean nuclear program. However, Dr. Hecker pointed out that in fact Yongbyon has been massively expanded and upgraded since the 1990s, and any claims that it is decrepit simply do not square with what he has seen of its operation. In fact, Yongbyon was built in 1986, making it newer than any American plutonium production facility. Hwang Yeong Su agreed and suggested a deal combining Yongbyon closure with CTR deals for North Korean nuclear scientists and the conversion of a military program to a civilian program. This proposal seems to meet with a broad agreement among the panelists. Dr. Hayes also argued that since closing Yongbyon would negatively impact the North Korean energy sector, care must be taken to redirect its military program towards a civilian energy program and that expanded microgrids make an excellent starting point for that project.

Lee Byungchul came back to the notion that “Yongbyon is buying the same horse twice,” asking if that is indeed true. Dr. Hecker asserted that it was not, and that Yongbyon has been expanded and upgraded significantly. These upgrades include “hot cells” for tritium extraction, an entirely new centrifuge complex, and even rerouting the river nearby to assist in the new cooling system.

However, these technical details are hard to communicate politically, and so the perception of the same horse continues. He suggested that one way to escape this conundrum would be for North Korea to give the Americans “a plus”, such as turning over some missile systems. This would allow the American delegation to make the political case that this is a new deal with new gains, and would allow talks to progress. Professor Moon added that currently both sides are putting preconditions on further negotiations, in that the North Koreans require a complete and irreversible withdrawal of hostile policies, while the Americans require dismantling the nuclear program before negotiations could resume.

The conference concluded with Dr. Moon’s assertion that this was not a good approach, and that the resumption of working-level talks without precondition would be a much better strategy, so as to acquire the kinds of “small successes” that would allow the political case for a comprehensive deal to be effectively made.

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