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Prospects for Nuclear Issue in 2020

Jan 21, 2020
  • Zhao Tong

    Fellow, Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy


As 2020 opened, a drone attack by the United States killed Iran’s Quds brigade commander Qasem Soleimani. Will this killing tilt the DPRK’s strategic thinking toward a general, open-ended commitment to nuclear disarmament in exchange for de facto long-term possession of nuclear weapons? How should the relevant parties and the international community respond?

Such questions present themselves now, on top of the turbulence and setbacks on the Korean Peninsula last year.

DPRK’s calculations

Previously, the DPRK unilaterally imposed self-restraint on the continued development of its nuclear capability. For example, at the Hanoi summit with the U.S. it offered to give up the Yongbyon nuclear facility and promised to suspend further intercontinental missile and nuclear weapons testing.

With its limited self-restraint measures, it thought the international community would gain confidence in its willingness to abandon nuclear weapons and no longer be obsessed with an abandonment schedule. Then, as the nuclear issue became less eye-catching, the United Nations and other countries would hopefully lift the main economic sanctions on the DPRK, which would in turn create favorable conditions for smooth economic development. Since the core security anxiety would have been roughly removed by backing away from nuclear weapons, the DPRK could then keep its strategic focus on economic and national development in the long term.

The DPRK placed its hopes on U.S. President Donald Trump going easy on its de facto nuclear capabilities for his personal political gain. But things have not happened as it had wished. After the better part of a year, the U.S. has yet to make a clear commitment on easing of sanctions.

The DPRK then had to take the tough stance of fighting to the end — holding an extended meeting of the central military commission of the Korean Workers Party and the fifth plenary session of the Seventh Central Committee of the KWP, organizing large-scale mass rallies, calling on the people to tighten their belts again to prepare for protracted economic sanctions and vowing to develop the economy through self-reliance and internal mobilization.

On the other hand, this posture of non-dependence on external cooperation was also intended to undermine the international community’s confidence in the result and role of continued sanctions. But the reality is that DPRK leaders may not be absolutely sure of the long-term prospects of maintaining economic stability and development on their own against severe sanctions; otherwise, they would not have ridden high and looked far into the distance in deep strategic thought.

At a practical policy level, seeking a negotiated end to sanctions with the U.S. remains the most desirable option for the DPRK. To force a compromise, Pyongyang has shown a clear tendency toward heightened brinkmanship. In its view, expanding its strategic military capabilities, and even restarting long-range and intercontinental ballistic missile flight tests, will force the U.S. to have second thoughts and up its own ante in future negotiations. In addition to anticipated diplomatic benefits, it saw such tests as helping to enhance the effectiveness and credibility of the DPRK’s strategic nuclear deterrent at the technical military level.

From the DPRK’s perspective, Trump — facing impeachment and a presidential election and being reluctant to go to war and unwilling to see its previous diplomatic achievements destroyed by the DPRK’s resumption of military provocations — will have to compromise and make further concessions on such core issues as sanctions. But in reality, Trump, who is seeking re-election, also faces greater domestic pressure to demonstrate his determination to defend his country’s core security interests and finds it harder to rush into a deal that might threaten America’s long-term security. The DPRK’s miscalculation of Trump’s inclination to compromise may seriously exacerbate the military crisis on the peninsula.

Will the peninsular situation worsen in 2020?

For the international community, the permanency of de facto nuclear possession by the DPRK will have a far-reaching influence. In addition to rising calls for nuclear weapons capabilities in the ROK and Japan, the DPRK’s nuclear force will stimulate the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies to step up development and deployment of missile defenses, and even offensive weapon systems, thus threatening the strategic stability between major powers — mainly the U.S., China and Russia.

In the foreseeable future, the intensification of strategic competition among major powers will further heighten their tendency toward restraining each other and competing for regional influence. Geopolitical considerations will make it more difficult for the major powers to cooperate fully in pushing the DPRK to abandon nuclear weapons, leading to reduced pressure on the DPRK to choose between survival and nuclear possession. Fierce major power competition will also dampen the prospect of a joint effort to develop a new regional security pattern and work for cooperative security. Security assurances for the DPRK by the major powers, either separately or jointly, will become unattractive for lack of credibility or long-term reliability.

For the long-isolated DPRK, the root of its security anxiety lies not with changes in the external environment but with its internal beliefs, perceptions and ideology. In this connection, future negotiations on the DPRK nuclear issue should — besides focusing on a good external security environment for the DPRK — aim more at starting a long-term process for the country to come out of isolation and gradually integrate itself into the world community in all aspects.

In the short term, a phased agreement remains the most realistic option. The DPRK must impose strict limits on its nuclear program, by, for instance, completely halting the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials, terminating the development and production of more high-quality nuclear weapons and strategic missiles, and completely abandoning the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The international community may consider a conditional suspension of some economic sanctions for a certain period of time or, if the DPRK defaults, an automatic resumption of all existing sanctions.

To allay international concerns about the DPRK’s refusal to take further denuclearization steps after it gains some economic breathing space, it is necessary for the country to seriously engage the relevant parties on a comprehensive road map for nuclear abandonment. If it is difficult for the U.S. and DPRK to start a dialogue on this issue at an early date, then the DPRK may consider an in-depth communication and exchange of views with China and Russia as a first step. Its attitude on this issue is an important indicator for the international community, which will keep an eye on its willingness to abandon nuclear weapons.

Until substantive progress is made on these issues, the peninsula situation may well deteriorate significantly this year, as the DPRK steps up its strategic weapons tests. To prevent a new escalation, it is necessary for the international community, regional powers in particular, to draw a red line as early as possible for potential provocative acts and announce sanctions and other punitive consequences for the DPRK in advance, thus maximizing the maintenance of existing regional stability.

The original Chinese article was published by The Paper (

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