Nukes Aren’t the End of North Korea’s Arsenal
Any deal needs to remember Pyongyang's range of deadly programs.
In a tweet on June 5, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his hope that his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore could be “the start of something big.” True, a promise of denuclearization would be a genuinely important step forward. But that’s not the only threat North Korea poses — and if Trump really cares about the big picture, he needs to remember that.
The Iran nuclear deal was weak because it provided sanctions relief while failing to address Tehran’s ballistic missile program and the regime’s support for militias elsewhere. A North Korean nuclear deal that doesn’t address the country’s extensive chemical and biological weapons programs, as well as its aggressive cyber-operations, could lose political support over time as well. Any potential deal can’t just be words on paper; it needs to include real protections against backsliding.
North Korea turned to chemical weapons shortly after the Korean War. They served as low-cost weapons of mass destruction to supplement North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and they also provided a tactical means to counter superior U.S. and South Korean forces. As North Korea’s conventional military has deteriorated, chemical weapons are likely seen as more important for suppressing the advancement of U.S. and South Korean forces.
North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to both use and sell chemical weapons. A United Nations panel of experts has documented North Korean cooperation with Syria on chemical weapons, and a VX nerve agent was used last year to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, allegedly on the supreme leader’s orders. Kim’s potential meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad only underscores the need to address this issue. U.N. Security Council resolutions also require North Korea to address this issue. Resolution 2270 calls for North Korea to meet its obligations under international treaties on biological weapons and to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
North Korean cyberattacks are also a significant concern. In a relatively short period of time, Pyongyang has assembled one of the most capable groups of hackers in the world and uses them for a wide range of activities. Experts suspect that North Korea has hacked more than 100 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges, stealing up to $650 million. Beyond the government’s efforts to earn hard currency and evade sanctions, the Sony Pictures hack demonstrates Pyongyang’s willingness to go after private actors whose actions it doesn’t like.
While some of North Korea’s cyber-activities fall into the realm of traditional espionage that all states engage in, the United States and North Korea as part of any nuclear deal and peace process should agree to a series of limits on Pyongyang’s digital intrusions. In 2015, the United States and China agreed to refrain from using cyberattacks to steal intellectual property for economic gain, but Washington should look to build on that model given North Korea’s financial theft. This should include an agreement from North Korea not to engage in financial theft, while also refraining from using cyber-operations to intimidate private actors or steal their intellectual property. At the same time, North Korea should agree to refrain from selling its services or software to others to achieve the same purposes.
Any potential deal can’t end with stopping bad behavior. It needs to also encourage the kind of actions that can reconcile North Korea with the rest of the world and let it start to undertake fundamental economic reforms. At the moment, North Korea doesn’t produce basic economic statistics such as the amount of international trade it conducts, its GDP, or price indexes. These and other data are basic requirements if North Korea wants to receive international development loans.
At the same time, North Korea will need to allow foreign companies to repatriate profits. The fate of the Egyptian firm Orascom, which invested in North Korea and now has no way to get its money back, is a cautionary tale. After building North Korea’s first 3G network, Orascom has faced a series of problems operating in North Korea. It lost its exclusive license to operate in the country, now faces competition from the state-run Byol, and has been unable to . If firms are unable to take their profits home, there will be little incentive for the type of private-sector investment Trump has suggested.
North Korea’s failure to live up to prior agreements and the regime’s sudden shift in policy are reasons to approach the current talks cautiously. The United States should be open to the prospect of change but needs to ensure that there is a way to maintain pressure on North Korea if this is another false start. This is why any agreement needs a snapback provision to put sanctions back in place if North Korea backslides.
The snapback provision should essentially include a couple of elements. Disagreements over fidelity are bound to arise during any dismantlement process. There needs to be a dispute settlement process, but it must be time-limited. If North Korea violates the agreement and the issue cannot be dealt with in dispute resolution, U.N. sanctions should automatically snap back into place, and no member of the Security Council should be able to veto their return. Perhaps most important, the snapback should cover not only those items explicitly stated in any agreement, but also any efforts that would impair or nullify the work of the international community to dismantle North Korea’s weapons programs.
As Trump himself has acknowledged, this is the beginning of a process. If the right elements aren’t built in from the beginning, there is a greater risk things will unravel in the future. Ensuring that the North Koreans understand that any final deal needs to address their other weapons programs, that they will need to undertake real economic reforms, and that any agreement will not be built on blind faith will help give the process a greater chance of succeeding.