How might North Korea have been preparing to evidence its commitment towards denuclearization in a way that will credibly convince the United States this week in Singapore?
To get a sense for some of the things that might be going through decision makers’ minds in Pyongyang, Tal Inbar – head of the Space and UAV Research Center at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies – presents a fictional account of how a trusted advisor to Kim Jong Un might recommend how to proceed.
A small number of limousines approached the secretive command center, in which the Supreme Leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong Un, was already reviewing recent intelligence reports. Guards opened the door of the cars, and top military commanders of the DPRK were quickly escorted to a specially equipped meeting room, which included measures against all types of listening devices.
Attending were the top brass of North Korea, represented by leaders of the strategic missiles forces, the nuclear manufacturing plants, the special department of the nuclear weapons directorate, and experts on U.S. foreign policy.
After greetings and salutations, the Marshals, Generals and special strategists assembled and Kim opened the discussion.
On the agenda? What to do with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, infrastructure, and ballistic missiles, considering the rapidly approaching summit with the United States.
“Dear Supreme Leader, Marshal Kim” I started.
“What is discussed here today will have profound implications for the future of our beloved country. The question of how to approach President Trump is existential to us all”.
“First, we must understand that the current U.S. president can be totally unpredictable. He can change his mind in an instant, and as far as we know, he is ill-prepared for meetings and discussions, and neither reads national intelligence estimates nor briefing papers.
“The question of how to approach President Trump is existential to us all”
“Nevertheless, he is extremely intelligent, and could come up with surprising ideas, so it is recommended that the Supreme Leader be aware of this and be cautious of surprises.
“Second, the question we must be prepared for relates to what the U.S. president will ask from us. This is in light of the fact we have already offered several confidence-building measures to the Americans: we released three of its nationals from prison, we demolished our Northern Nuclear Test Site (in the presence of international media) and you, Supreme Leader, met twice with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“So, while we come to the meeting having taken sincere and major steps to please the U.S., will it be enough for Trump?,” I asked.
“I don’t think so. He will be pushing us to give him more because Trump must achieve something dramatic as an outcome of the Singapore meeting.”
Thinking through what Trump would likely insist on most, I warned that the U.S. would insist on Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CIVD) of the DPRK to be its principal goal.
But in light of our multiple concessions this year, I cautioned that going further could be dangerous.
“We have learned from some media reports and by our own means that the idea of sending some nuclear warheads out of DPRK for storage and dismantlement in another country might be on the U.S. agenda in Singapore.
“But by fully dismantling this capability, we may no longer be able to defend our beloved homeland! So, I must advise against any move towards totally dismantling our nuclear warhead inventory.
“However, as a confidence-building measure, we could send several small bombs, and several kilograms of plutonium overseas as an exceptional gesture of our goodwill.”
A problem would likely continue to relate to our missiles.
“They will almost certainly complain about our immense and potent missile forces. But I should warn that any Iraqi-style inspection and dismantling process will be devastating for our national might in the long run.
That said, I suggested to my Supreme Leader that we might be able to offer some limited steps that the U.S. would like and that will also benefit us.
“We could follow something like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty as a model for future inter-Korean relations: destroying a category of our missiles if South Korea were to do the same.”
“For example, we could destroy a class of our short-range ultra-accurate missiles if the ROK were to do the same with its Hyunmoo and ATACAMS ballistic missiles and if the U.S. were not to place its own missiles on ROK soil.
“We could destroy a class of our short-range ultra-accurate missiles if the ROK were to do the same with its Hyunmoo and ATACAMS ballistic missiles”
“In other words, we will still keep our strike capability, but we might gain removal of some ROK missiles.”
As I looked up at the discussion participants, I noted that the commander of our missile forces was becoming furious. So, I went on:
“As for the issue of our intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), I would suggest destroying some of them for Trump, but not – of course – our recently tested Hwasong 14s and 15s.
“However, we can definitely allow ourselves to get rid of the untested and obsolete Hwasong 13, even though it was developed under the guidance of the late Dear Leader,” I said.
“But we can defend this initial step by telling the U.S. president that destroying all our nation’s ICBMs would be out of the question, offering instead an official declaration that our missile forces will be taken off alert and that Washington, D.C. and New York City would no longer be targeted.”
Though such statements and actions would not really change the status quo, it was my calculation that the Trump administration might show some interest in them.
“Regarding our means of production, if we get something significant in return, we might invite an international team of missile experts – but neither from the UN nor U.S. officials – for a tour of the facilities. But again, such steps will only be made after we get something meaningful.”
I paused for a second and after seeing that all the other participants had become focused, I continued.
“As for the moratorium on nuclear tests and flights of missiles, we must make the world remember that we took these steps with nothing in return and that the last test of a missile, the Hwasong 15, was in November 2017.”
“As a result, I believe we should be able to demand something in return from the ROK and the U.S.”
“And I can also propose that in the field of space launch vehicles, we could in future offer the world an opportunity to launch satellites using our Unha launch vehicle and that we might even invite ROK representatives to participate in future launches.
“I can also propose that in the field of space launch vehicles, we could in future offer the world an opportunity to launch satellites using our Unha launch vehicle”
“This will be an important step to demonstrate the peaceful nature of our space program, which is banned by the UN and the International Astronautical Federation.”
I had some other points to mention, focused on our relations with the People’s Republic of China, Russia, our involvement in Africa and the Middle-East, but I saw Kim Jong Un was raising his hand, so I immediately stopped.
“We will have a 20-minute break,” Kim said, and left the room.
After he left the room, two marshals approached me. “We will present our strategic deception plans after the break,” they said.
“We certainly don’t want to see McDonalds in Pyongyang!” I replied, knowing that the hard-liner marshals and advisors could become a huge hurdle to cross.
Then the door opened, and Kim Jong Un entered the room, and the discussion was ready to resume.
Main picture: Rodong Sinmun
The above account is fictional, intended to give some insight into what type of steps the DPRK might be willing to make.
However, in the real world, reports recently indicated that Kim Jong Un had replaced three top generals in the build-up to U.S. talks. This move was made, apparently, to help him tighten his grip on the military, and perhaps to neutralize hawks that could be opposed to any future settlements with the U.S. and ROK.
Meanwhile, Syrian president Bashar al Assad says he’ll be visiting Pyongyang, North Korean state media said, an old ally which at one point was building a plutonium reactor with DPRK assistance.
How might North Korea have been preparing to evidence its commitment towards denuclearization in a way that will credibly convince the United States this week in Singapore?To get a sense for some of the things that might be going through decision makers' minds in Pyongyang, Tal Inbar – head of the Space and UAV Research Center at Israel's Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies
Tal Inbar is head of the Space and UAV Research Center at Israel's Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. He has followed North Korea's space and missile programs for many years, along with its international proliferation network and its military cooperation with Iran.