New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The Continuing DPRK Nuclear Impasse: Don’t Hold Your Breath


Dr. Ford recently published an article in the International Journal of Korean Unification Studies (IJKUS) on the North Korean nuclear situation.  The full essay, “Stalemate and Beyond: The North Korean Nuclear Impasse and Its Future,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, vol. 20, no. 2 (2011), at 121-73, can be obtained in PDF form from the Korea Institute of National Unification (KINU) by clicking this link.  In hopes of piquing your interest in reading the analysis therein, NPF offers here a quick summary.

In my IJKUS essay, I argue that despite recent U.S. efforts to reopen denuclearization talks with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – and notwithstanding the DPRK’s apparent receptiveness, as illustrated by the announcement on February 29, after that issue of the IJKUS was already in print, of an agreement whereby Pyongyang would return to negotiations in return for food aid – a real diplomatic re-engagement on terms recognizably like the talks’ focus in the past still seems unlikely.  Indeed, I think there is little chance of real success in any event, at least without an implausibly dramatic strategic volte face by the major participants.

In my article, I contended that one should probably not expect any revival of serious denuclearization talks in the near or medium term.  Clearly, as judged by the February 29 announcement, this has already been shown to be an overstatement: talks do appear now likely to resume.

I fear, however, that my broader and more important point in the IJKUS essay remains valid: that there is little chance of any such negotiations actually achieving denuclearization, and that because of this, regional political affairs will increasingly be characterized by their development “around” (or past) the DPRK nuclear issue without resolving it, even as strategic trends continue to shift against the regime in Pyongyang.  I contended in the article that these developments may perhaps give North Korea additional reasons to indulge its longstanding predilection for provocative “crisis diplomacy,” but ultimately they seem likely to make the DPRK ever more irrelevant in regional affairs except as a source of destructive and destabilizing perturbations.  This, in turn, may force regional players to incorporate the possibility of the DPRK’s implosive collapse into their own individual and collective contingency planning in more overt ways, and to make increasingly coercive containment – and perhaps regime-change strategies – a more important part of their security planning.  Unfortunately, little has changed to suggest that I am wrong on these points.

As I have suggested elsewhere on this website, I believe that there has been an important change in North Korea’s negotiating position from the last period during which the so-called Six-Party Talks were underway.  Those negotiations were at least notionally about the DPRK’s denuclearization, but today – while Pyongyang still desires the perceived geopolitical legitimacy afforded ongoing negotiations and clearly remains interested in getting help providing nutrition to the population its dysfunctional command economy cannot otherwise manage to feed – the regime has gone to some trouble to signal that any real denuclearization is essentially out of the question.

I go into this in more depth in my IJKUS article, but NPF readers can find something of a preview in my February 8, 2012, essay “North Korean ‘Denuclearization’ After Kim Jong-il.”  DPRK comments have often predicated the idea of North Korean nuclear disarmament upon the achievement of global nuclear disarmament, and DPRK negotiators in “Track II” discussions with U.S. officials – including myself – have tried to link denuclearization to un-negotiable (and indeed rather fantastical) preconditions such as the dissolution of U.S.-South Korean and U.S.-Japan defense relationships, and the United States’ de facto withdrawal from the region.  DPRK public pronouncements have also long emphasized the centrality of nuclear weapons possession to North Korean security, with no hint that there is any feasible way for the regime in Pyongyang to feel secure without them.  After Kim Jong-il’s death, the North Koreans were quick to proclaim that outsiders “should not expect any [policy] changes from us,” and they have offered no reason why we should not believe them.

On the whole, it thus seems to me that there is little reason to hold out hope for a denuclearization agreement, even if the parties do end up really resuming Six-Party negotiations.  The recently-announced plan to “freeze” merely the nuclear facilities we know about at Yongbyon is not a bad thing – for it is presumably better for such facilities to be inactive than to be producing at full capacity – but no one should think that a temporary halt purchased by lavish grants of assistance counts as any kind of real solution.  (After all, that has been tried before!)  Nor should one pretend that paying nuclear violators merely to talk about their WMD programs does not create moral hazard problems, either in the North Korean context or elsewhere.

Making a negotiated denuclearization agreement harder than ever, moreover, is the fact that in the years since the last time diplomats announced any kind of agreement on denuclearization, the universe of what denuclearization must inarguably cover has been steadily expanding.  Since the DPRK’s last denuclearization promise in 2005, for instance, North Korea has actually tested nuclear weapons twice, and has publicly revealed the existence of just the kind of sophisticated and apparently long-established uranium enrichment infrastructure about which the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush began warning in 2002.  If agreeing upon real denuclearization was challenging in the mid-2000s – and its actual verification well-nigh non-negotiable with the paranoid and secretive regime in Pyongyang – it is vastly more so today, thanks to the relentless onward march of the DPRK’s nuclear work.

In my IJKUS article, I explore some possible alternative approaches to the DPRK nuclear issue, but I find none of them particularly propitious.  One possibility – which I stressed to my North Korean interlocutors at a “Track II” event in the spring of 2011 sponsored by the Aspen Institute Germany – is a negotiated process of collaborative WMD elimination and verification modeled on what Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi successfully implemented in 2003-04.  For obvious if analytically unjustified reasons, however, this “Libyan Model” is now famously unpersuasive in Pyongyang.  (In light of last year’s bloody events in Libya, officials in the DPRK regard the Libyan elimination program as merely the first phase of a nefarious Western plot to disarm Qaddafi before crushing his regime and killing him.)

I also discuss the possibilities of (a) trying to approach the DPRK nuclear issue as a “safety and security” problem, working with North Korea to make its nuclear posture safer until such time as its weapons can be eliminated pursuant to a future denuclearization agreement, (b) trying to involve the IAEA in renewed inspections in North Korea pursuant to that Agency’s INFCIRC/66 model for nuclear safeguards outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty framework, and (c) trying to do something with regard to the DPRK nuclear issue by involving Pyongyang somehow in the “Nuclear Security Summit” process.  For various reasons, however, I feel that these approaches are unpromising.

Accordingly, I suggest in my article that whether or not talks are notionally underway about denuclearization, there is almost very little real chance of achieving it on a negotiated basis.  In this context, it would seem that whatever the state of diplomatic engagement (or pseudo-engagement) is underway with the DPRK, we and our allies will face increasing pressures to default to a pressure-based policy of working to ensure North Korea’s continued isolation and painful “containment” until such point as Pyongyang either makes a strategic commitment to change course on nuclear weaponry, or its regime simply collapses.

As South Korea continues to build itself a growing role and profile as a regional and even global power – and as the DPRK itself continues to stagnate or decline in every arena except nuclear weaponry – the international community thus faces interesting and somewhat paradoxical challenges.  On the one hand, these developments will (continue to) increase Pyongyang’s incentive to hang onto its nuclear weapons programs under any and all circumstances, even as they probably ensure that the DPRK’s prospects for actually getting anything like a “good” denuclearization deal steadily diminish.  This is already encouraging outsiders to shift their thinking from residual hopes of negotiated denuclearization to the grimmer tasks of contingency planning for how to handle future North Korean provocations, potential regime collapse in Pyongyang, or factional civil war in the North.

On the other hand, these dynamics are also making North Korea in most regards ever more irrelevant to East Asian affairs, with regional powers already well on their way to building a post-DPRK regional order – one in which Pyongyang increasingly matters not at all except insofar as others anticipate having to cope with provocations it might decide to undertake, or with its domestic implosion.  The dirty secret of the North Korean nuclear negotiations, therefore, is that the current stalemate could indeed last for what is functionally “forever” – that is, until the demise of the DPRK regime.  And this, in turn, may focus the outside world increasingly, and more openly, upon harder-nosed strategies of pressuring and coercively containing the current North Korean regime until it either accepts a fundamental change in course or simply falls apart – with or without some kind of “nudge” or encouragement from the outside.

I might, of course, be wrong about this.  But I’d wager that the prospects are dim indeed for negotiated DPRK denuclearization, and that things are likely to get worse on the Korean Peninsula before they get better.  I encourage NPF readers to download my full article from the Journal – as well as the other essays appearing therein – in order to can engage with these issues in more detail.  And of course, I encourage reader feedback to me at

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Trackbacks are disabled.

NPF Pages

Recent Additions to NPF

NPF Discussion Pages

Calendar of NPF Postings

January 2021
« Dec    

NPF Archives (by month)