Editor's Note

Won Gon Park, a professor at Ewha Woman’s University, appreciates that the Yoon government’s “Audacious Initiative” reaffirms the goals and methods of denuclearization. However, Dr. Park points out that Pyongyang refuses to accept President Yoon’s proposal to receive economic incentives in return for denuclearization, as DPRK has recently passed a radical law enshrining the right to automatically use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself. In addition, given that DPRK continues its offensive posture refusing to have any negotiations with Washington or Seoul, he highlights that South Korea and the United States should first agree on a precise definition, goals, and approaches to denuclearization.

As of August 2022, the prospects for a denuclearized Korea remain elusive. President Yoon Suk-yeol offered an ‘Audacious Initiative’ for DPRK’s nuclear disarmament in his speech to mark the 77th Liberation Day on August 15. Four days later, however, Vice Department Director of the Worker’s Party of Korea Central Committee, Kim Yo-jong, slammed Seoul’s plan to denuclearize DPRK in a statement. This report aims to provide critical analysis of DPRK’s nuclear policy and predict its future. On that basis, this report will evaluate the “audacious initiative” along with offering suggestions for appropriate Korea-U.S. countermeasures.


The DPRK’s Strategy


The DPRK has maintained a hardline stance against the ROK and the US. Following the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019, working-level talks took place in Sweden in October. During the dialogues, officials from Pyongyang said, “Complete denuclearization would only happen when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and hinder our development are removed completely without a shadow of a doubt,” referring to the “denuclearization of the Korean (Joseon) Peninsula” rather than denuclearization of the DPRK. Two months later, Pyeongyang practically refused to resolve the nuclear stalemate through negotiations with the United States and officially announced its plan to “completely destroy U.S. sanctions through self-reliance (advancing the revolutionary line on launching an offensive for making a frontal breakthrough as required by the present situation and the developing revolution) at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).


A frontal breakthrough policy direction or ‘line” does not completely disregard the possibility of dialogue with the United States but demands Washington to take measures first, with state leaders saying that “Nuclear talks will only be resumed when the U.S. unconditionally accepts our demands.” This means that “the DPRK will make no meaningful contact with the U.S.” unless Washington withdraws its hostile policy toward the DPRK - i.e., the right to survive and develop, as was opined in Sweden, October 2019. The Party Congress, which is the highest body of WPK that determines the regime’s approach to external affairs, also reaffirmed its “Frontal Breakthrough” line. At the 8th Party Congress held in January 2021, the DPRK called the United States a “war monster” and “biggest main enemy,” declaring that “no matter who is in power in the U.S., our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing Washington.”


As of 2022, the DPRK is still ramping up its campaign to the Frontal Breakthrough line and reveals the following intentions. First, DPRK wishes to further fully advance its nuclear programs after cutting off dialogues with the United States. The DPRK’s demands for the withdrawal of the United States’ hostile policies, a precondition for renewed talks, are unlikely to be accepted by Washington. The DPRK classifies hostile policy as twofold; the right to develop and the right to survive. Whereas the former requires completely lifting sanctions against its regime, and the latter requires the permanent halt of ROK-U.S. joint military exercise and strategic asset deployment as a minimum requirement. Pyeongyang is aware that the United States is unable to unilaterally make these moves. Therefore, the DPRK has been demanding that the United States first withdraw its hostile policy as a pretext to buy time to advance its nuclear program.


Such intention was again revealed during Kim Jong Un’s speech on the anniversary of the armistice for the Korean War on July 27. Kim Jong Un accused the United States of “justifying its unlawful hostile policies,” adding, “We must confront the U.S. imperialists to the end on the strength of ideology and arms.” Although the regime will not completely shut the door on dialogue, it will “thoroughly prepared to cope with any kind of military clashes.” The DPRK continues to seek formidable “self-defensive strategy” - i.e. enhance its nuclear arsenal while condemning the hawkish policy of the United States.


Second, under no condition does the DPRK wish to give up its nuclear weapons. In 2009, the regime publicly denied rumors about the so-called “diplomatic goals” that regime security guarantees, including the establishment of diplomatic ties with the United States, is a prerequisite for giving up its nuclear weapons. On January 7, 2009, the DPRK clearly stated via KCNA (Korean Central News Agency), “The reality of the Korean peninsula is that we can survive without normalizing ties with the United States, but cannot survive without nuclear deterrence... Normalization of relations and the nuclear issue are completely separate issues. If there is anything we aspire to, it is not to normalize the DPRK-U.S. relations, but to strengthen nuclear deterrence in every way to protect the safety of our people more reliably.” Since then, the DPRK has never expressed its intentions to take steps toward denuclearization as a condition for establishing diplomatic ties with the United States. Even in the course of the peace process on the Korean Peninsula from 2018 to 2019, the DPRK agreed to (1) establish new U.S.-DPRK relations, (2) build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and (3) work towards complete denuclearization of the “Korean Peninsula” and not that of the DPRK, through the Singapore Summit Joint Statement. The statement did not spell out the link between the DPRK’s denuclearization and the establishment of U.S.-DPRK diplomatic relations. Considering the significance Kim Jong Un re-attached to the statement at the 8th Party Congress in 2021, the Singapore Summit’s joint statement seems to be a principle that the DPRK values. Thus, the DPRK’s sole goal is to win international recognition as a nuclear-weapon state without giving up its nuclear arsenal. In his Korean War armistice anniversary speech this July, Kim Jong Un said DPRK was “ready to mobilise” its nuclear deterrent and emphasized the country’s “thorough readiness” to deal with any future military clash.


Third, Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine is very aggressive and radical. The DPRK regime made it clear that it could preemptively use nuclear weapons against South Korea, thereby quelling related controversy. On April 5 this year, Kim Yeo-jong said, “the primary mission of the nuclear force is to prevent war before anything else, but in case of war, its mission will convert into the one of eliminating the enemy’s armed forces at a strike” and elucidated that “one’s nuclear combat force is mobilized to take initiative at the outset of war, completely dampen the enemy’s war spirits, prevent protracted hostilities, and preserve one’s own military muscle.” Following this remark, it was also added on the 16th of the same month that “Tactical nukes are of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units, enhancing the operational efficiency of DRPK’s tactical nukes, and diversification of firepower missions” during the test-firing of a “new tactical guided weapon.” The frontline long-range artillery unit, which is stationed in the frontline area of the DPRK, is heavily equipped with long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers that target South Korea’s metropolitan area.


To sum up, the DPRK has expressed its determination to strike Seoul soon after the outbreak of a war on the Korean Peninsula by deploying new tactical nuclear missiles forward. At the 3rd enlarged meeting of the 8th Central Military Commission (CMC) held in June, the leadership “discussed issues on additionally confirming the operation tasks of the front-line units of the Korean People’s Army and revising operational plans according to the military strategic plan of the Party and on reorganizing major military organizations.” This implies that the previously announced direction was turned into a concrete plan. Such an attempt by the DPRK signals a lower nuclear threshold on the battlefield. The plan is to use a mixture of conventional and nuclear weapons against South Korea at the onset of the war.


The DPRK also declared its ability to use nuclear weapons even in non-military situations. During the April 25 military parade, the supreme leader said, “The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent even at a time when a situation we are not desirous of all is created on this land. If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish its unexpected second mission.” This remark suggests that the DPRK could use nuclear weapons in non-military situations if other countries undermine its national interests. The challenge is that the concept of national interest is very vague. The DPRK regards it as a violation of national interests to raise the issue of human rights abuses in the DPRK, economic sanctions, and even sending flyers. In other words, the regime’s nuclear doctrine is extremely radical in that the use of nuclear weapons depends on arbitrary interpretation. In his July speech, Kim Jong Un repeatedly made warnings that “other countries will face greater instability and crisis if Pyongyang’s safety and fundamental interests are seriously infringed.”


Finally, the regime has time and time again confirmed that its nuclear doctrine includes the preemptive use of nuclear weaponry. Following the 8th Party Congress in January 2021, Kim Jong Un said on April 30 this year that he could “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces, if necessary.”


Through the 7th meeting of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, the DPRK legislated such a radical and assertive nuclear strategy. Although the DPRK has already passed legislation titled “Solidifying the Status of a Self-Defensive Nuclear Power” in 2013, the DPRK discarded the legislation and replaced it with legislation titled “About the DPRK’s Nuclear Force Policies.” This legislation has reflected the DPRK’s nuclear policies after last April as follows.


First, the nuclear forces of the DPRK shall obey the monolithic command of the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK. The state nuclear forces command organization composed of members appointed by the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK shall assist the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK in the whole course from decision concerning nuclear weapons to execution. Therefore, the president of the State Affairs of the DPRK shall have all decisive powers concerning nuclear weapons.


Second, the DPRK passed legislation that authorizes the use of nuclear weapons in practically any circumstance. Aside from situations when it is threatened by nuclear attacks, the DPRK has stipulated that nuclear weapons can be used even when nuclear weapons have yet been involved as it is stated: (1) in case an attack by nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction was launched or drew near is judged, (2) in case a fatal military attack against important strategic objects of the state was launched or drew near is judged, (3) in case the need for operation for preventing the expansion and protraction of a war and taking the initiative in the war in contingency is inevitably raised. The most concerning statement is that the DPRK can use its nuclear forces in “situations that cause a threat to the people’s lives and their safety.” The statement does not specify the situations, which leaves room for arbitrary interpretation. This is in line with President Kim Jong Un’s remarks said that the DPRK might use its nuclear weapons when “national interests are infringed” during his speech last April 25th. Thereby, the DPRK also made it possible to use nuclear weapons in non-military situations.


Third, The DPRK included “preemptive strikes” as a justification for nuclear strikes. The DPRK has made nuclear preemptive strike possible when the DPRK judges that the actual attack of its adversary is “imminent.” Moreover, the DPRK can use its nuclear weapons practically in every state of war. By stipulating that “in case the need for operation for preventing the expansion and protraction of a war,” nuclear weapons can be used under the president’s decision, even when the adversary does not use nuclear weapons or make nuclear threats.


Finally, The DPRK made clear the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the ROK. The second clause of the five principles of nuclear weapon usage, “DPRK shall neither threaten non-nuclear weapons states with its nuclear weapons nor use nuclear weapons against them unless they join aggression or attack against the DPRK in collusion with other nuclear weapons states”; practically targets the ROK. Since the ROK and the United States consist of a combined defense system, the ROK is considered as a state that “cooperates” and “participates in invading or attacking” the DPRK, which makes the ROK a target of the usage of nuclear weapons.


Behind the DPRK’s unprecedented legislation of a detailed nuclear strategy underlies the following political intention. First, the status of DPRK as a nuclear weapons state has become irreversible. There can be no bargaining over DPRK’s nuclear weapons. By legislating the “advancement, diversification, and mass production” of nuclear weapons through the ninth statute on the “mass reinforcement and the renewal of nuclear forces,” the DPRK made it possible to negotiate only nuclear arms reduction while excluding the option of denuclearization. The DPRK is preparing to negotiate with the United States as a de facto nuclear-weapon state. The legislation on nuclear weapons and making the legislation public is a strategy to take the lead in the DPRK’s nuclear negotiation. By limiting its own options, the DPRK will try to take an advantageous position in future negotiations as a de facto nuclear power.


In addition, it highlights Kim Jong Un’s achievements. By mentioning “our revolution has made so far since it started out with two pistols,” Kim Jong Un invoked the “ch’ong dae (barrel of a gun) politics” created during the Kim Il Sung era, in his speech. The construction of national defense capabilities, which Kim Il Sung initiated, was finalized by Kim Jong Un’s development of an “absolute weapon” in this case, nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un had finally “made the historical achievement of anchoring nuclear weapons policy with a legal groundwork” as an extension to Kim Il Sung’s vision. Meanwhile, by emphasizing increased food production and daily necessities, the DPRK practically admitted economic difficulties and lackluster performance. Kim Jong Un, who cannot boast of any economic achievements, has been attempting to secure legitimacy by emphasizing the expansion of nuclear capabilities.


Taken together, the DPRK has cut off dialogues with the United States and is doubling its efforts to truly become a nuclear weapons state. As of August, the DPRK launched 19 rounds of missile tests since the beginning of 2022. In particular, the KN-23 and KN-24, which can be equipped with tactical nuclear warheads, enhanced missiles, long-range cruise missiles, etc., are now under intense development, while some have already been subject to the “evaluation test fire,” during which Pyongyang conducts random test flights upon deployment. The DPRK recently launched the Hwasong-12 missile, which is capable of striking Guam, for the first time since 2017. The regime is showing off its ability to strike critical areas in the Indo-Pacific region, including South Korea, Japan, and Guam. At the same time, the DPRK will develop its ICBMs. Immediately after the March 24 test, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “The capability to hit the U.S. mainland has yet to be proven.” However, the regime remains determined to ramp up its development.


The DPRK’s ultimate goal is to be recognized as a de facto nuclear-weapon state while pursuing nuclear arms reductions or arms control. The sophistication, mass production, and diversification of nuclear weapons made the complete denuclearization of the regime unrealistic. It is against this backdrop that the argument for “nuclear disarmament,” meaning that the DPRK gains new status as a de facto nuclear-weapon state, is gaining traction as a more realistic option. Pyongyang will certainly not miss this opportunity and will advance its nuclear capability to the fullest so that when talks resume, it functions as a nuclear state and thus has the upper hand.


Expected DPRK Provocations


Considering DPRK’s strategic intentions and ultimate objectives, DPRK will continue its offensive phase for the time being. It is expected that the provocation will continue until the development of strategic weapons is completed at a certain level. At DPRK’s 8th Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un clarified the country’s intention to advance its nuclear posture beyond existential deterrence and to further develop the operational use of weapons, referring to the 2021-2025 five-year plan. Kim Jong Un especially stressed the need to raise the rate of precision good enough to strike and annihilate any strategic targets within a range of 15,000 kilometers with pinpoint accuracy, introduce hypersonic gliding flight warheads, develop solid-fuel engine-propelled inter-continental underwater and ground ballistic rockets, possess nuclear-powered submarines and underwater-launch nuclear strategic weapons, and operate military reconnaissance satellites, as well as developing surveillances drone with a range of 500km.


Taking account of Kim Jong Un’s instructions, the authority of the party conference, and DPRK’s behavior this year, the following provocations are expected. First, DPRK could resume missile test provocations. The launch of cruise missiles on August 17- its first weapons test in more than two months- signals the DPRK’s resumption of weapons tests. DPRK has not publicly announced the missile provocations carried out between late April and June 5. It is believed that DPRK intentionally did not disclose the missile launches as the DPRK authorities likely were aware of the COVID-19 outbreak in late April. With the COVID-19 situation being a matter of life and death for citizens of DPRK, news of the missile launches will not be viewed in a positive light. The DPRK officials recognize the pandemic outbreak as a threat to the regime rather than the well-being of the people. While research on the sudden change in DPRK suggests that even though the possibility of an internal revolution remains low, there could be a civil uprising in case the pandemic overlaps with the severe economic crisis. Therefore, it can be believed that the DPRK leadership conducted planned missile tests but did not disclose them to the public. The launch experiment was even stopped after June 5th, reflecting the severity of the outbreak.


DPRK will resume provocations for its ultimate goal of implementing the development of the weapons system ordered by Kim Jong Un at the Eighth Party Congress and, more largely, recognition as a nuclear state. Although dependent on the development situation, it is expected that Kim Jong Un will launch a military reconnaissance satellite, a "most important key task," which he had vowed during his on-the-spot guidance to "operate within a close period." After the ballistic missile launch on Feb. 27, DPRK stated, "The National Space Development Administration and the Academy of National Defense Science conducted an important test in accordance with the legitimate plan for the development of reconnaissance satellites on the 27th." It also released a photo of the Korean Peninsula, saying that the ballistic rocket was tested with a reconnaissance camera to be mounted on a reconnaissance satellite. However, criticism has also been raised regarding the credibility of photographs, and that the test may merely be an excuse, as long-range ballistic rocket developments are closely linked to the ICBM development process. What is important is that military reconnaissance satellites are under the direct order of Kim Jong Un, and the DPRK’s reconnaissance capabilities, much weaker compared to South Korea and the U.S., would need to be improved. Therefore, it is expected that there will be another military reconnaissance satellite launch in any shape or manner.


In conjunction to these launches, the possibility of an ICBM launch experiment also remains on the horizon. While the DPRK allegedly claims it launched the Hwasong-17 ICBM on March 24, following the scrapping of nuclear and ICBM test moratoriums, the South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities judge that this is in fact a Hwasong-15 ICBM. Marking the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birthday on April 15, Kim Jong Un needed a propaganda campaign which shows that he completed the construction of the defense force, a task that began from his predecessors, with "nuclear force" through the "absolute weapon"-the Hwasong-17 ICBM. This can be said that Kim Jong Un overreached in his attempt to offset his lack of legitimacy with his achievements. However, it is possible that the ICBM test was resumed by the Eighth Party Congress to improve the accuracy and development of underwater and ground solid-fuel engine ICBMs, as being able to hit the U.S. mainland would be the last step for the DPRK to be recognized as a nuclear power. In addition, the DPRK may potentially test-fire its incomplete "underwater-launched nuclear strategic weapons" and hypersonic missiles and mid- to long-range cruise missiles, which are under development, both commissioned by the Eighth Party Congress.


The possibility of a seventh nuclear test is also still open. The seventh nuclear test is both politically and militarily meaningful to the DPRK. In terms of politics, the test is as an important step for the DPRK to be recognized as a de facto nuclear state. The DPRK’s ICBM launch, which broke the moratorium that has been established in April 2018, did not receive as much attention from the world as expected. In particular, it did not attract much attention even in the United States and did little to affect the Biden administration's denuclearization policy. The level of completion of DPRK’s ICBM, paired with periodic missile launches by countries that possess ICBMs, such as the United States, is believed to have diverted attention. However, as the DPRK is the only country to conduct a nuclear weapon experiment since the 1990s, it could expect to easily make the headlines. Through this, the DPRK hopes to declare to the world that "complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization" (CVID) is practically impossible and will try to be recognized as a de facto nuclear power. Militarily, it has been suggested that a miniaturized nuclear warhead would be needed for tactical nuclear strikes and MIRV-equipped ICBMs. At the same time, however, there is also the possibility of an explosive nuclear test for the production of "super-large nuclear warheads," which was announced at the Eighth Party Congress.


Finally, while the possibility of DPRK's local provocation cannot be completely ruled out, it can be expected to be cautious. While controversial, the September 19th Inter-Korean Military Agreement in 2019 was written in favor of the DPRK. Therefore, it can refrain from making clear provocations against South Korea that will nullify the agreement. Rather, there is a possibility that the DPRK will launch a political offensive by attacking the decision of South Korea and the U.S. to strengthen joint drills above the solidarity level starting next year.


The COVID-19 situation and economic hardship in the DPRK might cause unexpected outcomes, as Pyongyang may also return to dialogue to ease sanctions in consideration of the plight of the people whose life has deteriorated under economic sanctions. However, as the regime prioritizes politics over the economy and has already strengthened internal solidarity through the ideological and armed struggle for the past two years, it is likely to continue to endure even when pushed to the limit in the eyes of external observers. Alternatively, if the internal conditions worsen, Pyongyang may choose to heighten provocations to strengthen solidarity by creating an external tension environment, hence amplifying the “siege mentality.”


The current global landscape is also favorable to the DPRK as the regime is taking full advantage of the U.S.-China conflict and the war in Ukraine. By declaring a new Cold War, Pyongyang emphasized the importance of cooperation with China and Russia, thereby closing off the possibilities of new UN sanctions even in case of future provocations. In sum, for the time being, the DPRK is expected to take the necessary steps toward advancing its nuclear capabilities, seeking the status of a de facto nuclear-weapon state, and aiming for nuclear disarmament rather than denuclearization.


ROK-U.S. Cooperation


There is very limited room for diplomacy to achieve denuclearization given that the U.S.-DPRK dialogue is cut off. In addition, as stated above, the regime is forging ahead with its nuclear program. Considering this, South Korea and the United States need to bolster cooperation on the following areas.


First, Pyongyang’s nuclear race must be put to a halt. The time is now on the regime’s side. The more time passes, the more the regime will secure advanced, mass-produced, and diversified tactical nuclear missiles targeting South Korea, Japan, and Guam. Various missiles, including the KN-23, will reduce the effectiveness of missile defenses in South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Therefore, South Korea, the United States, and Japan should reinforce cooperation and deter the DPRK’s actions by forewarning of an airtight security posture with, for example, joint exercises in the region and deployment of strategic assets if Pyongyang launches missiles.


Second, DPRK’s illegal possession and development of nuclear weapons must be continuously problematized. Although additional sanctions by the UN Security Council will be blocked by Chinese and Russia reluctance, the regime’s nuclear development should be brought to the Security Council to highlight its illegality. In addition, the DPRK’s nuclear threat should be publicly discussed at the international level in cooperation with NATO and other like-minded countries that share the values of liberal democracy. In particular, if the DPRK carries out a 7th nuclear test, as many countries as possible including South Korea and the United States should join forces and should impose new (unilateral) sanctions on the regime. These actions will show the international community’s unity and send the message that the DPRK will never be accepted as a nuclear state under any circumstances.


Third, the United States must demonstrate its determination for extended deterrence against the DPRK’s aggressive and extreme nuclear doctrine. In particular, Washington should give Pyongyang a stern warning on attempts aimed at lowering the nuclear threshold, such as the use of nuclear weapons in non-military situations or mixing conventional and nuclear weapons. The U.S. President and high-ranking officials must constantly remind Pyongyang that the “three-axis defense system” will be deployed in response to its use of nuclear weapons.


Fourth, South Korea and the United States must closely cooperate on plans to denuclearize the DPRK. Details of the “calibrated, practical approach” pursued by the Biden administration are unknown, but it is believed that the plan demands a nuclear freeze at the minimum level, which would prove its sincere commitment to denuclearization. On the other hand, while Pyongyang publicly denies it, a partial denuclearization of dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex proposed at the Hanoi Summit would be considered as an acceptable deal. This discrepancy suggests a wide disagreement between the United States and the DPRK.


In fact, when it comes to specific agenda, greater disagreement is detected. A nuclear freeze is not a mere declaration but an action that entails verification. In other words, a proper freeze involves sending IAEA or international inspectors to the DPRK for on-site inspection and continuous monitoring, which the regime strongly rejects. It seems impossible to agree on what to freeze. The DPRK has never agreed to freeze its highly enriched uranium facilities outside Yongbyon. Against this backdrop, some experts in the United States and South Korea have recently pointed out that denuclearization could be an illusion, hence calling for a more realistic goal such as non-proliferation rather than counter-proliferation. In particular, the United States seems to prioritize the freeze on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which pose a threat to the U.S. mainland.


South Korea and the United States should agree on a clear definition, goals, and approaches to denuclearization. First and foremost, the definition of denuclearization should be “denuclearization of the DPRK,” not “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as proposed by Pyongyang. Although the United States uses the expression “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in respect of the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement, specific plans should outline the stages of “denuclearization of the DPRK”. The DPRK should also aim for “Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID).” While the acronym CVID might not be used as the regime adamantly refuses to accept its requirements, South Korea and the United States should still never give up on their goals of completely eliminating all of the DPRK’s past, present, and future nuclear weapons.


A roadmap for denuclearization must be developed in the early stages of the negotiation process. The DPRK’s demand for a partial denuclearization, in which agenda items are disconnected without a holistic roadmap in place, should not be accepted. The DPRK is likely to demand the lifting of sanctions in exchange for the suspension of ICBM development or freezing of some nuclear facilities, without agreeing on a roadmap. If accepted, the DPRK, which is specialized in withstanding sanctions, could be revitalized. Also, the DPRK is highly likely to hold on to its nuclear arsenal for good. Even if a “snapback” provision, which could resume sanctions on Pyongyang in case it fails to comply with the proposed preconditions, is included, the clause might never be triggered as China and Russia are likely to veto a UN Security Council resolution.


In this respect, the “Audacious Initiative” laid out by President Yoon Suk-yeol in his Liberation Day speech on August 15 carries significance in that it reaffirms the goals and methods of denuclearization. The initiative is underpinned by two principles. First, South Korea should be a party directly involved in the denuclearization talks. Amid threats coming from the DPRK’s leader that he’s ready to use his nuclear weapons, South Korea must cooperate with the United States, but at the same time be playing an active role. South Korea should be the one leading the Audacious Initiative.


Second, the Audacious Initiative stresses the importance of comprehensive agreement and phased implementation. We must present a roadmap that sets forth a comprehensive agreement, while taking a piecemeal approach without unilaterally demanding the DPRK to first denuclearize. The roadmap should include the definition and goals of denuclearization, phased approaches to denuclearization, and corresponding measures by sector. In addition, whereas denuclearization should be implemented in stages, the implementation steps should be minimized, that is, the time interval between practical denuclearization and complete denuclearization should be reduced to accelerate denuclearization.


This is in response to the DPRK segmenting steps for denuclearization, as the regime put forth the notion of ‘disablement’ in the 2007 “February 13 Agreement” and the “October 3 Agreement.” The longer the phase, the more distant the possibility of the regime’s denuclearization. The deadline for the completion of denuclearization should be set at about two years, and the roadmap should make reducing the implementation time a top priority.


Meanwhile, when it comes to sanctions, economic incentives should be offered to Pyongyang in return for its practical denuclearization steps under the Audacious Initiative. However, sanctions on the DPRK should be maintained until complete denuclearization, and only partial exemption of sanctions should be offered. While it is unlikely for Pyongyang to actually accept South Korea’s Audacious Initiative, it is important to stick to the principles of complete denuclearization at a time when the idea of partial denuclearization gains traction.




As of now, the DPRK has adamantly pursued its “Frontal Breakthrough” line, a strict confrontational policy against South Korea and the U.S, adopted in December 2019. Even if The DPRK is led by a Suryong, there must be a ‘line struggle’ to achieve its policy transitions; there have been no visible signs of any so far. The Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the party’s highest deliberative authority, which is held every five years, has reaffirmed maintaining its hardline stance on the 8th Congress in 2021, while the five subsequent plenary meetings of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party indicated no significant changes in attitude. In particular, on July 27, Kim Jong Un pledged again to maintain its ‘Frontal Breakthrough’ line against South Korea and the United States.


The DPRK’s attitude would greatly constrain South Korea and the United States’ efforts for diplomatic engagement. While the Biden administration has been rightfully criticized for its passive attitudes toward the DPRK, the two proposals it did make deserve proper credit. For instance, late last year, the U.S offered to provide the DPRK with 60 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Kim Song, Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations. Also, it has been shown that a high-ranking U.S. official sent the DRPK a series of specific proposals on denuclearization. However, the DPRK has turned down the former proposal for vaccines by firing ballistic missiles and refused to respond to the latter as well. Therefore, it can be deduced that the DPRK has no plan to accept diplomatic proposals from South Korea, the United States, or a collective proposal by both the South and the U.S. Since the breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi Summit, there have been no changes in the status quo in DPRK’s unwillingness to cooperate, such as its rejections of numerous policy proposals from the Moon Jae-in administration. Therefore, it seems likely that the DPRK will concentrate on advancing its nuclear capabilities in the immediate future.


In addition, were the DPRK to resume negotiations for denuclearization, it is unlikely that it would give up its nuclear weapons for economic assistance. Kim Jong Un has already stated that DPRK would rather “tighten its belt again,” and go through another “arduous march” – a propaganda term used in the 1990s during the country's infamous famine- than give up its nuclear weapons program. In her statement on August 18, Kim Yo–Jong emphasized that the DPRK had no intention to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for “something as worthless as economic cooperation”. Especially at a time when the DPRK regime indoctrinates its people that it is “a crime to prioritize one’s own economic standing over ideology”, it is unlikely that economic gains would trump politics. The regime has already displayed its tendencies when it responded to a remark by Former President Lee Myung-bak on February 21, 2009, who had criticized the regime, saying how it would be “better to abandon socialism if it means worrying about putting food on the table”, by responding vehemently by claiming it would “settle matters with the traitorous gang of thugs to the end through the most ruthless and resolute decisiveness”. In this respect, the core idea of the “audacious initiative” of offering to economic incentives in exchange for denuclearization seems misplaced.


Conceptually speaking, the DPRK does not accept the “Economy-Security Tradeoff” Model. At first glance, it would seem commonsensical for a nation to open its borders to bolster economic development. However, the DPRK is a dictatorial regime that functions by creating a winning coalition centered on the core group. The DPRK believes that it can sustain its regime by managing its core group, which is constituted of roughly 300 of its elites. While an open-door economic policy may save the lives of DPRK citizens, it also weakens the core group’s ability to manipulate information and suppress its citizens. The core group would only need to go for as to avoid extreme situations such as the great famine in the late 1990s. Improved living conditions for the general public would only increase the uncertainty of the system, which is why Pyongyang is unlikely to open its economy. The regime will find it rather advantageous to secure the necessary amount of financial resources for maintaining a winning coalition and to fund its nuclear program, used to provide legitimacy for its leadership. Rather than providing public goods that benefit its citizens, the DPRK focuses on filling the pockets of only a small group of elites. Also, the regime diverts attention by acting as a “theater state” that creates propaganda to make its citizens feel constantly threatened, whom which develops a “siege mentality”. The DPRK faithfully practices the belief that “hungry people do not have sufficient energy to overthrow the leader.”


In conclusion, the denuclearization of the DPRK is a grueling task, and as of now, it seems that the DPRK has gained the upper hand. South Korea and the United States should not stop spurring diplomatic engagement with the DPRK while avoiding compromises that undermine the principles behind denuclearization. South Korea and the United States should then focus on cultivating their ability to rein in DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Once the utility of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenals is diminished, they will hopefully be motivated to come back to the bargaining table.■



Won Gon Park is a Professor in the Department of North Korean Studies of Ewha Womans University. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of International Relations at Seoul National University. He studied the ROK-U.S. alliance and North Korea for 18 years at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He has previously served as a professor of international studies at Handong Global University. Currently, he is a member of the Policy Advisory Committee of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His primary research areas include the ROK-U.S. alliance, North Korean diplomacy and military affairs, and international relations in Northeast Asia.



Typeset by Junghoo Park Research Associate; Seokjin YunIntern
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