North Korea Nuclear Newsletter

June 28, 2017

This Edition: Trump Admin Engages North Korea; US-ROK Summit; Next Steps; Freeze Proposal from North Korea; Legislation Update.


The Trump Administration Engages North Korea

While the full details of the tragedy experienced by Otto Warmbier’s detention in North Korea are unavailable, active outreach by the United States and the Trump Administration’s emphasis on including engagement in its broader North Korea policy resulted in the successful return of Mr. Warmbier to the United States.

Three other Americans—Dong Chul Kim, Tony (Sang-dok) Kim, and Hak-song Kim—are detained in North Korea. North Korean officials allowed  Ambassador Joseph Yun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy who negotiated Mr. Warmbier's release, to visit them during his trip to Pyongyang, where he was accompanied by a resident Swedish diplomat. The Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang notably serves as the Protecting Power for American citizens in North Korea.

The timetable for release of the remaining three Americans is unknown but their detention is a continued priority of the US government and will likely be a factor in future engagement prospects between the US and North Korea. – Moon Summit

Considerable anticipation surrounds this week’s summit between President Donald Trump and newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The US-South Korea alliance spans over 50 years with key components of the relationship including South Korea’s national defense, bilateral trade, and collaboration on North Korea policy. Both presidents desire a “win” from the summit.

A wide range of issues awaits the two leaders.  Among others, President Trump has stated the Korea-US Trade Agreement should be renegotiated.  President Moon has delayed full deployment of THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system recently installed by the United States. Ongoing North Korean missile provocations pose a lingering shadow as well. (There are reports that North Korea quietly tested a rocket engine as part of its ongoing efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and recent satellite imagery analysis seems to confirm this report. The original report indicated that the test might have been for the “smallest stage of an ICBM rocket engine.”)

In addition to the South Korean and American audiences, President Moon Jae-in’s visit will be observed closely by the leaders of North Korea, Japan and China (whose leaders are pressing South Korea’s government and private sector to remove the THAAD system).

As part of its North Korea policy, the Moon Jae-in Administration has announced engagement initiatives in reaching out to North Korea, but they have been largely rebuffed. One exception is a long-planned international taekwondo event where North Korean athletes traveled to South Korea last week to participate.

While recently in Washington, Chung-in Moon, a Special Advisor to President Moon, proposed one option for engaging the North: a “suspension for suspension” approach– whereby North Korea would suspend further nuclear tests and the US and South Korea would suspend their joint military exercises.

Successive US and South Korean Administrations have repeatedly asserted that North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. Yet today, it holds a growing arsenal of an estimated twenty to or so nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding statements by officials in Seoul and Washington, North Korea is a sovereign nation possessing a growing nuclear weapons arsenal. 

What are Next Steps between the United States and North Korea?

The prospects for continued US-North Korea engagement following the release of Otto Warmbier are unknown.  Among other possibilities, the Trump Administration and Members of Congress are considering the options of engagement, military strikes targeting North Korea, and more sanctions.

In recent days, North Korea has signaled that its officials will not participate in an upcoming Track 2 session in Singapore and an additional Mongolia meeting where Americans (among others) will be present, despite having participated in Track 2 sessions earlier this year and late last year in Mongolia, Norway, Sweden, and Spain.

American policy makers, frustrated with ongoing North Korea missile provocations and the prospect of another nuclear test (in addition to the tragic circumstances involving Otto Warmbier) are faced with few policy options in crafting a response to North Korea.   

Early in the Trump Administration, the prospect of a US military strike on North Korea was often discussed.  However, as the proposal was more closely reviewed, the consequences to South Korea, Japan, and the thousands of American citizens found in both countries were deemed too daunting.

Additional sanctions targeting North Korea and tightening existing sanctions are among policy options receiving active consideration by US policy makers and the United Nations Security Council.

Freeze Proposal by North Korea

In a TV interview on June 21, North Korea’s ambassador to India, Kye Chun-yong, said that North Korea would be open to “freezing nuclear testing or missile testing” in exchange for the suspension of joint US-ROK military exercises.

It is unclear whether this proposal is a genuine overture.  Some analysis suggests the June proposal by the North Koreans could be an attempt to “drive a wedge” between the US and South Korea in light of the upcoming US-ROK Presidential Summit in Washington, DC. 

North Korea made a similar proposal to the United States through diplomatic channels in January 2015 to suspend its nuclear testing in exchange for a suspension of US-ROK joint military exercises, but this was rejected the State Department. Most recently, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi proposed a similar quid pro quo suspension in March 2017.

Legislation Update

The Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs recently convened a markup to consider en bloc several amendments to the “Reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2017,” which was introduced by Representatives Ros-Lehtinen, Engel, Yoho, and Sherman.

The bill reauthorizes the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which seeks to promote human rights in North Korea, provide access to information its citizens, assist North Koreans in need, and protect refugees.

The approved amendments include an increase in the appropriated money to promote freedom of information in North Korea from $2 million to $3 million; expansion of grants available to distribute information technologies and sources to North Korea and develop products and methods that would ease access to information; and finally a call on the State Department to report on ongoing or planned efforts to resume repatriation of American POW/MIA remains from North Korea, reunite Korean American and North Korean divided families, and assess the security risks in travelling to North Korea.

Coming Up

June 28: Closed Hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: Recent Developments in North Korea featuring testimony from Joseph Yun, Special Representative for North Korea Policy (State)

June 28-30: Senate Armed Services Committee, Full Committee Markup of the National Defense Authorization Act”

June 29-30: U.S.-ROK Presidential Summit. Washington, DC

July 7-8: G20 Summit. Hamburg, Germany.

Pending Legislation

S.Res.200 “A resolution welcoming the President of the Republic of Korea on his official visit to the United States and celebrating the United States-Republic of Korea relationship, and for other purposes.” Introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)

This resolution highlights many aspects of the US-ROK alliance and welcomes President Moon Jae-in on his first official visit to the US and reaffirms the importance of the alliance and its commitments to defend the ROK as well as its commitment to provide extended deterrence.

H.R.2732 “The North Korea Travel Control Act.” Introduced by Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC)

This bill seeks to limit travel to North Korea by calling on the Treasury Department to issue regulations that would prohibit travel-related transactions to North Korea unless such transactions have been pre-authorized by a general or specific license from Treasury. The bill specifically prohibits Treasury from authorizing any license if “the primary purpose of such travel is to engage in tourist activities.”

H.Res.223 “Calling on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to cease its retaliatory measures against the Republic of Korea in response to the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and for other purposes.” Introduced by Ted Yoho (R-FL)

This resolution condemns North Korea’s ballistic missile tests and ICMB announcement, calls on the US to take all necessary measures to protect its citizens and allies, supports the prompt deployment of THAAD, condemns China's retaliatory measures and urges China to cease its diplomatic intimidation and economic coercion and to pressure North Korea.

H.R.2397 “Distribution and Promotion of Rights and Knowledge Act or the DPRK Act of 2017.” Introduced by Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL)

This bill amends the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 to authorize the President, through the State Department, to provide grants that would enhance the ability of North Koreans to access outside information in order to promote freedom of information and democracy in North Korea.

H.R.2231 “To establish a joint commission on North Korea, and for other purposes.” Introduced by Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA)

This bill seeks to establish a joint commission of Asian countries, chaired by the U.S. Secretary of State, to coordinate political discussions on contingency responses to North Korean violations of UNSC resolutions, coordinate information sharing among intelligence services, create guidelines for multilateral action, and overall strengthen high-level dialogue about North Korean nuclear proliferation.

S.1118 “North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017.” Introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)

This bill would reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act, first passed in 2004 to promote human rights, transparency in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and refugee protection, until 2022.

H.R.2175 “North Korea Intelligence Enhancement Act.” Introduced by Representative Stephanie Murphy (D-FL)

This bill seeks to integrate intelligence relating to the monitoring and enforcement of UNSC resolutions on North Korea by coordinating all intelligence collection related to sanctions implementation, integrating early warning systems of proliferation activities, and identifying gaps in intelligence through the establishment of an “Integration Cell” that would report to the Director of National Intelligence.

H.R.2061 “North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017.” Introduced by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL)

This bill would reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act, first passed in 2004 to promote human rights, transparency in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and refugee protection, until 2022. Amendments to the bill include an increase in the appropriated money; expansion of grants available; and finally a call on the State Department to report on ongoing or planned efforts to resume repatriation of American POW/MIA remains from North Korea, reunite Korean American and North Korean divided families, and assess the security risks in travelling to North Korea.

S.Res.92 “A resolution expressing concern over the disappearance of David Sneddon, and for other purposes.” Introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT)

This bill expresses ongoing concern about the unsolved disappearance of David Sneddon in Yunnan, China in 2004, and urges an investigation that includes consideration of the possibility that he was abducted by North Korea.

S.672 “North Korea State Sponsor of Terrorism Act of 2017.” Introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX)

Citing cases of assassination attempts, cyber-attacks, and material support to a Japanese terrorist organization, the bill calls upon the Secretary of State to submit a report within 90 days on whether North Korea meets the criteria for designation of a state sponsor of terrorism.

S.120 “Bring our Heroes Home Act.” Introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV)

This bill would create a “Missing Armed Forces Personnel Records Collection” at the National Archives and public disclosure of such records. To this end, the Act also expresses its views that the Secretary of State should contact North Korea to seek disclosure of all records it has related to Missing Armed Forces Personnel.

In Case You Missed it

North Korea in the World: A new interactive website on North Korea's external economic and diplomatic relations created by the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) and the East-West Center.

James Walsh, "North Korea won't be solved without South Korea - Trump summit with President Moon is chance to align strategy with key ally," Fox News, June 21

Editorial Board, North Korea’s outrageous mistreatment of U.S. student must not go unpunished, Washington Post, June 16

Steph Haggard, “Warmbier and Rodman,” Witness to Transformation, Peterson Institute for International Economics, June 15

Thomas Friedman, “Solving the Korea Crisis by Teaching a Horse to Sing,” New York Times, June 14