ONN Director Laura Rockwood at European Parliament's Korea Delegation Meeting

Director Rockwood briefed members of the Parliament on the current situation on the Peninsula. She also introduced ONN’s approach to conflict de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula and offered a number of recommendations for nuclear risk reduction.

On 1 July 2021, Open Nuclear Network (ONN) Director Laura Rockwood participated in a meeting organised by the Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula (DKOR) of the European Parliament. The discussions focused on prospects for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and recent relevant developments.

Below are some of the highlights of her talk:

The decades-long crisis on the Korean Peninsula has stymied all efforts in bilateral and multilateral nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament fora to achieve a lasting resolution or breakthrough, notwithstanding the rich history of the many and varied policy approaches. Already burdened by the track record of previous DPRK policy failures, the Biden Administration, together with the other parties to the conflict, face a serious challenge in devising a creative approach to resolving the impasse. Unfortunately, there are currently no reasons to be particularly optimistic that the stalemate will be overcome anytime soon.

The new US administration recently completed its policy review on North Korea. However, very little is publicly known about the details, and messaging on it has been sparse. In one of its most detailed public statements, the White House described the policy as calling for “a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, [its] allies, and [its] deployed forces.” New US Special Representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, recently also said that the US “continue[s] to hope that [North Korea] will respond positively to [US] outreach and [its] offer to meet anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” It is not clear, however, what the US would be prepared to offer if North Korea were to return to the negotiating table. More fundamentally, it is not clear that the US policy differs from those adopted by previous administrations (except for its clear call for a resumption of negotiations).

For its part, North Korea has thus far not responded positively to these public statements or to private outreach. Choe Son Hui, the DPRK First Vice Foreign Minister, stated on 18 March 2021 that “we don’t think there is [a] need to respond to U.S. delaying-time trick again. We have already declared our stand that no DPRK-U.S. contact and dialogue of any kind can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK.” Ri Son Gwon, the DPRK’s Foreign Minister, also stated more recently on 23 June 2021, that “we are not considering even the possibility of any contact with the U.S., let alone having it, which would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time.”

At the same time, however, it appears that North Korea has not yet closed the door to dialogue. At a recent meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Kim Jong Un is reported to have “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation.” We believe that North Korea is in a “wait and see mode”, waiting for the US  to take a first significant and concrete step (sanctions relief, perhaps). Such a first step likely won’t be coming from the United States, however. North Korea currently is simply not as high a priority for the administration as others, although this might change with a positive conclusion of the ongoing JCPOA talks or in response to a significant military action by the DPRK.

After conducting a series of long-range ballistic missile tests and the sixth nuclear test in 2017, North Korea has only carried out tests of short range ballistic missiles and some tactical weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles.

However, during the 8th Party Congress held in January this year, Kim Jong Un ordered his scientists to “develop nuclear technology to a higher level” so that lighter, tactical nukes could be built in parallel with the production of “super-sized nuclear warheads”. He also set goals to develop intercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles and more advanced ballistic missile submarines, among other ambitious national defense development goals.

We are currently at a critical phase during which the parties can take steps either to significantly improve the situation or steps that could result in further deterioration. With sufficient political will in both capitals, there clearly are matters of shared interest on which the US and the DPRK, and, for that matter, the DPRK and the international community writ large, could engage. In particular, the DPRK has a strong interest in re-engaging with the international community on economic issues and development.

The DPRK is far from an imminent breakdown, but we know that there are tremendous pressures on the system, with strict COVID-19 measures further isolating a country that has an economy that is already heavily sanctioned and which has recently experienced a series of natural disasters.

The COVID-19 situation remains unclear in the country. Officially, no cases have been reported to the WHO as of 25 June 2021. The DPRK remains eligible for COVAX support and has indicated its intention to participate in the programme. The distribution of 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca, which was to have taken place between February and May 2021, has been delayed due to supply shortages; it is estimated, however, that introduction of the vaccine could still occur in the second half of 2021. Until there is widespread immunization of the population or a significant decrease in the risk the outside poses to the DPRK, it appears that the country will continue to be significantly isolated for the foreseeable future.

FAO estimates a food shortage of 2.3 months of needs for the entire population. Kim Jong Un himself is reported to have stated at a recent meeting of the WPK’s Central Committee that “the people’s food situation is now getting tense,” a rare acknowledgement of the serious state of domestic affairs.

And while some indications point to preparations for a normal resumption of trade with China - the DPRK’s main trading partner - official Chinese statistics continue to show a massive drop of around 80-90% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Both the internal and external situations currently suggest that there is a fragile, but existing, window of opportunity that can and should be acted upon expeditiously. However, the window of opportunity may be closing as growing tensions between the US and China further exacerbate the situation and could make a multilateral diplomatic solution more difficult to achieve.

So, what can civil society do to contribute to conflict de-escalation?

Our mission at ONN is to reduce the risk that nuclear weapons may be used in response to human or technical error, uncertainty about the adversary’s capabilities or intentions, or intentional misdirection, particularly in the context of escalating conflict. ONN is committed to building relationships and sharing information across national and alliance boundaries, using transparently non-aligned, data-driven analysis and outreach to key decision makers.

We have identified a number of possible pathways for conflict escalation involving the Korean Peninsula and, for each of the pathways, identified a number of indicators that need to be monitored in order to spot such escalation. Monitoring those indicators will provide data that will allow our analysts to see, understand and contextualize significant changes that could lead to crises.

If ONN can intervene at opportune moments, providing decision makers with information and analyses via credible, trusted, and/or highly expert third parties, it can help resolve, contain or interrupt military escalation that might otherwise culminate in the launch of a nuclear weapon.

We are under no misapprehension that analyses can rise to the level of that produced through national technical means. But what we can do is put on the table fact-based analyses, not beholden to any side in the conflict, reduce asymmetries in access to information and offer a basis for more open and informed dialogue both within governments and as between adversaries.

I would like to close by extending to you an invitation - an invitation to take advantage of the power of OSINT - consider us at your service.