Strategic Space

Hanoi Done: Now What for Trump and Kim?

27 Mar, 2019    ·   5572

Dr Manpreet Sethi makes a realistic assessment of the pros and cons of resuming nuclear and/or missile testing at this juncture from the North Korean perspective

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

The second Summit between the heads of government of the US and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ended earlier than expected on 28 February 2019. With both countries maintaining intransigent positions on how to handle the issue of DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes, President Trump opted to call a halt to the meeting. However, he did hold out hope for future interactions. So, while he seems to have walked away from the meeting in Hanoi, he has indicated that he has not given up on the prospect of future negotiations and still continues to call Kim Jong-un, whom he likes, "quite a guy."  

With the end of the Summit, which President Trump called a “productive time” since the two got to know each other better, there has been speculation on what Chairman Kim might now do. Reports have emerged on some activity being seen on North Korean missile test sites. This has led to conjecture on whether the leader might be getting ready to conduct another test to signal his frustration with the negotiations, in which the US refused to lift sanctions in exchange for Kim’s offering of closing some nuclear-related facilities.

North Korea is believed to have offered to shut down Yongbyon, which is a nuclear complex consisting of reactors, fuel reprocessing plants, and uranium enrichment facilities. According to DPRK foreign ministry officials, this was a "historically unprecedented offer." However, the US has confirmed that the definition of facilities to be covered under the Yongbyon complex remained ambiguous in exchange for a demand to lift all sanctions. Besides, the US contends that there may be other nuclear facilities beyond Yongbyon, and that in any case, this deal did not include existing nuclear weapons, fissile material stockpiles and North Korean missile capabilities. Therefore, lifting all sanctions was not on the table unless in return for complete denuclearisation.

With the Hanoi meeting having ended as it has, is there a likelihood that North Korea might resume testing of nuclear weapons and/or ballistic missiles? While no predictions about Chairman Kim’s behaviour are easy to make, some guesstimates are possible, and if the leader were willing to listen, this should make sense to him.

There are three main reasons for North Korea to have nuclear weapons: security, status, and as a bargaining chip. As is evident, some level of security premised on nuclear deterrence has been achieved through the six nuclear weapon tests and many more missile tests that North Korea has already conducted. Kim accelerated nuclear and missile tests in 2015-2016, and then claimed in November 2017 that North Korea had achieved "the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." Indeed, from the point of existential deterrence, more nuclear tests are not an urgent necessity. 

As for status, DPRK achieved that when Trump decided to enter direct negotiations with Kim. The moment the two leaders shook hands in Singapore in June 2018, it was a moment of victory of sorts for the North Korean leader. His nuclear behaviour had achieved something none of his predecessors managed -  a direct meeting with the US president. There is no doubt that this success was important to Kim for his domestic legitimacy, and he would be right in attributing his nuclear weapons and missile capability with the power to make this happen. 

The third reason that the weapons are to be used for now is as a bargaining chip to leverage the country’s economic growth and development. In his new year address to the nation, Kim expressed the desire to focus on the economic dimension, and he well understands that the presence of nuclear weapons has provided him with an opportunity to use them for the country’s economic mainstreaming. In view of this objective to be extracted from the country’s nuclear capability, it is more likely that DPRK should prefer to remain party to negotiations, particularly with Trump still holding on to the prospect of a deal, rather than carry out a test and ruin the chances of making any headway for economic growth. 

By resuming testing, Pyongyang would earn only marginal deterrence benefits, but lose substantial potential economic and diplomatic advantages. For one, this would alienate South Korea, a country that has shown special keenness under President Moon Jae-in to mend the relationship, and also at a time when the US and South Korea have decided to tone-down their annual large-scale military exercises. At the same time, any resumption of testing would also strain DPRK’s relationship with China. Beijing is not keen to let the situation get out-of-hand in Pyongyang. It would rather have the threat toned down so that the US may reconsider deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea and Japan, which China perceives as a threat to its nuclear deterrence. 

For all of these reasons, it makes no sense for North Korea to resume testing at this juncture. While no statements from Kim have been forthcoming on his sense of what transpired at Hanoi, he is likely to understand that he stands the best chance of a deal with Trump as president, who would be happy to showcase a victory as a success of his direct style of decision-making. The idea of a Nobel Peace Prize does appeal to him. However, Trump is also a master deal-maker and the fact that he chose to walk away in Hanoi without anything may be a master stroke to get Kim to relent. 

Evidently, both are still playing the game of who blinks first. As long as this remains confined to the negotiating table, things are fine. But if any of the mercurial leaders were to lose hope in the process, turbulence for international security can be safely predicted.


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.