“He beat around the bush and failed to pull it through,” Moon said, referring to Trump’s efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
During his single term in the White House, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un several times to discuss denuclearization. His interactions with Kim were historic – Trump was the first sitting US president to enter North Korea.
But by the time Trump left office, the rogue state had not given up a single nuclear weapon. North Korea has also continued provocative missile tests.
Though he was critical of Trump’s efforts on North Korea, Moon during his interview with the Times urged President Joe Biden to engage with Pyongyang to succeed where his predecessor failed. Moon emphasized that denuclearization is a “matter of survival” for South Korea.
“I hope that Biden will go down as a historic president that has achieved substantive and irreversible progress for the complete denuclearization and peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.
In late March, the White House said Biden was unlikely to pursue a face-to-face meeting with Kim, though the president has signaled he’s open to diplomacy with North Korea.
Trump excoriated Moon over his comments in a statement on Friday.
“Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who I have gotten to know (and like) under the most trying of circumstances, never respected the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. I was always the one who stopped the aggression toward the South, but unfortunately for them, I am no longer there,” Trump said.
The former president went on to say that Moon was “weak as a leader and as a negotiator, except when it came to the continued, long term military ripoff of the USA (as is the case with many other countries we protect!).”
Trump’s relationship with Kim was controversial and perplexing to foreign policy experts. Early on in his presidency, he traded numerous threats and insults with the North Korean leader from across the globe – sparking fears of a nuclear war. But Trump’s tone shifted drastically in 2018 ahead of his first summit with Kim. Over the rest of his time in office, Trump repeatedly showered Kim with praise and referred to him as a “friend.”
In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump defended his relationship with Kim.
“When I came in President Obama said… ‘the biggest problem we have is North Korea. There’s going to be a war’. There was no war, we got along great,” Trump told Hannity. “[Kim Jong Un] writes me letters. I like him, he likes me. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
We can fill a book full of troubling adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, and all of the times they have needless raised international tensions to the point that many analysts worried about the possible resumption of the Korean War – a conflict that almost certainly would go nuclear.
Whatever the case, we rarely talk about the times when US policy toward the DPRK adds unneeded kindling to an already smoldering situation, when policymakers in Washington and even our own chief executive make a rhetorical or tactical mistake that makes a bad situation on the Korean Peninsula even worse.
So when President Joe Biden seemed to laugh off North Korea’s latest missile tests over the weekend, missing a chance at more needed diplomacy, the stage was set for what Pyongyang always seems to do best: match pressure or perceived loss of face by a show of strength, or its own style of maximum pressure.
And this is just the beginning. We should expect more back and forth tension-creating events coming from both sides in the months ahead.
First up is the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review findings, which will set the direction for Korean Peninsula strategy for years to come. Having failed to learn from the Trump years that there is a possibility of talking with the Kim regime, Team Biden seems to have all but determined to apply more pressure and double down on sanctions that have so many holes in them one could drive a truck through them.
Washington also seems set to want to try and make China somehow responsible for sanctions enforcement, and is already trying a shaming strategy to get them to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile advances. Clearly this is something Beijing won’t do, as it will never allow North Korea to become destabilized in any way – and that is what it would take for the Kim family to come to the bargaining table on its knees.
Sadly it seems we are set to replay what every administration has tried to do for nearly three decades now, apply some sort of new pressure strategy to get North Korea to give up the only weapon it has to fend off its greatest fear, a future US military campaign that seeks to change the regime in Pyongyang.
Considering the billions of dollars invested and likely hundreds of thousands of North Koreans that have died due to a lack of investment in the most basic of societal needs because of its nuclear quest, there is no magic formula to get them to denuclearize.
And yet, we play what politicians here in Washington have determined is a necessary game of posturing, as if we have some way to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons or missiles, because no administration wants to take on what is perceived as the political fallout of such an admission that only arms control and threat mitigation are the only rational policies left.
What does all of this mean? Well, most likely, North Korea will lash out when it knows for sure the squeeze from Washington is coming once again, and will show off a weapon system that can do real damage, like a new medium or intermediate missile platform that can range US bases in the Pacific, such as Guam.
North Korea could also even show off in some way that its longer-range missiles can survive atmospheric reentry, settling the silly debate once and for all that, yes, even a third-world state like North Korea can develop missile technology from the 1950s to hit the US with a nuclear missile.
This could come in the form of a test that shows off an ICBM going deep into the Pacific Ocean and dropping a dummy warhead into the sea or something more static, but the point would be clear: US cities could be turned into nuclear fireballs within 30 minutes.
From here, what would the Biden team decide to do? Clearly with pressure off the table as a viable denuclearization strategy, the administration would find itself historically at the same crossroads as every other group of US policymakers finds itself when it comes to Pyongyang.
My hope is for as short of an escalatory period as possible followed by a push toward diplomacy coming from Washington with major prodding courtesy of the Moon government in Seoul.
If the Biden Administration can learn from its likely mistakes fast enough and pivot toward an agreement that caps the size of the North Korean nuclear and missile arsenal for sanctions relief, the faster it can move to what it seems to be its more important task, figuring out what it will do about China’s rise and moves to alter the status quo in Asia to its liking.
The only question now is how many weeks or months we will waste on a pointless pressure campaign, and can we avoid an accidental escalation that could cost lives or spark a horrific war no one wants?
The US has for the first time extradited a North Korean national to face a criminal trial in America, according to the Justice Department.
An indictment unsealed this week alleged that Mun Chol Myong, 55, defrauded banks and laundered money in an attempt to skirt US and UN sanctions on North Korea.
“He is the first North Korean intelligence operative – and the second ever foreign intelligence operative – to have been extradited to the United States for violation of our laws,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for the DOJ National Security Division, in a statement.
Demers continued: “We will continue to use the long reach of our laws to protect the American people from sanctions evasion and other national security threats.”
Mun this week made his initial appearance in federal court in Washington, DOJ officials said. He was detained by local authorities in Malaysia in May 2019. His case has been ongoing in local courts since then.
The news came as tensions between the two countries flared. On Wednesday, North Korea’s military tested two ballistic missiles, according to multiple reports. A US official told NBC News that the test “threatens the peace and security of the region and our nation.”
Earlier in the week, President Joe Biden’s administration said it would soon finish its in-depth review of Washington-Pyongyang policy, including the relationship fostered by the previous administration.
Senior administration officials said last week that they’d spoken with former officials “to get their sense of how their diplomacy with North Korea worked out over the last four years.”
Officials in Biden’s administration have reportedly been trying to contact North Korean officials since mid-February, but haven’t received a response.
“All I can tell you is that we are on our forward foot, in terms of wanting to clearly signal that we are prepared for continuing engagement in Northeast Asia with key partners and indeed with North Korea,” a senior Biden administration official said this week.
In response to the US extradition of one of its nationals, North Korea pulled embassy workers from Malaysia, according to multiple reports. The South China Morning Post reported that the “hermit kingdom was outraged” over the extradition.
The newly unsealed indictment, which was signed by a grand jury in May 2018, accused Mun and other unnamed suspects of laundering money through the US financial system. While based in Singapore, Mun worked for Sinsar Trading Pte. Ltd., which used front companies to launder more than $1.5 million, the indictment said.
The DOJ said Mun and others created shell companies to hide their ties to North Korea, giving them access to US correspondent banks and international wire services, breaking sanctions.
“The indictment further alleges that Mun was affiliated with the DPRK’s primary intelligence organization, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is the subject of US and UN sanctions,” the DOJ said.
President Joe Biden’s administration has been trying to contact North Korea via several channels over the past month, but is receiving no response, Reuters, CNN, and the Associated Press reported, all citing a senior administration official.
“To reduce the risks of escalation, we reached out to the North Korean government through several channels starting in mid-February, including in New York,” the official said, according to CNN, referring to North Korea’s mission to the United Nations.
“To date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang,” the official said, per the reports.
The official added that the US and North Korea had had no “active dialogue” for over a year, “despite multiple attempts by the US to engage.”
Neither report gave details on what the attempts to contact North Korea entailed or what level of contact the Biden administration wants to have with North Korea. Insider has contacted the White House for comment.
However, the official told CNN that the administration is reviewing the US policy toward North Korea,” including evaluation of all available options to address the increasing threat posed by North Korea to its neighbors and the broader international community.”
Biden has not shared his North Korea policy since taking office on January 20.
Reports of the attempted US outreach comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin travel to Japan and South Korea – North Korea’s neighbors – for four days of meetings. They plan to focus discussions on North Korea’s nuclear challenge as well as how to deal with China, according to the AP.
Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, broke with decades of American tradition to become the first sitting US president to meet North Korea’s leader.
Trump met with Kim Jong Un three times during his tenure: once in Singapore, once in Vietnam, and once at the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea. The last meeting was Trump’s idea, and his top advisors said it had caught them by surprise.
Trump’s meetings with Kim aimed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Trump repeatedly touted his relationship with Kim as a foreign-policy win. But those meetings yielded few positive results, as North Korea retains its nuclear arsenal and continues development.
A confidential UN report seen by Reuters last month said that North Korea maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs through 2020, despite international sanctions forbidding it. The report also said that North Korean hackers stole $316 million in 2020 alone to fund nuclear-weapons development.
Satellite imagery published by CNN early this month also showed that North Korea had been trying to hide a facility that US intelligence agencies believe is a store for nuclear weapons.
The Department of Justice said last month that North Korea has used cyberattacks to steal over $1 billion since 2015 to fund its nuclear weapons program.
Heavy sanctions, imposed by both the US and the UN, prevent North Korea from participating in the formal global economy. The regime often circumvents these sanctions, mostly through secretive ship-to-ship transfers of luxury goods, chemicals, and coal, which is North Korea’s primary export.
North Korea’s nuclear program is essential to the Kim regime, and it devotes all the resources it can to increasing and improving its arsenal. The rise of digital currencies has created new opportunities to acquire funds for that effort.
To understand how the regime perpetrates financial crimes online and the threat it poses, Insider spoke with Jason Bartlett of the Center for a New American Security.
Insider: Let’s start with an overview of how North Korea avoids sanctions. In my mind, there are three main ways: Through traditional over-land means, hacking, and cryptocurrency.
Jason Bartlett: Over the years we’ve seen a heavier focus on cyber-enabled financial crime that benefits North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
That includes hacking of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and more distribution of malware. There was the WannaCry cyber attack, there was the online bank heist in 2016 of a Bangladesh bank. South Korea experiences numerous cyber attacks against its ATMs and other financial institutions.
We’re also seeing reports coming out that North Korea may have been able to hack cryptocurrency through DeFi, decentralized finance platforms, which is a new field for them.
Insider: Has the proportion of sanctions evasions through online means, compared to overland and ship-to-ship transfers, increased recently, especially after coronavirus?
Bartlett: Time will tell. One of the issues with cybercrime is it is very high gains with low risk, because it is hard to be detected, as we see some of the most high-profile attacks. The SolarWinds attack, by allegedly Russia, we found out about that very late, so there might be other hacks that North Korea has already been doing that we’re unaware of.
I would not be surprised if we see that there has been an increase in North Korean state-sponsored cybercrime during coronavirus. One, because of the original track that North Korea was making already with increased online activity, increased cyber-enabled financial crime. Just because of the nature of the world today there’s more financial transactions, more people are shifting to conducting their business online and more financial institutions and services are adopting BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies.
But I’m sure that this shift has also been heavily contributed [to] by coronavirus in terms of people relying more on virtual transactions and digital currencies.
Insider: How does North Korea target crypto exchanges?
Bartlett: As far as we know, North Korea has several different cyber-crime forces within its intelligence bureaus. There’s the Lazarus group, and there’s sub-units within that. Some are just cyber, and some within the cyber field focus more on things like espionage, compared to petty financial crime. We don’t know exactly which groups are primarily responsible for which ones – we have ideas.
When it comes to smaller transactions, there are so many loopholes in the cryptocurrency exchanges, and in DeFi because it is not regulated. These transactions never go through human hands or human scrutiny. Everything is automated. If you’re able to break into that system, and you’re able to manipulate the currency price, which is what North Korea allegedly did recently, then you’re able to hack as many of these transactions as you like, and you can up and lower the price of the cryptocurrency that you’re using to get as much money as possible.
The thing with smaller transactions is that it typically can be easier to steal, because there might not be as many eyes on it, as opposed to some large exchange in New York, or in Bangladesh, or South Korea … if you’re targeting hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of smaller transactions that are all happening at the same time, and then you’re able to just shift the currency as you’re hacking it for money laundering, it’s a very successful way to hack a lot of money at the same time while keeping it below a notification threshold, which is what North Korea tends to be doing.
Insider: How successful is North Korea with this?
Bartlett: They’re successful usually in the hack itself. With North Korea what tends to be more impressive is its money-laundering ability. Just because they hack a certain amount of money doesn’t necessarily mean they will have access to all of that. Sometimes we’re able to freeze the assets, [and] we’re able to get the exchange back.
So if North Korea were to steal $3 million in cryptocurrency, doesn’t necessarily mean that then they’ll be able to turn that into $3 million of cash that they can use for weapons. It needs to go through money laundering, and that’s when the signals can be more detectable. North Korea has gotten significantly better. It’s also received help from abroad. We have the case of the two Chinese nationals that were offering professional money laundering services on behalf of North Korea.
North Korea has incredibly sophisticated hacking techniques, but as a country in itself, economically and technologically, it is not advanced, yet it’s able to perform all these tasks. It’s very impressive, especially when it’s targeting more technologically advanced nations such as the US, the UK, and South Korea.
Insider: In what ways do other countries support these North Korean efforts?
Bartlett: This is also a developing field, but China has had a history of hosting North Korean hackers and hacking groups. There were several hotels in China allegedly hosting North Korean hackers until recently. They were apparently closed down and the hackers were repatriated. But that’s very difficult to check. China doesn’t necessarily abide by all the UN and US resolutions, especially the ones regarding North Korean sanctions.
Russia and China also have a history of evading sanctions targeting North Korean workers abroad. North Koreans have been able to circumvent sanctions, specifically a US resolution that took effect in December 2019 that required UN member states to repatriate all North Korean workers back to their country due to findings that their earnings were going to the nuclear development program.
But recent UN panels, expert reports have shown that these IT workers are still very active in China and Russia. And in the case of the WannaCry attack, there was a North Korean hacker, Park Jin Hyok, who worked in an IT company in China while he was also conducting these cyberattacks against the UK, the US, and various other nations on behalf of North Korea.
There’s also talk of technology exchange. Prior to Covid, there was a lot of student exchange between China and Russia, which obviously doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be information-sharing, but we see [it] at very high-level science and technology universities. China and Russia have a history of providing North Korea with technological infrastructure, internet connection, so there’s both direct and indirect facilitation.
Insider: How do we go from cryptocurrency to, for example, mid-range nuclear missiles?
Bartlett: Just because they hack a very substantial amount of cryptocurrency doesn’t mean they get all the cash. Typically, they’ll turn it into Bitcoin or very commonly used, commonly transacted cryptocurrency. Then they’re able to transfer that into funds, and then they take those funds out and it’s cash.
And from that money, after they go through different money-laundering services – which is basically a way of changing the currency and changing the tracking so that it’s harder to tell where the money’s coming from, where it’s going to, what currency is being used – they’re able to go through exchanges and withdraw that money in cash. Then they’re able to purchase nuclear weapons, pay off other countries or companies that are either helping ship their coal, helping ship some technology to them, or helping ship different parts or chemicals, and pay for oversea exchange.
There are also luxury goods, we see that a lot with Kim Jong Un having these, I think they’re some form of a white stallion, Mercedes-Benz, and things like that. It’s not just unique to North Korea. There’s also countries in Latin America and across the world that hide funds from money laundering in luxury goods that they’re able to keep and then sell.
I believe sometime last year, the Treasury issued one of its first statements about a North Korean art exhibit, and how some of this money that they were receiving for this art exhibit was then being used for its nuclear weapons, or they were hiding money in very expensive art. So it’s a way of holding onto … a reserve, and you can just sell this when you need more funds.
Insider: How are nations like the US, the UK, and the Five Eyes tracking these projects and these crimes?
Bartlett: The Treasury Department – so FinCEN – as well as the Department of Justice, have been working very hard to track the efforts and, for example, to issue charges against North Korean or other nationals that are supporting North Korea’s cyber-enabled financial crime. It’s very difficult, because cyber crime is directly connected to North Korea’s intelligence bureau and its nuclear development program, to know just how sophisticated and just how successful it is.
It’s unique in that it’s one of the only cyber programs in the world that its main goal is not necessarily espionage – that’s only one of them. It’s more about funds for its nuclear program, because nuclear development is a key aspect of North Korea’s political identity.
I think there is starting to be more conversation regarding cyber within the counterproliferation field in the United States. It’s a little overdue, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I think, before then, it was separated, or maybe North Korea wasn’t taken as seriously because there’s cyber giants, like China and Russia, that have done successful election intervention and espionage attacks. But stealing money to build up nuclear weapons is a grave national-security concern … I think now [the] US government is beginning to get more research to focus on that field.
The private sector has continued to be very vigilant of North Korean cyber crime. They tend to also be a large target of it. Hopefully now, with this new presidency and a seemingly strong focus on cyber following the SolarWinds hack, following even the GameStop scandal, I think that’s something that the US government is going to be incredibly aware of and how important but how fragile and easy to manipulate virtual currencies can be if they don’t have the proper regulations and if there’s not proper consensus on how these transactions should be conducted.
Insider: How do we keep crypto out of the hands of malicious actors?
Bartlett: I think there needs to be a greater consensus of not just the threat but what resources we already have available to us. I’m not exactly sure how informed cryptocurrency exchanges and companies are of what resources they have available to them … The government and private sector need to come up with a stronger framework to train each other.
Training that financial institutions and banks that work with fiat currency have for anti-money laundering and hacking – I’m not exactly sure if cryptocurrency companies receive that same level of training, in terms of red-flag indicators of financial crime or suspicious activity, how to report, how to freeze, how to track. That would be the first thing, more of an assessment of what do you know, what can you do?
One of the bigger issues is compliance, having not just US companies but also foreign companies being compliant. If US companies are compliant with law, then North Korean actors and other illicit actors will just go to countries and regions that aren’t or don’t have the legal framework. …
Once we establish our own protocols and our own way of doing things, and strengthen our own collaboration with the private sector, then we can export that knowledge, not just to our common actors in the Five Eyes but also with countries predominantly in Southeast Asia where there’s a lot of North Korean hackers. I think it’ll be very difficult to persuade China and Russia to abide by UN and US sanctions, especially cyber, because you have plausible deniability.
Insider: Is there anything we’re doing in terms of retaliation?
Bartlett: A cyberattack against Russia’s online infrastructure in retaliation to SolarWinds, or in retaliation against China – and I’m not condoning this – I’m just saying that attacks like that would typically be a little bit more plausible because the countries are connected to the internet.
That’s not the case for North Korea. North Korea has an intranet; only select individuals, typically in Pyongyang, typically have access to this intranet and cell phones.
So, a direct attack on North Korea’s internet infrastructure won’t really have the same effect that it would on us. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have any effect, but it wouldn’t be as strong as it could against other countries. I think the majority of our retaliation efforts tend to be more of freezing funds and freezing assets, which then ultimately affect the economy, making it harder for North Korea to divest more resources into expanding its cyber crime.
Insider: It seems like North Korea is always working to stay a little bit ahead of sanctions, so assuming that regulations come in under this administration and security is much tighter, how are they going to get around that?
Bartlett: For the past couple years, the US has been playing catch-up with cyber crime, as opposed to “build up against,” so I’m very realistically optimistic in that now, because we have seen, over the years, that the various targets – so, not just North Korean, but Russian and Chinese actors – have on our cyberspace. It ranges from our financial institutions to the security of our citizens and our government, and this is a major threat.
And I think that COVID, because of the shift to more online transactions, more virtual interactions, more widespread adoption of virtual currencies as legitimate forms of payment, there will continue to be a large increase in North Korean cyber crime.
I’m not exactly sure how it will be possible for us to be more ahead of them, because this is a national initiative of North Korea … nuclear weapons, sanctions evasion, and cyber, because it’s high gains with very, very low risk, easy plausible deniability, and you can receive an enormous amount of funds very, very quickly, relatively easily. So I think the next step for us is to really reevaluate our cyber strategy in general, and our cybersecurity – what does cybersecurity really mean for the US …
On the DeFi platform, that is most likely going to be a new field that will have a high level of risk, because there is no human interaction, there’s no regulation, and it’s not surprising that North Korea has already started to exploit that, but it is shocking that they’re able to do so.
And it shows that North Korea’s also thinking ahead, so I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming months, there is at least talk of ways to introduce legislation or ways to regulate the DeFi platform, or try to have more coordination with the private sector and with the cryptocurrency companies. In terms of DeFi, in terms of SolarWinds, and as well as GameStop, I’m sure that now the US government is realizing that this is a major threat that we have to address now, because these illicit actors have already begun to exploit this.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Kim and Trump ended up meeting for a third and last time in the Korean demilitarized zone three months later but there was no further progress.
The pair had a complicated relationship during Trump’s four years as president.
Trump had called North Korea’s leader a “Little Rocket Man” and made threats of “fire and fury” but later suggested they were very good friends, and even described him as “a very smart guy,” according to the BBC.
“Trump Takes on the World,” directed by Tim Stirzaker, will be broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday.
Observers should not mistake the absence of direct engagement between Washington and Pyongyang for disinterest in the fate of US-North Korea relations, State Department representative Ned Price said in a recent press briefing.
Price stressed that the administration’s “strategic goals” with the Kim Jong Un regime will be “focus[ed] on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people. And, again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.”
The Biden team’s workmanlike approach is an expedient change from their predecessors’ photo-op diplomacy. But this continued insistence on denuclearization as the primary goal in US-North Korea engagement is incredibly counterproductive.
If Biden and his team are serious about making headway on their first two strategic goals – threat reduction and humanitarian gains on the Korean Peninsula – they must drop the third. For progress with North Korea, forget denuclearization.
We can do that safely for three reasons. First, as Price himself noted, “the United States, of course, remains the most powerful and strongest country in the world.” Even with nuclear weapons, North Korea’s military might is miniscule by comparison. In nuclear and conventional weaponry alike, the US advantage is overwhelming, as the Kim regime well knows.
This is not to say Pyongyang couldn’t do real damage. It could – the South Korean capital of Seoul, a city of 10 million, is only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas, well within North Korea’s strike range.
But Kim is unquestionably aware of the consequences unprovoked aggression against a US ally (let alone the United States proper or our military, which has an extensive South Korean presence) would bring. He would not finish the resultant conflict in power; he might not finish it alive.
That glaringly obvious truth creates a powerful deterrence for the United States, and it is a deterrence which maintaining the nuclear status quo indefinitely will not obviate.
Second, Price repeats the longstanding claim that denuclearization is itself a goal. This is not – or, at least, should not be – quite correct. The proper goal is avoidance of horrific, world-changing, history-altering nuclear war.
Denuclearization is one means of accomplishing that avoidance. But it is not the only way, and the mere existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons does not mean they will be used.
The United States is already securely coexisting with a nuclear North Korea. We are stably coexisting with other nuclear powers, too, including several (chiefly China and Russia, but also Pakistan, if conventional wisdom is correct) that are hardly reliably friendly to America.
Russia’s nuclear arsenal is of a similar strength to our own, and China boasts a far more powerful military and economy than North Korea ever could. Yet complete denuclearization of these countries is not standard US policy, not only because it is an unachievable aim for Washington but because it is not necessary to avoid nuclear war.
We can likewise avoid nuclear conflict involving North Korea without attaining denuclearization – indeed, we have done it for decades.
Finally, forgetting denuclearization for now may ultimately get us to denuclearization, and it will certainly help us toward the administration’s other two goals of de-escalation and improved quality of life for the Korean people.
If we set aside denuclearization – a concession Pyongyang will not make so long as it perceives any risk of forcible, US-orchestrated regime change like that in Iraq and Libya – a multitude of more practical and feasible goals become accessible to us.
Working-level diplomacy by the Biden administration could accomplish a nuclear freeze, regular inspections of Kim’s arsenal, or even some reduction of his nuclear stockpile or missile systems. It could produce, seven decades late, a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. It could bargain for concessions from Pyongyang by offering cessation of US sanctions that harm ordinary North Koreans. It could permit expanded, Korean-directed engagement between North and South Korea, including trade and reconnection of divided families.
It could take steps toward making North Korea a far more normal country, opening the “hermit kingdom” to the global culture and economy and giving its people a shot at deprograming themselves from their government’s sadistic brainwashing. And it could ultimately lay the groundwork for a new era in North Korean foreign relations, one which might mature someday, probably long after this administration is over, into a denuclearized and even democratic Pyongyang.
None of that is possible, however, if the Biden administration insists on denuclearization now. A shortsighted demand for Kim to concede what he views as his sole guarantee against American invasion will ensure Biden leaves office just like former President Donald Trump, having moved the needle on US-North Korean relations not an inch.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.
In October, North Korea unveiled new military hardware in a parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The biggest attention-getters were, unsurprisingly, the missiles, especially the Pukguksong-4 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and the Hwasong-16, which, if real, would be the largest liquid-fueled and road-mobile missile ever made.
But before those missiles appeared at the end of the parade, North Korea’s impressive modernization of its conventional forces was on full display.
Soldiers were seen wearing modern uniforms with new camouflage patterns, ballistic helmets, vests, and even touch-screen devices. They were also seen parading in full nuclear, biological, and chemical gear for the first time. New vehicles designed almost entirely from scratch also debuted.
Chun In-bum, a former lieutenant general in the South Korean army, described the parade as “literally a ‘new look’ for the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) in almost every way.”
The parade undoubtedly shows that North Korea’s commitment to military modernization is bearing fruit, but it remains unclear just how far that modernization has gone.
New armored vehicles
Aside from the missiles, the new armored vehicles received the most attention.
While little is definitively known about these vehicles, observers noted a number of things based on their appearance. The 8 x 8 wheeled armored combat vehicle, for instance, looks almost exactly like the US Army’s Stryker ICV.
Two variants were shown: One armed with five anti-tank guided missile launchers that are likely copies of the Russian 9M133 Kornet, and another armed with a specially designed turret that appears to house a gun based on the D-30 122 mm howitzer, giving it a similar appearance to the M1128 Mobile Gun System.
Both vehicles are likely intended to support anti-tank and fire-support operations, and help the KPA become more maneuverable in a similar way to the US Army’s brigade combat teams.
The new tank is considerably more advanced than previous North Korean models. Its chassis looks similar to that of Russia’s T-14 Armata, and the turret is reminiscent of the US’s M1 Abrams. It also appears to have a number of new technologies, like composite armor.
Tubular launchers reminiscent of Russia’s Afghanit active protection system (APS) appear to be mounted on the turret, meaning the tank could intercept incoming projectiles. The lack of infrared sights suggests the tank may have a thermal sight – a major improvement for North Korean tanks.
There also appeared to be smoke launchers, laser warning receivers, and crosswind sensors. Two side-mounted anti-tank missile launchers were also present on the turret of the tanks, which were strangely painted in a desert-camouflage scheme.
There were a number of other new systems in the parade as well.
Generals and senior officers were driven around in what looked like mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles. New 155 mm self-propelled guns were rolled out, as were new armored multiple launch rocket systems and a new anti-air defense and radar comparable to Russia’s TOR system, which fills a gap in North Korean air defenses.
The parade was the latest indication that Kim Jong Un is accelerating North Korea’s military modernization efforts, a trend that has been evident with its nuclear weapons and missiles.
“Kim Jong Un was able to achieve this,” Dr. Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the efforts.
“Some people really underestimated him when he came into power,” Terry told Insider. “But at the end of the day, all this modernization took place under him.”
Kim has made strengthening his country’s military his top priority and wants to prove that despite international pressure and tight sanctions, North Korea is capable of fielding a strong force.
“They want to show that since Singapore they’ve been making progress,” Terry said, referring to Kim’s 2018 meeting with President Donald Trump. “That’s the main message, that they’re not going to stop.”
‘A Potemkin parade’
As impressive as the new hardware is, there is reason to believe that the parade may have been a display of systems and weapons that North Korea may not actually have, at least not yet.
“Every parade is a Potemkin parade in the sense that North Korea always wants to hype up what they have,” Terry said.
For example, despite the new tank’s impressive electronics, none of the boxes containing the optics were open, which means no one can be sure what is inside them.
Additionally, many of the systems have not been seen in tests or military exercises, which means they could just be mockups – especially the Pukguksong-4 and Hwasong-16 missiles. This is also the case for North Korea’s ballistic-missile submarines, the Gorae-class and Sinpo-C-class.
Finally, North Korea simply may not have the resources to build and maintain such a large conventional force.
“I sincerely doubt that much of that stuff is seriously propagated among the North Korean forces,” said Dr. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
North Korea can’t fund its nuclear and conventional ambitions and the economy its elites desire, Bennet told Insider. “The money is just not there.”
Despite the hype, it’s clear that military modernization has “made some kind of progress,” Terry said, but it’s likely that only certain specialized units have benefited from it.
“I think what we saw in the parade was really very selective modernization,” Bennett said. “Take those [infantry] soldiers that we saw. I’ll bet they’re almost all special forces.”
North Korea’s Special Operations Force, one of the KPA’s five branches, accounts for only 200,000 of the KPA’s nearly 1.3 million active-duty personnel, but it is expected to have a primary role in a conflict.
While the KPA’s conventional military modernization is impressive, there is little doubt it remains qualitatively inferior to South Korea’s military and no doubt it is inferior to the US military.
But North Korea’s real power is its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang has made clear that it has no reservations about its tactical deployment, meaning it’d likely be front and center in any combat scenario.
With an arsenal believed to be between 30 and 40 warheads, North Korea can use those weapons to destroy important infrastructure like airfields, military bases, and ports, preventing reinforcement and resupply efforts.
“The North Korean approach could impair the South Korean air capability. It could impair our deployment capability,” Bennet said. “Then all of the sudden, their conventional capabilities, even if they’re only very selectively modernized, might make a big difference. With [North Korea’s] special forces out there with that kind of equipment, that gets a little daunting for South Korea.”
That approach would most likely result in North Korea’s destruction, but being able to do it gives Kim “tremendous coercive capability against the South,” Bennet said.
The KPA’s evident modernization, combined with Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile arsenal, put Kim in a position to assert himself and limit the US’s leverage in future negotiations.
“Kim Jong-un is a very different kind of leader,” Terry said. “I think it’s better for us to not underestimate him.”