Trump should work toward a freeze on North Korea's missile program
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When President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet later this week, addressing the North Korea problem will be high on the agenda. Agreeing on a way forward, however, will be difficult. The United States wants China to do more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program. China, meanwhile, has called for Washington and Seoul to halt their current round of joint military exercises in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear and missile tests.

The United States has so far rejected that idea, but should rethink it. If a freeze could be negotiated it would be the best available option for addressing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the near term. Of course, the ultimate US goal should be to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program. But for the time being a freeze would stop North Korea’s technological advancements without triggering a war and prevent it from producing a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States.

China could use its leverage with North Korea to push for such a freeze, which would reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and set the stage for talks between the United States and North Korea. China views such negotiations as necessary to resolve hostilities.

Over the last two decades, Pyongyang has developed nuclear weapons, an array of short- and medium-range missiles that threaten its neighbors, and a large launcher that has placed two satellites in orbit. It does as yet not have a ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead long distances. But if unchecked, North Korea will continue to improve these programs and the threat will grow.

Today, it is developing a number of the components it needs for a long-range missile. For example, North Korea:
  • has had one successful flight test, amid six or more failures, of its Musudan missile, which is more advanced than its earlier missiles and could be modified for use as an upper stage of a long-range missile;
  • has conducted ground tests of several new engines over the last year that could be used for a long-range missile;
  • has developed a prototype of a mobile two-stage missile that could have a long range if it used the technology tested in the Musudan missile and during one of the recent engine ground tests; and
  • is likely designing a reentry heat shield for a long-range missile, but has not flight-tested it.
Transforming these various pieces into working missiles will require a series of flight tests. A freeze on missile testing would limit North Korea’s ability to build more advanced and longer range missiles, and curb its capacity to determine missile reliability or gain operational practice in firing them.

Moreover, a flight test ban would be completely verifiable. US early warning satellites can detect launches virtually anywhere in the world, down to short ranges.
A freeze on nuclear weapon testing, which could be verified by the International Monitoring System’s global network of sensors, also would have significant benefits. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, but exploding a nuclear device under test conditions is not the same as having a deliverable nuclear warhead. If Pyongyang does not yet have a weapon that is small and rugged enough to be delivered by missile, preventing additional nuclear tests could keep it from developing one. Even if North Korea does have such a weapon, stopping testing would limit its ability to improve its design.
It is worth remembering that North Korea observed a moratorium on flight testing from September 1999 through July 2006, which it began when its talks with the Clinton administration on missile and nuclear issues appeared to be moving ahead.
Things are different now, of course. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be unwilling to freeze these systems until he has achieved a credible long-range missile capability. But China may be able to use its influence to push Pyongyang to agree to a freeze. Moreover, Kim clearly feels threatened by U.S.-South Korean military exercises, so offering to scale them back and begin talks may give the United States significant leverage.
A freeze would be the most effective way to limit further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The Trump administration should be doing all it can to put one in place, and enlisting China’s help would be a win for both countries.
David Wright is senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.