North Korea’s continued weapons activities show why we need to keep talking

North Korea’s continued weapons activities show why we need to keep talking
© KCNA via Getty Images

It seems like every few weeks there is a media report that North Korea is still conducting activities related to nuclear weapons, and then there is shock—shock!—that such activities are still happening even though Kim Jong Un agreed to denuclearize at the Singapore Summit in June.

The most recent example was Tuesday’s Washington Post report that the North was continuing operations, for ambiguous purposes, at a factory in Sanumdong that produces long-range ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles. According to the article, “The findings are the latest to show ongoing activity inside North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities at a time when the country’s leaders are engaged in arms talks with the United States.” The implication: the North is cheating.


We hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but North Korea did not agree in Singapore to disarm immediately. This was a first, important step down a long road of negotiations, but nothing was agreed that can be considered binding, and no deadlines were set. Yes, it’s disappointing that the North continues to operate this missile site, but it is violating no agreements by doing so.


Similarly, in June, media outlets reported that North Korea was making improvements to the Yongbyon nuclear research facility. Then on July 13, analysts at the Middlebury Institute located the long-suspected site for a secret uranium enrichment facility in Kangson. And just last week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN ambassador job The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight MORE confirmed in Senate testimony that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons. All unfortunate, but no penalty, no foul.

It’s kind of like North Korea has agreed to sell us a house, but neither the price nor the closing date has been set. Those key details are yet to come. In the meantime, the North is still maintaining, maybe even expanding, the house.

There is a general assumption that if North Korea were serious about ending its nuclear program, as it committed in principle to do in Singapore, that it would stop all weapons-related activities right away. As welcome as this would be, this is not how nations entering negotiations tend to act. For example, it is not uncommon for states in a military conflict to take more territory just before declaring a cease-fire, and thus gain more bargaining leverage at the negotiating table. Where some see bad faith in the North’s activities, others see smart tactics.

The misperception that the North had committed in Singapore to shut down its nuclear program immediately was no doubt fueled by President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE’s infamous tweet just after the summit: "There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea" and that Americans and the rest of the world can "sleep well tonight!"

Unfortunately, Trump was just a tad premature. As far as we know, North Korea has just as many nuclear weapons today as it did before the summit. If the weapons are there, the threat of their use is too.

But the flip side of the story is that North Korea has so far honored the commitments it has made.

In April, North Korea declared a unilateral freeze on its nuclear and missile testing. The announcement, which was made ahead of the first inter-Korean summit between President Moon and Kim Jong-un, ultimately opened the door for the United States to pursue a serious dialogue on denuclearization.

For nine months now, North Korea has not tested a single missile, and nearly a year has passed since its last nuclear test. This unprecedented break in the long cycle of provocations is in large part thanks to North Korea’s self-imposed test moratorium. But it is also a testament to the diplomatic efforts-- between the US and North Korea, and the two Koreas-- that are currently underway.

On July 23, new satellite imagery released by 38 North showed that North Korea had begun dismantling facilities at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station. Although the move is technically reversible and difficult to verify without experts on the ground, it demonstrates that North Korea is willing to take steps to roll back its program and build confidence with the United States-- outside of what was formalized in writing. The dismantlement confirms a pledge from Kim Jong Un to destroy “a major missile engine testing site.”

Most recently, North Korea returned the presumed-remains of 55 American soldiers who died in the Korean War, making good on one of the few specific objectives outlined in the Singapore statement. Though not directly related to denuclearization, the gesture reflects a willingness to sustain engagement and create a positive political atmosphere while working-level negotiations continue.

So let’s stop crying wolf every time North Korea does things on the nuclear and missile front that it is not prohibited from doing, and instead focus on getting a real agreement to end these dangerous activities. For that is the true lesson here: despite what Trump tweeted, the Singapore Summit did not solve this problem. The administration must move ahead with the talks and secure binding, timebound commitments to denuclearization. Diplomacy is the only viable way to freeze, roll back and eventually eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Let’s make a deal.

Tom Z. Collina is policy director and Catherine Killough is the Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., a public grantmaking foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, and to prevent conflicts that could lead to their use.