The Future of North Korea: Implications for Regional Security

Thomas M. Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
13th IISS Asia Security Summit
Singapore, Singapore
May 31, 2014

I’ll let you judge what’s best. But thank you, Mark, for this invitation. I want to thank IISS for the opportunity to talk about one of the most serious threats, not just to Asian peace and security, but, as our colleague already said, also a threat to the integrity, globally, of the non-proliferation regime. I’ll share the United States’ perspective on North Korea and the tools that the international community has to tackle this growing challenge.

Now, North Korea’s challenge is decades old but it has become more acute over the past few years. We see continued development of nuclear programmes, including uranium enrichment and plutonium production; a third nuclear explosion; we have seen launches using ballistic-missile technology; and we are subjected constantly to a crescendo of invective and threats in language that can only be described as sub-civilised, to conduct additional longer-range launches, new forms of nuclear tests, and aggression against its neighbours. And the DPRK continues to engage in proliferation of conventional weapons worldwide. All of this is in clear violation of the United Nations Security Council decisions.

These provocative developments are a serious and troubling escalation by North Korea. The United States remains fully committed to the defence of our allies, those most affected by this threat. In full coordination with them and with the all the Six-Party partners, we continue to pursue a dual-track policy: engagement whenever possible and pressure as necessary to make clear the choices North Korea faces.

We are open to credible, meaningful multilateral negotiations to implement the 2005 Joint Statement and to bring North Korea into compliance with its United Nations obligations. But we are not interested in talking just for the sake of talks. We will not respond to irresponsible behaviour with concessions or inducements. We will respond positively if North Korea demonstrates that it is serious about denuclearisation. But we haven’t yet seen any such indication, have not seen a serious commitment to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation. The opposite has occurred: the regime has elevated the pursuit of nuclear-weapons technology to the level of a national priority.

We have no illusion that North Korea will voluntarily end its pursuit of nuclear weapons and that is why, even as we keep alive the prospect for a negotiated resolution, enhanced pressure remains critical to compelling Pyongyang to correct course and to choose denuclearisation rather than continuing to choose instability, isolation, and poverty.

The success of this approach depends, in a very large part, on coordinated efforts with our Six-Party partners, in particular China. North … excuse me, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Russia are all important partners but China has a unique, historic, diplomatic, and economic ties with North Korea and the greatest capacity to shape North Korea’s choices. President Obama and President Xi made a commitment that we will deepen our bilateral engagement on North Korea and on non-proliferation writ large. As a neighbouring country with a strong economy, China is the first line of defence against North Korea’s non-proliferation activities. Beijing and Washington have worked together well to adopt strong UN Security Council resolutions. China has taken major steps to implement more completely the United Nations sanctions regimes concerning North Korea as well as Iran. Despite these positive developments, Iran and North Korea continue to rely on China’s economy as the primary source of supply for the high technology and materials needed for their proscribed programmes. China can do more to prevent such exports and the US will continue to work cooperatively with Beijing to that end.

But I want to emphasise that the threat posed by North Korea is not just a threat to South Korea or Japan or China or the United States. The responsibility to deny to North Korea the technical and financial resources it needs to build such weapons is a responsibility not just of the United States or China or other states. It is a responsibility that extends beyond China, beyond the US, beyond the five parties. It is a responsibility shared by the entire international community, including the rapidly growing economies of Southeast Asia, which must face this issue with equal dedication.

North Korea’s global efforts to export conventional weapons amounts to the export of instability to other regions. And the export of conventional weapons also provides North Korea with a critical source of hard currency for its weapons-of-mass-destruction programmes. This is why the UN Security Council has explicitly forbidden not only the import of WMD material to North Korea but also the export of conventional weapons.

The UN’s Panel of Experts has documented several times North Korea’s use of ever more sophisticated techniques to conceal proliferation and to evade sanctions. These practices often make states unwitting participants in North Korea’s proliferation, exposing other countries and their territories to – and their financial and commercial and transport sectors – to exploitation and abuse.

Now, closing and constricting all avenues of proliferation to and from North Korea, as well as Iran and Syria, places a special responsibility on the major supplier and trans-shipment states. This responsibility means first, a firm and proactive commitment to implementation of the UN decisions; secondly, an effective export-control system to support and facilitate enforcement; and third, strict vigilance and the will to act within the letter and spirit of those resolutions.

This is hard work. The US works very hard with our Asia-Pacific partners, with ASEAN, with individual states, to build counter-proliferation capacity and to build political will. We participate in several programmes that strengthen the export-control infrastructure in Asia. The Proliferation Security Initiative is one example: 104 countries have now endorsed the PSI and just within the last year Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam have done the same. We admire states like Singapore and Malaysia, who have done so much to pass and implement meaningful legislation on strategic trade control. And we meet our other non-proliferation responsibilities to our Asian partners. We hope that in the near future, that P5 states will sign the protocol to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, which provides assurances to states in the region against the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons.

This wide-ranging approach is necessary because the DPRK’s nuclear challenge is not a bilateral issue, it’s not a Six-Party issue, it’s not a regional issue. It is a global issue. The entire world needs to speak with one voice to make clear we will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, North Korea cannot pursue nuclear weapons, cannot export conventional weapons without cost to itself, and any further provocations by the North will come only with a very heavy cost to the North.

We hope all states will join the growing international effort to shine a light on the massive human-rights abuses within North Korea. We believe strongly that bringing North Korea into compliance with its own obligations and commitments will require a comprehensive, concerted, and collective effort not by one country, or two, or five, but by all states that have a stake in peace and security in Asia and beyond. Thanks very much.