At the very least, the Singapore Summit between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un created a period of lower tension and heightened fluidity in the relationship between the two nations. It did not solve the North Korean nuclear threat, but it did set the stage for potential progress. While complete, irreversible, verifiable dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal is the top U.S. goal, there are other issues that need to be addressed during this period of potential policy opportunity.
One important example is the U.S. intelligence community’s concern about the potential threat of DPRK proliferation of WMD technology to other states or non-state actors. We already know of North Korea’s assistance to Syria in building a nuclear reactor and there are suspicions of other nuclear assistance. North Korea has fissile materials, scientific knowledge and weapons-production technology. It all needs to be secured from potential export or leakage.
The danger posed by intentional or inadvertent transfer of sensitive nuclear materials or equipment highlights the gaps that exist in the global nuclear security system and the need to strengthen and unify it. Surprisingly, there are no international standards or legally enforceable rules on how all nations should protect their nuclear materials. It is a national decision cloaked in opacity, which gives rise to concerns about its effectiveness in some nations. This is an issue on which the U.S., South Korea, China, and Japan can agree while the difficult denuclearization discussions unfold. Agreeing to not transfer any nuclear technology or materials outside the country would be a goodwill action by North Korea and possibly a step toward them re-joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A second opportunity is in the energy sector. If Kim is serious about shifting gears in his “dual track” policy to emphasize economic opportunities now that he has declared the nuclear weapons program completed, boosting the economy will require more power and significant electric grid upgrades. Energy is an area where South Korea, China, Russia, and the U.S. can put “power of prosperity” incentives on the table in exchange for DPRK denuclearization. This is a bargain that has faltered in the past, but if the unusual Singapore summit process offers any lasting legacy it is that opportunities are not always predictable.
Kenneth Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security
Photo Credit: Reuters