What's In Blue

Posted Thu 16 Feb 2023

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK): Closed Consultations

This afternoon (16 February), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Albania, Ecuador, France, Japan, Malta, the UK, and the US requested the meeting to discuss the DPRK’s weapons programmes and how the Council can address the threat that they pose to international peace and security. Assistant Secretary-General for the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Mohamed Khaled Khiari and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi are scheduled to brief.

Unlike a majority of recent Council meetings on the DPRK, today’s meeting was not requested in the aftermath of a particular missile test. It appears that Council members instead plan to use the meeting as an opportunity to hear the briefers’ analysis of the threat posed by the DPRK and discuss ways for the Council to respond to the DPRK’s increasingly provocative behaviour. A similar meeting took place on 30 January, after the US requested a meeting on the DPRK under “any other business” to take stock of developments on the file over the past year and discuss possible options for the Council. (For more information, see our 30 January What’s in Blue story).

Since the 30 January meeting, tensions have remained high on the Korean peninsula. On the evening of 8 February, the DPRK staged a military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of its armed forces. According to media reports analysing images of the parade released by DPRK state media, at least 15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were on display, including as many as 11 Hwasong-17s, the DPRK’s most advanced ICBM. Several analysts have noted that the ICBMs paraded by the DPRK could potentially overwhelm US missile defence systems if fired simultaneously. Analysts have also noted that the DPRK may have revealed a new land-based solid-fuel ICBM during the parade. (Solid-fuel ICBMs take less time to launch and are harder for missile defence systems to detect.)

Days earlier, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un reportedly ordered the country’s military to expand its combat drills and bolster its preparedness for war during a 6 February meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). The meeting came shortly after the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Park Jin, met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 3 February. In a press conference following that meeting, Park said that the ROK and the US are “committed to strengthening extended deterrence while maintaining a robust combined defence posture”. Park and Blinken’s meeting followed a 31 January visit by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to Seoul, where he met with ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol and ROK Minister of National Defence Lee Jong-sup. During the trip, Lee told reporters that the ROK and the US had pledged “to expand the scale and elevate the level of [their] combined exercises and training”. The following day, the ROK and the US carried out a series of air drills involving long-range strategic bombers and stealth fighters in the Yellow Sea off the ROK’s west coast.

In a 2 February statement, the DRPK’s foreign ministry said that the military and political situation on the Korean peninsula has reached an “extreme red line” because of the expansion of military exercises between the ROK and the US and warned that the DPRK was prepared to respond with the “most overwhelming nuclear force”.

On 13 February, DPRK authorities announced the “expansion and reorganisation” of “many” of its military units due to the “new situation” in the region. Several experts have commented that the announcement, when taken together with photos of the 8 February parade that show a new flag attached to an ICBM, appears to suggest that the DPRK has created a new military unit specifically tasked with operating ICBMs.

The ROK released its latest defence white paper on 16 February. The white paper, which is published biennially, described the DPRK as the ROK’s “enemy” for the first time since 2016 and reported that the DPRK has increased its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium to approximately 70 kilograms, a 40 percent increase over the 50 kilograms estimated in the previous white paper. The white paper also said that the DPRK holds “substantial amounts of highly enriched uranium” and possesses a “significant level of capability” to miniaturise nuclear weapons.

The prospects of the DPRK engaging in denuclearisation dialogue remain dim. In its 2 February statement, the DPRK’s foreign ministry said that “the DPRK is not interested in any contact or dialogue with the US as long as it pursues its hostile policy and confrontational line”. The statement also described the US’ offers to resume talks as “shameless” and an attempt to “gain time”. During a 27 January news conference, ROK Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said that the ROK intends to promote civilian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the DPRK with the aim of “reopen[ing] a path for dialogue between the two countries”. The DPRK has strongly rejected similar offers in the past. (For more information, see our 5 October What’s in Blue story.)

Food insecurity in the DPRK appears to be worsening. On 6 February, DPRK state media reported that the Workers’ Party Politburo had scheduled a plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee to discuss the “correct strategy for the development of agriculture” and “take relevant measures for the immediate farming … to promote the overall development of socialist construction”. On 15 February, the ROK’s unification ministry noted that the DPRK rarely schedules such meetings and said that the food situation in the DPRK “seems to have deteriorated”. According to media reports published on the same day, Kwon told the ROK parliament that the DPRK requested assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) and said that talks between the organisation and the DPRK were unsuccessful due to disagreements regarding the monitoring of aid.

In other developments on the file, the Panel of Experts assisting the 1718 DPRK Sanctions Committee provided its final report to the Committee on 3 February. According to media outlets claiming to have seen the report, which is due to be provided to the Council by 3 March, it notes that the DPRK has “used increasingly sophisticated cyber techniques both to gain access to digital networks involved in cyber finance, and to steal information of potential value, including to its weapons programmes”. Media reports also say that the report describes ongoing sanctions evasion by the DPRK and indicates that hackers linked to the DPRK stole $630 million worth of cryptocurrency assets in 2022, the highest number on record. On 10 February, the ROK announced that it had imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the DPRK’s cyber activities for the first time.

During today’s meeting, Council members may refer to these developments and discuss how the Council should respond to the DPRK’s missile tests and manage the heightened tensions in Northeast Asia. Some members might stress the importance of Council unity and urge the Council to speak with one voice and condemn the DPRK’s behaviour. Other members may argue that sanctions on the DPRK should be eased and suggest that more should be done to incentivise the DPRK to return to the negotiating table.

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