Every recent U.S. administration (Clinton, Bush, and Obama) has confronted the problem of North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear weapons program. While claiming their predecessors failed, successive administrations have shared the same objective: completely roll back the DPRK’s development of a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and prevent proliferation of a nuclear weapon or device to a third party – both without inducing a conflagration on or outside the Peninsula.
After working the problem, all three administrations came to the same conclusion: North Korea’s strategic weapons program is a complex and difficult issue with no simple solution. The Trump Administration appears to be headed in the same direction. Some combination of the same options has always been in play: negotiations, sanctions, the threat of force, and pressure on China to use its influence with the North. None of these tactics have worked.
So why have we failed? The answer is clear: A succession of paranoid and isolated regimes in the North, incorrectly believing the U.S. intends to overthrow them, have seen deliverable nuclear weapons as their principal deterrent to such action. They have decided that bearing the costs of possessing such weapons is well worth their efficacy in ensuring regime survival. Moreover, North Korea has no interest in negotiating a comprehensive deal with the U.S. because the regime needs the U.S. as an enemy—the elimination of an external distraction and the increased information flow accompanying a rapprochement could very well spell the beginning of the end of the regime.
So what should we do? We need to change the fundamental objective of our policy, because North Korea will never willingly give up its program. Washington’s belief that this was possible was a key mistake in our initial policy thinking. The U.S. objective needs to shift from denuclearization to deterring the North from ever using or proliferating its nuclear weapons.
With this as the objective, the first step is to understand what not to do. Most important, do not threaten to use force to destroy the regime. It is hubris to think that we could somehow control either a covert or overt process of regime change in North Korea or that China would cooperate in such a move. Given North Korea’s purpose for having nuclear weapons in the first place and because the leadership is rational, it stands to reason that the only thing that would cause them to actually use nuclear weapons would be a direct and imminent threat to their survival. This, in turn, means making it clear we have no interest in regime change or in the forceful reunification of the Peninsula, while still being fully committed to defending South Korea. Also, it means in no way capitulating to North Korea provocations by buying them off in some way – providing food, fuel, or any of their other demands.
So, what does this mean for policy? It begins with continuing to explicitly not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. It continues with an unstated “stew-in-your-own-juice-but-don’t-dare-use-or-proliferate” policy backed by the pillars of deterrence: denying the objectives of, and imposing costs on, use or proliferation. This combination forecloses potential acceptance to other nuclear aspirants, and it states the costs of such ambition. The only tragedy in this approach is a human one, namely the millions of North Koreans who will continue to live under oppressive conditions. But that tragedy is the responsibility of the North Korean leadership, not ours.
There are five key pieces to this policy approach. First, South Korea (ROK) is our ally, and we are rightfully pledged to its defense, which requires maintaining a high state of readiness. We should not scale back our existing readiness exercises, though they should be conducted in a way that makes it clear to the DPRK that they are only exercises and that they are defensive, not offensive. Moreover, we should bolster our conventional defenses, principally through more prepositioned equipment that the Army can rapidly fall in upon in the event of a crisis (it is not politically feasible to move troops out of U.S. congressional districts to Korea, nor is it economical to permanently station additional troops in the ROK).
This would have two salutary effects. First, it would make it far more likely that South Korea could be defended should a provocation escalate into a conventional war. Second, it would constitute a new rung on the escalation ladder—one that does not pose an immediate threat to North Korea but that could be quickly generated if necessary, thus helping to avoid the North’s potential use of nuclear weapons.
Second, the North Korean regime needs to continue to pay the price for its nuclear weapons program, if only to deter other nuclear aspirants such as Iran. This implies continued sanctions with the potential for escalating them. While far more are available, they need to be carefully calibrated to ensure that each instance of sanctions bites but also leaves more in the kit for future needs. Nor can our sanctions be so strangling that the North concludes they are the key element of a policy of regime change.
More useful than economic sanctions against individuals is pressure that greatly complicates North Korea’s ability to do business in the world. This could include a UN Security Council resolution authorizing inspection of all goods transiting to and from North Korea, including on the global commons, along with an enforcement mechanism, none of which current resolutions permit, but that we might obtain through skillful diplomacy and careful timing. This will throw sand in North Korea’s economic machinery, check their acquisition of goods that support nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and more importantly, make it more difficult for them to export finished weapons technology. Here, solidarity, credibility, and political influence within the UN are critically important.
But of course every effort on this front has traditionally been met with resistance from China. Thus—and third—we should maintain pressure on China, but we should also understand they are on the horns of a dilemma. The only thing China dislikes—indeed, fears—more than a nuclear armed North Korea is a destabilized nuclear-armed North Korea. The reasons are obvious: China wants neither a massive stream of refugees nor a U.S. or ROK military force on their border. And they certainly don’t want the DPRK coercively threatening to use nuclear weapons against the ROK or “loose nukes” in a collapsing North Korea that could find their way into the wrong hands. We want to avoid these things as well.
As a result, China is only willing to apply pressure on the DPRK regime to a point well short of destabilization, which is not enough to induce the latter to give up its program (in fact, it is possible that no amount of Chinese pressure will get the North to give up its program). And, in any case, China will apply pressure only under constant diplomatic, economic, and military pressure from others.
The first two types are straight forward, but what do we mean by military pressure? Simple: it makes China very uneasy when the U.S. takes actions required to defend against North Korea’s improving capability when China perceives that those actions impact its own freedom of action in the region. A good example is U.S. deployment of a THAAD battery to Guam in the wake of DPRK commencement of medium range ballistic missile testing. China hates this because it wants to be able to threaten Guam in the event of a conflict with the U.S. Recent moves towards placing THAAD on the Korean Peninsula have dramatically escalated this concern for China (even though they refuse to understand that THAAD is not a threat to China). So be it.
Fourth, this approach would change the purpose and character of any future discussions with the DPRK. A “stew-in-your-juice” policy implies that we will not get involved in negotiations regarding the nuclear program since we know that the North would not be serious players in such talks. If some kind of talks do occur—presumably over other topics, or even in the unlikely event they do decide to seriously negotiate on the nuclear issue—we must do a better job negotiating than we have in the past. We should continue to insist that any negotiations with the regime be in some way multilateral in order to maintain solidarity with our allies and partners and to prevent the DPRK from dividing us.
Any negotiations must be patiently and firmly conducted, not rushed to meet some artificial political timeline. And they must be conducted from a position of principled strength. Past negotiations have generally been asymmetric, in which North Korea is offered something irreversible (such as money, fuel, or food) in return for something reversible (such as restraints on further development of some sort of nuclear capability), only to go back on their word once the irreversible is pocketed and they want more.
Fifth, and finally, we have to strengthen the two pillars of deterrence. “Denying objectives” includes solidifying our defense against a DPRK ballistic missile threat. This means both “left of launch” and “right of launch” capabilities. There are any number of possible avenues for the former, which are not appropriate to discuss in this forum. But selectively and periodically acknowledging such efforts will inject additional uncertainty into Kim Jong-un’s calculus.
Right of launch means continuing to advance regional and national ballistic missile defense capability against this limited, low-probability-but-high-consequences threat. Moscow and Beijing do not like these deployments, because they believe, incorrectly, that the defenses are aimed at them. The Russians and Chinese are just going to have to understand our need for these limited defenses against the DPRK, and we have to accept that Russia and China will take the steps they consider necessary in order to assure the survivability of their nuclear deterrent.
More missile defense systems are only part of the answer; system improvements, such as better detection and engagement capability, provide huge leverage. Turning a phrase on its ear, quality has a quantity all its own in this area: technical improvements decrease the number of missiles we must launch against each threat, thereby immediately increasing our own capacity.
To fortify the “impose costs” deterrence pillar, the regime should be reminded from time to time, both publicly and privately, of our ability to execute a prompt nuclear response if necessary. To make this explicit, we must declare to North Korea: “we can and will defeat any attack you conduct on the U.S. or our allies, and if you do attack with nuclear weapons, we will respond with overwhelming force in whatever way is required to eliminate the imminent threat.” It is implicit that the North Korean leadership is part of that threat. We must make a similar declaratory statement—hopefully in cooperation with China and the rest of the UN Security Council—that proliferation will result in a major retaliatory measure such as a blockade.
The first responsibility of a leader is to face reality. Setting aside our previous belief that we can convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program will unlock the door to a different policy. But there are still no easy answers. Indeed, a new policy requires even more firmness and finesse—carefully calculated though it must be—conducted across the full range of instruments of national and international power to deter use and proliferation and to demonstrate to other nations the high cost of commencing such a program.