Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays tied for third place, from Libby Johnson of Stanford University.
The Obama Administration’s approach to the problem of North Korea has been termed strategic patience, and is in fact the same approach employed by previous administrations. At the heart of strategic patience is a belief that the status quo, while less than ideal, is better than many possible consequences of taking action. The premise of this argument is incorrect. What we see in North Korea is not a status quo, similar today to what it was decades ago, but rather a situation worsening at an exponential pace. Sooner rather than later, this pace will lead to a North Korea capable of sending nuclear weapons around the globe. While Pyongyang may not be the gravest threat to the United States, if handled carelessly, the situation could distract Trump from other threats and derail his Presidency.
During his transition out of office, former President Obama told President Trump that North Korea is the problem he should worry most about. In April, amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a joint statement that North Korea is “an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority.”
The U.S. seems to have tried a small dose of everything under the sun to address the threat in North Korea. Yet over the past quarter century, nothing has improved. There will be no magic bullets for North Korea. Our best option for the future must consist of some combination of tools we have already employed against North Korean obstinacy. But we should employ them simultaneously, consistently, and attentively. It is important to understand why these tools have not worked in the past and, if used differently, whether they can be successful in the future. Before exploring tools used to reach an objective, however, the US should first give careful consideration to what that objective should be, which is informed by what we know of the DPRK’s nuclear capability.
North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities Today
Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, one of the few individuals the North Korean regime has allowed into the country to observe their nuclear capabilities, explains that three pieces are needed for North Korea to have a viable nuclear threat: fissile materials, weaponization, and delivery. Fissile materials determine the size of the arsenal; the US has high confidence in their estimates of North Korea's plutonium, which is produced mainly by a single 5 megawatt reactor, and low confidence in their estimates of its enriched uranium. Based on Hecker's seven visits to the country and analysis of secondary sources, he estimates—with the caveat that our understanding of their enriched uranium capacity may be lacking—that the country has enough fissile materials for 20-25 bombs today (six to eight of plutonium), and the capacity to build seven additional bombs each year. We know very little about their weaponization capabilities, but the fact that they have developed the bomb over ten years, including conducting five nuclear tests, means that it is likely sufficiently small and sophisticated to reach all of South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s progress in their delivery capability has improved over the last few years. We know that North Korea can deliver short and medium range missiles, with increasing versatility and decreasing detectability. In his New Year's Day address, Kim Jong-un claimed the country had “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile” and that they will “continue to build up [their] self-defense capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike.” Hecker says, "The question that people then ask is … do they have a warhead they can put on an ICBM and reach the United States. The answer is, in my opinion, no.” Hecker believes this will require more work. He emphasizes, however, “One of the worst scenarios, and the one that worries me the most, is they can strike South Korea and Japan. That’s the nuclear crisis. We have that nuclear crisis now.”
The US Objective—Denuclearization or Bust?
Denuclearization—the current and previous administration’s objective—should remain the United States’ long-term measure of success. Denuclearization will neutralize one of the major threats to South Korea and Japan and a potential future threat to the West Coast of the United States. The metrics for success are clear, and it is an objective that China claims to be aligned with, while other goals, such as regime change, would mean countering Beijing and affirming North Korean citizens’ engrained distrust of the west. It is also in line with the global non-proliferation goals that America has espoused. In 1991, the US withdrew their nuclear weapons from South Korea in an attempt to persuade North Korea to allow inspection of its nuclear capabilities and, ultimately, denuclearize.
In the United States' perspective, the North Korea situation is about nuclear weapons. In North Korea's eyes, it is about so much more than that. North Korea's ultimate objective can be characterized as regime survival. They have repeatedly demonstrated that this objective takes precedence over any other, including their economy and the well-being of their citizens, taking actions to advance their military capacity even when these actions would provoke strict sanctions that would harm the already desperately poor North Koreans who were not part of the over-sized military or Pyongyang’s elite. The U.S. consistently fails to understand that North Korea's actions are rooted in their feelings of insecurity. In their eyes, a nuclear arsenal is what guarantees regime survival. They have seen leaders of non-nuclear states—such as Milosevic, Qadhafi, and Hussein—toppled by western coalitions. And against great odds, their pursuit of nuclear weapons has worked. When North Korea's objectives, including the extreme priority of regime survival, are properly understood, their actions are not those of a country run by a madman, but are logical and in many ways effective.
Despite the importance of a non-nuclear North Korea for regional and global stability, the U.S. should be realistic about facts on the ground today, and this means realizing denuclearization is not a feasible short-term goal. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry put it in a 1999 report following a visit—meant to move the needle on denuclearization—to Pyongyang, "We must deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be." At the time, North Korea's nuclear strength was nowhere near what it is today, and in Perry's perspective, fruitful talks were within months of leading to a denuclearization deal, which demised because of a change from the Clinton to Bush administrations and the new President's abandonment of the talks. Today, in a world where North Korea is almost weekly making gains in developing their military capacity, Perry's words are all the more relevant. Dr. Kathleen Stephens, former Ambassador to South Korea, says, “The current regime in North Korea is further than it’s ever been, one, from...a readiness to denuclearize even though they’ve committed to it in the past, and it has a stronger hand to play because they have created...facts on the ground.” Part of dealing with North Korea as it is, instead of as we wish it to be, should mean that the US administration establish a short-term objective of North Korea's non-use of nuclear weapons, as distinct from non-existence.
The risky implications of shifting objectives away from denuclearization should be understood. What signal does this send to other states that are considering pursuing nuclear weapons about American commitment to preventing proliferation? For this reason, loud and firm public statements are likely not the best way to declare any short-term objective that is softer than denuclearization. As we appropriately understand North Korea's priorities as well as global implications of our own statements and actions, it becomes clear that we must strike a delicate balance when communicating and acting on our own objectives. The relational piece of this intricate puzzle is important.
Past Attempts at Taming North Korea
President Obama’s strategic patience has essentially been the policy of the last four administrations. In various forms, strategic patience has entailed refraining from actively pursuing regime change while restraining the Supreme Leader’s behavior and waiting for self-inflicted collapse. This waiting game has done nothing to improve North Korea’s behavior in any permanent way. During Obama’s time in office, North Korea carried out four nuclear tests and claimed they had developed the capacity to strike mainland United States.
Economic engagement and aid have also fallen flat. South Korea allowed limited tourism in North Korea from 2002-2008, and allowed the Kaesong Industrial Complex to employ North Koreans until Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in 2016.[12,13] South Korea’s so-called sunshine policy (1998-2008) of economic aid provided billions in the midst of a famine in a country with a history of farmers’ dissent during previous food crises.[14,15]
Sanctions against North Korea have been attempted many times, sometimes simultaneously with economic aid programs. Again and again these have been ineffective, likely because North Korea is able to shield its elites from the impact of the sanctions and use the scarcity of resources to reward those who are most loyal to the regime. Secondary sanctions from 2005 to 2007 targeted banks that handled black market currency from North Korea in an attempt to block the country’s access to funds. The secondary sanctions were some of the most effective at isolating North Korea, and even some of China’s largest banks ignored the Chinese government’s guidance to continue dealing North Korean currency for fear of losing access to U.S. dollars. However, in 2007 the U.S. Treasury stopped the secondary sanctions as part of President Bush’s attempts to reach denuclearization. The U.S. agreed to stop applying the Trading with the Enemy Act in an effort to convince North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks, setting up the sixth round of negotiations.
The long list of agreements that North Korea has signed and then violated is perhaps the most disappointing and telling signal of the Supreme Leader’s attitude toward relations with the U.S. and others that would negotiate with him. North Korea withdrew from or violated two International Atomic Energy Agency safeguard agreements; a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; an inter-Korean denuclearization agreement; the 1994 Agreed Framework; the 2005 joint statement; a 2007 agreement resulting from the six-party talks and the 2012 Leap Day Agreement.[20-22]
The 1992 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula limited both parties to using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. South Korea had already declared the year before that it would not pursue the development of nuclear weapons (and had abandoned its pursuit of fissile materials in the 1970s). South Korea's steps were meant to create momentum for North Korea to denuclearize, but the reciprocal inspection plan stalled the year after. The 1994 Agreed Framework, requiring cessation of nuclear activity at Yongbyon and the uninhibited entry of U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, was also marked by a degradation of trust, and North Korea withdrew from the Agreed Framework in 2003. The six-party talks started the year after this and culminated in a 2005 joint statement on steps toward denuclearization. In 2009, in response to sanctions after the North Korean testing of a Taepo Dong-2 three-stage rocket, the country announced it would not be bound by previous six-party talk agreements.
Some experts say that even regime change is a tool that the U.S. tested—however indirectly—for its usefulness in North Korea. North Korea defended its test of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb in early 2016 by pointing to the fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi, claiming that they serve as examples of what happens to leaders of countries that fail to develop nuclear programs to defend themselves.
Today, many claim “the only road to North Korea is through Beijing.” China and the U.S. have considerable interests in common—China does not want an unpredictable nuclear power along its border. However, Beijing thinks of the North Korea situation as it relates to the long-term balance of power in the region, and to China’s position regionally and globally. After all, the US is China’s greatest strategic rival. It has generally been understood in the U.S. that China views North Korea as a buffer state. Not only does Beijing have economic interest in North Korea, but if the regime were to collapse, the U.S. might be able to bring its army up to the Chinese border or beyond. A U.S. strategy entirely reliant on China is shortsighted, does not take Chinese interests fully into account, and has proven not to work. Furthermore, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un seems willing to defy the authority of his closest ally. For example, the Supreme Leader has rid his government of many officials who had ties with Beijing. This begs the question of whether China has the ability to influence North Korea to the extent we would like, even if Beijing decides it wants to do so. Again and again the U.S. turns to China as a strategy of desperation when all other options are exhausted. Looking to Beijing alone will never be enough.
Strategy for the Future
While we have tried all of the aforementioned tools separately, we have not tried them together. Simultaneous multilateral efforts would keep the pressure on Pyongyang, but give them the flexibility to choose which path to engage. All options—dialogue, military force, political subterfuge, financial isolation, partnership with China and South Korea, and other alliances—could lead to progress down the path of denuclearization if we present them simultaneously. Ultimately, what it will take from the Trump Administration is focus and consistent strategy in order to keep the pressure on.
President Trump should faithfully pursue a strategy of financial isolation, and should continue to urge an increasingly exasperated China to do the same. In June, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned one Chinese firm and two individuals with ties to North Korea in an attempt to isolate the DPRK from the financial systems supporting it. This type of sanction has the potential to pressure Pyongyang’s elite. President Trump should continue to show that during his Presidency he plans to invoke what financial levers he has available. This can include—after consideration of the effectiveness of June’s sanctions—invoking last year’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which would allow the Treasury to continue cutting off banks and individuals with illicit ties to the country. The narrower the target of these sanctions, the better the outcome. Since it is largely North Korea's elites who hold their assets in foreign banks, such sanctions will be most effective at isolating North Korea's upper echelons, and mitigating the effect, to the extent possible, on the general population. However, such actions should be taken simultaneously with efforts to win buy-in from regional allies and their financial institutions.
Although we should continue to factor China’s strategic interests into our calculus and push Xi Jinping to pressure North Korea, the Trump Administration’s current strategy, like those of administrations before him, is overly dependent on the Chinese. Not only have our objectives been misaligned with China in the past, but the question also arises of how capable China is of isolating North Korea financially, especially considering that the relationship between China and North Korea has worsened since Kim Jong-un took power.
The U.S. should begin to lean more on our relationships with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and the capacity these countries have to isolate North Korea. Not only should we show Kim Jong-un that we have many options available to us, we should also show Xi Jinping. China should understand that they will pay a price in regional relationships if they are not committed to regional stability, and continue allowing the problem of North Korea to fester.
Like so many variables in in this arena, it is important here, as well, to maintain a careful balance. This means taking Chinese interests into account more consistently. In forming strategy for North Korea, the U.S. all too often fails to consider the long-term consequences of achieving (or failing to achieve) our objectives. The situation in North Korea is intimately and intricately linked to the balance of power in the region. In our attempts to align Beijing's approaches with our own, we fail to understand that China has very different objectives than we do. According to Hecker,
"For the US, denuclearization comes first. For China, peace and stabilization comes first.... They view sanctioning almost like regime change. They don't want to bring the regime to its knees. They have said 'transform the regime, don't replace the regime,' and you don't transform the regime by squeezing all the lifeblood out of them. Unless we understand that, just to keep telling the Chinese to keep tightening isn't going to work."
In the eyes of the Chinese, the way to transform the regime is to continue with dialogue.
Two new leaders in the U.S. and South Korea—seemingly of differing political stripe—are currently shaping their approaches to North Korea. Moon, considered more liberal than his predecessor, was elected on a platform that emphasized reducing tensions with their northern neighbors. In the coming months, it will be important that Trump and Moon form a relationship. According to Stephens, “If the United States decides that, you know, China has the key to solving the North Korean issue...and kind of forgets about Seoul...that could really break the alliance.” The danger of what she calls "Seoul-passing" is that one of our strongest alliances could be jeopardized, and we would likely take differing simultaneous strategies in North Korea that have a high probability of conflicting with one another. Stephens emphasizes the importance of making room for each other. The U.S. should consistently consult South Korea, even when our approaches differ.
Political disruption can come in the form of assisting North Koreans who want to defect and funding efforts to bring information from the outside world to the citizens who suffer most under Kim Jong-un’s regime. Political sabotage alone is not enough, but it will help to challenge an administration that depends on a high degree of structure and the obedience of his citizens to remain in power. Cyber-attacks and espionage, while not sufficient to disrupt the nuclear threat permanently, could help to sow distrust among Pyongyang's elites. More primitive methods of sabotage, such as introducing faulty parts into the supply chain of the bomb, could also help to brew distrust among North Koreans toward their government’s nuclear program. Finally, engaging in information warfare will not only benefit the US via its impressions on North Korean citizens, but also on other allies who are making their own calculations about how to approach North Korea. These efforts together can help to turn the leadership against each other.
So far, President Trump has taken a more military-heavy approach than previous administrations: he has moved warships to the waters off the Korean peninsula, worked to develop counter-ICBM capabilities, and regularly drawn attention to the military elements of interactions with North Korea. Such an approach may make more room for negotiation, but should be limited and consistently handled delicately. As Secretary of Defense Mattis put it, an effort to address the problems posed by North Korea using military force would be tragic. Conversations around military force should be conducted within the framework of convincing Pyongyang that we can and will back away from regime change and the military force it requires.
Our military is capable of destroying key North Korean targets, but we would not be able to destroy the North’s artillery launchers without paying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, as well as tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers. The Trump Administration should take this constraint seriously. After the North Korea's latest missile test, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said, “What the president has first and foremost on his mind is to protect the American people.”
But a war between North and South Korea would put Americans at risk. Analysts agree that it is highly unlikely that North Korea will use nuclear weapons against the U.S. now; their ultimate goal is regime survival, and if they were to attack the U.S., they know their leadership would be taken out immediately. The worry, however, is that a conventional war erupts on the peninsula and leads to desperation in the North Korean government. If such a war were to occur, the U.S. would win. The risk is that as North Korea nears defeat, they would launch a nuclear weapon at the U.S. as a last-ditch effort to gain footing in the war, or simply to take us down with them.
The key to America’s military positioning is securing non-use of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The most effective and credible military threat that the United States can make is one of deterrence: if North Korea uses nuclear weapons, we will destroy the leadership, while leaving the North Korean population intact. We should show that we will, however, back away from regime change if they roll back nuclear weapons. We must make this offer credible. Such credibility will come only through sustained dialogue.
The key to an effective strategy lies in our ability to convince North Korea that we will abandon any intention of regime change. The challenges are clear, but no matter what, it will not be accomplished without dialogue, and the Trump Administration has an opportunity to dialogue effectively. President Trump should insist that the choices for the regime are to denuclearize or perish; Kim Jong-un will denuclearize only in exchange for survival, and for no lesser price. Although the Supreme Leader’s actions lately look anything but cooperative, his nuclear tests and incendiary rhetoric are not illogical. He knows that one more nuclear tests will not be enough for Moon Jae-in to give up on cooperating with the North, and that President Trump would never use the type of military force he used in Syria on a nuclear-armed North Korea. There has not yet been adequate pressure to persuade North Korea that dialogue is a better option than escalation.
North Korea wholly distrusts the U.S. when we say we do not have regime change in our plans. This ultimately means that the guarantee of peace should rely on a third party, and we should be willing to accept limitations that are enforceable by that party. One possibility includes signing the Korean War Peace Treaty, which was never signed. Other signatories, including the British, French, and Russians, would be required to keep us accountable. Another possible enforcement mechanism could be an agreement that attempted regime change on the part of the U.S. would invalidate our stationing agreements in Japan and South Korea. This would also mean that South Korea and Japan have a substantial interest in keeping us from violating the agreement.
If the U.S. applies the correct combination of levers simultaneously and consistently, they can create the right circumstances to open up room for dialogue, with a short-term goal of non-use of nuclear weapons and a long-term goal of denuclearization. President Trump may be better positioned than previous administrations to make progress in North Korea. His emphasis on military approaches and his impatient nature—which may well backfire if taken too far—could help to shift the North Korea situation, putting us on a better track for negotiation. To do this, though, the U.S. should use their military threat with dialogue in mind, centered around a convincing demonstration that we will allow Kim Jong-un’s regime to survive. A strategy entirely reliant on China is too dependent on the whims of a country with long-term interests different than our own. The U.S. should focus additionally on other players in the region, remembering to maintain a positive relationship with South Korea. Political disruption and sanctions, especially those targeting North Korea’s elite, will fuel the fire. This fire, however, is slow-burning, and the U.S. must be prepared to commit to shifting the reality of the North Korea situation for years and perhaps decades to come.
Libby Johnson earned her master's degree in International Policy Studies at Stanford University, where she focused on peacebuilding, negotiations, and human rights. Her current research—conducted for the United States Military Academy as part of her program's team practicum project—is a comparative analysis of ISIS and Al Qaeda recruitment records. Libby wrote her submission to The Strategy Bridge under the direction of Dr. Kori Schake, Hoover Institution Fellow.
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Header Image: A soldier salutes during North Korea’s military parade on April 15, 2017. (Amir Sagolj/Reuters)
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