North Korea presents a threat to U.S. national security in ways that do not fit the conventional analytical framework applied by policymakers and pundits to foreign policy. The moral and strategic implications of the regime’s continued hold on power, its nuclear weapons program, and its interactions and activities in the outside world exist in a conceptual realm alien to the commercial democracies of the West. The regime is fully aware of this and exploits misconceptions about North Korea to its fullest advantage. Dynamic strategies must be conceived and implemented that go beyond these conventions and assumptions, recognize the nature of the regime and the consequences of its behavior, and addresses the roots of the crisis.
What have negotiations with North Korea achieved?
The U.S. and the U.N. have been negotiating an end to North Korea’s program for the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons for over thirty years with few results. The most significant diplomatic initiatives to this end were the inclusion of North Korea in the Non-Proliferation Treaty; the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea; and the Six-Party Talks involving North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. These efforts failed to end the North Korean nuclear threat. The summits between North Korea and the U.S. in Singapore and Hanoi are the most recent major effort in negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The results of these summits should be interpreted in light of the failures of the past three decades. Does North Korea retain its nuclear weapons program? Does North Korea retain the ability to use nuclear blackmail to achieve its geopolitical objectives? Does North Korea continue to proliferate nuclear and ballistic missile components?
North Korea is estimated to have produced 10 to 20 nuclear warheads and enough material to build between another 30 to 60. As of 2019, North Korea has tested six nuclear devices and numerous ballistic missiles. North Korea has developed and tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead capable of striking the continental United States. It has also developed medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and short-range ballistic missiles believed to be capable of carrying chemical weapons. North Korea shares expertise, equipment, and components in developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons with the regimes in Iran and Syria.
In support of its nuclear weapons programs and its broader geopolitical pursuits, North Korea operates a worldwide network of criminal enterprises through its embassies. North Korean diplomats moonlight as gangsters engaged in money laundering, drug smuggling, and currency counterfeiting. North Korea has been described by defectors as “a narco-state in which all aspects of the drugs operation—from school children toiling in poppy fields to government-owned processing plants to state-owned cargo ships and trading companies” are run by the regime, which directs “state collective farms...to produce opium to earn hard currency” while “villages...meet production targets and the military [helps] with distribution.”
The regime has also subjected its own citizens to what amounts to human-trafficking operations in which workers are sent abroad to labor in menial jobs with long hours and unsafe conditions while their wages are confiscated to fund the Kim dynasty and the regime’s elites.
What does North Korea want?
The objectives of the regime in Pyongyang are threefold. The primary objective is the reunification of the Korean peninsula under its control. Admiral Harry Harris, then commander of U.S. Pacific Command, testified before Congress that he believed the overarching goal pursued through the North Korean nuclear weapons program to be “reunification under a single, communist system.” While this has always been a longer-term goal and the nuclear weapons program is one component in a larger array of means available to the regime, the seriousness with which the regime sees this objective should not be underestimated when considering intentions and motives.
A secondary North Korean objective, which is important to attaining the first, is retaining its independence as a state and as a foreign policy actor. To that end, North Korea should be expected to seek out maximum freedom of maneuver in its interactions with South Korea, China, and the U.S. Maximizing its freedom of maneuver includes fomenting tensions and divisions between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. while playing China and the U.S. off each other.
A tertiary objective is regime survival in its present form. The preservation of a totalitarian system in which the Kim dynasty sits at the apex of a vast enterprise of slave labor and organized crime will always be prominent in the regime’s calculations.
Consequences of the Crisis
The most obvious and immediate problem arising from the crisis with North Korea is the nuclear weapons program. Besides the actual risk of nuclear war, the more likely utility of nuclear weapons for Kim Jong Un and his regime is geopolitical. North Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea, could effectively be intimidated into acquiescence and appeasement by Kim through a desire to avoid war at all costs. The Chinese, engaged in their own project of asserting great power status, may be less inclined to pressure their troublesome buffer state. The U.S. itself could conceivably be wary of fulfilling defensive obligations to South Korea after a decade of retrenchment. The fear of nuclear war may pose a greater danger than the risk of nuclear war, as the pursuit of peace without strength may achieve the reverse of what it intends. As Henry Kissinger once put it, “Whenever peace, conceived as the avoidance of war, has been the primary objective of a power or group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community.”
The geopolitical consequences of the North Korean nuclear program are not confined to the Indo-Pacific region. There is a significant world market for the purchase and acquisition of material and technology related to nuclear weapons among the terrorists and rogue states North Korea has long supplied. The greatest impact of the nuclear weapons program beyond the region may be on the emerging nuclear crisis with Iran, a state with which the West’s past engagement has accomplished as little as it has with North Korea. North Korea’s tactics of nuclear blackmail and proliferation could be emulated by Iran in a region where numerous ungoverned spaces and metastasizing non-state actors have multiplied in the aftermath of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Nuclear proliferation by North Korea could become nuclear terrorism in the Middle East.
The Balance of Terror and the Art of the Deal
Historical strategies involving containment or deterrence will not go far enough in addressing the threat from North Korea. Containment or deterrence assume North Korea is just another enemy state or rival power. They miss the fact that the U.S. is facing an entity blending elements of a totalitarian regime holding territory with an international crime syndicate with connections to terrorism. North Korea can no more be contained than a drug cartel or a terrorist cell. The ideological foundations of the regime, based on a mix of Stalinist terror and Japanese fascism, places the regime beyond the understanding of the materialist and rationalist calculus preferred by Western policymakers and commentators. A blood-and-soil mysticism that regards the reunification and purification of the Korean peninsula as a sacred duty enforced by a Stalinist police state and personality cult should not be expected to respond in a manner that fits neatly with the formulas common to international relations theory or foreign policy conventions. To adapt a phrase from Albert Wohlstetter, the U.S. has been operating under the assumption that the regime in Pyongyang operates on the basis of a Western-preferred cost-benefit analysis.
Nuclear deterrence as conceived during the Cold War waged against the Soviet Union is mismatched against the regime in Pyongyang for more technical reasons as well. The assumption here relies in part on the notion that missile defense will protect the continental U.S. from North Korean nuclear launches while giving the U.S. the ability to strike back. Ground-based missile defense in the U.S. has failed six out of ten times in staged test settings while not accounting for possible countermeasures that might disrupt or confuse the operation of missile defense systems.
The transactional art-of-the-deal approach of the Trump administration is similarly ill-suited for approaching the North Koreans. So far, it has been business as usual in Pyongyang as the regime presses ahead with its programs on ballistic missile development and uranium enrichment in spite of President Trump’s declaration that the nuclear threat had passed. The initial meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore was followed by the abrupt announcement that military exercises with Seoul were being canceled with no concrete concessions from Pyongyang in return. The next meeting in Hanoi was preceded by President Trump pressuring Seoul to pay more for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and followed by another announcement halting military exercises.
These patterns do not bode well for the success of future U.S. engagements with North Korea. Absent a peaceful transition of power or miraculous change of heart in Pyongyang, there is a looming tragedy in the Korean peninsula that U.S. foreign policy over the past three decades has been geared towards merely postponing for succeeding generations to confront.
Beyond Maximum Pressure
The most immediate challenge will be overcoming Western cognitive biases and conceptual habits in order to understand the threat for what it is rather than what the U.S. prefers it to be. Containment and deterrence are not suited for the regime in Pyongyang, and decades of engagement have produced an extraordinarily consistent record of failure. The North Korean regime’s behavior will not be changed through any combination of deterrence or détente, so policy focus should shift to targeting and eroding the capability and longevity of the regime.
The U.S. and its allies should target the financial resources that sustain the regime’s hold on power in a way that includes its trade with foreign companies, its ventures into organized crime through its embassies, and its use of slave labor in countries around the world.
Expansive sanctions will need to be complemented with maritime interdiction of ships used by North Korea to evade sanctions or counter-proliferation efforts. The regime has threatened that it would regard either sanctions or maritime interdiction as an act of war. To date, the sanctions have not resulted in hostilities, and the U.S. should be prepared to call the regime’s bluff. Military exercises with South Korea should also be resumed and expanded in response to any provocation or escalation by North Korea, including nuclear and missile tests, while strategic bomber drills and simulated targeting of artillery emplacements should be reintroduced and regularized. The burden of escalation at this point would be placed on the regime in Pyongyang.
The chance of conflict in the Korean peninsula should be weighed against the direct threat being posed to the U.S. The risk of nuclear war in Seoul should not be exchanged for the risk of nuclear war in San Francisco. Washington should not deceive itself that risk and tragedy can be forever postponed. The U.S. should prepare for the unthinkable to prevent it from becoming the inevitable.
Wesley Jefferies is a research assistant with the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative between Arizona State University and the International Security Program at New America.
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Header Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended a wreath laying ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on March 2, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Dien Bien/Getty Images)