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A New Baseline for North Korea Policy: What the Next US President Needs to Know

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A New Baseline for North Korea Policy: What the Next US President Needs to Know

To manage the North Korea challenge, we need to challenge the old images and preconceptions we have.

A New Baseline for North Korea Policy: What the Next US President Needs to Know
Credit: Astrelok/

North Korea’s launch of a long range missile this weekend – its sixth – has once again thrust the country into the world’s headlines.

No matter who wins the election, the next U.S. president is going to be faced with a North Korea problem that’s become quite different from that which faced previous presidents.  The United States can’t afford to get the Korean Peninsula wrong, and policies that may have historically worked (or at least been acceptable) may prove inadequate going forward.

The perspective offered below challenges many (but not all) of the old images and preconceptions we have about North Korea and how to deal with its regime.  These should become the new baseline for future North Korea policy.

Provocations Have Become a Strategic Risk

This is a major implication of my new book on the subject.  The historical U.S. stance on small-scale North Korean violence—that it’s undesirable but something we can live with—is becoming untenable for two reasons.

First, it puts the United States wholly at odds with the stance its South Korean ally has adopted since 2010.  For understandable reasons, South Korea will not tolerate continued North Korean violence, which is why they’ve promised wicked vengeance if it occurs in future.  If South Korea makes good on that threat, the stability that has held for 60 years will be at risk; if it fails to make good on the threat, South Korea will have proved their own threats hollow, inviting further provocations.

Second, continued provocations erode the credibility of U.S. commitments to South Korea.  The last time this state of affairs happened, in the late 1960s, South Korea’s president embarked on a secret nuclear weapons program and plotted the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Il Sung.  If either of these efforts resurfaced today, the sustainability of a stable Northeast Asia would be in doubt.  The United States can’t afford to live with violent provocations because its ally can’t; instead, it should take the lead in retaliatory responses, to the extent circumstances allow.

North Korean Decision-Making is Rational

As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the biggest myths about North Korea is that it’s unpredictable or crazy.  This is patently false, at least when it comes to its foreign and defense policy decisions.  North Korea is rational, based not on theoretical assumption but historical observation.  Kim Il Sung read Thomas Schelling in the 1960s.  He believed, as does his progeny, that a brinkmanship strategy against a stronger power could be a useful way to pursue political goals.  North Korea has a strong track record of restrained and measured decision-making about when and how it uses violence, even when its threatening rhetoric reaches comical levels of absurdity.

When it engages in violence, it does so through faits accompli or isolated incidents in order to control escalation.  When it takes issue with South Korean NGOs sending propaganda balloons North, it aims fire at the balloons, not the NGOs.  When it bristles in response to South Korean propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ, it fires warning artillery shots but doesn’t dare take out the propaganda speakers themselves.  And when it gets into crises, it looks for face-saving off-ramps even as it blusters.

These are not the actions of an irrational actor, but rather evidence of one that wishes to appear irrational.  Anyone who claims North Korea “could do anything” has a high burden of proof given the long history to the contrary.  The regime under Kim Jong Eun values its own preservation above all else.  It will not commit suicide by taking deliberate actions that put that priority in jeopardy.  So during the next crisis, no matter what threatening posture North Korea adopts, know that North Korea will not annihilate Seoul or resort to nuclear first-strikes; these are last-resort actions that North Korea would only pursue if the regime believed its days were numbered.

North Korea is a Nuclear-Armed Adversary

This point isn’t lost on the average person, but it often seems that U.S. and South Korean policy toward North Korea doesn’t take it into account, and it has implications for deterrence, escalation, warfighting, and diplomacy.  Hoping for North Korean collapse, promising disproportionate retaliation if North Korea conducts provocations, and wielding thinly veiled nuclear threats against North Korea; these things might have made sense 20 years ago (or even ten years ago), but they’re dangerously naïve these days.

The presence of nuclear weapons changes certain aspects of strategic interaction.  It increases North Korea’s freedom of action to pursue a wider range of violence short of war, including some options that were historically unacceptable.  It makes large-scale invasion or the massing of U.S. troops from outside the region impossible without risking nuclear war.  It increases the stakes and risks of haphazard nuclear signaling, like the recent B-52 overflight in response to North Korea’s nuclear test.  And it increases the importance of fighting back—within the constraints of the nuclear shadow—should North Korea pick a fight (hence my frequent arguments about limited war).

Finally, where North Korea’s nuclear program was once negotiable, its possession of nuclear weapons make meaningful denuclearization talks a fantasy.  Sanctions won’t change that, nor will military exercises or propaganda broadcasts.  Over time, nuclear weapons are going to become more salient to how North Korea thinks about its security, not less.  Denuclearization is a laudable vision, as is Korean unification or President Obama’s Global Zero.  But like these other ambitions, they’re too far removed from the constraints of current circumstances to take seriously at the policy level.  If we’re serious about any kind of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, its proximate focus can’t be denuclearization; it doesn’t mean we have to give up on that vision, but it shouldn’t be treated as a realistic planning factor.

North Korea Wants Peace…But Not the Kind We Seek

Some things don’t change.  At some point during the next president’s tenure, North Korea will dangle the possibility of negotiating a peace treaty.  This wouldn’t be the first time.  I think North Korea does sincerely want peace, but not the way we imagine it.  It wants a peace that formalizes its nuclear weapons program, elevates its status as the “legitimate Korea” above South Korea by excluding it from the treaty, and removes U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.  As seductive and intuitive as a peace treaty sounds, in the Korea context it’s a way to get backdoor legitimation of its nuclear status and a deliberate wedge issue for the U.S.-ROK alliance.  Even if these terms of peace were acceptable to the United States, which seems unlikely, it would only be a U.S.-North Korea peace; relations between North and South Korea would likely be as hostile as ever.  None of this means we shouldn’t open peace treaty discussions at some point, but it’s imperative to be clear-eyed about what that means for U.S. alliances and the nuclear nonproliferation norm.

Every Korea watcher is familiar with former Secretary of Defense William Perry’s famous observation in 1999: “We must deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”  Current U.S. policy deals with the North Korea of the past; one whose nuclear weapons were negotiable, whom we could invade and occupy if necessary, and whom could be brought to heel by sanctions or other forms of pressure.  That’s not the North Korea of today.

The views expressed belong to the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, DKI-APCSS, or the U.S. Government.