The Koreas

How to Rethink the US’ Failing North Korea Strategy

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The Koreas

How to Rethink the US’ Failing North Korea Strategy

One cheer for the Nunn-Mullen taskforce, but it offers a flawed pathway to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

How to Rethink the US’ Failing North Korea Strategy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Pavelka

Since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, international efforts to counter advances in its nuclear program have taken a familiar form: strengthen international sanctions and seek to engage the DPRK in international talks. As recently as the first months of this year, events unfolded according to a familiar script. The DPRK’s fourth nuclear test was greeted by international condemnation, a push to strengthen the international sanctions regime, and a moderate strengthening of those sanctions in the form of UNSCR 2270.

However, a flurry of North Korea nuclear activity in recent months has begun to upend this model. Since June, the DPRK has undertaken its first successful test of an intermediate range Musudan missile, carried out a further nuclear test, and begun testing Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). The notion that current efforts to bring about a reversal in the North’s policy are doomed to fail, long a taboo topic in diplomatic circles, is starting to gain traction.

The result has been a new sense of urgency. In Seoul, the ministry of defense has, for the first time, confirmed that it would be prepared to engage in regime change to pre-empt nuclear use by the DPRK. They suggest that Seoul may be inclined to take steps toward constructing a deterrent strategy that is not solely dependent on that provided by the United States as a hedge against Pyongyang’s efforts to “de-couple” the alliance. Likewise, ranking members of the Saenuri party have urged greater debate on nuclear issues, ranging from embarking on nuclear acquisition to calling on Washington to redeploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. None of these moves represent a dramatic shift in policy, yet they suggest that Seoul is beginning to expand the range of options it is now prepared to consider. Rep. Lee Jung-hyun captured the prevailing mood when he stated that “it is time to put even unthinkable options on the table.”

By contrast, debate appears to be moving in the opposite direction in Beijing, where measures that would put more pressure on North Korea are encountering greater opposition. Deployment of the Terminal High Area Altitude Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea has angered Chinese officials, who see it as a cover for a U.S.-led strategy to contain China’s rise. The result has been a shift in emphasis. Rather than singling out the DPRK for criticism, Chinese interlocutors increasingly blame the U.S. and ROK in equal measure for “plunging [the Korean Peninsula] into a into a vicious cycle of escalation.”

How U.S. policy navigates the twin realities of the North’s rapid nuclear progress and an increasingly polarized Northeast Asia will determine the long term viability of its efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement. In that vein, last month saw the publication of  “A Sharper Choice on North Korea”, the findings task force led by former Senator Sam Nunn and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report constitutes a serious attempt at recalibrating U.S. policy to address the fluid situation that is likely to characterize the years ahead.

Some parts of the report make a significant contribution to the debate, and are to be welcomed. Primarily, the report strikes the right tone in capturing the new sense of urgency. It acknowledges that current U.S. policy is on course to fail, conceding “there is low probability of regime collapse in the near future,” and stressing that if allowed to continue, current trends will predictably, progressively, and gravely threaten U.S. national security interests and those of its allies.”

In addition, the task force makes two recommendations that move the conversation forward in fundamental ways. Firstly, the report makes clear that the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue will require regional powers to “commit to sign a comprehensive peace treaty, normalize relations, lift the appropriate sanctions, and allow North Korea’s integration into the global financial system.” Secondly, it broaches the subject of reduced U.S. force presence on the peninsula in a post-unification environment with Chinese interlocutors. Though such a move would unnerve both Seoul and Tokyo, such discussions are likely to be unavoidable if Beijing is to set aside its concerns about the consequences of DPRK regime collapse in favor of more economic pressure. Accordingly, the authors should be commended for voicing two unpopular truths, namely, that successful denuclearization of the peninsula may require a commitment to leave the Kim regime in place, and accepting a diminished U.S. force presence.

The report also makes a number of noteworthy individual recommendations. The task force calls for the United States, ROK and Japan to adopt an Article 5-style declaration against the DPRK, in order to make clear that Pyongyang will not be able to play U.S. allies off against one another. Likewise, its recommendation that all future North Korean missile tests which carry a range or payload capability in excess of Scud missiles be intercepted, something that would help to slow North Korea’s missile progress by denying it the capacity to determine whether its tests have been successful.

Unfortunately, the task force’s proposed approach to negotiations offers a flawed pathway to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Four recommendations in particular deserve greater scrutiny. Firstly, despite striking the right tone regarding urgency, the task force proposes “restructuring negotiations with North Korea on the expectation that intermediate agreements on other [non-nuclear] issues can demonstrate the benefits of cooperation.” Given the DPRK’s unwillingness to be dissuaded from its nuclearization, offering it additional diplomatic avenues that allow it to deflect attention from the nuclear issue would almost certainly result in time-wasting, prolonging serious discussion of the North’s nuclear program at the very moment time is beginning to run out.  

In addition, though the report stresses that it is “not U.S. policy to cause a collapse of the DPRK regime,” it recommends that future rounds of international talks focus on “militarized crises, collapse scenarios, and the role of a unified Korea in Northeast Asian security.” Yet these are all themes Beijing seeks to skirt in official discussions. Putting them at the heart of international talks could discourage China from playing the more constructive role that raising the possibility of a reduced U.S. force presence is intended to secure.

In addition, the task force calls on the international community to  “escalate pressure on North Korea to respect the human rights of its citizens,” and urges nations to set in motion the suspension of North Korea’s UN credentials if it fails to improve its human rights record. This defies logic. Few would question the scale and North Korea’s appalling treatment of its own people. Yet if the negotiations are to result in the resolution of the nuclear issue, rather than regime change, then they will have to be conducted with the Kim regime as it is. Securing a nuclear accord will only be made more difficult if the U.S. spends time seeking changes in North Korea policy on important, but unconnected issues. Dispensing with measures that aggravate the DPRK’s sensibilities — such as sanctions against Kim Jong Un’s person that are in place due to the regime’s human rights record as opposed to its nuclear activity — might seem like a sell out. Yet it is worth recalling that the P5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran was only achieved by isolating the nuclear issue from other subjects, including Tehran’s support for terrorism, support for proxy wars against its neighbors, and refusal to recognize Israel.

Lastly, the task force participants advocate for maintaining the core of the approach that defines current U.S. policy, which is to increase pressure incrementally in response to North Korean nuclear advances. Punitive measures that are “carefully and deliberately sequenced to calibrate pressure on North Korea,” can, they argue, “credibly signal to Pyongyang that the United States and its allies will continually increase pressure until serious talks resume.” This assumes that North Korea has somehow failed to grasp that sanctions being levied against it are a response to its nuclear efforts. It evades acknowledging the emergent reality: that North Korea is intent on securing a nuclear arsenal capable of striking U.S. allies and the American mainland, and has adjudged the economic costs to be a price worth paying in order to do so.

In short, while the Nunn-Mullen task force flirts with abandoning orthodoxy, it maintains too much of the status quo to offer a basis for arresting North Korea’s rapid strides. The next administration should adopt some of its more useful insights, yet it should set out a bolder diplomatic strategy than the one provided by the CFR task force, in recognition of the fact that current policy is failing. Pyongyang’s rapid progress towards acquiring a sophisticated nuclear arsenal will not be averted by the gradual ratcheting-up of economic pressure, and it will not willingly return to the negotiating table before it has achieved its goal of acquiring a nuclear arsenal capable of striking the continental United States.

For a start, the United States and its partners should cease efforts to calibrate proportional responses to North Korean nuclear activity, in the hope of using sanctions as a means of signaling to Pyongyang. Instead, they should shift to a model of pressure that seeks to enact as much economic pain as possible, in hopes of driving the Kim regime back to the negotiating table. Likewise, the temptation to pursue a negotiated solution through incremental diplomatic progress — something that offers the DPRK the ability to secure concessions without curtailing its nuclear work — should be avoided. The next administration should make it crystal clear to Pyongyang that its only hope of unwinding economic restrictions is through nuclear concessions, and that making progress on other issues, no matter how important — including improvements in human rights — will not be enough.

This approach will require an acknowledgement that the Kim regime is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, the U.S. should avoid measures that target the regime but which have no material effect on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. For instance, suspension of the North’s UN credentials should be considered, but rejected if it fails to meet this threshold.

An acknowledgement of this kind would address unease in Beijing. It should be combined with the task force’s recommendation that U.S. force levels be raised with Chinese officials, but on the basis that such changes would result from a successful nuclear agreement, as opposed to reunification. Collectively, this approach offers the best chances of securing Beijing’s support for additional economic pressure.

Lastly, the next administration should re-evaluate whether Complete Verifiable and Irreversible Disarmament (CVID) remains a viable goal given the strides the DPRK has made over the last few years. Securing an agreement with the North may require accepting an outcome that freezes the DPRK’s nuclear and missile capacity in place, or at best, results in a limited reversal. Washington should begin to think through its red-lines ahead of time, so that it is better prepared for negotiations if and when the come to the table.

None of these steps offers a surefire route to a negotiated agreement on the North’s nuclear program. What they do offer is a means by which the prospect for such an agreement can be maximized through the elimination of tangential efforts that detract from that goal, and mixed messages which confuse international partners

Timothy Stafford is a Research Fellow with Pacific Forum – CSIS.