By Dan Blumenthal

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as a nuclear weapons-armed state, is a threat to U.S. forces in Asia and allies South Korea and Japan, as well as a growing threat to the U.S. homeland. Its proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to rogue regimes poses an even broader threat to international security.

In October 2006, 12 years after President Bill Clinton signed a nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea (the Agreed Framework), Pyongyang conducted its first successful nuclear weapons test. Since then, the regime has conducted two additional underground tests, in 2009 and 2013. The expert consensus is that North Korea now possesses approximately six to eight plutonium nuclear weapons and 4-8 uranium nuclear weapons. It is on a pathway toward doubling, or even quadrupling, that number by 2020. North Korea has improved its delivery systems as well. It is likely capable of mounting its nuclear weapons onto missiles and is working on miniaturization, as it aspires to place warheads on Nodong missiles (capable of striking South Korea or Japan) and Taepodong intercontinental ballistic missiles (capable of striking the United States). The DPRK also seeks to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles to provide it with a survivable nuclear deterrent.

The DPRK proliferates its nuclear technology as a means of generating revenue for the Kim regime. Even as it engaged in multilateral diplomacy, North Korea transferred nuclear technology to Syria, leading to an Israeli airstrike on that country's facility in September 2007. More recently, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated that North Korea and Iran “could be” cooperating to develop a nuclear weapon.[38] The two nations continue their ballistic missile cooperation.

North Korea’s million-man military poses a persistent threat to Seoul. Its special forces can penetrate deep into the South Korean countryside and it has stationed 70 percent of its ground forces and 50 percent of its air and naval forces within 100 kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), ready to inflict destruction upon the South Korean capital. As the regime of Kim Jong-Un has built up its nuclear arsenal, it has grown bolder in using conventional military capabilities. In recent years, North Korea has killed South Korean soldiers, sailors, and civilians. In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Then in November 2010, North Korean artillery shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing South Korean marines and civilians. The North Korean threat ties South Korea down, draining its diplomatic energy and resources and hindering its aspirations to become a truly regional security player.

With nuclear weapons and a Chinese patron all but held hostage by uncertainty, the North Korean regime seems to be less concerned about U.S. or allied responses to its provocations. It poses a problem for which we do not have a good solution. This reality demands first a review of how we got to the current situation, and second a reassessment of the U.S. approach to North Korea.

Since the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-94, every U.S. President has rejected strategies of both rollback and accommodation with North Korea. Instead they have chosen a combination of engagement and containment: The much-maligned term “congagement” is nevertheless the workhorse of U.S. statecraft in Asia. In the North Korean case, it means that successive Presidents have sought to contain the threat of a nuclear North Korea by deterring it from attacking neighbors and by weakening it through sanctions while, at the same time, they have tried to entice the regime to give up its nuclear weapons program and join the international political-economic system. 

The U.S. government allowed policy toward North Korea to be subsumed by a Sinocentric policy of encouraging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs.

President Clinton signed the 1994 Agreed Framework in which Pyongyang pledged to dismantle its plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon in exchange for up to $4.5 billion in aid, assistance in building two civilian nuclear reactors, and potential entry into the World Bank and IMF.[39] North Korea showed little intention to abide by the agreement and took advantage of its many holes, including its failure to address ballistic missile production. In May 1998, the DPRK publicly announced that it would abandon the agreement and soon thereafter launched a missile over Japan, forcing yet another diplomatic process to deal with its missiles.

President Clinton also contained the threat by keeping a large forward-deployed force in Korea and Japan despite post-Cold War calls to bring troops home. He began upgrading the capabilities of the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances. In 1997, the United States and Japan revised their defense alliance, allowing Tokyo to conduct operations in “surrounding areas,” including assistance to U.S. forces in South Korea during a crisis. Between 1995 and 1998, the Clinton Administration sold $504 million of defense hardware to the ROK.

President Clinton thus set the U.S. government on the path of congagement: direct talks with North Korea in the context of the Agreed Framework and stronger defense arrangements with Japan and South Korea. But North Korea had been cheating during that period by developing a highly enriched uranium program (HEU). When this cheating was revealed by U.S. intelligence efforts, President Bush sent Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley to Pyongyang in September 2002, with evidence in hand, to demand that the DPRK account for all of its nuclear activities. When confronted with its violations of the Agreed Framework, the DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003 and reactivated the Yongbyon facility.

But the Bush Administration did not abandon the congagement framework; it only adjusted it with the goal of achieving a complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korean nuclear programs. The Bush team instituted a tactical change in its engagement strategy: Bush wanted China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to be equally invested in the negotiations with Pyongyang and thus convened the Six-Party Talks with those parties and the DPRK. By doing so, however, the U.S. government allowed policy toward North Korea to be subsumed by a Sinocentric policy of encouraging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. The talks became as much about finding ways to cooperate with China as about denuclearizing North Korea. Thus, China could set the pace and adjust the goals of the negotiations, confident that Washington placed a high priority on remaining in concert with Beijing.

The Bush Administration also bolstered containment by weakening and isolating the Kim regime. Diplomatic innovations such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Illicit Activities Initiative coerced and pressured Kim, and cut off his personal wealth. The U.S. government sanctioned his assets at the Banco Delta Asia in Macau and rolled up the international criminal networks upon which the regime relied for its survival. But at the same time the Bush Administration reduced U.S. troop levels in Korea and pulled back from the DMZ, partly to meet force requirements in the Middle East and partly in response to ROK desires for more independence. Washington agreed to hand over operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces to the Koreans. Yet Bush also strengthened deterrence through missile defense cooperation with both the Japanese and the Koreans.

In 2003, the Pentagon released OPLAN 5027-04, a policy document that established ground and sea-based missile defense systems as the centerpiece of U.S. extended deterrence in northeast Asia. In May 2004, Japan purchased ship-based missiles for its Aegis destroyers and new PAC-3 interceptors from the U.S. Tokyo and Washington also integrated their missile defense programs.

The U.S. government has learned the humbling lesson that short of high-risk uses of force, there is little it can do to stop regimes hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

As containment was bolstered, talks continued. In 2005, North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and return to the NPT. In exchange, the Six Party members agreed to provide energy assistance and respect North Korea’s right to a civilian nuclear program. What North Korea really wanted was to gain acceptance as a nuclear weapons state. In 2006, after the energy assistance had been received, the regime test-launched a Taepodong-2 ICBM and conducted a nuclear weapons test.

With this, the Bush Administration changed tack. But instead of strengthening its containment tools, Washington eased the pressure and emphasized the engagement prong of its strategy. In February 2007, the Six Party members reached an agreement whereby North Korea would freeze its nuclear activities and disable all nuclear facilities. Even absent North Korean progress, Washington lifted the Banco Delta Asia sanctions and removed the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, the Bush Administration believed that the right inducements could still persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.  

President Obama came into office offering the DPRK an “outstretched hand,” which the DPRK bit hard. It refused to continue the Six-Party Talks and attacked the South Koreans. Obama’s policy changed to “strategic patience”—which amounts to a de facto containment-only strategy. As part of that strategy, President Obama enacted unilateral sanctions targeting North Korean entities. He also secured UN sanctions in 2009 (Security Council Resolution 1874) and 2013 (Security Council Resolution 2094), in response to North Korea’s second and third nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors, has tried to bolster U.S.-ROK deterrence. In May 2013, B-52 and B-2 bombers participated in joint training exercises with South Korea after a period of bellicose rhetoric from the DPRK. The U.S. and South Korean governments have both committed to improving their respective ballistic missile defense systems and integrating them. The ROK has also agreed to purchase 40 F-35 fighters and four RQ-4 “Global Hawk” surveillance drones.

While the congagement of North Korea has utterly failed to stop North Korea from acquiring and testing its strategic forces or from proliferating, it has managed to deter a nuclear attack and limit conventional attacks on South Korea. The U.S. government has learned the humbling lesson, that short of high-risk uses of force, there is little it can do to stop regimes hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. This suggests that, on balance, North Korea’s strategy in recent years has proven successful. In the words of Victor Cha, “three decades of U.S. negotiations… have provided the North with $1.28 billion in benefits, and in return (the United States and allies) received two nuclear tests and thirty ballistic and cruise missile tests.”[40]

Given the failure of U.S. strategy to date, the next President should conduct a senior-level policy reassessment as soon as its principals have been selected, sworn in, and taken office. The first step in such a reassessment must be the clear-eyed acceptance of the U.S. failure in strategic conception: The Kim family cannot be persuaded or otherwise induced to abandon its nuclear program. The regime views nuclear weapons as the key to its survival, both as insurance against U.S.-led regime change and as a means to extort resources for its failed economy.

Washington must also accept that, absent a change in its risk calculus, the People’s Republic of China will continue to support the Kim regime. Chinese leaders seem still to prefer the trouble and expense caused by the current North Korean regime to the uncertainties of its collapse, and especially the possibility of a unified Korea under a democratic regime, with or without nuclear weapons, and with or without a treaty arrangement with the United States. Years of U.S. diplomatic efforts appear to have mellowed Chinese thinking somewhat, but to have changed its policy conclusions not at all.

the U.S. government must lead an effort to squeeze North Korea’s misbegotten revenues and bring to bear the kind of crippling sanctions inflicted on Iran. 

So what is to be done? The truth is that a President’s strategic options against North Korea are limited to some mix of accommodation, engagement, containment, or rollback. Accommodation, engagement, and containment have all been attempted, while rollback has been rejected as too dangerous. In the short to medium term, containment—with deterrence and the weakening of the Kim regime as its essential elementsis probably the only prudent course. Over the longer term, as South Korean leaders such as President Park Geun-hye develop a concrete geopolitical program for a unified, free Korea, U.S. statesmen may be in a position to explore rollback through unification. Short-term containment and long-term unification are, taken together, the best of a range of unsatisfying choices available to the next President. This approach to North Korea should be complemented by a renewed focus on human rights. That focus could achieve an improvement in the conditions under which North Koreans live, possibly provide some with means of escape from Kim’s tyranny, as well as delegitimize Kim’s rule.

A new U.S. strategy of containment, with the long-term goal of unification, should be guided by the following principles. First, Washington’s approach to North Korea should fit into a larger strategy that maintains the United States as the most powerful and influential geopolitical player in Asia, enabling Washington to shape the region consistent with its interests and principles. Second, the U.S. government should be open to diplomatic engagement with North Korea if there is a true moderation in leadership in Pyongyang that could lead to a dismantling of nuclear weapons, or at least to prevent a crisis from escalating. Third, while the nuclear threat is paramount, the U.S. government cannot abandon its commitment to the betterment of the lives of North Koreans.

More specifically, that means that the U.S. government must lead an effort to squeeze North Korea’s misbegotten revenues and bring to bear the kind of crippling sanctions inflicted on Iran. A key component of a robust containment policy is to weaken the Kim family, which relies upon a global network of front companies to conduct its illicit business activities. A recent Financial Times report underscored the nature of the Kim family’s business syndicate, and several North Korean state businesses remain for the U.S. government to target.[41] 

The next Administration should squeeze these networks wherever they may lead, including China. Beijing continues to be North Korea's most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. China accounts for about 80 percent of North Korea’s imported consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. In 2013, trade between the two countries grew by more than 10 percent from 2012 levels to about $6.5 billion. China is moving decisively to control North Korean mineral resources and companies. As much as 41 percent of Chinese joint ventures in the DPRK are concerned with extractive industries.

To be sure, China is irritated with Pyongyang. It responded to the DPRK’s nuclear provocation in 2006 by temporarily freezing development projects in North Korea, delaying aid shipments, issuing a harsh statement of criticism, canceling a large-scale trade summit, and supporting the UN Security Council resolutions. Every time the DPRK stimulates a crisis for purposes of extortion, extra U.S. forces flow into the Western Pacific, something clearly not appreciated in Beijing. But the economic numbers tell a fuller story and underscore that China’s overriding strategic concern is to prevent regime collapse while also stabilizing the provincial economies of Jilin and Liaoning that lie adjacent to the Chinese-DPRK border, where some two million ethnic Koreans live. For U.S. containment policy to work, China’s central Communist Party organs and government officials must see North Korea as a liability rather than a boon to these provincial governments. 

A renewed policy of crippling sanctions and tracking laundered DPRK money wherever it may lead could pose serious risks to the Chinese banking system, thus providing an incentive for China to pressure North Korea.

A more robust containment strategy also requires bolstering extended deterrence over South Korea. After the Cheonan attack, the ROK released Defense Reformation Plan 307 that outlined a new doctrine of "Proactive Deterrence," according to which the ROK will carry out proportional retaliation against North Korea’s conventional attacks. The U.S. government should continue its frequent military exercises with the ROK, which are some of the largest that the U.S. military conducts worldwide. It should not shy away from exercising in the Yellow Sea near the coast of China, to remind China that North Korea is a net liability. 

The sine qua non of deterrence is convincing Pyongyang that the United States has overwhelming conventional and nuclear power and is willing to use it to defend its interests.

The U.S.-ROK Extended Deterrence Policy Committee (EDPC), which mirrors the formal structure for nuclear consultations within NATO, should consider the possibility of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea or developing a “nuclear sharing” program, like that of NATO. Enhanced containment also requires a trilateral security arrangement among the ROK, Japan, and the United States that would make deterrence more credible. Unfortunately, South Korean-Japanese relations require sustained mending before that trilateral arrangement can take solid shape.

The bottom line for extended deterrence is to rebuild U.S. defenses and nuclear infrastructure along the lines set forth in chapters 3.2 and 7.3. The sine qua non of deterrence is convincing Pyongyang that the United States has overwhelming conventional and nuclear power and is willing to use it to defend its interests. Its ability to provide a credible deterrent is waning under current defense budget trends and the deterioration of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure.

A stronger containment strategy should be complemented by a renewed focus on human rights in North Korea. The Bush Administration’s human rights policy should be renewed and expanded: Bush pressured Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo into accepting North Korean refugees, expedited family reunifications, and found new avenues for international aid distribution in North Korea and for providing North Koreans with access to basic news and information. In this latter domain, technology has significantly advanced in recent years, opening up new options that did not exist during the Bush Administration.

Ultimately, the optimal policy to both improve the lot of North Koreans and rollback Kim’s nuclear weapons program is through unification under ROK rule. President Park Geun-hye has moved preparation for reunification to the center of her DPRK policy. The U.S. government should work with the South Korean leadership on its plans, and coordinate planning among interested parties, including Japan, as well as international humanitarian and development organizations. The next Administration should engage in private diplomacy with Beijing on unification to overcome the kind of active resistance that could lead to great power conflict on the peninsula. High-level diplomacy with Beijing should aim to persuade it that the U.S. government and those of its allies are moving decisively toward long-term unification, and to provide an opening for China to be at the table for discussions about Korea’s future.

(38) Paul K. Kerr, Steven A. Hildreth, and Mary Beth D. Nikitin, “Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation,” Congressional Research Service, May 11, 2015.

(39) Taehyung Ahn, “Patience or Lethargy?: U.S. Policy toward North Korea under the Obama Administration,” North Korean Review, 8:1 (Spring 2012), p. 74. 

(40) Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future (Ecco Press, 2012), p. 456.

(41) Tom Burgis, “North Korea: The secrets of Office 39,” Financial Times, June 24, 2015. According to the FT, the regime’s illicit operations are directed by a secretive government organization known as “Office 39,” which forms joint ventures with international business conglomerates. The Hong Kong-based Queensway Group, with ties to Chinese intelligence, is one of the regime’s largest business partners. It is a global operation with identifiable leaders and investments that the U.S. government can take down.