Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Washington Must Rethink Policy on North Korea
Washington Must Rethink Policy on North Korea

Washington Must Rethink Policy on North Korea

(Source: 대한민국 청와대)

This article draws on information from two reports published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute on the current crisis on the Korea peninsula. It is part of a larger project evaluating the current state of U.S.-North Korea and Russia-North Korea relations as well as other key actors in the region. You can read the two reports by clicking on their titles: Russia and Crisis Management on the Korean Peninsula and Nuclear Weapons And Russian-North Korean Relations.

Nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them are central to Pyongyang’s deterrence strategy, the principal aim of which is to forestall an attack on the North Korean homeland by the United States. It should come as no surprise that U.S. policy has definitively failed to halt North Korea’s advances in the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which have crossed an ominous new threshold in the past year. These advances are epitomized by what was apparently the test of a hydrogen bomb and the test-firing of 23 missiles in 2017, among them a potential intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) theoretically capable of reaching any part of the continental United States. In this connection, Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s Day speech threatened to start mass-producing nuclear weapons and missiles as “a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action,”[1] which in translation means widening potential coverage of U.S. targets by the North’s missiles. It seems simply a matter of time before Pyongyang is capable of mounting nuclear warheads on ICBMs aimed at major U.S. targets such as New York City and Washington, D.C. Unsurprisingly, these qualitatively new threats have aroused considerable concern in Washington. In response, the United States has deployed massive military assets to the region—aircraft carriers, nuclear capable bombers, stealth jet fighters, and even a nuclear submarine—possibly increasing the risk of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, and in Northeast Asia more broadly.

The Failed American Approach

The U.S. approach to North Korea has relied on economic coercion as a policy tool, aimed at crimping Pyongyang’s export revenues and WMD procurement operations. The hope is that Pyongyang would see the error of its ways, come to the bargaining table, and agree to relinquish or at least significantly reduce its nuclear weapons assets. Successive rounds of UN sanctions have caused some economic pain, but haven’t appreciably affected Pyongyang’s nuclear policy choices or behavior. A related strand of U.S. policy, attempts to use Beijing—North Korea’s neighbor—to pressure the North have repeatedly been disappointing, despite China’s formal support for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.

Several factors explain the failure of U.S. and international sanctions policies. One is that the North is well-versed in ways to circumvent sanctions, from the use of shell companies and foreign-flagged vessels to outsourcing to China as well as overtly criminal operations, such as drugs, counterfeiting, and digital hijacking of bank accounts. Digital crimes bring the North an estimated $1 billion per year, enough to offset the impact of UN sanctions on exports of its main commodities: coal, iron ore, and fish products. Contributing to the success of Pyongyang’s evasions is the reality that most UN member states couldn’t care less about the North’s nuclear transgressions, or they benefit from Pyongyang’s illegal procurement or sales activities, or they have vested interests in keeping the Kim regime afloat economically. Recent news reports that Russia and China abet or deliberately ignore smuggling of fuel products to North Korea in violation of UN sanctions epitomize this calculus. According to a UN panel of experts report, North Korea was able to export $200 million in coal and other prohibited commodities during 2017, mostly to China, Russia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Also important in countering the effects of international sanctions are North Korea’s domestic economic policies, notably reforms in agricultural and industrial management designed to spur productivity and growth and (most significantly) the expansion of free markets in Pyongyang and other cities. A consumerist culture is taking shape in Pyongyang, as evidenced by numbers of cars, traffic jams, a Western-style shopping complex, pizza parlors, travel agencies, and other accoutrements of modernity. The message here is that living standards are increasing despite North Korea’s increasing isolation from the international economy.

An essential aspect of Washington’s economic coercion strategy has been the effort to enlist China in a diplomatic effort to get the North to abandon its nuclear-missile programs. The U.S. has long been fixated on China as its primary collaborator in resolving the Korean nuclear issue, and other regional players, such as Russia, have not figured importantly in the U.S. North Korea strategy. China has massive economic leverage (it accounts for some 80 to 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade), yet it has begrudgingly and reluctantly partnered in international sanctions against the North. China continues to help the North with purchases of coal and iron ore and supplies of vital fuel products, much to America’s chagrin.

Furthermore, China and the United States have completely different perceptions of the Kim regime. The United States would like to see the regime disappear, whereas China wants to prevent its collapse, fearing that this will usher in a U.S.-backed South Korean state on its doorstep and shift the Asian balance of power to Beijing’s disadvantage. Additionally, China doesn’t want a failed or failing nuclear state next door, fearing that conflict among competing nuclear-armed North Korean factions might spill over onto China.

The Prospect of Negotiations

Mindful that its past policies have failed to contain nuclear threat from Pyongyang, Washington, as of mid-2017, began to consider negotiations to contain and roll back the North’s WMD programs, even while maintaining and tightening international sanctions. Admittedly, Washington has blown hot and cold on the issue, but a shift in strategy is clearly evolving. President Donald Trump, who once told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October that talking to North Korea is a waste of time, said in November that it should “come to the table and make a deal.” Most recently, in January 2018, he made the comment in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un” (this after months of exchanging insults with the Korean leader)—which may signify the beginning of a new U.S. outreach effort. At the Winter Olympics in February, administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, expressed readiness to engage in preliminary talks with Pyongyang. However, a positive response from the North has not been forthcoming.[2]

The initial challenge of a diplomatic approach is getting Pyongyang’s leaders to come to the proverbial bargaining table. Given the deep animosity in U.S.-North Korean relations, the North might not want to talk to us directly. There may be a useful mediating role here for Moscow. Russia’s historical ties to the DPRK and long experience dealing with the Kim dynasty translate into better government-to-government relations with Pyongyang than any other country of consequence, including China.[3] Indeed, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently offered to support and promote direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang on security guarantees of concern to the North Koreans (What Russia might want as a quid pro quo for its brokering services remains unstated at this point.). To be sure, the idea of Russian mediation is not exactly popular in Washington, and the Trump administration apparently contemplated using the “Olympic spirit” (the warm glow of Winter Olympics in South Korea, in which North Korea has decided to participate) as a bridge to open direct talks with North Korean officials. The hope was misplaced, however, because the North has stated categorically that it will not meet with the U.S. side during its attendance at the games.

The sticking point in negotiations, of course, would be the disposition of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. The West has very little leverage on Pyongyang’s nuclear decisions. Piling on more sanctions won’t change Pyongyang’s calculus very much—as Putin recently remarked, the North Koreans would sooner eat grass than abandon their nuclear weapons. Neither will bribes— lifting sanctions, infusions of foreign aid, normalized diplomatic relations, security, and so on—if the North is required to surrender its nuclear assets. The North trusts its nukes more than the West’s promises,—and they may well have a point.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated at an October 2017 news conference in Seoul that “I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States can accept North Korea as a nuclear power.” Would the United States accept a deal that falls short of all-out nuclear disarmament? And would Pyongyang agree to scale back its global nuclear ambitions, and no longer emphasize deterrence against the United States? How should the sides proceed to negotiate these vitally important issues?

What Would be Negotiated?

One frequently discussed option is to negotiate a moratorium or freeze on testing of nuclear weapons and land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Depending on the terms negotiated, it could practically eliminate long-range missile threats to the U.S. mainland, U.S. Pacific possessions, and Japan. In a Russian-Chinese version of this proposal, the U.S. and South Korea would refrain from large-scale military exercises directed against the North. Other concessions might also be considered, such as removing B1-B bombers and a couple of aircraft carriers from the region. The “double freeze” concept might provide momentum for more far-reaching denuclearization steps, such as negotiating a verifiable cap on the North’s production of nuclear weapons materials, which would mean shuttering facilitates for production of plutonium and placing controls on uranium enrichment to prevent production of highly enriched uranium. It would also require the presence of international inspectors inside the North’s nuclear establishment, a more complex negotiating challenge than just a testing freeze.[4]

Such steps would leave North Korea as a de facto nuclear state, but a less threatening one—it would be allowed to keep at least some of its nuclear devices, but not continue to develop its missile delivery systems. This, of course, doesn’t rule out less efficient and more primitive means of delivery, such as air drops, submarines, or using an entire ship, armed with nuclear explosives, for a suicide attack. Additionally, a diminished nuclear profile and war-fighting capability would still harbor the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to outside states and groups, especially if Western sanctions policies continued to squeeze Pyongyang economically.

For these and other reasons, proposed caps on the North’s weapons and its ICBM capability must be regarded as interim solutions to the current nuclear crisis. As the United States and the primary regional powers (Russia and China) push for full-scale nuclear disarmament of North Korea, accomplishing the objective of a final settlement will require coordinated diplomacy of the powers, a common negotiating strategy plus considerable patience and strength of will. The prospects for any successful deal with the North have not improved with time. It would have been better to negotiate with the North six years ago when Kim ascended to power rather than today with the regime flush with the successes of its nuclear weapons and missile programs. This means that the North will demand a high price in economic benefits, diplomatic privileges, and security assurances in return for giving up some or all its nukes—a promise of tough negotiations ahead.


[1] Kim’s New Year’s Speech (www.nocutnews.co.kr/news/490042) Translated by Heejae Park

[2] There is late word that the North Koreans cancelled a “secret meeting” with Pence that had been set up for February 10. The meeting would have taken place in South Korea’s Blue House—presidential palace. The meeting was almost certainly arranged on South Korea’s initiative. Pence’s announcement of new sanctions against the North plus his harsh criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses are cited as reasons why Pyongyang  backed away from the meeting. See, Ashley Parker,  “N Koreans, Pence, were to have met in S. Korea,”  The Washington Post, February 21, 2018, pp. A1, A4.

[3] Yet, for the North Korean man in the street, preferences are quite different. According to a recent survey of 138 recent defectors from the North conducted by Seoul National University, China is overwhelmingly the favorite country, with 83 percent of the male and 72.9 percent of the female respondents responding so. South Korea ranked second after China with 13.2 and 17.6 percent, respectively. For Russia, the corresponding figures were 3.8 and 8.2 percent. Other countries in the questionnaire, the U.S. and Japan, received virtually no favorable rating.

[4] It is true that South Africa shut down its nuclear program in the 1980s without external verification, but the political-military context was completely different from North Korea today—a belligerent state with many more nuclear weapons than South Africa had.

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