National Security & Defense

The U.S. Must Rethink Its Approach to North Korea before It’s Too Late

A North Korean Hwasong-14 ICBM launches in an undated photo released July 29. (KSNA/via Reuters)
As the threat posed by Pyongyang grows daily, it’s time for America to abandon the failed tactics of the past in favor of a comprehensive strategy.

In response to the U.N. Security Council’s adoption of another resolution imposing tough new sanctions on North Korea for its recent missile launches, Pyongyang has taken several provocative actions. It has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States and our allies; rejected the U.S. call earlier this week for negotiations to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula; and vowed to push forward with its nuclear and missile programs, including its ICBM program, which will place American cities within range of its nuclear-tipped missiles. While Pyongyang has responded to previous sanctions resolutions with the same vitriolic threats, the present level of tension is considered by many to be much higher than before, raising the crisis to the brink of conflict.

The U.S. response has been most clearly conveyed by President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson. The president hailed the latest sanctions resolution as a major foreign-policy success, one that will deprive Kim Jong-un’s regime of perhaps one-third of the hard-currency earnings that have long been considered essential to securing the loyalty of his supporters among the North’s military and party elites. In addition, the president has issued his own stern warning to Pyongyang that further threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Secretary of State Tillerson has applauded the Security Council for acting unanimously, noting that the sanctions resolution was passed with Chinese and Russian approval. He has publicly emphasized the need for full implementation of the resolution, calling on Beijing to implement all U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea to date, in recognition that China has undermined the effects of previous Security Council resolutions. At the same time, he has renewed the call for a diplomatic solution and the resumption of negotiations once the North acts to indicate a willingness to pull back on its nuclear and missile programs. To encourage the North, and in classic State Department style, he declared that the U.S. does not seek regime change, effectively making a major unilateral concession even before the negotiations have begun.

While the rhetoric may be harsher than in the past, especially on the U.S. side, the actions taken by both Pyongyang and Washington have been entirely predictable. For over 20 years, the pattern has been one of provocation by the North, followed by international condemnation, more U.N. sanctions, pleas for the Chinese to put more pressure on Pyongyang, and calls for negotiations and diplomacy, often with inducements to bring the North to the table.

At times, such as the aftermath of the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, the U.S. has established “red lines.” In every such case, North Korea has crossed those lines, as it did with its assistance to Syria in building the al-Kabir nuclear reactor later destroyed not by the United States but by Israel. President Trump’s remarks, if taken literally, create yet another red line: a declaration that further threats will be met with a full-scale military response. If so, it will almost certainly fail as every other American ultimatum to Pyongyang failed in the past. Red lines are effective only if they are credible, and failure to enforce them can be costly.

This current crisis, however, could mark the end of the pattern, which has rewarded North Korea in the past with economic prizes (including fuel and food) and, even more important, with time to advance its nuclear and missile programs. Today, the North is on the verge of deploying nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles, a capability that the Kims have long sought to ensure the survival of their regime. With missiles able to hold American cities hostage to destruction, Pyongyang may feel it can deter the United Sates not just from attacking the North but from coming to the assistance of its most crucial regional allies, South Korea and Japan, if the North should attack either of them. Threatening American cities could perhaps also be a means to forestall a U.S. nuclear response to the North’s large-scale use of chemical and biological weapons, which North Korean planners may believe are necessary to achieve military victory on the Peninsula.

The responses of the Trump administration — sanctions, pressuring China, and calling for negotiations — have failed in every past administration to change Pyongyang’s behavior.

The responses of the Trump administration — sanctions, pressuring China, and calling for negotiations — have failed in every past administration to change Pyongyang’s behavior. And despite the high-fiving over the latest Security Council resolution, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be different this time. Given the failures of the past and the nature of the threat now posed by North Korea, it is dangerously delusional to think that sanctions will stop Kim Jung Un from continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and missile force. It is equally delusional to think that President Xi will sever the lifeline China provides to the North, given Beijing’s broader regional ambitions and its concerns over a unified Korea allied with the United States. And those who think that North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear and missile capabilities are simply indulging a fantasy.

Sanctions and diplomacy, while important tools, are no substitute for a focused, effective, comprehensive strategy. The preemptive use of armed force — often suggested as the only alternative to continuing the failed diplomatic approach of the past — doesn’t constitute such a strategy either. It is, rather, an option that carries a high risk of escalation and the potential for catastrophic loss of life.

Staying on the current course will, at best, lead only to the next crisis. But the next crisis may be much different, and even more dangerous, as Pyongyang may soon possess nuclear-armed ICBMs. Notwithstanding the president’s comment that “it won’t happen,” the urgency of the threat became even more apparent this week with reports that the intelligence community now believes the North has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile. Once the warhead is deployed on an ICBM-class missile, Pyongyang may be sufficiently emboldened to resort to the use of armed force, setting the stage for full-scale war.

In an NRO article early last month, I argued that to avoid this outcome, the U.S. must fundamentally change its approach to North Korea. What is urgently required is a comprehensive strategy that directs all the tools of statecraft — diplomacy, economic sanctions, intelligence gathering, and military force — not at denuclearization but at containment and regime change from within. For it is only regime change that will bring an end to the North Korean threat.

While arms control was an important component of U.S. strategy during the Cold War, the central focus was on containment of the Soviet Union until it dissolved from its own internal weaknesses and contradictions. By any standard, North Korea is not the Soviet Union. It is even more vulnerable and less stable. But until the Kim regime falls, the North will remain a dangerous enemy that needs to be treated as such. This will require skilled diplomacy, careful alliance management, robust efforts to highlight the brutality and gross human-rights violations of the regime, conventional defensive and nuclear-deterrent capabilities that the North will know not to challenge, and the deployment of truly effective missile defenses to protect American cities if deterrence fails.


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