Thwarting North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes defense detachments in May 2017. (Photo: KCNA/via Reuters)
Washington must push Pyongyang to the brink of collapse.

During his trip to Asia, President Trump spoke before the South Korean parliament to celebrate the strength of the U.S.–South Korea alliance and deliver a strong challenge to the North. Pyongyang, Trump said, should stop its aggression, halt its development of ballistic missiles, and allow “complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.” This clear and commendable objective must be the basis of his administration’s efforts in the future.

Unfortunately, the importance of the president’s remarks was undermined by news that the administration is preparing to engage in new negotiations with Pyongyang. Joseph Yun, the State Department’s top official on North Korea policy, reportedly said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that “if North Korea halted nuclear and missile testing for about 60 days, that would be the signal the United States needs to resume direct dialogue with Pyongyang.” However, there is little indication that Kim Jong-un will take the offer. South Korean intelligence fears that the North will conduct further long-range-missile tests later this year.

For the past 25 years, American presidents of both parties have tried to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize with a series of incentives and agreements, only to have the North abandon them. The regime has refused to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons because it views them as the essential means for its survival. Indeed, North Korea’s goals are to threaten and blackmail the region, expel American troops from South Korea, break the U.S.–South Korea alliance, and then forcefully reunify the peninsula on Pyongyang’s terms. In this light, there is little that the United States can offer that would convince the North to abandon its strategic ambitions.

Concerted Pressure Against Pyongyang

The only way North Korea will denuclearize is if its leaders face a choice between abandoning their arsenal and the end of their regime. Instead of embarking on another ill-fated diplomatic endeavor, Mr. Trump must coordinate a comprehensive campaign of economic, political, and military pressure to compel North Korea to renounce its nuclear arsenal. In truth, there is no qualitative difference between a campaign of this nature and one directed at ending the Kim regime. At every step, Washington should work to push Pyongyang to the brink of collapse and demonstrate that the U.S. will tolerate any risks associated with doing so. The president’s decision to put Pyongyang back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list is an important first step, but much more needs to be done. 

As Senator Cory Gardner (R., Colo.) reported in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, North Korea remains relatively under-sanctioned compared with other countries that threaten the U.S. The 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act targeted the regime’s proliferation activities, human-rights violations, and cyberwarfare, increasing the overall financial pressure on Pyongyang by 150 percent. Even so, Gardner said, “North Korea is today still only the fourth most-sanctioned country by the United States.”  

One key focus of pressure will be the Chinese entities that engage in illicit financial transactions with the North. Gardner noted that from 2009 to 2017, “North Korea used Chinese banks to process at least $2.2 billion in transactions through the U.S. financial system.” As many as 5,000 Chinese companies do business with North Korea overall, and these transactions are responsible for as much as $7 billion in trade. However, a mere ten of those companies accounted for 30 percent of Chinese exports to North Korea in 2016. One company controlled nearly 10 percent of total imports from North Korea. If the United States is to compel North Korea to denuclearize, then these institutions — big and small — must be dealt with.

Bolstering Deterrence and Defense

In addition, as Pyongyang conducts more nuclear tests and missile launches, the United States should not neglect the vital importance of deterrence. Kelly Magsamen, a senior Defense Department official from the Obama administration, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we need to substantially accelerate improvements in the defenses of our allies as well as our homeland.” This means furthering trilateral military cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan, as well as helping to bolster South Korea’s and Japan’s missile-defense capabilities.

Another vital step will be to increase the number of ground-based missile-defense interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and California. At the end of this year, only 44 GBIs will be in place to defend America against the North. In the worst case, the U.S-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University estimates, Pyongyang may have enough material for as many as 100 nuclear weapons by the end of this decade. It is worrisome that, as Michaela Dodge from the Heritage Foundation warns, “Current interceptor inventory plans . . . do not support [sustaining 44 interceptors] past 2018, leaving the impression that the ballistic missile threat will diminish by then.” If the United States is to remain ahead of North Korea’s capabilities, it will need to substantially increase the quantity and quality of its interceptors.

The United States must not only be able to thwart the regime’s strategic ambitions but also lay the foundation for its demise.

Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International studies recommends further action to bolster America’s missile-defense posture in the Pacific as well, including accelerating the modernization of the Patriot batteries against short-range threats, deploying addition THAAD batteries to combat regional threats, and adapting Israel’s Iron Dome defense system to combat North Korean artillery systems that are aimed at Seoul. The Trump administration has also recently requested $4 billion to improve America’s ability to disrupt North Korea’s missile launches with cyberwarfare or destroy the missiles shortly after launch with fighter jets and drone aircraft. In the face of this growing threat, Congress would do well to approve the president’s request.

The Trump administration is conducting reviews on the future of its strategic forces and missile-defense posture. These reviews must clearly and comprehensively detail Pyongyang’s current and likely future capabilities. Moving forward, the United States must not only be able to thwart the regime’s strategic ambitions but also lay the foundation for its demise. Only then will be the world truly be free from the North’s nuclear threat.


Donald Trump on North Korea: A Good Job

To Neutralize the North Korean Threat, America Must Understand the Regime

What Kind of War Is Trump Threatening with North Korea?

— Evan Moore is a foreign-policy analyst based in Washington, D.C.

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