Time to Lose Your Illusions on North Korea


In launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, North Korea has done what many experts said must not occur, and what President Donald Trump said would not happen. Pyongyang now possesses the theoretical capacity to hit Alaska. It also claims to have successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads for use on an ICBM, though the U.S. government has not verified this, at least publicly. Whatever the precise status of North Korea’s programs, it’s very likely that Kim Jong Un will soon be able to hit the continental United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. The ball is in Washington’s court to devise a response.

The unveiling of this new ICBM should inject a dose of realism into its North Korea policy. Too often, U.S. policy has aimed at attractive but unattainable objectives, and sought them through unrealistic means. The United States should respond to North Korea’s ICBM launch with a series of tough measures based on the actual, prevailing dynamics of power on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia. This requires dropping a few illusions.

Illusion #1: China Will Fix It

To its credit, the Trump administration seems to have finally abandoned the notion that Beijing will pressure Pyongyang into denuclearization. China’s trade with North Korea in the first quarter this year went up rather than down, and even its highly-touted suspension of coal imports proved less than meets the eye. Expect Beijing in coming days to embrace U.S. criticism of North Korea and possibly even formal responses, such as U.N. sanctions, that leave the underlying realities unchanged.

China simply will not apply the kind of severe economic pressure to North Korea that might compel significant de-nuclearization or the dismantling of its missile programs. Such pressure would threaten to destabilize the Kim regime, and Beijing knows as well as anyone that the peninsula, if ever reunified, will only do so under Seoul’s auspices. Losing its buffer state and risking American troops stationed just across its border is an obvious Chinese red line. Indeed, China poured its own troops across the Yalu River the last time U.S. forces approached.

Illusion #2: America’s Asian Allies Can Tackle the Problem

The president tweeted after the July 4 missile test that it’s “hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer.” In fact, they have reluctantly put up with a direct North Korean threat to their countries for decades, and any nuclear-tipped ICBM would be aimed at the United States rather than them. When Pyongyang succeeds in its miniaturization efforts, it will be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to Japan and South Korea with its existing missile arsenal. In any case, there exists no way for Seoul or Tokyo to end Pyongyang’s missile or nuclear capabilities without unacceptable risk of disastrous retaliation.

Illusion #3: The Right Carrot/Stick Balance Will Bring Resolution

Many in Washington still seem to believe that a longstanding U.S. desideratum – North Korea’s full denuclearization, to which we can now add the elimination of its long-range missile capability – is attainable with the right mix of sticks and carrots. This belief rests on a misreading of the North’s longstanding pattern of behavior and its repeatedly stated intentions.

Confident of its ability to put down any domestic uprising through brutal force, Pyongyang fears only the intervention of outside actors. Threatening a nuclear response to any American or South Korean attempt to capitalize on domestic instability represents its irreducible security imperative. North Korean representatives have reportedly cited, in Track II dialogues, the fates of Muammar Gaddhafi and Saddam Hussein – each of whom abandoned weapons of mass destruction programs and met less-than-desirable ends.

The Kim regime thus considers nuclear weapons its fundamental security guarantee and will not be induced into trading them away. Nor will it give them up in response to economic pressure or military shows of resolve. While the public objective of U.S. policy will and should be full de-nuclearization, policymakers should privately acknowledge that the realistic goal is a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and, more ambitiously, some rollback of them.

Illusion #4: Military Force Can Fix It

Some observers still see a viable military path to eliminating North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. Yet, as numerous analysts have noted, Pyongyang maintains an arsenal of artillery, rockets and bio-chemical agents on its side of the de-militarized zone, well within striking distance of Seoul. A strike on facilities in the North risks a catastrophic attack on the South’s capital city and U.S. forces on the peninsula – with Japan also at risk in the bargain.

There is a two-stage military approach that could, theoretically, eliminate the North’s nuclear and missile sites. In this concept, the United States would strike only those sites (assuming all could be located) and would telegraph to Pyongyang the limited nature of its attack. Washington would further signal to the Kim regime that any retaliation – would lead to its forcible destruction. It is theoretically possible that the regime would passively absorb the attacks without striking South Korea or Japan, for fear of incurring a far broader American campaign aimed at ending the regime.

Such an approach, however, carries intolerable risk in light of the regime’s seemingly genuine paranoia about American regime change efforts. A message that the North should stand by and absorb surgical strikes on its nuclear deterrent might well be met with a catastrophic attack on the South and Japan. Indeed, Pyongyang may well interpret such an attack as the beginning of the war for which it has so long been prepared.

Strategy Sans Illusions

The casting aside of these four illusions leaves the United States with a policy built mainly around deterrence, which is premised on Pyongyang’s essential rationality – or at least its survival instinct. The available evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un and his lieutenants seek regime survival, and that their nuclear pursuits and extreme repression are aimed squarely at maintaining it. In this sense, they are likely more like the Soviets and Maoists than the Islamic State. Yet mutually assured destruction-type deterrence always represents a bet on the other side’s rational calculation of costs and benefits.

It’s also undesirable. Americans do not like Russian nuclear missiles pointed at the United States, but they tolerate it because it remains preferable to the alternatives. Moscow and Beijing understand that any nuclear attack on the United States or an ally would result in massive American retaliation. Adding a third country to that number is unpalatable. Yet deterrence will remain key to ensuring that North Korea’s actions represent provocations rather than direct aggression.

Beyond robust deterrence, other elements should comprise a more realistic approach to the North Korean threat.

The United States and its allies should take better steps to protect themselves, including deploying the four remaining THAAD elements in South Korea, perfecting ballistic missile defense in the United States, and deploying THAAD or Aegis Ashore batteries in Japan. While Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is likely defensive, the possibility that it is prelude to a war of aggression cannot be excluded. The United States must enhance its ability not to just deter North Korea from attacking in the first place, but protecting against any attacks that do occur and defeating its forces decisively.

To this end, policymakers should keep the threat of force publicly on the table, while privately acknowledging the serious downsides of its use. In the meantime, the United States should engage in covert activity, such as cyber sabotage, to set back North Korea’s weapons programs. And Washington and Seoul should reject out of hand the China-Russia “freeze for freeze” proposal under which North Korea would suspend its illegal missile tests in exchange for a cessation of legal U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Those exercises are key to keeping both militaries prepared to counter North Korean aggression if deterrence fails.

Washington should also put into place strong new economic measures aimed at the Pyongyang elite. Despite the conventional wisdom, the international community’s sanctions on North Korea are minor compared to those applied to Iran as it enriched uranium. Successive administrations have shied away from targeting Chinese entities doing business with North Korea, for fear of poisoning other areas of the complex relationship with Beijing. Given the paucity of other realistic ways to limit North Korea’s weapons programs, however, the time has come. The Trump administration made a good start with its recent sanctions on a handful of Chinese entities and individuals, but there is much more the United States can do unilaterally.

Over the long run, the United States and its partners should foster change away from the Kim family dynasty. They should take steps to expand the North Korean population’s access to information, and highlight and document human rights abuses at home. They should encourage defections, and sow distrust in the Kim regime and among the Pyongyang elite. A policy of eventual regime change need not rely on force, but it should represent a long-term objective.

This combination of deterrence, covert action, missile defense, severe economic pressure, and information campaigns will not solve the problem of North Korea. It may, however, manage it.

At the same time, U.S. policymakers should take care not to compound the problem by assuming it is solvable, and by searching in vain for the one creative idea that will unlock heretofore unattainable solutions. This is the path to frustration or worse.

They must also not allow their pursuit of a solution to crowd out other items on Washington’s Asia agenda. North Korea is not the only issue in America’s relations with China, Russia or other countries. The Trump administration should be wary of trading away other priorities – such as opposing Chinese expansion in the South China Sea or Russian aggression in Ukraine – in exchange for commitments to pressure Pyongyang. Elevating North Korea as the singular national security threat of our time risks deemphasizing other dangers, including terrorism, Russian meddling in democratic systems, and China’s coercive role in the Pacific.

Pyongyang’s July 4 surprise both ushered in a new era in America’s approach to North Korea and recalled two decades of difficulties with that brutal and dangerous regime. With past as prologue, it’s safe to say that if the analysis and prescriptions I’ve laid out here prove wrong, the Kim dynasty will provide ample opportunity to reassess – again and again and again.


Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.