Beyond Denuclearization: Four Priorities for Managing the North Korea Challenge


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Policy Roundtable: Are There Any Good Choices When it Comes to North Korea?” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

U.S. policy on North Korea has failed. For more than 25 years, the United States and its allies have worked to prevent North Korea from achieving a deliverable nuclear capability. Over the first year of the Trump administration, rapid advancements in missile technology have brought North Korea to this threshold. The program is too advanced, too dispersed, and too valuable to the regime for us to quickly eliminate it through diplomatic or military means on acceptable terms. As a result, the United States and its allies are now forced to manage a nuclear-armed North Korea that deters aggression and other destabilizing behavior, contains illicit activity from spreading beyond its borders, and encourages the transformation of the regime over time. Each month that passes that has the United States clinging to an outdated, invalid policy is one that runs a severe risk of war and allows North Korean activities to go unaddressed. The regrettable fact is that a nuclear-armed North Korea exists and is not being managed.

U.S. Policy

During its first year in office, the Trump administration has finally prioritized North Korea on the U.S. agenda. Yet, an inflated assessment of U.S. leverage, coupled with a poor policy process, has prevented additional resources and attention from transforming the standoff.

The Trump team has manufactured a military and economic crisis they hope could force North Korea to capitulate. In its formal public statements and in a series of highly inflammatory statements on Twitter, the administration has claimed that Pyongyang cannot be deterred, and that the United States will not tolerate vulnerability to North Korean missiles. In so doing, the administration is attempting to convince North Korea that failure to denuclearize will lead to war. If this effort were coordinated effectively and launched a decade ago, it may have stood a decent chance of success. However, both the execution of the policy and the state of North Korea’s capabilities are proving to be fatal complications.

In their more lucid moments, administration officials claim that, once heightened economic sanctions have an opportunity to take hold, they intend to convene denuclearization negotiations. Yet, these moments of clarity are almost immediately obscured by contradictions, reversals, and vague threats of war that lack credibility or clear terms. There remains a very real and entirely unacceptable possibility that influential groups in the administration prefer war or could talk themselves into one. The mixed messages allow Pyongyang to temporize and select the interpretation of U.S. policy they consider most advantageous. Washington has not forced Pyongyang to respond to a credible negotiations proposal that stands a realistic chance of halting North Korea’s rapid development of a nuclear arsenal that the Kim regime sees as critical to domestic legitimacy and international survival. North Korea will continue to develop, test, and operationally deploy these systems in the coming months and years.

Instead of forcing North Korea to capitulate to U.S. demands, the Trump administration’s belligerent posturing has deliberately eroded stability on the peninsula, significantly raising the risk of an accidental or deliberate conflict. At the same time, the exclusive and hopeless fixation on immediate denuclearization has prevented the United States and its allies from confronting the evolving North Korean threat. Despite a great deal of rhetoric, the Trump administration has done very little to actually address North Korea’s development of intermediate and intercontinental missiles and its demonstration of a more destructive nuclear device. Despite the regime’s dramatic nuclear and missile advancements over Trump’s first year in office, and despite ongoing improvements in its submarine, special operations, cyber, and artillery capabilities, U.S. force posture has not adapted.

North Korea’s technical developments are invalidating the basic assumptions of U.S. policy toward the regime. Strategies predicated on coercing Pyongyang into negotiations to eliminate its nuclear arsenal now appear untenable, at least for the medium term. On the other hand, a military strike – whether to degrade North Korean forces or to coerce the regime – is unlikely to eliminate its programs and would in all likelihood incur unbearable humanitarian, economic, and strategic costs. For the foreseeable future, the world will face a regime that possesses the capability to strike U.S. and regional targets with a nuclear weapon.

Policy planning in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo has not kept pace with Pyongyang’s rapid evolution, leaving the conversation marked by inertia. Because denuclearization has been the overriding objective, the United States and its allies have made little progress on developing a coordinated and sustainable North Korea strategy. Though a remarkably broad, bipartisan array of experts have proposed components of that strategy, very little is known about the constellation of concepts, principles, and policy options necessary for managing a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The priorities of deterring, containing, constraining, and transforming a nuclear-armed North Korea should animate that effort.


The overwhelming imperative for the foreseeable future is to continuously deter a highly capable, rapidly evolving military adversary from aggression against U.S., South Korean, and Japanese targets, as well as other extremely destabilizing actions. The United States and its allies will have to accept the necessity of sustainably deterring a novel adversary – one that is armed with nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional standoff retaliatory capabilities, highly capable in cyber, but also conventionally inferior.

North Korea is rapidly expanding its capacity for provocation and aggression on land, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace. The United States and its allies must retain the capabilities necessary to credibly retaliate in response to any such aggression. However, the high potential for escalation means that defeating and defending against these attacks will be critical to protecting allied civilians and servicemen. Nuclear deterrence will remain a part of allied posture for the foreseeable future, but is not sufficient to defend against North Korean aggression at lower levels of conflict, which will require that joint conventional forces remain capable and ready.

As the North Korean threat evolves, so must the allied defensive posture. The alliance should consider new deployments of unambiguously defensive forces, including anti-submarine warfare, anti-special operations forces, cyber-defense, as well as measures to ensure that U.S. forces from anywhere in the world can reach South Korea to reinforce allied positions despite North Korean attacks. Deterrence of coercive or limited chemical and biological attacks also demands considerably more attention.

It is not enough to deter aggression. Beginning immediately, the allies must work to deter North Korea from other extremely destabilizing and dangerous activities, including an atmospheric nuclear test, continued ballistic missile overflights of Japan, and proliferation of fissile material or nuclear weapons technology.


Despite its diplomatic isolation, the regime in Pyongyang has never confined its activities to its own borders. North Korean operatives are growing increasingly adept at acting across the globe, spreading financial crimes, smuggling illicit goods, procuring and exporting military equipment, placing North Korean workers in foreign countries to gain currency, stealing funds from banks through cyber intrusion, and a myriad other illicit activities. North Korea has already sold nuclear technology abroad and may well continue to do so.

A sustainable strategy must work ceaselessly to contain North Korea’s destabilizing criminal behavior abroad. In addition to the ongoing activities immediately above, the allies will have to contain types of potential instability, including assassination of North Korean defectors or foreign citizens abroad, attacks against shipping or other economic activities in Asia, cyberattacks against regional infrastructure, and disruption of civilian or military space operations.

Sanctions will be an important tool in this effort, as U.S. laws and U.N. members work to encourage countries to restrict these activities. While the Trump administration has stepped up sanctions enforcement efforts, most existing sanctions are still calibrated to apply political and financial pressure to coerce North Korean denuclearization. Adjustments will be necessary to calibrate sanctions to deny and contain North Korean illicit behavior.

Negotiations will also be an important component of containing North Korea and so must cover more than a single-minded insistence on denuclearization. The immediate priorities should be to open military-to-military communication channels to prevent North Korean missiles from overflying Japan and avert the first atmospheric nuclear test since 1980.


Deterrence and containment will be ongoing challenges requiring consistent attention to prevent a catastrophe. The United States and its allies should buttress its deterrence and containment posture with efforts to constrain the regime’s ability to challenge it. Sanctions impose severe constraints on scarce petroleum supplies that the North Korean military relies on to train and operate; the allies should preserve this advantageous position if possible. Maintaining these restrictions could facilitate deterrence over the long run. Negotiating conventional arms control measures can also help to constrain North Korea’s ability to threaten and aggress against allied forces, without forcing us to recognize their nuclear capabilities.

Preventive restrictions can also be sustained and expanded on North Korea’s ability to spread cyber, financial, and illicit transfers. For example, all countries should retain limits on North Korean diplomatic staff stationed around the world who arrange illicit transactions. If at some point there is evidence that Pyongyang is rolling back these illegal activities, it may be possible to lift certain constraint restrictions without requiring that we abandon containment measures, or nuclear, missile, or human rights sanctions. In this way, preventive restrictions afford leverage.


Even if North Korea is rendered incapable of exerting destructive influence in its region and the world, the existence of a highly militarized, totalitarian state that commits crimes against humanity will remain morally, practically, and legally unacceptable. Any transformation of North Korea will have to occur as the result of an internal process, but South Korea and the United States should seek effective ways of assisting this process. At the very least, allied policies should not inhibit transformation.

In South Korea, ongoing research into unification issues has yielded an understanding of North Korean economic and diplomatic issues that is generally absent in the United States. Concerted attempts to penetrate the regime with information about the outside world is an important first step, but not a complete strategy. Is there a virtue to permitting trade from allies or nonaligned countries over the long run, or would continued restrictions constitute leverage to force nuclear weapons back onto the negotiating agenda? Can diplomatic initiatives stabilize the security relationship or advantage moderate voices among ruling elites? The questions will be critical to achieving U.S. and allied objectives over the long run.

Lastly, management of a nuclear-armed North Korea requires strong alliances. Each policy decision discussed above will have to be coordinated with Seoul and also with Tokyo. It will require difficult conversations about economic and diplomatic initiatives, deterrence, and counter-provocation planning (including counterforce, damage limitation, and assassination). Divisions within these alliances or between Seoul and Tokyo will afford North Korea unacceptable opportunities to aggress or escape containment.

Twenty years ago, it was already cliché to say North Korea was at a crossroads. While Pyongyang has chosen its path and moved rapidly ahead, the United States and its allies still stand at the crossroads wishing that nothing had changed. U.S. strategists in particular are poorly equipped to cope with a failure of a critical policy. As a nation, we want to hear that there is a solution, a way to rectify a setback and make a decisive adjustment to our policy. Yet when the basic assumptions and objectives of a strategy are no longer valid, a failure to replace it will cause irreparable damage to American interests.

Managing a nuclear-armed North Korea will be an arduous task. As Washington comes to recognize that North Korea’s nuclear capability cannot be eliminated on acceptable terms, there will be an impulse to withdraw from the issue and move on to soluble problems. Neglect would allow Pyongyang to improve its military position, illicit networks, and coercive leverage, seriously worsening the greatest external threat to American national security. A sustainable and tolerable management strategy will be difficult to devise, and even more difficult to implement. It will require consistent attention, considerable resources, and constant vigilance to a thankless and unpopular task. Yet, having failed, we are left with no choice but to manage an unacceptable situation as best we can.


Adam Mount, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

Image: Air Force/Jeffrey Allen