The North Korean Threat

Exploring the Past to Construct a Safer Future

North Korean Missile on display at a military parade (from Young Diplomats ®).

Executive Summary

Upon assuming office, President Obama endorsed a policy of ‘Strategic Patience’ to counter the growing North Korean nuclear threat. Although constrained by prior interactions between North Korea and the U.S., the Strategic Patience framework failed to attain the objectives listed by Obama in his Prague Speech of 2009. In order to effectively diminish the North Korean menace, the incoming administration should: enhance the defense capabilities of U.S. allies in Northeast Asia, pursue the imposition of stringent sanctions against Pyongyang, and pressure China to diminish its support of North Korea.

Introduction: The North Korean Nuclear Threat

President Obama sought to address the threat posed by North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program. Coupled with Pyongyang’s pursuit of advanced missile technology, North Korea — given its unpredictable, ruthless and yet fragile nature — posed a serious predicament for the stability of Northeast Asia, and thus for U.S. interests in the region as well.[1]

The rest of the paper is organized as follows: first, I provide background information of the North Korean threat up to 2009; second, I assess the effectiveness of Obama’s approach to the North Korean nuclear issue; third, I explore the policy options available to the incoming administration; and finally, I conclude with my policy recommendations for the next president.

Historical Background: Clinton and Bush Administrations

It would be unfair to exclusively blame the Obama administration for the current status of the North Korean threat, as the President inherited an already-troubled issue at the start of his first term. Both President Clinton and President G.W. Bush were unable to tackle the North Korean nuclear peril in their respective periods in office, witnessing the dramatic transformation of a nascent nuclear weapons program into a genuine threat by the end of Bush’s second term.

In 1994 — during President Clinton’s first term in office — North Korea manifested its intention to abandon the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).[2] Clinton responded by instituting a bilateral accord between the U.S. and North Korea, known as the ‘Agreed Framework’;[3] although fulfillment of the Agreed Framework’s statuses was not forthcoming early on, the accord effectively defused the North Korean situation for the remainder of Clinton’s presidency.[4]

Nevertheless, the flaws of the Agreed Framework were exposed early on during the Bush administration. In 2002 — following accusations by the U.S. regarding North Korea’s alleged illicit uranium production program — Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT, expelled all IAEA inspectors from its Yongbon production site, and rebooted its nuclear program.[5] As a response, President Bush endorsed a multilateral approach to the North Korean nuclear issue, by establishing the ‘Six Party Talks’.[6] The Six Party Talks — albeit sporadically successful[7] — were ultimately unable to address the crucial issues concerning North Korea’s nuclear program.[8]

Assessing the Obama Administration: The Strategic Patience Framework

The Prague Agenda

President Obama offered the following remarks concerning the North Korean nuclear threat during his Prague Speech: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”[9] I will use the aforementioned objectives to gauge the effectiveness of Obama’s overarching policy towards Pyongyang: the ‘Strategic Patience’ approach.

The Strategic Patience Framework

As a response to North Korea’s belligerent activities early on during his first term,[10] President Obama instituted what is commonly referred to as the Strategic Patience approach.[11] The Strategic Patience framework consists of: pressing Pyongyang to endorse denuclearization measures,[12] pressuring China to assume a tougher stance against North Korea, and enhancing the defense mechanisms of U.S. regional allies.[13] The following analysis examines whether Obama’s Strategic Patience framework attained the objectives of the Prague Agenda.

Rules Must be Binding

North Korea has defied all but the most recent United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) prohibiting the development of their nuclear and missile programs.[14] North Korea defied UNSCR 1780 — which forbid Pyongyang from “conducting further nuclear tests or launching a ballistic missile” — in early 2009, when Pyongyang launched an Unha-2 rocket and performed its second nuclear test.[15] This inceptive transgression of a UNSCR “initiated a periodic cycle of action and reaction, in which the United States focused on building consensus at the U.N. Security Council and punishing North Korea through enhanced multilateral sanctions.”[16] Hence, North Korea — in a similar fashion to its original contravention of UNSCR 1781 — violated the following resolutions in sequential fashion, each of which was developed in response to Pyongyang’s infringement of a prior motion: UNSCR 1874, UNSCR 2087 and UNSCR 2094.[17] Thus — given that the Obama administration relied on said transgressed UNSCRs to contain Pyongyang — asserting that Obama failed to institute binding regulations is reasonable.

Violations Must be Punished

Obama attempted to foster Pyongyang’s cooperation in nuclear affairs mostly through the imposition of both unilateral and multilateral sanctions.[18] The sanctions regime — whose purpose was to compel Pyongyang to realize that its nuclear weapons program is “incompatible with its national interests”[19] — restricted North Korea’s arms trade ventures, hindered Pyongyang’s access to the materiel necessary for its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and curbed North Korean diplomats’ procurement of luxury goods.[20] Although both U.N. and unilateral U.S. sanctions have diminished “North Korea’s ability to profit from its illicit activities,”[21] they have failed to have a consequential impact on North Korea’s closed economy, kept afloat due to extensive Chinese support.[22] Moreover, China’s self-interested opposition of stringent sanctions against Pyongyang has undermined the rigidness of all UNSCRs on the matter.[23]

Words Must Mean Something

The Obama administration briefly pursued bilateral negotiations with North Korea Stimulated by Dr. Siegfried Hecker’s assertion that Pyongyang’s efforts “to enrich uranium and construct a light water reactor were making steady progress,” the U.S. pressed the consolidation of the ‘Leap Day Agreement’ in early 2012.[24] Unfortunately, North Korea announced its intention to contravene the Leap Day Agreement — which constituted primarily a food-for-denuclearization accord[25] — solely three weeks later.[26] Overall, as highlighted by the discredited Leap Day Agreement, Obama failed to compel Pyongyang to abide by a denuclearization accord.

The World Must Stand Together to Prevent the Spread of these Weapons

While the Obama administration has induced greater international consensus concerning the North Korean threat,[27] Pyongyang nonetheless continues to enhance its nuclear weapons and missile programs. North Korea is believed to possess around 20 nuclear warheads, with the possibility of adding a new nuclear device every six weeks.[28] Moreover, North Korea has supposedly tested components of a hydrogen bomb.[29] Similarly, Pyongyang claims to have developed the capability to miniaturize new nuclear warheads for long-range missiles.[30] Additionally, the regime has expanded the Yongbon nuclear facility and restarted a plutonium reactor.[31] Coupled with substantial strides in the missile arena,[32] the North Korean nuclear threat has become more menacing during Obama’s tenure. Overall, it is clear that — within North Korea — the spread of nuclear and missile technologies have not been prevented whatsoever.

Similarly, Obama has failed to quell growing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear export capabilities. North Korea’s reliance on “sales of missiles and telemetric information from missiles tests” for hard currency may indicate Pyongyang’s possible willingness to “sell its nuclear technology or fissile material.”[33] Moreover, North Korea allegedly transferred both nuclear technology and know-how to Syria and Libya.[34] Thus, the Obama administration has also failed to address horizontal proliferation concerns regarding Pyongyang.

Incoming President: Policy Options Analysis

The failure of Obama’s comprehensive Strategic Patience approach indicates that the incoming administration should pursue the formulation of individual policy elements, rather than attempting to develop an all-inclusive policy towards Pyongyang. Therefore, I will consider several potential North Korean policy components that the next president could endorse.

Incrementing the Deterrence and Containment Capabilities of U.S. Regional Allies

The incoming administration could enhance its military cooperation with both Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system — renowned for its remarkable containment capabilities[35] — in Japan and the ROK could be considered. Nonetheless, one must take into account Beijing and Moscow’s opposition to the deployment of THAAD: both China and Russia believe that THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar system could “undermine the effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent against America,” or could even be used for espionage purposes.[36] Additionally, the next president could increment the number of joint-military exercises held alongside Japan and the ROK. Although the execution of these exercises appears to aggravate Pyongyang — and thus could invite retaliation — they are also a significant show of strength and do serve a deterrence purpose.[37]

Pursuing the Imposition of Stringent Sanctions through the U.N. Security Council

The incoming administration could pursue the imposition of enhanced sanctions against Pyongyang. Current sanctions are focused “on hobbling the nuclear programme and denying luxury good to Mr. Kim and his cronies.”[38] The U.S. could press for more stringent restrictions, involving Pyongyang’s importation of fuel oil and/or their exportation of iron ore and coal. Were the sanctions sufficiently damaging to North Korea’s general economy, Pyongyang may feel pressured to re-engage in denuclearization negotiations.[39] Nonetheless, the viability of imposing crippling sanctions will remain in question as long as Beijing is not on board; given that China continues to prioritize “stability over denuclearization,” the implementation of the aforementioned prohibitions may not be feasible.[40] Moreover, the next president should take into account that increased sanctions could lead to the collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime.[41]

Pressuring China to Diminish its Support of Pyongyang

Beijing serves as a major obstacle for the enhancement of Japan’s and the ROK’s defense capabilities,[42] and for the imposition of stringent sanctions against Pyongyang. Thus, the incoming administration could seek greater cooperation from Beijing by implementing extensive secondary boycotts to Chinese businesses that trade with North Korea. Moreover the U.S. could bring attention to China’s alleged violations of the UNSCRs’ provisions, [43] thereby possibly inducing Beijing to collaborate out of public shame. Although increasing pressure on Beijing could facilitate the deployment of THAAD to Japan and the ROK, allow for the implementation of stringent sanctions against Pyongyang, and even hinder Sino-North Korean trade relations, the possibility of damaging U.S.-Sino relations may be too much of a risk.[44]

Engaging with North Korea in a Bilateral or Multilateral Fashion

The incoming administration could attempt to engage with North Korea bilaterally, or even pursue the revival of the Six Party Talks. Arguably, Pyongyang could be induced to cooperate through high-level bilateral engagements with the United States.[45] Similarly, the Six Party Talks could be more successful this time around, given that Pyongyang’s rash behavior has strengthened “five-party unity[46] on the end goal of the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”[47] Nonetheless, Pyongyang’s long history of recidivism poses a political risk for the incoming administration; yet another contravention by Pyongyang — which is certainly not out of the question — would damage the next president’s domestic and international standing.

Incoming Administration: Policy Recommendations

Given the pros and cons of each policy element, I would recommend the incoming administration to endorse the following proposals: for starters, the next president should increment the defense capabilities of Japan and the ROK. Specifically, the containment capabilities provided by THAAD are too great to be discarded, even considering China’s opposition. In fact, Beijing’s concerns are primarily unwarranted: the “THAAD system is designed to destroy missiles during the terminal phase of their trajectories” — thereby making it unable to down Chinese missiles aimed at the United States — and using THAAD’s radar for espionage purposes would undermine its defense capabilities.[48] Similarly, joint-military exercises with Japan and the ROK should be expanded to counter Pyongyang’s bellicosity, as the risks associated with such a policy are quite low.[49]

Moreover, the next president should seek to compel Beijing to reduce its support of North Korea. Nonetheless, the incoming administration should be wary of infuriating China; particularly, I would solely endorse the imposition of secondary boycotts on Chinese businesses that deal with North Korea, and avoid inculpating China for its alleged violation of various UNSCRs. The latter measure could hinder U.S.-Sino relations, given that it specifically targets the Chinese government.

Likewise, the incoming president should press for stringent sanctions against Pyongyang. Even the aforementioned pressurizing policies do not secure Beijing’s support, the U.S. should promote restrictions that would damage North Korea’s general economy, particularly within the U.N. Security Council: Beijing could be swayed by overwhelming international support for crippling sanctions.

Finally, I recommend the incoming president to avoid engaging diplomatically with North Korea, especially bilaterally; given Pyongyang’s innate recidivism, this ‘softer’ approach carries too high of a political risk.

Footnotes

[1] “A nuclear nightmare,” The Economist, May 28, 2016, 11.

[2] Pyongyang also began obstructing the relatively nascent IAEA inspections of its Yongbon nuclear facility.

[3] The agreement mandated North Korea to freeze — and eventually dismantle — its nuclear program, in exchange for two proliferation-resistant light water reactors, heavy fuel oil and other economic incentives. Citation: Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 16).

[4] Kelsey Davenport, “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy,” Arms Control Association, last modified March, 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alongside China, Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea and Russia.

[7] For instance — in 2005 — Pyongyang agreed to return to the NPT and dismantle its nuclear arsenal. North Korea backed down from said pronouncement, and launched its first-ever nuclear test the following year. Citation: “A nuclear nightmare,” The Economist (see Footnote 1).

[8] Glyn Davies, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs,” U.S. Department of State, last modified July 30, 2014, http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2014/07/229936.htm.

[9] “Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, last modified April 5, 2009, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-prague-delivered.

[10] During the morning of President Obama’s Prague Speech, Pyongyang tried to launch a satellite attached to a three-stage Unha-2 rocket, thus defying U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718. North Korea subsequently expelled IAEA inspectors from the Yongbon nuclear facility, and conducted its second nuclear test the following month. Citation: Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 16).

[11] Said U.S. policy was first described by Secretary of State Clinton as “strategic patience in close consultation with our six party allies.”

[12] Through both bilateral negotiations and the imposition of unilateral/multilateral sanctions.

[13] Glyn Davies, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs” (see Footnote 8).

[14] Kelsey Davenport, “UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea,” Arms Control Association, last modified March 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/UN-Security-Council-Resolutions-on-North-Korea.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” Congressional Research Service, last modified January 15, 2016, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R41259.pdf.

[17] Kelsey Davenport, “UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea” (see Footnote 15).

[18] In addition to a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions on the matter, the Obama administration has also promulgated unilateral sanctions through various executive orders. Citation: Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 16).

[19] Glyn Davies, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs” (see Footnote 8).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Beijing accounts for around 90% of North Korea’s trade. China usually imports iron ore and coal from North Korea, and provides fuel oil in exchange. Citation: “A nuclear nightmare,” The Economist (see Footnote 1).

[23] Beijing fears that the levying of crippling sanctions could lead to the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime and thus stimulate a flood of refugees along its northeastern border. Moreover, China regards North Korea as a vital buffer “protecting it from American troops stationed in South Korea.” Citation: “A nuclear nightmare,” The Economist (see Footnote 1).

[24] Scott Snyder, “U.S. Policy Towards North Korea,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified January 2013, http://www.cfr.org/north-korea/us-policy-toward-north-korea/p29962.

[25] North Korea was promised nutritional assistance and the availability to engage in cultural exchanges; in turn, Pyongyang was to place moratoriums on nuclear tests, missile launches, and uranium enrichment activities at Yongbon. Moreover, North Korea would once again allow IAEA inspections within its borders. Citation: Scott Snyder, “U.S. Policy Towards North Korea” (see Footnote 25).

[26] North Korea announced its plan to launch a satellite using the Unha-3 rocket the following month (i.e. April 2012). Citation: “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist, May 28, 2016, 19.

[27] Notably even amongst the remaining participants of the Six Party Talks: China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Russia.

[28] “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist, May 28, 2016, 19.

[29] North Korea claims to have tested a comprehensive thermonuclear device. Nonetheless — given the produced seismic activity — experts believe that either Pyongyang tested components of a hydrogen bomb, or mimicked South Africa’s technique of boosting the yield of a fission device with a bit of fusion. Citation: “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[30] Although disputed by experts, North Korea’s assertion should not be taken lightly, given the regime’s prioritized production of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The utilization of HEU facilitates the miniaturization of new nuclear warheads for long-range missiles. Citation: “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[31] Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 17).

[32] Such as the ongoing development of the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile and the KN08 intercontinental ballistic missile. Additionally, North Korea has apparently developed the technology required for the survivability of a re-entry vehicle, and has achieved major strides concerning its submarine missile capacities. Citation: “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[33] Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 17).

[34] Ibid.

[35] With two layers of defense (batteries) — and a single-shot probability of kill (SSPK) of only 0.7 — the THAAD system would be able to down 90% of incoming missiles (if deployed in the Republic of Korea). Citation: “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[36] “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[37] Max Fisher, “Obama’s six options for dealing with North Korea (they’re all terrible),” Washington Post, February 12, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/02/12/obamas-six-options-for-dealing-with-north-korea-theyre-all-terrible/.

[38] “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[39] Or even allow for the collapse of the regime. Said occurrence — although detrimental to China’s interests — would possibly lead to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, the ultimate objective of the U.S. and its allies.

[40] Max Fisher, “Why China still supports North Korea, in six little words,” Washington Post, February 12, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/02/12/why-china-still-supports-north-korea-in-six-little-words/.

[41] The collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime poses a grave security threat, given the possible dispersal of nuclear material. Therefore, if the next administration believes regime collapse to be imminent, it should map out a plan of action to address ‘loose nukes’ considerations.

[42] Given China’s opposition to the deployment of THAAD.

[43] “Heavy transport vehicles from Chinese entities were apparently sold to North Korea and used to showcase missiles in a military parade in April 2012, prompting a U.N. investigation of sanctions violations.” Citation: Chanlett-Avery, Emma, Ian Rinehart, and Marty Nikitin, “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation” (see Footnote 16).

[44] Although North Korea appears to be near the top of the U.S.-Sino Agenda, there are other issues where Beijing’s cooperation is a must for the United States.

[45] North Korea may be simply seeking to be treated seriously by the United States.

[46] Refers to all the members of the Six Party Talks minus North Korea.

[47] Glyn Davies, “Statement before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs” (see Footnote 8).

[48] “By the rockets’ red glare,” The Economist (see Footnote 29).

[49] North Korea usually responds to the U.S.-ROK joint-military exercises by voicing unsubstantiated threats, or launching missiles into the Sea of Japan. Citation: Solis, Steph, and John Bacon, “North Korea fires short-range missiles into sea,” USA Today, last modified March 21, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/21/north-korea-missile-fired/82066226/.