The ICAS Lectures


Facing a Nuclear North Korea
and the Future of U.S.-ROK Relations

Dan Blumenthal

ICAS Fall Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security
October 11, 2005 12:30 PM - 5:30 PM.
United States Senate Russell Office Building Caucus Room SR 325
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20510

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Dan Blumenthal

Facing a Nuclear North Korea and the Future of U.S.-ROK Relations

Dan Blumenthal
AEI Resident Fellow in Asian Studies

I want to sincerely thank ICAS for hosting this very important symposium today. It is an honor to be speaking here on the future of America's relationship with the two Koreas.

Of course, that relationship can only be understood in the context of the ongoing talks aimed at resolving the latest nuclear crisis on the peninsula. The way that the United States and its closest allies in Asia deal with the ongoing crisis will greatly shape the future of the region. I will suggest that a clear containment policy has the best chance of securing American objectives and repairing the strained U.S.-South Korean alliance.

But first, where are we now, roughly three years since the latest nuclear crisis began? Well, before the ink dried on the joint statement issued in Beijing on September 19th, by the six parties to the North Korea de-nuclearlization talks, North Korea indicated that it fact in had no intention of doing what the other parties thought it had committed to do: abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

Indeed, the talks have long been destined for failure, not because the U.S. government did not have the best of intentions – talking the North Koreans out of their nuclear weapons. But because Kim Jong Il's totalitarian, criminal regime cannot give up its weapons and at the same time achieve its national goals.

Simply stated these goals are to: 1) stay in power; 2) be recognized as a nuclear state; 3) control the entire Korean peninsula. By definition, these goals mean that Kim and his clan must break the U.S.-ROK alliance and attain a nuclear arsenal.

After the United States confronted North Korea in late 2002 with evidence that Pyongyang violated the Agreed Framework, proponents of multilateral negotiations within the Bush administration made the reasonable bet that if faced with a united front of Russia, South Korea, Japan, the United States, and China, Pyongyang would back down from its nuclear ambitions. This gamble was undermined by two flawed assumptions: that all parties held North Korean denuclearization as their top priority, and that North Korea could be talked into abandoning its nuclear program.

For very different reasons, two of the critical players in those talks--China and South Korea--are unwilling to use coercion alongside persuasion to get North Korea to disarm.

While Beijing would rather see a nuclear-free North Korea, it fears that pressuring Pyongyang by halting shipments of food and fuel might result in the regime's collapse and chaos on China's northeastern border. It is also thinking about its influence on the peninsula in long term, and is satisfied for now with the status quo – keeping in power a client state that buffers it from the U.S. military.

For very different reasons the President Roh Moo-Hyun government is unwilling to put the kind of pressure on North Korea that may lead to its abandonment of nuclear weapons.

The ROK government is beholden to delusions born during the era of inter- Korean engagement under former president Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy." Although the sunshine policy was an understandable approach by Seoul to capitalize on the hoped-for breakthrough memorialized in the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang's 2002 admission that it had a highly enriched uranium program made plain that it did not uphold its end of the "engagement" bargain.

The Bush administration is still trying to breathe life into the six-party talks. Indeed the administration has pleased many outside observers and analysts who have been calling for the U.S. to "get serious" about the talks. But, as the latest round has shown, no matter how "serious" America is, how many talks it joins in Beijing or how many inducements it is willing to offer to the DPRK, Kim Jong-Il will not rid himself of his weapons.

Why the Six-Party Talks Will Continue to Fail

North Korea's Objectives

After more than a decade of nuclear talks with North Korea, it has become clear that North Korea's objective of attaining a nuclear arsenal is an a top state priority which diplomacy will not change. Indeed, Nicholas Eberstadt and Joseph Ferguson have persuasively summarized the lessons learned after a decade of intermittent negotiations.

Over the past dozen years Western diplomacy has devoted no small effort to probing [North Korean intentions]. In the early 1990s, the ROK . . . probed them for two years, eventually securing a Joint North–South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in 1992. When the agreement collapsed [the DPRK was pursuing its weapons program during this period], the Clinton administration and the U.S. government probed Pyongyang's intentions with a year and a half of diplomacy that culminated in the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Clinton administration probed North Korean intentions still further through what became known as the "Perry Process." And, of course Kim Dae Jung probed North Korean intentions with his now-discredited "sunshine policy." Reviewing this record one might suggest we actually have a fairly good idea of North Korea's nuclear intentions. 1

Although the North Korean government claims that it has only pursued nuclear weapons in response to America's hostile attitude, both Kim and his father pursued such weapons consistently and steadfastly for over two decades, through economic hardship and famines that have killed over 3 million North Koreans, [according to some estimates], and without regard to U.S. hostility or friendliness. 2 Billions of dollars in economic and energy assistance have flowed into Kim's coffers since 1994 and yet he has still not been sufficiently convinced to abandon his nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, the highly enriched uranium program that the United States detected in late 2002 had been underway since about 1997–98, the heyday of both Clinton-era engagement and South Korea's sunshine policy. 3

China: Stability First

While Beijing may prefer that the Kim regime did not possess nuclear weapons, China's primary objective is the survival of that regime in order to avoid instability or warfare along its border. Beijing is also approaching this crisis with an eye toward its long-term goal of becoming the pre-eminent power in Asia. This means enhancing China's diplomatic prestige in Asia and avoiding the emergence of a unified Korea that is allied with the United States.

The Chinese leadership is satisfied with the status quo--North Korea's de facto nuclearization, intermittent diplomacy to lower tensions on the peninsula, bolster its credentials as Asia's power broker, and sustaining the Kim regime through plentiful aid.

But Beijing's foremost concern -- Kim's survival -- is illustrated by its increased trade with North Korea since the crisis began: according to the Washington Post, bilateral trade between China and North Korea "nearly doubled between 2002 and 2004 to $1.39 billion." 4

A bonus for Beijing in keeping the talks alive is the relative adjustment of the ROK's declared strategic posture. In fact, one of the reported reasons that the U.S. delegation signed up to the joint statement is that it feared being isolated, with both Soeul and Beijing prepared to sign. Diverging U.S.-ROK perspectives on the crisis have done serious harm to the alliance.

South Korea: Trapped in a Cycle of Appeasement

The ROK has less nefarious motivations for its policy, but it is nonetheless unwilling to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs.

Since President Kim Dae Jung promulgated his sunshine policy in the 1990s, South Korea has been trapped in a cycle of appeasing Pyongyang. Seoul's desire to persuade Pyongyang to reform its economy and give up its nuclear aspirations is understandable. After decades of living under siege, the South Koreans hoped that the 1994 Framework Agreement represented a diplomatic breakthrough that would lay the groundwork for peaceful unification. Moreover, the ROK was undergoing a democratic consolidation and its citizens wanted to live in peace, prosperity and freedom. Let me be clear: engagement is not always the wrong policy. However, for engagement to succeed, the regime being engaged has to see reform as a national interest, and the engaging party must have effective carrots and sticks in its toolbox.

In the case of North Korea, neither of these conditions was met. Pyongyang is uninterested in economic reform, and even less interested in abandoning its nuclear program. In addition, Seoul discovered that it has few diplomatic sticks at its disposal short of military action. Caring little about the welfare of his people, Kim is not concerned by the withdrawal of food aid. Moreover, few economic sanctions are available, given that North Korea exports little more than narcotics, missiles, and technology related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Peter Feaver of Duke University has explained the engagement trap: because engagement values process over substance, engagers develop incentives to overlook the engagee's bad faith and ignore the fact that no actual objectives are being met. 5

How else can one explain why South Korea has increased its trade with the DPRK since the six-party talks stalled late last year? Despite North Korea's continued violations of previous commitment and a continued hostile posture, in the first three months of 2005 alone, trade with the North increased 58 percent over the same period in the previous year. 6

This dynamic explains the South Korean government's behavior since the 2002 crisis: it has publicly questioned the Bush administration's October 2002 statement that North Korea had admitted to having a highly enriched uranium program, dismissed the hostile interception of a U.S. reconnaissance plane by North Korean fighters as "predictable," and has repeatedly played down North Korean nuclear threats as a "bargaining chip." 7 Most recently, South Korea removed any reference to North Korea as a "main enemy" in its latest defense white papers. This causes much confusion in America; important people in Washington are beginning to ask, if North Korea is not the main enemy just who are we and the ROK allied against?

The ROK's engagement policy has affected South Korean public opinion: in a January 2005 poll, 39 percent of respondents identified the United States as the "country most threatening to South Korea," while only 33 percent identified North Korea as such. 8 If the leadership in Seoul refuses to lead its people away from dangerous delusions, the prospects for an enduring U.S.–Korean alliance will become even dimmer.

U.S. Policy Objectives

It is critical that our ROK allies understand the U.S. mindset which drives its national priorities in the post-9-11 security environment and how it applies to this crisis:

The first U.S. priority is "keeping the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes." 9 Although America has failed to achieve this in North Korea, it should still aim to restrict what Pyongyang does with its WMD arsenal. The primary concern today should be what then-deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz called Kim Jong Il's willingness to "sell anything to anybody." 10 Thus, the primary U.S. objective should now be to prevent Kim from selling or giving his nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction to either another rogue state or to a terrorist organization. The protection of the U.S. homeland, allies, and friends from a North Korean–assisted WMD terrorist attack should now take priority over the futile attempts to roll back the DPRK's weapons program.

The second priority is the maintenance of alliance commitments, especially to South Korea and Japan. A nuclear North Korea changes the balance of deterrence in the region--and requires the U.S. nuclear umbrella to be extended and credible. Just as our allies lived with the nuclear threat from the Soviets, it is not unreasonable to formulate policies that protect and reassure Japan and South Korea and other U.S. allies.

The third priority is to maintain and bolster the U.S.-led security order in Asia, especially as China moves to use its growing power and influence to undermine it. The U.S.-led security order in East Asia has allowed nations that have wanted to prosper and become free. It is essential the America continue to guarantee this order as the security environment transforms. The United States has already lost ground during the six-party talks.

The fourth priority is keeping U.S. commitments to the spread of democracy and human rights throughout the world. In the case of North Korea, it may well be impossible to substantially improve human rights conditions or promote democracy under the regime of Kim Jong Il. But, a commitment to publicly highlighting and using whatever means possible to promote human rights in North Korea will help undermine the regime with an eye toward eventually helping a more humane North Korean leadership come to power.

Policy Options

As statesmen throughout the ages have discovered, foreign policy is the art of selecting among bad options. This rings true with respect to North Korea, where policy options are restricted to pursuing more attempts to talk and bribe North Korea into abandoning its weapons program; a military attack on North Korea's WMD facilities; a policy of regime change by force; or a containment policy that also works to undermine the Kim regime over time.

Jaw-Jaw. . .

Because Washington was focused on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it allowed the six-party talks to drift and let the Chinese and North Koreans set the timing and all too often the agenda of the talks. To its credit, the Bush administration refused to buy off the DPRK as the Kim regime raised the ante. However, the administration's approach to North Korea--a combination of tough pronouncements and efforts to block proliferation and other bad behavior, while going along with the meandering six-party talks, did not amount to a coherent policy.

The talks will continue to fail for the simple reason that there are very few compelling ways to threaten the North Koreans short of military force. Most proponents of bilateral negotiations or a "grand bargain" argue for a set of inducements and punishments aimed at changing North Korean policy. While inducements -- in the form of propping up of Kim -- are plentiful (e.g., economic aid, enhanced prestige, security assurances), there is not much the administration can do to punish Kim short of attacking. There is no economic exchange to block, and Kim has always been unmoved in response to the reduction of food aid. The Chinese can cut off the North Korean regime's lifeline, but they are unwilling to do so.

Given the paucity of sticks, it is no surprise that since North Korea's October 2002 confession that it had a secret highly enriched uranium program, the North faced no punishment for its bad behavior. It has not faced a single sanction for its violation of its 1994 commitments, its subsequent expelling of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, its reactivation of Yongbyon, and its reprocessing of plutonium from 8,000 spent fuel rods that were stored there. Nor has proliferation been punished. In early 2005, the United States announced that it was near certain that North Korea had provided Libya with processed uranium after 9/11. The fact that the Bush administration did not punish Kim for these offenses is not for lack of will-- it highlights the fact that there are no punishments except the use of force, which is unduly risky. And, the process of diplomatic engagement itself creates incentives to overlook bad behavior.

U.S. engagement policy toward North Korea has amounted to the provision of aid that allowed Kim to prop up his regime and pursue his nuclear ambitions. The Agreed Framework kept the Kim regime alive. Since 1995 Washington has provided over $1 billion in foreign assistance to North Korea, "about 60 percent in the form of food aid and 40 percent in the form of energy assistance." 11 As Eberstadt points out, given North Korea's economic performance, "Washington's foreign aid lifeline to the DPRK . . . looks more significant than any Washington has arranged in recent years for allies and friends." 12 Unless Washington wants a policy that is aimed at propping up Kim without getting anything in return, a new form of engagement – which it appears the six party talks are leading to -- makes little sense.

. . . War-War?

America could conduct surgical, preemptive strikes against North Korean facilities to eliminate the nuclear threat, as it was prepared to do in 1994. America's preponderance in intelligence gathering capabilities, stealth bomber aircraft, standoff munitions, and bunker-busting bombs provide a military option; however, the risks of such an attack far outweigh the likely benefits. Since Israel preemptively destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor at Tuwaitah in 1981, would-be nuclear proliferators have taken a variety of concealment measures in order to prevent the key components of their nuclear weapons manufacturing process from being identified and targeted.

North Korea, as the world's most closed society, has been able to undertake significant measures in this regard, and the United States has not even been able to successfully identify its uranium enrichment facilities, a key component of its nuclear program. Thus, it is not clear that a preemptive, surgical strike would be able to identify and destroy targets inside of the DPRK.

There is also the problem of how Pyongyang would react. North Korea has 70 percent of its 1,003,000 ground forces personnel deployed along the Demilitarized Zone boundary between the two Koreas, including approximately 4,000 tanks and assault guns, and 2,500 armored personnel carriers. 13 North Korea possesses some 100 No-dong missiles that could strike civilian and military targets in Japan, possibly with WMD warheads. 14

And, the DPRK ‘s Taep'o-dong 2 missile force can strike the continental United States. In short, were North Korea to retaliate for surgical strikes, it has great military capabilities with which to do so.

Forceful regime change is even less attractive. It cannot be done through airpower alone--any such strategy would require a substantial commitment of ground troops for combat operations, securing weapons sites, and stabilization operations. Leaving aside the strain on a U.S. military that does not have enough ground troops for its current missions, such a strategy would require active South Korean support, which is highly unlikely.

Containment and Deterrence

If the military and engagement option are unrealistic, we are left with containment, deterrence and isolation. This policy accepts that the United States and its allies have been unable to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons after more than a decade of trying, but that they still have the chance to prevent their use.

A containment and deterrence policy is not morally satisfying--it keeps in place one of the worst abusers of human rights and international norms left in the world--and not without risks. But it does offer a chance for America to achieve its other objectives. It also has the advantage of coherence and clarity, the basis of political leadership. Other interested countries would be faced with the choice of getting behind a policy aimed at preventing the use of nuclear weapons or undermining it.

Containment would take on a different form against North Korea than it did against the Soviets. North Korea is a middling power that, with the exception of South Korea, has neither the intention of nor capability for territorial expansion. It has a failing economy and an unappealing ideology.

However, Pyongyang's ideological raison d'être presents a threat to international security. The state is built to ensure the survival of the regime and to forcefully unify with the South under the "independent, socialist" rule of the DPRK. 15 To conduct such a war and realize such a vision, the North needs nuclear weapons that can be used against the United States, the only country that can frustrate its designs.

Based upon this reality, a containment policy's objectives would be (1) continuing to protect of South Korea from attack; (2) deterring a nuclear or conventional attack on the U.S. homeland or on its allies and friends; and (3) preventing the proliferation of North Korea of WMD to rogue regimes and terrorist organizations.

The containment policy would have five main elements: (1) a declaratory policy that America will respond with nuclear weapons if North Korea attacks its allies or interests with nuclear weapons; (2) a shoring up of the defenses of allies and friends under threat of North Korean attack; (3) increased interdiction of North Korean shipments of WMD material; (4) cutting off its criminal activities; and (5) an increased campaign to highlight and ameliorate North Korean human rights abuses.

Some of the essential tools of statecraft are already in place to build such a policy: the United States military has a robust presence in East Asia and the Proliferation Security and Illicit Activities Initiatives have been set up to interdict North Korean proliferation of WMD and shut down the state's criminal activities. But the policy will require additional measures: U.S. force posture in the region must be adjusted to provide a more credible nuclear deterrent, and the PSI must be bolstered to make it effective in interdicting illicit North Korean cargoes. In addition, more attention should be given to North Korea's atrocious human records to foster the demise of the regime.

Rethinking Our Military Posture

North Korea has formidable military capabilities aimed partly at damaging the credibility of U.S. deterrence.

In response, America must make its conventional and nuclear deterrence capability more credible.

The United States must improve its ability to defend civilian populations in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. To do this, the United States must first upgrade its counter-battery capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. Under an October 2003 agreement, the United States will maintain its forward-deployed counter-battery radar and multiple- launch rocket systems close to the de-militarized zone. 16

In addition, the United States should improve the missile defenses of South Korea and Japan, as well as its own. A first step would be to push for U.S.-ROK-Japanese trilateral cooperation on sea-based missile defense. After the first South Korean AEGIS- equipped KDX destroyer is deployed in 2008, all three countries will have the AEGIS platform. In addition, the United States should push Tokyo, Seoul, and other regional friends to deploy as many PAC-3 missile defense systems as possible.

Although the current political disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over their history together and the Tokdo/Takeshima Islands is hindering substantial Korean- Japanese cooperation, the two countries share a common threat from North Korea's missile capabilities and have great incentives to cooperate.

The United States should deploy an additional aircraft carrier group to the region as well as bombers and surface combatants. 17 America also must think seriously once again about a credible nuclear deterrent. Possibilities include reverting back to a U.S. policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of its own nuclear weapons on the peninsula, and increasing the presence of submarines armed with nuclear ballistic missiles. 18

The United States also must make sure it has the ground forces and South Korean support to rapidly occupy North Korea if all out war did break out. South Korea has some 650,000 ground troops, who would logically form the core of any occupation force following a war against North Korea, but the United States has a comparative advantage in two key areas: kicking down the door and securing suspected WMD and ballistic missile sites.

Proliferation Security Initiative/Illicit Activities Initiative in the Long Run

The Proliferation Security Initiative has worked fairly well at interdicting North Korean ships and aircraft whose cargo include WMD-related material. Currently, it works mostly through the seizure of cargo in the ports of participating countries under the authority of that country's domestic laws. Participating countries have the authority to seize cargo from ships in their territorial waters or from aircraft in their airspace. The major gap is interdiction on the high seas, which is still contrary to international law. Countries are getting around this stumbling block by signing boarding agreements. 19 The other big gap is that government vehicles cannot be interdicted.

The Bush administration and some of its allies are trying to plug this and other gaps. They have strengthened the PSI by securing passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which calls on states to formulate more effective measures to interdict and control WMD that is within or passes through its borders.

However, a containment policy would require greater efforts to interdict shipments of WMD from North Korea, find ways to seize cargo on the high seas, and plan for escalation should North Korea be caught proliferating. The new U.S. declaratory policy should also say that if North Korea is caught proliferating WMD the United States will move to quarantine North Korea.

U.S. led efforts to shut down Kim second source of financing – criminal activity often conducted through diplomatic channels can also be bolstered Simple steps such as getting more countries to enforce Article 35 of the Vienna convention on consular relations would go along away. As one, North Korean defector put it – if Kim's criminal enterprise is shut down he is finished.

Planning for Victory

Containment's endgame would be the fall of the Kim regime. But military pressure alone cannot accomplish that goal. Instead, the United States should mostly use the tools of "soft power" that prevailed against the Soviet Union. In the case of North Korea this means according greater weight to and raising the profile of the refugee issue and North Korean human rights abuses.

Besides highlighting the criminality and barbarity of the Kim regime, U.S. human rights policy should focus on China's complicity in North Korea's human rights abuses and in working with the South Korean to help their brethren to the North.

China is forcibly repatriating thousands of North Korean refugees by classifying them as economic migrants. (North Koreans crossing the border into China may number into the hundreds of thousands). These repatriated North Koreans face sure persecution if not death. According to the State Department's Arthur Dewey, China's refusal to allow the UN High Commissioner on Refugees the opportunity to determine whether these North Koreans qualify for refugee protection raises "the possibility [that] legitimate refugees are being returned involuntarily to persecution, the PRC's treaty [1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol] obligations are being violated." 20

Diplomatic efforts have not convinced the Chinese to abandon this policy because China's top priority is the survival of the Kim regime. However, given China's desire to be perceived as a responsible international player, shame can be a useful tool. The United States should raise the profile of China's abrogation of its international commitments and the human rights abuses of North Koreans.

The South Koreans have not been much better. In December 2004, the ROK's Unification Ministry announced that it was slashing the government's resettlement stipend for North Korean refugees, [29] and it has abstained from voting in favor of a UN Commission on Human Rights resolution condemning North Korea three years in a row. 21

America may have more luck over time convincing the ROK to take a more humane approach to the refugee and human rights issues in North Korea--after all, South Korea is a constitutional democracy that respects the rights of its own people. A policy of receiving and resettling North Koreans will help the South shape reconciliation with the North when the Kim regime eventually falls.

The United States should also bring the European Union (EU) into discussions on the human rights situation in North Korea, especially UN Security Council members France and the United Kingdom. As America learned in the transatlantic debate on lifting the EU arms embargo on China, human rights issues resonate inside Europe. Cooperation with Europe on the North Korean human rights situation may have both moral and strategic payoffs.

The passage by Congress of the North Korean Human Rights Act, and the appointment by the administration of a Special Envoy for North Korean human rights will go a long way to highlight the abuses of the Kim regime, modestly improve the plight of the North Koreans, and, over time, undermine Kim's control.

A containment policy frees the United States from having to downplay the human rights issue in the service of a diplomatic process: America can speak truthfully and forcefully about the crimes of the Kim regime.

Risks of a Containment Policy

A declared policy of containment could either shock our friends in South Korea out of their delusions that appeasement will work or so harden opinion against the United States that the alliance is no longer sustainable. The latter risk can be mitigated by a speech by the president or the secretary of state directly to the South Korean people that says: (1) over a decade of diplomacy and engagement has failed to prevent a nuclear North Korea; (2) we do not want a war and are therefore choosing to deter one; and (3) our deterrence will be credible and will protect the South Korean people. If this still does not convince them, the United States must go forward anyway--in the post-9/11 security environment North Korean nuclear weapons are not simply a Korean peninsula problem, they are a threat to global security.

But, a clear and coherent containment policy could help repair the U.S.-ROK alliance, giving it once again a clear sense of purpose.

In addition, America should work hard to improve relations between its two key democratic allies in Asia – Japan and South Korea. It is difficult to think of two Asian countries that have as much in common culturally, economically -- both have an interest in an open trading system and both are OECD countries—politically -- both are democracies—and strategically -- both are threatened by North Korea.

While Seoul is toying with closer relations with the PRC talking about developing a more "independent defense policy" to undergird a self-defined role as a "regional balancer", America, Japan, India, Australia and forger closer multilateral relations. South Korea, a country which shares interests and values with all of these countries will regret being left out. It already suffered a blow to its regional image by its absence from the core group of responders to the Tsunami crisis last year. As an advanced, industrial democracy, South Korea's future lies in a democratic security community in Asia.

Moreover, the ultimate solution to the "Korea crisis" is a unified, democratic Korea that is allied with the United States. Having achieved remarkable levels of economic growth for more than decade, Seoul is loath to take on the exorbitant human and financial costs of unification. And it should not do so alone. Japan, with whom the ROK already enjoys a deep economic and financial relationship will need to assist as will the United States, the UN and the democratic world en masse.

A second risk is that Kim cannot be deterred. The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) reaffirmed the option of preemptive action against rogue regimes and terrorist networks who sought WMD and were not deterred by "the conventional superiority of the United States." 22 This concern was one of the factors influencing the decision to use force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. A containment policy against North Korea would rely on traditional deterrence based upon both defenses and the threat of retaliation.

However, the opacity of the Kim regime leaves open the question of whether he will understand the U.S. commitment to protecting its interests, and the U.S. readiness to use force, including nuclear weapons in order to do so. Kim's understanding of these messages is critical to successfully deterring him. A containment policy will also be difficult to implement if South Korea and China refuse to go along with it.

Despite these risks, a containment policy would have the best chance of achieving the top national priority--protecting the lives of Americans. In addition, a containment policy would reassert American leadership on a problem that all nations in the region face--the WMD threat.

What is more, the policy would have the distinct advantage of clarity--interested countries would have to choose between supporting a policy that endeavors to stop the spread and use of WMD or to undermine it.

The Best of a Bad Lot

Because the options are so bad, North Korea's development of nuclear weapons is one of the most vexing foreign policy problems that the Bush administration faces. A policy of containment and isolation, with a view toward undermining the regime is in fact more realistic than the alternatives. And let me make a point that is often missed -- Even if we did sign another Agreed Framework-type deal, we could never promise the DPRK that we would let-up on human rights issues, it is simply not in our national character.

1Nicholas Eberstadt and Joseph Ferguson, "The New Twenty Years Crisis?" North Korea Review 1, no. 1 (2004): 2.
2On North Korea's enduring nuclear ambitions, see Kongdon Oh and Ralph Hassig, "North Korea's Nuclear Polictics," Current History (September 2004): 275.
3For North Korea's late 1990s pursuit of a highly enriched uranium program see for example, Chaim Braun and Christopher F. Chyba, "Proliferation Rings: New Challenges to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime," International Security 29, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 12.
4Anthony Faiola, "Despite U.S. Attempts, N. Korea Anything but Isolated--Country's Regional Trade Boom Hints at Split between Administration, E. Asia," Washington Post, May 12, 2005
5Peter Feaver, "I Love Zhu, Zhu Loves Me: Clinton's China Policy," The Weekly Standard, April 26, 1999, 27, 29.
6Faiola, "Despite U.S. Attempts."
7Victor Cha, "Korea: A Peninsula in Crisis and Flux," in Strategic Asia 2004-2005: Confronting Terrorism in the Pursuit of Power, ed. Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills (Seattle, WA: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2004), 152.
9George W. Bush, "2004 State of the Union Address" (Washington, D.C., January 20, 2004), available at
10Paul Wolfowitz, interview with Michael Richardson, Alex Nichols, and Barry Wain at luncheon press event in Singapore, May 31, 2002, news transcript, available at
11Mark E. Manyin and Ryun Jun, "Report for Congress: U.S. Assistance to North Korea," Congressional Research Service, updated April 26, 2005.
12Nicholas Eberstadt, "The Persistence of North Korea," Policy Review (October/November 2004): 23–48; available at
13Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., The Armed Forces of North Korea (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 3.
14Phillip C. Saunders, "Military Options for Dealing with North Korea," Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Available at
15Nicholas Eberstadt, "What Surprise: The Nuclear Core of North Korea's Strategy," Washington Post, March 1, 2005.
16Jong-Heon Lee, "U.S. Eases S. Korean Security Fears," Washington Times, October 6, 2004, available at
17Colonel David J. Bishop, "Dismantling North Korea's Weapons Program" (Washington, DC: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2005), 4
18The 2002 "United States Nuclear Posture Review" called for, among other things, sizing the U.S. nuclear force according to a global target set. This has the potential to enhance "extended deterrence" of the kind the U.S. offers to Japan and North Korea. That said, Japan--and, depending on whether alliance relations improve, South Korea--should be consulted about North Korean target sets. See "The Implications of the Nuclear Posture Review for Extended Deterrence Statement of Baker Spring" (Conference of Monterey Institute of International Studies, U.S.-Japan Cooperation on Arms Control, Disarmament, Non Proliferation and Verification, March 27, 2002).
19Sharon Squassori, "Report to Congress: Proliferation Security Initiative," Congressional Research Service, January 14, 2005, 4.
20U.S. House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific & Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, Statement of Arthur E. Dewey: Hearing on the North Korean Human Rights Act, 109th Congess, 1st Session, 2005.
21Ser Myo-ja and Lee Young-jong, "Defectors to Get Less Money, More Scrutiny," JoonAng Daily, December 24, 2004, quoted in Nicholas Eberstadt "Leadership and Vision for Korea: Humanitarian Rescue as a Prologue to Reunification of a Free Korea" (address, Kim Koo Academy, Seoul, ROK, May 25, 2005).
22The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002), available from

This page last updated 10/14/2005 jdb

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