The ICAS Lectures
The Collapse of the February 29 Agreement:
Is Denuclearization of
North Korea Still a Credible Policy Objective?
Larry A. Niksch
ICAS Winter Symposium
February 14, 2012 Tuesday 1:00 PM - 4:30 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B318
United States House of Repreesentatives
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
Biographic sketch & Links: Larry A. Niksch
[Editor's note: The original version of this paper presented to the ICAS
Winter Symposium has been revised to account for subsequent events. sjk]
The Collapse of the February 29 Agreement:
Is Denuclearization of
North Korea Still a Credible Policy Objective?
Larry A. Niksch 1
This paper will examine:
(1) The Obama Administration's negotiating of the February 29, 2012 agreement with
(2) The inadequacies of the Obama Administration's responses to the North Korean
missile test of April 13, 2012.
(3) The need for an alternative response strategy in view of the declining opportunity of
the United States to prevent North Korea from producing highly enriched uranium and
uranium nuclear warheads for its missiles.
(4) The end of credibility for the U.S. policy priority of denuclearization of North Korea
when North Korea develops and mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles.
(5) Suggestions for alternative U.S. and South Korean strategies toward North Korea if,
as likely, the denuclearization strategy loses all value.
Vows to Divert from Past U.S. Strategy
The collapse of the February 29, 2012, U.S.-North Korean agreement on nuclear
programs, missiles, and food aid proved to be another repetition of past episodes of
touted progress in negotiating with Pyongyang only to be dashed by subsequent North
Korean provocations. It was a repetition of past episodes for at least four reasons. First,
it displayed again U.S.--particularly State Department inadequacies--in negotiating with
North Korea. Second, it was another example of the United States abandoning established
negotiating principles when it faces pressure to obtain an agreement with North Korea.
Third, it proved to be another failure of the United States to seize opportunities to gain
stronger support from other involved governments in promoting a pro-U.S. agenda with
Pyongyang. Fourth, North Korea once again demonstrated that after entering into
agreements with the United States or other "adversary" states, its diplomatic
strategy prioritizes finding ways to limit and/or avoid carrying out its obligations under
the agreements. That trait of North Korean diplomacy has not changed in the transition
from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.
Following the early 2009 North Korean rebuffs to the incoming Obama
Administration (rejection of six party talks, a long-range missile test, a nuclear test, and
expulsion of the U.S. food aid program), Administration officials stressed that the Obama
Administration would not deal with North Korea in the same way as previous U.S.
administrations had done, principally the Bush and Clinton administrations. These
officials emphasized that in negotiating with North Korea, they would not "cover
old ground" by dealing with issues that had been negotiated over several times.
They also asserted that the Obama Administration would not return to six party talks until
North Korea demonstrated that it would live up to the denuclearization commitments it
had made in a six party statement of September 2005. The Obama Administration also
revised U.S. food aid offers by terminating any new offers of bulk grain (rice and wheat)
in favor of "nutritional assistance" in the form of specialized items suitable
for small children and pregnant women. Finally, in the wake of North Korea's
provocations against South Korea, the Administration asserted that the United States
would not resume nuclear negotiations with North Korea until Pyongyang demonstrated
that it would negotiate seriously with South Korea.
These stated revisions seemed realistic, especially in the context of the North
Korean provocations in 2009 and against South Korea in 2010. However, the Obama
Administration retained three important features of U.S. policy, as followed by the Bush
and Clinton administrations. One was the total--100 percent--priority given to the
nuclear issue; other issues--conventional forces, economic policy and reforms, and
human rights--continued to receive scant attention. Even issues closely related to the
nuclear issue, North Korea's demand for a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty negotiation
and North Korean nuclear collaboration with Iran and Syria, were kept in the background
by the Administration and the State Department.
A second continued feature of U.S. policy was the reaction to North Korean
nuclear and missile provocations by taking these cases to the United Nations Security
Council. Twice, in 2009 and 2010, the Obama Administration took North Korean
provocations to the Security Council, as the Clinton Administration had done in 1994 and
the Bush Administration had done in 2006.
The third feature was a heavy reliance on China to influence North Korea into
more reasonable postures on the nuclear issue. This reliance on China reached a high
point during the last two years of the Bush Administration when Beijing influenced the
Bush Administration to drop conditions for North Korea to admit to uranium enrichment
and nuclear proliferation with other countries. The Obama Administration did eschew
returning to six party talks despite Chinese urgings, but it still sought Chinese support,
especially in dealing with North Korean provocations.
Returning to Past Patterns
The Obama Administration's decision in late 2011 to attempt another high level
bilateral negotiation with North Korea was not, itself, a return to the past patterns of U.S.
diplomacy, which the Administration had vowed not to repeat. There were good reasons
to attempt a negotiation. However, the way State Department officials negotiated and
key terms of the February 29 agreement did repeat previous patterns of U.S. diplomacy.
The Administration's reaction to the North Korean missile launch was another repeat U.S.
In October 2008, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill went to
Pyongyang to negotiate over the Bush Administration's attempt to install an international
inspections system inside North Korea to investigate rising evidence that North Korea
was engaged in a clandestine uranium enrichment program. He returned, claiming that
he had secured an agreement with Pyongyang. However, North Korea said nothing about
an agreement for two weeks, then asserted that there was no such agreement. Hill
produced nothing in writing. There was no written agreement in Korean and English,
signed by Hill and North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye-gwan. Hill acknowledged that
his claimed agreement was a verbal, "handshake" agreement. In essence, it
did not exist.
In February 2012, State Department negotiators also settled for a verbal,
"handshake" agreement. This time, North Korea did acknowledge that there
was an agreement. The two sides, however, quickly disagreed on the meaning of the
agreement regarding North Korea plans for a "satellite launch" around the
time of Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday (April 15, 2012). U.S. officials contended that
North Korea's Kim Gye-gwan understood during the negotiations that the Obama
Administration interpreted the agreement's moratorium on future missile testing to
include any so-called satellite launch. North Korea, however, stressed that Kim made no
commitment to cancel the planned launch. So, as in October 2008, a vague, handshake
agreement lacked the substance to bind North Korea.
Part of the Obama Administration's motive for seeking negotiations was the
information indicating that North Korea was making progress in its uranium enrichment
program toward producing weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). The
importance of this cannot be overstated. In 2009, after years of denials, North Korea
proclaimed confidently that it had an active uranium enrichment program. In November
2010, the North Koreans revealed a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon to visiting
U.S. nuclear expert, Sigfried Hecker. Hecker described a modern, sophisticated plant
that he said could be easily be converted to produce HEU. Following his visit and his
briefing of the Obama Administration, he and U.S. officials said repeatedly that North
Korea undoubtedly had secret uranium enrichment facilities outside Yongbyon. U.S.
officials added that the Yongbyon facility indicated that North Korea's uranium
enrichment program was more advanced than the Iranian program.
Yet, the one provision in the February 29 agreement dealing with HEU was
perhaps the weakest for the United States. That provision would allow the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to return to Yongbyon to monitor the nuclear facilities
there. Those facilities were to include the uranium enrichment plant, which the North
Korean Government had revealed to Hecker. North Korea did agree in the February 29
agreement to a moratorium on uranium enrichment at Yongbyon. A moratorium and
getting the IAEA into the uranium enrichment plant would have some value to the United
States. However, in allowing Hecker to see the Yongbyon facility, Kim Jong-il had set
up the facility as a bargaining chip in a future negotiation with the United States. He
would not have done that, exposing the plant to IAEA monitoring, if he did not have
other uranium enrichment installations in operation--as Hecker and U.S. officials
believed. Thus, the Obama Administration and the State Department settled for a role of
the IAEA only slightly larger than several earlier Yongbyon monitoring roles that the
Bush and Clinton administrations had negotiated with North Korea. Such a role would
have little chance of limiting North Korea's uranium enrichment program. The
Administration, in reality, was back to covering old ground in negotiations with
The February 29 agreement discounted a major commitment North Korea made in
the September 2005 six party statement that it would return to the Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to IAEA safeguards "at an early date."
Returning to IAEA safeguards means that North Korea would adhere to the terms of the
1992 North Korea-IAEA Safeguards Agreement. Of the commitments North Korea
made in the September 2005 statement, the commitment to return to IAEA safeguards
and the NPT "at an early date" was the only commitment that specified that
kind of timetable. IAEA safeguards, as specified in the 1992 Safeguards Agreement,
would allow the IAEA to conduct inspections throughout North Korean territory. It
appears that only a full-scale IAEA inspection regime throughout North Korea would
have any chance of even slowing down North Korea's progress toward producing HEU.
Yet, the Obama Administration and the State Department allowed a continuation of this
unfulfilled commitment in the February 29 agreement. North Korean territory outside
Yongbyon would remain off-limits to the IAEA, just as it was off-limits in the 1994
Agreed Framework and the February 2007 six party agreement.
Finally, State Department negotiators cast aside the Obama Administration's
commitment not to negotiate with North Korea unless North Korea showed a willingness
to negotiate seriously with South Korea. The February 29 agreement said nothing about
North-South relations. There is little evidence that it was discussed substantively in the
negotiations. This, despite the fact that North Korea's belligerence toward South Korea
deepened in January and February 2012. This was illustrated by Pyongyang's Nine
Demands directed at Seoul by the National Defense Commission (the North Korean
military leadership) on February 2, 2012. The National Defense Commission declared
that future North-South talks depended on the South Korean Government taking a
number of steps, including the cessation of joint military exercises with the United States,
ending the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea, ceasing opposition to
Pyongyang's proposal of a bilateral North Korean-U.S. "peace mechanism,"
and returning to a policy of large-scale, unconditional economic and financial aid to
U.S. Reaction to the North Korean Missile Launch: Missing a Negotiating
The reaction of the Obama Administration to the April 13, 2012, North Korean
missile launch was very much in line with its reaction to the April and May 2009 North
Korean missile and nuclear tests, the March 2010 North Korean sinking of the South
Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, and the Bush Administration's reaction to the North
Korean missile and nuclear tests of July and October 2006. The Administration declared
that the missile test had voided the February 29 agreement and, therefore, the United
States would not proceed with the shipments of 240,000 tons of food aid, as promised as
part of the agreement. Like the earlier U.S. responses, the Administration took the issue
to the United Nations Security Council. This time, it did not propose a new round of
sanctions against Pyongyang, but it did propose and secured a statement by the President
of the Security Council calling on North Korea to cease future missile and nuclear
provocations and for U.N. member nations to enforce the sanctions the Security Council
had affected in 2006 and 2009. North Korea, in turn, rescinded its invitation to the IAEA
to discuss a return to Yongbyon.
It seems to me that the Administration had an alternative strategy, which would
have taken greater advantage of North Korea's flouting of the missile moratorium
provision of the February 29 agreement. That alternative would be to declare that in view
of North Korea's missile test, the February 29 agreement would have to be re-negotiated
and amended. The U.S. negotiating objective in a re-negotiated agreement would be to
strengthen the authority of the IAEA so that the Agency could conduct nation-wide
nuclear inspections in North Korea. Behind this objective would be the U.S. policy
objectives of unearthing information on the status of North Korea's uranium enrichment
program and limiting/containing an expansion of the program toward full-scale
production of HEU. The Obama Administration would return to its pre-February 29
position that North Korea must demonstrate that would carry out its commitments in the
September 2005 six party statement, this time with special emphasis on Pyongyang's
commitment to return to IAEA safeguards and the NPT "at an early
This strategy response to the missile launch would have three advantages over the
response of simply abandoning the February 29 agreement and taking the missile launch
to the U.N. Security Council.
First, the missile launch failed, which even the North Korean Government
admitted. This, it seems to me, gave the Obama Administration more flexibility in its
Second, proposing a re-negotiation of an amended February 29 agreement would
have given the Obama Administration a greater opportunity to influence China and
Russia to support a key element of U.S. denuclearization policy--securing nation-wide
nuclear inspections throughout North Korea. The last six party meeting, December 2008,
focused in verification and inspections. China offered a proposal publicly described as a
compromise proposal. The United States, Russia, South Korea, and Japan supported the
Chinese proposal. Only North Korea rejected it. Thus, the Bush Administration, despite
the bungled October 2008 affair, had secured a five vs. one advantage in the six party
talks over the inspections issue.
In 2010, the Chinese and Russian governments issued statements that North
Korea should allow international inspections of its nuclear programs and facilities. The
Chinese Government's statement of December 22, 2010, specifically said that North
Korea's nuclear programs should be "subject to IAEA's inspections." The
Russian Government also issued several statements calling for North Korea to allow
IAEA verification of its nuclear programs. The Chinese and Russian positions gave the
Obama Administration the potential of gaining strong support from Beijing and Moscow
for a proposal to renegotiate the February 29 agreement to expand the authority of the
But such support would not be maximized in the U.N. Security Council. Prior to
the February 29 agreement, the United States had disagreements with China and Russia
in the Security Council over proposals to increase sanctions on Iran and Syria. China's
history in the Security Council demonstrated that the Chinese Government sought to
avoid penalizing other countries through the Security Council. China has its own reasons
for its attitude, one possibly being a fear that it someday could be the target of proposals
for U.N. sanctions.
China also clearly favored dealing with North Korea through the six party talks,
of which it was the chairman, rather than through the U.N. Security Council. Herein lay
the opportunity for the Obama Administration. If North Korea refused a U.S. proposal to
renegotiate the February 29 agreement bilaterally, the Administration would have the
option of asking China to convene a six party meeting to discuss specifically the February
29 agreement and the North Korean missile test. China, which long had advocated
reconvening the six party forum, could hardly reject such a request. At a six party
meeting, the Obama Administration could have proposed amending the February 29
agreement to authorize full safeguards authority for the IAEA in North Korea. It seems
to me that there would be a high probability that China and Russia would support such a
U.S. proposal. Thus, another five vs. one situation would be created, placing greater
pressure on North Korea and perhaps heading off another North Korean nuclear
The Obama Administration also could offer China and Russia--and even North
Korea--a couple of inducements to accept an amending of the February 29 agreement.
One would be to link the provision of 240,000 tons of food aid to acceptance of the U.S.
proposal to enlarge IAEA authority. Another would be to link expanded IAEA authority
to U.S. acceptance of a surprise proposal that a North Korean diplomat made in New
York a couple of weeks before February 29. He said that North Korea was ready to
exchange liaison offices with the United States. The exchange of diplomatic liaison
offices was an old agreement in the 1994 Agreed Framework. Two years later, North
Korea backed out of the proposed exchange. China and Russia consistently have urged
the United States to increase diplomatic interchanges with North Korea. This now would
give the Obama Administration added leverage to press for full inspection authority for
The Final Advantage/Necessity: Concentrating U.S. Policy on HEU and Nuclear
About a month after George W. Bush took office in 2001, I attended a meeting on
North Korea at the Brookings Institution. Several former Clinton Administration
officials also were in attendance. During the meeting, one of the most senior Clinton
people in dealing with North Korea remarked that (to paraphrase) "we have to get
the IAEA back into North Korea in order to look for HEU." That same objective
became imperative for the Bush Administration after June 2008. Now, more than ever, it
needs to be the paramount goal of the Obama Administration. The difference now is that,
I believe, time is running short for the United States to make any progress toward even
limiting North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, certainly for achieving any movement
North Korea is close to producing weapons-grade HEU. This is the consensus
among nuclear experts and apparently within the U.S. intelligence community. Some
experts believe that HEU production already is underway. HEU production, I believe,
will enable North Korea to cross quickly a critical bridge in its nuclear programs--a
success in producing nuclear warheads that it would mount on its Nodong and Scud
missiles and later on longer range missiles like the Musudan. Once North Korea crosses
this bridge, the U.S. situation with North Korea will change fundamentally. Part of this
change will be the end of usefulness in giving priority to denuclearization in U.S. policy
toward North Korea.
In December 2011, the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul published
my paper, "When North Korea Mounts Nuclear Warheads on Its Missiles."
In the paper, I pointed out the recognition of the sophistication of North Korea's uranium
enrichment program as shown to Sigfried Hecker in November 2010, the consensus that
among nuclear experts that North Korea was capable of producing HEU, and the belief
among U.S. officials and nuclear experts that North Korea has other secret uranium
enrichment facilities and that its program is more advanced than the Iranian program.
I also described numerous reports of North Korean-Iranian collaboration in
developing uranium enrichment technology and nuclear warheads that could be mounted
on Iran's Shahab-3 missile, a twin of the Nodong. I had conducted extensive research on
the North Korean-Iranian relationship in my last three years at the Congressional
Research Service. My findings on nuclear collaboration are contained in my CRS
Report, "North Korean Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy." In
my paper for the Institute for National Security Strategy, I also cited statements by U.S.
and South Korean officials that North Korea is close to the production of nuclear
In examining North Korea's ability to produce nuclear warheads, the central
element of my paper was an examination of the technology North Korea received from
Pakistan's A.Q. Khan and his network during the 1990s well into the 2000s. Most
attention given to Khan's collaboration with North Korea has focused on his provision of
a pilot set of about 20 centrifuges that could produce HEU. However, my paper showed
that North Korea also received from Khan access to the design information for the
uranium nuclear warhead, which the Khan Laboratories developed for the Ghuari missile
during the 1998-2001 period. The Ghuari missile is a twin of the Nodong; the original
Ghuari missiles were about 35 Nodongs supplied by North Korea prior to 1998. Equally
as important, North Korean nuclear experts were present at the six nuclear tests, which
Pakistan carried out in May 1998. These tests provided the core information that Khan
used to develop the Ghauri warhead by 2001. North Korea appears to have received all
of the test data.
North Korean nuclear experts worked in the Khan Laboratories until at least 2002
during the period when the nuclear warheads were perfected and mounted on the Ghuari
missiles. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, disclosed the New Yorker
Magazine, reportedly stated that North Korea and Pakistan shared "warhead
design information" and "weapons-testing data." A.Q. Khan's account,
given to British journalist Simon Henderson and described in the Washington Post
on December 28, 2009, stated that part of Khan's collaboration with North Korea was that
"the North Koreans would help Pakistan in fitting the nuclear warhead into the
In short, my paper showed that there can be no doubt that North Korea received
from A.Q. Khan the blueprint design of a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on
Nodong missiles and direct work experience in developing the warhead. After the 1998
nuclear tests, it took Khan Laboratories about two years to develop and produce this
warhead. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated on CBS's 60 Minutes on January 28,
2012, that Iran had the capability to develop a nuclear warhead for a missile within two to
three years. Given the data and experience North Korea gained from A.Q. Khan and
North Korea's collaboration with Iran in nuclear warhead development, North Korea
appears to have the expertise to produce a nuclear warhead for its Nodong missile in one
to two years after it has produced the HEU as the core component of a warhead.
North Korea will become a genuine nuclear weapons power once it mounts
nuclear warheads on its missiles. It will gain more proliferation opportunities with
countries like Iran and Syria. Its intimidation tactics toward South Korea likely will
grow, including repeats of the singular military provocations against South Korea of
2010. South Korea no doubt would undergo a fundamental reassessment and national
debate over its policies toward North Korea. Japan would experience a huge shock as a
likely target of nuclear-tipped Nodong missiles. This likely would produce a national
debate and reassessment of Japan's defense policy. Advocacy of Japan developing long-
range strike capabilities no doubt would grow.
For the United States, its situation with North Korea will change dramatically
when North Korea mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles. The first implication would
be the end of usefulness of denuclearization diplomacy, including six party talks. Any
realistic assessment would have to conclude that there would be no prospect of
negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear programs or even a measured reduction in
them once the North Korean leadership has accomplished this fundamental strategic-
military goal of mounting nuclear warheads on missiles. Current North Korean leaders
never will give up such an achievement.
All of this points to the unwelcome fact that this latest diplomatic episode
involving the February 29 agreement constitutes the "last gasp" of U.S.
denuclearization policy unless the Obama Administration can revise its response to the
North Korean missile test to give the denuclearization policy "life support."
Once North Korea has crossed the bridge to a warheading capability, the United States
will need to develop a new strategy toward North Korea that gives greater priority to
other, non-nuclear issues in attempting to influence North Korea to turn some of its
policies in a more positive direction, including its internal policies. Such changes in
internal policies likely will be the key to changing North Korean nuclear policies but only
in the very long term.
Post-Nuclear Warheading Strategies for the United States and South
It seems to me that U.S. and South Korean (R.O.K.) strategies toward a North
Korea possessing nuclear warheads should have four components: (1) raising the priority
given to non-nuclear issues, particularly North Korean economic reforms and human
rights; (2) developing diplomatic mechanisms to manage nuclear crises with North
Korea; (3) enhancing military deterrence; and (4) developing a distinctive South Korea
agenda of negotiating issues with North Korea.
In reacting to North Korea's April 13 missile test, the Chinese, Russian, and South
Korean governments stated in their criticisms of the missile test that the North Korean
Government should give greater priority to improving the livelihood of the North Korean
people. R.O.K. President Lee Myung-bak cited the estimated cost of the missile test
($850 million) as capable of purchasing enough food overseas to feed the food-short
North Korean people for one year. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Clinton,
voiced similar advice to North Korea. President Lee specifically has called on North
Korea to institute economic reforms. In Washington in April 2012, a major conference
was held on North Korea's concentration camp system. The second edition of a major
study of the concentration camps was published at the same time.
A post-denuclearization policy by Washington first should seek to draw North
Korea into a dialogue on these issues rather than specific negotiations aimed at
agreements. This could be done through liaison office diplomats, ambassadorial talks in
a third country, or regularly scheduled meetings of officials, or even a shift of the focus
of six party talks. The U.S. objective should be to draw North Korea into a discussion of
economic reforms and human rights. U.S. officials also should be prepared to give a
detailed response to the issues that North Korean officials would raise.
U.S. officials should condition any economic and financial aid to a North Korean
commitment to carry out specified economic reforms along the lines instituted by Deng
Xiao-ping in China in the 1980s. This should include food aid, which should be
conditioned on "Chinese-style" agricultural reforms. U.S. officials should
describe to North Korean counterparts the economic benefits to the Chinese people of
Deng's reforms and how these improved U.S.-China relations. Special emphasis should
be given to agricultural reforms. U.S. officials could outline how multilateral assistance
could help North Korea carry out economic reforms. The South Korean Government
should voice similar themes in its contacts with North Korea. A U.S.-South Korean
economic reform strategy should be tailored to influence Chinese opinion and encourage
the Chinese Government to pressure North Korea harder to institute "Chinese-style
The North Korean regime is most vulnerable to pressure for change on the
economy, given the country's economic situation. The new, post-Kim Jong-il leadership
may prove more flexible on economic policies sooner than it will be on nuclear and
On human rights, U.S. officials would need to stress to North Korean counterparts
that North Korea must be prepared to discuss the concentration camp system with the
United States and other countries. They should stress that normalization of U.S.-North
Korean relations would depend on an extensive release of political prisoners and
alleviation of the harsh conditions in the concentration camps. The United States should
call on North Korea continually to grant access of the International Committee of the Red
Cross into the camps.
Nuclear crises with North Korea are probable when North Korea mounts nuclear
warheads on its missiles. Imagine the situation of North Korean artillery shelling of
Yeongpyong island and South Korean threats of military retaliation in November and
December 2010 if North Korea threatened to launch nuclear warheads against South
Korea. The North Korean military leadership may believe that nuclear warheads would
give them a deterrent against South Korean and/or U.S. retaliation if North Korea
conducted singular military provocations against South Korea. The U.S. Government
will need better means of communicating quickly with the Pyongyang regime when
North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons. The present mechanisms, the so-called
New York channel and passing messages through China, are inadequate for crisis
communication. A permanent U.S. diplomatic mission in Pyongyang may be necessary.
Thus, there would be this advantage to accept North Korea's proposal to proceed with the
1994 agreement to establish liaison offices. The North Korean Government no doubt
would boast that U.S. "recognition" signified recognition of North Korea as a
nuclear weapons power. Americans would have to "swallow hard" and let
North Korean leaders have their two months of propaganda boastfulness. However,
North Korean leaders would face the reality that a U.S. agreement to diplomatic relations
was only a symbolic concession and that mounting nuclear warheads on missiles would
gain them no material benefits from the United States.
Enhancing military deterrence will be necessary to extend greater U.S. assurances
to South Korea and Japan of the credibility of U.S. defense commitments in the face of
North Korean nuclear warheads. The Obama Administration has begun to discuss
enhanced deterrence with South Korea. Deterrence, to be effective in the new situation
of North Korean nuclear warheads, will have to combine concrete military measures and
pointed verbal warnings to North Korea of U.S. intent to destroy North Korea if North
Korea uses nuclear weapons against U.S. allies.
It seems to me that potential concrete military measures ought to include the
return of U.S. heavy bombers to Guam (they were withdrawn in 1991); North Korea
greatly feared the B-52 exercises near the Korean peninsula in the 1980s. A more direct
U.S. military role in possible North Korean military provocations against South Korean
islands in the Yellow Sea is a helpful step already underway. More regular U.S. naval
exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan would send a stronger deterrence
message to North Korea. The Obama Administration also should consider supporting
any South Korean decision to remove South Korea from the restrictions on its missile
ranges imposed by the Missile Control Technology Regime.
However, it seems to me that the recent proposal of the House Armed Services
Committee to return U.S. tactical nuclear warheads to South Korea would cause more
problems and contribute little to enhancing deterrence. The proposal is contrary to
current U.S. war fighting strategy. U.S. military commanders in Korea have stated since
2005 that the primary U.S. role in another Korean War would be a naval and air power
role; South Korea would have the burden of fighting on the ground along the
demilitarized zone. Tactical U.S. nuclear weapons would have the contrary effect of
necessitating much larger U.S. ground forces in South Korea. Moreover, North Korea
today is unlikely to launch a full-scale invasion of South Korea, given the deterioration of
its conventional military forces since 1990. The North Korean threat today is the singular
military provocation similar to those carried out in 2010 or an infiltration into South
Korea of commando teams intended to attack specific South Korean individuals and
targets. Tactical nuclear weapons would have little value in either deterring these threats
or in dealing with them. Increased U.S. air and naval power would have a greater
deterrent impact and application to respond to North Korea's singular
A U.S. proposal to re-deploy tactical nuclear weapons also would polarize South
Korean public and political opinion. A post-denuclearization strategy would be much
stronger if South Korean opinion were unified behind an effective alternative strategy.
The likely end of denuclearization means the end of Lee Myung-bak's policy of tying
South Korea to the U.S. total focus on the nuclear issue. An R.O.K. post-
denuclearization strategy should develop proposals on specific issues that would have the
best prospect of outcomes favorable to the South Korean Government. One favorable
outcome, of course, would be favorable agreements negotiated with North Korea that met
R.O.K. goals. A second type of favorable outcome would be an agenda of proposals for
negotiations with Pyongyang that had broad appeal to the South Korean public regardless
of North Korea's reaction to them.
Some examples of South Korean negotiating proposals that likely would achieve
either or both favorable outcomes for the R.O.K. Government: negotiating a North-South
boundary line in the Yellow between South Korean-held islands and the North Korean
mainland; negotiations to establish commitments by both North Korea and South Korea
to limit their missile programs to the restrictions set by the Missile Control Technology
Regime (MCTR); accelerated family reunions with firm schedules; and negotiations over
reductions of conventional military forces and pullbacks of forces from the demilitarized
South Korean presidential candidates of both the ruling and opposition parties
have signaled that they will revise President Lee's policies toward North Korea.
President Lee should lay out this kind of agenda to influence public opinion favorably
and thus influence his successor as it becomes increasingly apparent that denuclearization
of North Korea is a policy of few positive returns.
1 The author is an ICAS Fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS). From 1966 until
2010, he served as Specialist in Asian Affairs with the U.S. Congressional Research Service. He currently
also is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is an Adjunct Fellow
with the Institute of National Security Strategy in Seoul, Korea.
This page last updated May 30, 2012 jdb