North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Threats
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
The Heritage Foundation
Remarks Delivered to the
Institute for Corean-American Studies Fall Seminar
October 28, 2009
In assessing the status of North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, it is useful
to first review the
situation at the beginning of 2009. At that time, there was near euphoria in the
US and South
Korea over the prospects for progress with Pyongyang.
The dominant view in Washington and Seoul in early January was:
As for point #1, US negotiators privately said that the Obama administration was
going to largely
pick up where President Bush and Chris Hill had left off, without significant differences.
of "continuity we can believe in."
- Barack Obama would pursue a fundamentally different policy toward North Korea than
- The change in US leadership would lead North Korea to feel less threatened and,
therefore, it would abandon its policy of provocations.
- This, in turn, would lead to a significant improvement in bilateral relations between
the US and North Korea
- Because of this, South Korea would be further isolated from the US. Therefore, it
should abandon its principled engagement policy and resume provided unconditional economic
and diplomatic benefits to the North.
- All of these would lead to a breakthrough in 2009 in achieving North Korean
Despite the perception of a major shift in U.S. policy, Obama was going to face
constraints in achieving tangible progress with Pyongyang. After all, during the
last two years of
the Bush administration it had already engaged in the direct, bilateral diplomacy
that Obama advocated.
Yet there was continued North Korean intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship.
removing North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list didn't break the
logjam. Nor had diplomats begun the real negotiations to discuss the actual elimination
weapons three years after Pyongyang agreed to do so.
North Korea's rapid-fire series of provocations in 2009 quickly put those other
perceptions to rest. These provocations began even before the Obama administration
opportunity to reach out. Indeed on the eve of inauguration with strong statements
Pyongyang's new demands. North Korea's belligerent actions also included provocative
statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- the supposed softline faction of
North Korea --
backing away from Pyongyang's previous commitments. The MOFA insisted on formal
diplomatic relations with the US as a precondition for denuclearization. Subsequently,
position was deemed insufficient for North Korea to give up its status as a nuclear
as long as it was "exposed to even the slightest US nuclear threat."
US Response to provocations
In response to the provocations, the Obama administration, in my view, correctly
commendably altered its policy direction dramatically to incorporate a two-track
pressure and negotiation. A case of squeezing NK with one hand while holding open
the door to
negotiation with the other.
As such, it was an improvement over both of the North Korean policies of the Bush
administration. The Bush administration went from one ineffective extreme of all
another ineffective extreme of all carrots. All along it should have a comprehensive
policy utilizing all the instruments of national power.
With these provocations, North Korea has proven to be its own worst enemy since
initial willingness to engage. Cumulatively, these provocations and Pyongyang biting
outstretched hand of dialogue:
- Created a much greater sense of pessimism in Washington that denuclearization progress
Shifted a lot of analysts from their previous advocacy that engagement was the answer
over to the skeptical school of thought;
Created a dawning realization that Pyongyang, and not the various US policies under
Clinton and Bush, that was to blame for the North Korean nuclear problem;
Gained Washington traction for international pressure tactics that President Bush
never able to achieve.
Is a two track policy guaranteed to bring about North Korean denuclearization? Of
But it provides a better likelihood than the previous policies that were overly
reliant on one tool
at the expense of others.
Financial Sanctions effective against North Korea
Some argue that the sanctions on North Korea aren't effective and that should be
- The current sanctions have only been in place a short time since UN resolution 1874
was passed in June. Some analysts who are so impatient to declare sanctions haven't
worked seemed to have inordinate patience in having 10 years of South Korean unconditional
largesse failing to bring about an end to North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
- US, South Korean, and Japanese officials all told me privately that the sanctions
are already having a financial impact on the regime.
- Also, the new international willingness to confront or intercept North
Korean ships suspected of proliferation will deprive the regime of revenue.
Officials have also stated that there were "other ships" beyond those
- Since the UN actions are targeted sanctions and not general sanctions,
they are directed at impeding North Korea's nuclear and missile programs
rather than hurting the people of North Korea. As such, simplistic
observations that a visitor saw economic activity on the streets of
Pyongyang is not a valid metric for assessing the impact on the regime.
- The current sanctions will be even more effective than BDA. As Obama officials have
pointed out, the BDA sanctions consisted of an unpopular US administration asking
countries to participate whereas the current ones are the UN directing member nations
to comply with their requirements.
- The BDA law enforcement initiative was derided at the time by critics who characterized
it as a neoconservative attempt to undermine the six-party nuclear negotiations.
But now senior Obama Administration officials privately characterize the BDA initiative
as very effective and that the Bush decision to rescind it was "a mistake that eased pressure
on Pyongyang before it took irreversible steps to dismantle its nuclear program."
- Sanctions, like engagement, are a means to an ends, not an ends in themselves. Instead
they are to be used in conjunction with other tools to bring about a change in North
Ironies abound in the current US policy toward North Korea
In response to North Korean escalatory behavior, President Barack Obama has largely
the policy of the first six years of Bush, even using strikingly similar rhetoric.
Someone awakening from a long slumber could be forgiven for concluding that a naively
President George W. Bush had been replaced by neoconservative Barack Obama. Moreover,
would assume that the majority of mainstream media must also be neoconservative
had been nary a squeak of criticism about President Obama's firm and unyielding
except from a few isolated angry liberals.
However, those who have followed U.S. policy toward North Korea will remember that
media derided the first six years of the Bush policy as provocatively hardline,
controlled by a
cabal of ideologically-driven neoconservatives. This widely-accepted paradigm persisted
North Korean violations and provocations.
The paradigm was superseded by another in which the Bush administration was praised
its final two years for seeing the light and adopting the pragmatic, realist policy
by Democrats (e.g. Senators Kerry, Biden, and Clinton). Yet now, Obama officials
comment that they "won't repeat the failures of the Chris Hill approach, including
illusory progress and not keeping our allies fully informed of secret agreements."
Despite the similarities in rhetoric, actions, and preconditions of the Obama administration's
current approach to North Korean and the first 5-6 years of the Bush administration,
been a conspicuous difference, however, in the response of the media and pundits.
criticized Bush officials are now silent over virtually verbatim statements by the
administration. One can't help but be struck by the hypocrisy of the media and pundits.
A few examples:
North Korea as tyranny
- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (January 2005): "there remain outposts of tyranny --
and America stands with oppressed people on every continent ... in Cuba, and Burma,
and North Korea."
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (February 2009): "South Korea's prosperity and
democracy stood in stark contrast to the tyranny and poverty across the border to the North."
- Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post (2007): "Rice had already made the diplomatic
impasse worse with a rookie misstep during her confirmation hearings, when she referred
to North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny" just as North Korea was looking for a
signal of respect."
- The New York Times (February 2009) described Secretary Clinton's Asia trip, during
which she called North Korea a tyranny, as "reshap[ing] diplomacy by tossing the
script" and "redefining the job of secretary of state, fusing the weighty themes of regional
security and nuclear proliferation with lighter encounters [by] exploiting her megawatt celebrity."
North Korean impasse not a crisis
- Secretary of State Colin Powell (December 2002 - in response to North Korea's vow
to reopen the Yongbyon reactor): "It is not a crisis, but it is a matter of concern."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (May 2009): "I don't think the North Korean nuclear
program represents a direct threat to the United States."...the Obama administration
did not consider the weapons tests of last week a "crisis."
- Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) (December 2002): "it is indeed a crisis for which
he blamed President Bush. 'the policy that the administration has followed thus far
has made a difficult situation into a dangerous one.'"
- Senator Tom Dashle (D-SD) (February 2003): "scolded Mr. Bush for playing down the
threat from North Korea
Insisting on North Korean preconditions prior to negotiations
- Undersecretary of State John Bolton (March 2004): the U.S. "will not provide
inducements or reward the North Koreans to come back into compliance with their
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (July 2009): "We do not intend to reward North
Korea just for returning to the table, nor do we intend to reward them for actions they
have already committed to taking."
- Democratic Senators (January 2003): criticized Bush's refusal to promptly resume
negotiations with North Korea. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) said the Bush administration
"should meet face to face with North Korea so as to prevent any miscalculations."
- Senator Tom Dashle (D-SD) (February 2003): urged President Bush to "immediately
engage the North Koreans in direct talks."
The Path Ahead.
North Korea has shifted away from its policy of rapid-fire provocations and turned
to the other
page in their playbook and is now engaging in another charm offensive. Now there
swirling about the Sung Kim-Li Gun meetings; the potential for a Bosworth trip to
and even an inter-Korean summit. In months to come, there may be a growing chorus
calling for reciprocal gestures by throwing more inducements to Pyongyang and lowering
of North Korean compliance to UN resolutions. The Obama administration must reject
Success depends on sustaining extensive international sanctions against North Korea
aberrant behavior that triggered them is rectified rather than abandoning them in
return only for
Pyongyang's willingness to return to the negotiating table. Principles shouldn't
be abandoned for
Long-Term Strategy Needed
Now that the Obama administration has been in place for some time and is not having
respond to a provocation a day, the US Congress should call upon the Administration
articulate its long-term strategy toward Pyongyang. A strategic blueprint should
describe how the
Administration will use all the instruments of national power to achieve North Korean
abandonment of its nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration should also define
alternative policy options should there be no diplomatic solution to the North Korean
problem, as well as contingency plans for a North Korean leadership succession.
Recommendations for US policy toward North Korea - three track
Track 1. Punitive sanctions.
- Require that all U.N. member nations fully implement existing U.N. resolution
requirements to prevent North Korea's procurement and export of missile- and WMD-
related items and technology and freeze the financial assets of any complicit North
Korean or foreign person, company, bank, or government entity.
- Close the loopholes: A provision for allowing the use of military means to
enforce the resolution should be included, and a 30-day deadline for North
Korean compliance should be imposed.
- Call upon the UN to target both ends of the proliferation pipeline. If the UN fails
to do so, the US should do so with its own list and then coordinate a parallel,
- Resume enforcing international U.S. law, including Section 311 of the USA
PATRIOT Act, against North Korean illicit activities such as currency counterfeiting,
money laundering, production and distribution of illegal drugs, and counterfeit
- Initiate a sub-rosa effort of financial, military, law enforcement, and intelligence
organizations in addition to formally announced sanctions, as was done in parallel
with Banco Delta Asia
Track 2. Strengthen Defensive Measures
- Since international diplomacy and UN resolutions did not prevent North Korea from
continuing its development of nuclear weapons and ICBM delivery capabilities, the
US should continue to develop and deploy missile defense systems
- Reverse planned budget cuts to missile defense
- Call on South Korea to deploy a multi-layered missile defense system that is
interoperable with a U.S. regional missile network.
- Augment non-proliferation efforts
- Affirm the alliances and US extended deterrence commitment
Track 3. Keep the door open for negotiations
It's not a question of whether to engage North Korea, but of how to do so. Negotiations
should be based on principles of compliance, conditionality, reciprocity and verification.
Getting Nuclear Negotiations Right.
- Affirm that the objective is the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea;
- Develop, in conjunction with North Korea's neighbors, a strategic blueprint clearly
defining the desired end-state, objectives, and requirements for all parties, as
well as a roadmap delineating the linkages, schedule, and metrics for achieving measurable results;
- Insist that North Korea comply with its existing Six-Party Talks agreements and
not allow Pyongyang to use brinksmanship and threats to redefine the parameters of the negotiations;
- Realize that talking is not progress;
- Require that subsequent Six-Party Talks joint statements are sufficiently detailed
to prevent North Korea from again exploiting loopholes in order to avoid full compliance;
- Insist on a rigorous and intrusive verification requirements;
- Define redlines and their consequences;
- Establish deadlines with consequences for failure to meet them;
- Emphasize that North Korea's refusal of dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo prevents
South Korea and Japan from providing economic and diplomatic benefits.
Expanding Policy Beyond the Six-Party Talks - adding lanes to the road of engagement
The Six-Party Talks need not be, nor should be, the only focus of North Korea policy.
There are other areas of concern, as well as other opportunities for transforming the
North Korean regime. :
- Washington should adopt a comprehensive, integrated approach with Pyongyang by
adding lanes to the policy road.
- An extensive yet conditional approach would be to offer Pyongyang a path to
greater economic, developmental, and diplomatic benefits while still insisting on
conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency.
- Negotiating venues should be pursued bilaterally or multilaterally depending on
their impact on a country's national interests.
- Not all forms of engagement should be linked to the Six-Party Talks, such as
humanitarian aid and law enforcement.
- The U.S. should denounce North Korea's human rights abuses and take steps to improve
living conditions for its citizens.
- The U.S. should expand public diplomacy to promote greater exposure of North Korean
officials and citizens to the outside world.
- END -
This page last updated 10/30/2009 jdb