The ICAS Lectures


North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Threats

Bruce Klingner

ICAS Fall Symposium
The Korean Peninsula Issues

October 28, 2009 1:30 PM -- 5:00 PM
United States House of Representatives Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
Capitol Hill, Washington DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Bruce Klingner

North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Threats

Bruce Klingner

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:
  1. Barack Obama would pursue a fundamentally different policy toward North Korea than President Bush
  2. The change in US leadership would lead North Korea to feel less threatened and, therefore, it would abandon its policy of provocations.
  3. This, in turn, would lead to a significant improvement in bilateral relations between the US and North Korea
  4. 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.
  5. All of these would lead to a breakthrough in 2009 in achieving North Korean denuclearization.
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. A case of "continuity we can believe in."

Despite the perception of a major shift in U.S. policy, Obama was going to face the same 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 with Pyongyang that Obama advocated.

Yet there was continued North Korean intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship. Even removing North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list didn't break the negotiating logjam. Nor had diplomats begun the real negotiations to discuss the actual elimination of nuclear weapons three years after Pyongyang agreed to do so.

North Korea's rapid-fire series of provocations in 2009 quickly put those other beginning-of-year perceptions to rest. These provocations began even before the Obama administration had an opportunity to reach out. Indeed on the eve of inauguration with strong statements outlining 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, even that position was deemed insufficient for North Korea to give up its status as a nuclear weapons state 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 and commendably altered its policy direction dramatically to incorporate a two-track policy of 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 sticks, to another ineffective extreme of all carrots. All along it should have a comprehensive strategic policy utilizing all the instruments of national power.

With these provocations, North Korea has proven to be its own worst enemy since Obama's initial willingness to engage. Cumulatively, these provocations and Pyongyang biting the outstretched hand of dialogue:

  • Created a much greater sense of pessimism in Washington that denuclearization progress was possible;
  • 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 was never able to achieve.

Is a two track policy guaranteed to bring about North Korean denuclearization? Of course not. 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 abandoned. However:
  1. 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.
  2. 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 reported publicly.
    • 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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."
  5. 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 Korean behavior.

Ironies abound in the current US policy toward North Korea

In response to North Korean escalatory behavior, President Barack Obama has largely adopted 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 liberal President George W. Bush had been replaced by neoconservative Barack Obama. Moreover, one would assume that the majority of mainstream media must also be neoconservative since there had been nary a squeak of criticism about President Obama's firm and unyielding pressure tactics except from a few isolated angry liberals.

However, those who have followed U.S. policy toward North Korea will remember that the U.S. 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 despite North Korean violations and provocations.

The paradigm was superseded by another in which the Bush administration was praised during its final two years for seeing the light and adopting the pragmatic, realist policy long advocated by Democrats (e.g. Senators Kerry, Biden, and Clinton). Yet now, Obama officials privately comment that they "won't repeat the failures of the Chris Hill approach, including accepting 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, there has been a conspicuous difference, however, in the response of the media and pundits. Those who criticized Bush officials are now silent over virtually verbatim statements by the current 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 international obligations."
  • 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 are rumors swirling about the Sung Kim-Li Gun meetings; the potential for a Bosworth trip to North Korea; and even an inter-Korean summit. In months to come, there may be a growing chorus of voices calling for reciprocal gestures by throwing more inducements to Pyongyang and lowering the bar of North Korean compliance to UN resolutions. The Obama administration must reject this tired siren song.

Success depends on sustaining extensive international sanctions against North Korea until the 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 parsimonious progress.

Long-Term Strategy Needed

Now that the Obama administration has been in place for some time and is not having to quickly respond to a provocation a day, the US Congress should call upon the Administration to 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 its alternative policy options should there be no diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear 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, multilateral effort.
  • 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 pharmaceuticals.
  • 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.

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This page last updated 10/30/2009 jdb

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