The ICAS Lectures


Discussion on the North Korea's Threat

Robert Joseph

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 13, 2017 Friday 8:30 pm - 4:30 pm
Lehrman Auditorium
The Heritage Foundation
224 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC 20002

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Robert Joseph

Discussion on the North Korea's Threat

Robert Joseph
Senior Scholar, National Institute for Public Policy

Good morning. Thank you for that kind introduction. Let me start by thanking the organizers of this event for the invitation to speak here today and for all the good work they do. I also want to thank my friends at the Heritage Foundation for the great work they do to keep our nation safe and secure. No one does it better. Your efforts make a real difference.

This morning I will divide my remarks on the Korean nuclear situation into three sections. First, I will look at the past because, as my academic colleagues are fond of saying, the past is prologue. That is a rather erudite way of saying that we need to understand how we got into this mess if we are going to succeed in fashioning an effective way forward to counter the threat we face from a now, nuclear-armed North Korea.

Second, I will address the current security environment which I characterize as the culmination of a 25-year long continuum - how it reflects consistency with a long-established pattern of North Korean provocations and, more importantly, how this pattern may be coming to an end - a very dangerous end that compels us, the United States, to change the strategic paradigm and ensure we have the right policies and capabilities to deal with what is the most urgent threat we face as a nation.

And third, I will present what I believe are the necessary steps to counter North Korea. Together, these steps will require a fundamental change in how we deal with Pyongyang.

This past Monday, my friend, Eric Edelman and I published a piece in the Weekly Standard which is sub-titled "The Sorry History of our North Korean Policy." While our primary focus is on the mistakes made in the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, we note that the desire for nuclear weapons dates to the founding of the North Korean state under Kim Il- sung.

In the article we walk through the failed efforts to find a negotiated solution to the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons, staring with the North-South Joint Declaration of December 1991 -- renouncing the possession, not only of nuclear weapons, but also of plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.

This was followed by the IAEA safeguards agreement in early 1992 that, once implementation began, quickly led to the so- called first nuclear crisis, which was temporarily resolved, or -- more accurately -- which was placed on hold in a very Potemkinesk manner -- with the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

That agreement, as I'm sure you are all aware, called for North Korea to freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear facilities along with a "special inspections" regime for the IAEA to verify compliance. The North also agreed not to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. But we now know that, as with all previous agreements - the NPT, the North South Declaration, and the IAEA safeguards - Pyongyang was violating the Agreed Framework even as the ink was drying.

Some of us suspected that to be the case at the time and opposed the Agreed Framework because it served to reward the North for its deceit and, perhaps even more important, it gave the North time - time to advance its nuclear program.

When the Bush Administration assumed office in January 2001, it undertook an interagency review of North Korean policy, which I chaired for the nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Based in part on the recommendations of that review, President Bush took a tough line on the Agreed Framework from the outset -- an agreement that the new President repeatedly referred to as a "mistake" - at least for his first six years in office. Nevertheless, primarily for alliance management purposes, the new Administration took the initial position that it would honor the Agreed Framework as long as North Korea continued to abide by it.

Many of the career officials who had worked on the Clinton Agreed Framework, understandably, were committed to the approach of engagement and resisted efforts at a tougher approach. As a result, the first two years of the Bush 43 Administration were taken up with bureaucratic infighting among those who wanted to preserve the Agreed Framework at all costs and those who wanted to take a different approach.

That different approach would seek to mobilize North Korea's neighbors who, it was assumed, shared an interest in preventing the nuclearization of the peninsula. It would also address the North's ballistic missile proliferation and its massive conventional fire power arrayed within range of Seoul, and it would highlight the country's human rights violations.

Eric and I were clearly in the camp of those who advocated coercive diplomacy, including the development of new tools such as tougher financial sanctions and international efforts, like the Proliferation Security Initiative, to interdict North Korea illicit activities, particularly those related to nuclear and missile proliferation.

The fate of the Agreed Framework was sealed by intelligence reporting that suggested that Pyongyang had been cheating all along. In the early to mid-1990s, the Kim regime launched a large scale, clandestine effort, aided by the notorious A.Q. Khan network, to create a uranium enrichment capability giving Pyongyang another pathway to nuclear weapons. The results of that effort were later made clear with the visit of Sig Hecker, a committed supporter of the Agreed Framework, to the North's fully functioning, industrial scale uranium enrichment facility in 2009.

But going back to the Bush Administration timeline, with the North's October 2002 acknowledgement of possessing an enrichment program, the Agreed Framework collapsed and Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT in early 2003.

It was at this time that the President and NSC Principals agreed on a strategy of "tailored containment" that sought to pressure the North Korean regime with the goal of changing the regime's calculus by underscoring that nuclear weapons were not a guarantor of regime survival but a threat to it.

If it proved impossible to change that calculus, over time, these stringent measures might provoke a change in the regime's composition that might lead to a negotiated denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. In the meantime, other nations were included in the 6 Party Talks framework for negotiation to maximize pressure on the North Koreans. Unfortunately, the tailored containment strategy was never fully implemented mostly because the Administration was divided on how to achieve the goal of denuclearization.

Descriptions of North Korean policy during the Bush Administration frequently suggest that the debate was between those who favored negotiation and those who didn't and that the opponents had no real alternative to the policy of engagement. This is a convenient fiction used to justify the ongoing process of serial concessions. The real issue was not the question of negotiations but on what terms the negotiations would take place.

Armed with new sanctions, like those that the Treasury Department imposed on Banco Delta Asia, a Macao-based bank through which illicit gains from the North's counterfeiting, drug trafficking and other criminal activities flowed into the coffers of the Kim family, the U.S. in September 2005 won North Korea's agreement to the objective of abandoning "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards."

But as with past agreements, almost immediately, pressures began to build-up, that in order to keep the negotiations moving forward, the U.S. would have to make more concessions to North Korean concerns, particularly about the funds frozen by the Banco Delta Asia sanctions.

Along the way, the BDA funds were returned to Pyongyang, the North Koreans were taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and were relieved of the burdens of being subject to the Trading with the Enemy Act. It also meant turning a blind eye to North Korean noncompliance and misdeeds. The most dramatic instances of which were, in rapid succession, the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006, and the discovery in the spring of 2007 that North Korea was building a Yongbyon- like reactor in the Syrian desert.

In return for these multiple concessions, the U.S. sought a complete declaration of the North's nuclear program and fulfillment of the other steps called for in September 2005. But that was not what the U.S. received. Instead it got an incomplete declaration that ignored the uranium enrichment program and failed to mention the transfer of a nuclear reactor to Syria. When the U.S. finally rejected the North's declaration, the negotiations collapsed.

Even before President Obama had taken the oath of office, the North announced that it had weaponized all of the plutonium it had harvested from Yongbyon. In April, Pyongyang tested a three-stage ballistic missile and in May 2009, it conducted a second nuclear test.

Perhaps chastened by this experience, the Obama Administration determined that arms control diplomacy with North Korea should be put on the back burner. But with the death of Kim Chong-il and the transfer of power to Kim Chong- un, the development of the North Korean arsenal continued apace. The fecklessness of the Obama policy of "strategic patience" is reflected in the advancement of the North's nuclear and missile programs as we see today.

There are many lessons from this depressing story of past policy failures. Perhaps most important is that failure to apply pressure on the Kim regime to achieve denuclearization would ultimately result in North Korea as a nuclear power which is, unfortunately, where we find ourselves at present.

Now let me turn to the current situation - a subject that I can't seem to stop writing about -- having published three articles in National Review since the 3rd of July - the day before the first of two ICBM tests that ignited the current crisis. In all three, I argue that the Trump Administration must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy of effective containment and encouraging regime change from within. I can't say the last two words loud enough -- from within.

How many people in this room think the Kim regime will give up its missiles or nuclear weapons in negotiations? Yet, under three previous administrations, the U.S. has followed the failed path of negotiations to achieve de-nuclearization, using a combination of carrots and sticks - sanctions and concessions, and of course, getting China to do more.

While the rhetoric has differed markedly, all three presidents accepted the same basic assumptions and employed the same economic and diplomatic tools with the same results. For 25 years, North Korea has moved forward with its missile and nuclear programs.

So, for the sake of argument, and putting aside the use of force for the moment, the issue becomes rather binary: either one accepts North Korea as a nuclear weapons state with the ability to strike U.S. cities, or you seek to replace that regime. This might entail a coup engineered by China or another internal shift of power that ends the Kim dynasty. Its replacement need not be a unified Korea allied with the United States. Here again, let me repeat: its replacement need not be a unified Korea allied with the United States. But it must be a government that ends the nuclear and missile programs.

The principal rationale and my principal concern have to do more with the next crisis than the current one. With the test of a possible hydrogen device, Kim Jung Un has now played his most powerful card. But, like the launch of ballistic missiles over Japan and threats of an EMP attack on the United States, this latest move is straight out of Pyongyang's playbook and entirely consistent with the now familiar cycle of provocation, crisis and temporary resolution that has played out repeatedly for over two decades.

But this long-established pattern may be coming to a rapid end with potentially enormous consequences for U.S. security and that of our allies. In late August, General Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided what some consider a reassuring assessment of North Korea's missile capabilities, stating that the North "has yet to demonstrate it has the requisite technology and capability to target and strike the United States with a nuclear weapon."

Yet, Pyongyang may well be on the verge of achieving exactly that capability, perhaps with high yield warheads on relatively inaccurate missiles. In fact, Mike Morell, former CIA Deputy, publicly suggested early last month that the North may already have the ability to strike U.S. cities with nucler weapons. He rightly warned against what he calls a fundamental mistake of logic: "just because North Korea has not yet demonstrated a capability does not mean it does not have it."

When the North does possess nuclear-armed ICBMs able to hold even a small number of American cities at risk, the entire rules of the game will change. Possessing the capability to target U.S. cities with nuclear weapons could fundamentally alter the dynamic of Pyongyang's calculations.

Today, the stated policy of the Kim regime is the unification of the Peninsula, by force if necessary. But North Korea appears to understand that, under present circumstances, it would lose an all-out war with the U.S. and its allies. The North's conventional forces are outmatched by American and South Korean forces, which include large numbers of troops and equipment that would flow into the theater during a conflict.

Even if Pyongyang employed large-scale chemical and biological warfare, which it is almost certainly prepared to do, the overwhelming response by the U.S., perhaps not limited to conventional retaliation, could well mean the elimination of the Kim regime.

The key for North Korea then is to change what it calls the "correlation of forces" by deterring the United States and others from coming to the assistance of the South, especially blocking reinforcements based in Japan, Guam and the U.S. homeland.

The means to do this, according to Pyongyang's propaganda machine, is to threaten American and Japanese cities with nuclear destruction. This is the reason the North devotes enormous resources to its nuclear and missile programs - not only to deter an attack by the U.S. or to deter U.S. intervention if the regime is unraveling, as we saw with Libya -- but to deter the U.S. from coming to the assistance of Seoul when the North moves south.

Conventional wisdom has long discounted this thinking as overly risky on the part of Pyongyang, but from the North's perspective -- which is the one that matters most -- believing it can deter the U.S. may be a gamble worth taking - and we know Kim is a gambler. Whether rational or not, if he thinks he can deter the U.S., the likelihood of the next crisis escalating to armed conflict increases substantially. Many wars, including the Korean war started by the first Kim, have resulted from misunderstandings and miscommunication and the next Korean crisis may lead to that outcome.

So let me turn to what I believe are the necessary steps - both on a national and international basis -- to counter North Korea and to best prepare for the next Korean crisis.

One way would be to use military force to destroy North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities. Both President Trump and Secretary Mattis have stated that there are many military options. And there may be many. But, at least in my view, all of them carry great risks and costs. While we must be prepared to respond with overwhelming force to the use of force by the North, a preemptive attack on a scale necessary to destroy the North's missile and nuclear programs could result in large-scale conflict with hundreds of thousands if not millions of casualties.

Would our allies, particularly South Korea, be willing to go along? Would we be willing to accept the cost in lives and national treasure?

The decision to employ or not employ preemptive force to eliminate the North's nuclear and missile capabilities will be the President's alone and given his recent comments, he may be close that decision. To improve the circumstances and possibly reduce the need to use force, I believe the U.S. should take the following actions to meet the growing North Korean threat:

The above approach will be decried as the abandonment of diplomacy in favor of the military option. This is particularly the case for those who wrongly equate diplomacy with negotiations and for those who wrongly argue that the only choice is between negotiation and war.

In fact, it is continuing the failed approach of the past that will lead not to denuclearization but to conflict, either because the President feels compelled to preempt or because Kim Jung Un believes he can win a war of unification.

What is required is the redirection of our diplomacy within the framework of a broader strategy to achieve denuclearization while reducing the prospect for conflict. To succeed, new avenues need to be pursued through diplomatic channels to further isolate North Korea and to encourage regime change from within, as I said, either by encouraging Chinese intervention to replace the Kim dynasty or by providing hope and resources to the repressed population of the North.

Specifically, I would offer the following five candidates for consideration as part of a proactive diplomatic game plan that would make known to North Korea the prospect for meaningful consequences in advance of further nuclear and missile tests. In the past, the approach has been to react to provocations, primarily with UN Security Council condemnations and additional sanctions, often resulting in the dumbing down of the adopted responses. International consensus to take firm action in the event of provocations may well be easier to achieve before rather than after the fact.

  1. Reenergize both the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict North Korean trafficking in WMD and missile technology and the multinational efforts to deny North Korea access to the international financial system.

  2. Build consensus with U.S. allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, and perhaps the broader international community to approve in advance the shooting down of any North Korean missile flying outside the North's boarders. We may be very close to taking this action and support in advance from regional states and the international community would be helpful in managing the aftermath.

  3. Build international consensus to have those states who continue to have diplomatic relations with North Korea commit in advance to respond to any further nuclear test by suspending or cutting off all ties.

  4. Seek broad support for the proposition that any further nuclear test is a threat to international peace and security, thereby justifying countermeasures, potentially including a blockade, as was done around Cuba in 1962. And

  5. Initiate and fund robust international efforts to highlight the brutality and gross human rights violations of the North Korean regime. This is the greatest vulnerability of the regime and the key to fundamental change from within.

Whether the Trump administration will move in the direction I have outlined is unclear. What is clear is that it is now urgent that the U.S. fundamentally change the paradigm. Sanctions and diplomacy are important but not sufficient. They are tools, not strategies. They will not succeed on their own.

Likewise, the preemptive use of armed force - wrongly, but often, suggested as the only alternative to continuing the failed approach of the past - is also not a strategy but a tool - one that carries a high risk of escalation.

The Trump Administration is reportedly conducting a review of North Korea policy. The next step is to do the hard work of fashioning and implementing an effective strategy that integrates the diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military instruments required to respond to the threat.

To be successful, the strategy must be directed not at denuclearization through negotiation but at containment, deterrence, and regime change from within for - absent the use of force -- it is only through those measures that we will achieve an end to the North's missile and nuclear threats.

Many observers of North Korea reject the notion of regime change - even from within -- as too dangerous. Instead, they continue to propose the policies of the past - especially negotiations -- supplemented and supported by sanctions and concessions.

But this failed approach has allowed the North to develop a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and now ICBM- class ballistic missiles. We are at a critical cross road that demands sound policy goals and an effective strategy. We need to put aside the hope that - the next time - Pyongyang will negotiate in good faith. We must not allow hope to triumph over experience. Hope is never a sound foundation for dealing with threats to our nation.

Until the Kim regime falls, the North will remain a dangerous enemy that needs to be treated as such. This will require skilled diplomacy, careful alliance management, robust efforts to highlight the brutality and human rights violations of the regime, a conventional defense and nuclear deterrent capability that the North will know not to challenge, and the deployment of truly effective missile defenses to provide the necessary protection of American cities if deterrence fails.

Thank you. I look forward to our discussion.

DETERRENCE: First - dynamics are different. In cold War, deter the Soviet Union from expanding outward. With North Korea, Pyongyang may be seeking to deter us from coming in to assist our ally, South Korea. While sometimes compared to the threat faced by the United States in the 1962 Cuban missile crises, North Korea may well be even more dangerous. Led by a tyrant with little regard for his own people, and willing to gamble against high odds to secure his goals, the risk of miscommunication and misunderstandings with the North are much higher than those that existed with the Soviet>
The responses of the Trump administration -- sanctions, pressuring China, and calling for negotiations -- have failed in every past administration to change Pyongyang's behavior. And despite the high-fiving over the latest Security Council resolution, there is no reason to believe the outcome will be different this time. Given the failures of the past and the nature of the threat now posed by North Korea, it is dangerously delusional to think that sanctions will stop Kim Jung Un from continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and missile force. It is equally self-deluding to think that President Xi will sever the lifeline China provides to the North given Beijing's broader regional ambitions and its concerns over a unified Korea allied with the United States. And it is simple fantasy to think that North Korea will negotiate away its nuclear and missile capabilities.

While arms control was an important component of U.S. strategy during the Cold War, the central focus was on containment of the Soviet Union until it dissolved from its own internal weaknesses and contradictions. By any standard, North Korea is not the Soviet Union. It is even more vulnerable and less stable.

This page last updated October 15, 2017 jdb