Discussion on the North Korea's Threat
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
- First, stop making counterproductive statements. Reciting
talking points from the regional Bureau at the State
Department that the U.S. does not want the North to be
an enemy, or that Pyongyang is showing "restraint" when
in fact it is only preparing more missile launches and
nuclear tests, projects an image of weakness that only
encourages the North to continue its provocations to test
U.S. resolve. At least for now, these comments seem to
have ceased given the President's tweets about talking or
not talking with the North Koreans. But I have no doubt
that they will surface again from the usual suspects.
- Second, take firm actions to demonstrate both U.S.
capability and resolve, including rebuilding U.S. theater
nuclear capabilities to strengthen deterrence and reassure
allies. Consider in particular the rebuilding of the nuclear
sea-based Tomahawk force eliminated by the Obama
Administration as part of what was a policy of unilateral
It is also imperative to back the President's talk of massive
funding for missile defenses with both short term and long-
term efforts, including the development and deployment of a
layered homeland missile defense with land-, sea-, and
space-based interceptors and sensors.
In the Obama Administration, in what I consider an almost
criminally negligent series of decisions, ballistic missile
defense of the U.S. homeland was treated as mere trade-bait
with Russia. All programs to counter ICBM threats were
either greatly curtailed or completely ended - such as the
boost phase kinetic energy interceptor, the airborne laser
and the multiple kill vehicle. If we had those capabilities
today, we would be having a much different discussion.
- Third, while we need to retain denuclearization of the
Peninsula as our first order objective, we need to stop
doing what doesn't work - stop indulging in the fantasy
that more sanctions and more pressure on China will alone
produce this desired outcome. While sanctions and
pressuring China can be useful, even essential, elements of
a broader strategy, they are not sufficient.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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 Union.br>
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