Rolling Back the Growing North Korean Threat

The policies of the last three US Presidents that were designed to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons have failed. Despite twenty-five years of consistent US policies focused on multilateral dialogue and an ever-improving US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance, the North Korean nuclear threat to the region and to the US homeland is accelerating.
The Issue

Background: The Threat

North Korea (DPRK) has pursued its nuclear and missile programs for more than three decades. Over the past four years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has conducted thirty-five missile tests (twice as many as his predecessor, Kim Jong-Il, conducted in his eighteen-year reign) along with three of Pyongyang’s five nuclear tests. North Korea, the only country ever to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to test nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century, is currently estimated to possess between eight and twenty nuclear devices. Projections suggest that within ten years North Korea could wield a fifty-weapon arsenal that will include operational Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which may become part of a robust land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear arsenal, such as Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that could be launched from North Korean submarines operating in the Pacific Ocean.

North Korean deployment of SLBMs would represent a quantum increase in the threat to the United States, to the extent that North Korean submarines would be capable of operating closer and striking any target in the United States. With such a nuclear “shield,” the North could be emboldened to pursue a much more aggressive foreign policy. This could include increasingly dangerous provocations and the sale of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) to other nations and terrorist groups for much-needed cash.

Estimated maximum range of North Korean missiles.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pyongyang has a growing family of missiles such as the short-range Scuds and the medium-range Nodong (1300 km), which can reach US bases in South Korea (ROK) and Japan and which could be fitted with miniaturized nuclear warheads. The intermediate-range Musudan, the Taepodong 1 and 2 ICBMs, and the KN08 mobile ICBM are in development, as are sea-based missile launchers. Together, these weapons systems suggest that North Korea is seeking a multifaceted dyad or possibly triad force, which could be used to threaten or fight a nuclear war.

"North Korean deployment of SLBMs would represent a quantum increase in the threat to the United States..."

In light of these dangerous trends, both the credibility of US extended deterrence to South Korea and Japan and the broader effectiveness of these core US alliances may be increasingly called into question.

Those who claim that deterrence will hold even when the DPRK has such an arsenal are counting on three dubious assumptions:

  1. That the DPRK leadership will share the same concepts of deterrence dynamics as US leaders;
  2. That nuclear stability will hold during a crisis; and
  3. That the DPRK’s national security decision-making process is necessarily rational and effective.


North Korea is the top near-term nonproliferation and global nuclear challenge. It could become a major source of strategic tension between the United States and China. Since 1991, the North Korea policies of four US Presidents—from George H. W. Bush through Barack Obama—have failed to make progress on the United States’ top three policy goals:

Policy goal #1: Negotiate the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities

Policy goal #2: Advance North-South reconciliation toward eventual peaceful reunification

Policy goal #3: Redress the grave condition of human rights in North Korea

KCNA picture shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un providing field guidance during a tactical rocket firing drill carried out by units of the KPA Strategic Force in the western sector of the front.

Pyongyang has walked away from a series of agreements that aimed to address its security and economic concerns, beginning with a 1991 North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization. Initial high-level diplomacy during the H. W. Bush administration led to the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework, which brokered a freeze on North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing in exchange for a package of energy, economic, and security benefits. In 2002, US intelligence discovered that North Korea had secretly begun an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program in violation of the accord, and the Framework broke down.

If North Korea accelerates its programs, diplomatic options recede. In the months since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September 2016, there have been many proposals for new diplomatic deals. Last November, the United Nations Security Council passed UNSC resolution 2321, which tightened up some loopholes in US sanctions, further curbing Pyongyang’s coal exports and access to hard currency. However, as China accounts for roughly 90 percent of North Korean trade, the utility of UNSC resolutions depends substantially on Beijing’s willingness to enforce UN rules.

"If North Korea accelerates its programs, diplomatic options recede."

The United States has also imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korean entities, and the US Treasury Department may sanction banks in any country holding North Korean accounts, with the aim of completely precluding North Korea’s access to the international financial system.

In numerous public statements and unofficial discussions, North Korean officials have made clear that North Korea intends to remain a nuclear power and has no interest in trading away its nuclear weapons. 

Policy Options

“High-Pressure Containment”

Due to the grave risks that a North Korea with an operational ICBM would entail for US security interests, continuing to pursue status quo policies is not an option. Time is against us.

The foremost goal of a new policy of “High-Pressure Containment” would be to convince the DPRK leadership that unless it halts its nuclear weapons programs and restarts diplomacy to eliminate them, it will have neither a viable economy nor future.

This policy requires seven steps.

 Step 1–Multilateral Escalation of Sanctions

Work with China and others to escalate sanctions.

Step up efforts to end North Korean access to the international financial system and all sources of hard currency. Launch new five-party efforts to enforce United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and coordinate policies broadly.

 Step 2–Trilateral Military Enhancement

Work closely with Seoul and Tokyo to develop trilateral military posture enhancements focused on countering the growing North Korean threat.

These should include greatly increased missile defenses; increased Special Operations Forces deployments; and redeployment of US bombers to the region. These robust enhancements will put pressure on China to do more.

US Defense Secretary Mattis talks with South Korean Defense Minister Han during their meeting at the headquarters of the Defense Ministry in Seoul.

 Step 3–Press and Push

Push the envelope with China.

Test China’s new willingness to rein in North Korea and press for joint enforcement of sanctions and more transparency on their border trade with North Korea. After a sixth nuclear test, press for a full UNSC ban on coal exports and press China to significantly cut back oil shipments. Sanctions will only work if China is willing to enforce them.
Beijing understands that North Korea will either be a source of cooperation or confrontation in US-China relations. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants more stable US-China relations and increasingly sees North Korea more as a liability than an asset. This understanding could be used to stimulate much more intensive Chinese efforts vis-à-vis North Korea and achieve our goals.

 Step 4–Cyber Disruption

Significantly step up US cyber reconnaissance and offensive activities.

Constrain, disrupt, and disable North Korea’s nuclear weapons-related research, programs, manufacturing, and services.

A view of the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 guided by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the spot, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 13, 2017.

 Step 5–Declare the Three No's

Issue a new declaratory policy to North Korea.

It should include “The Three No's”:

No use of WMDs or it will result in the assured destruction of North Korea and reunification under Seoul’s auspices.
No export of nuclear equipment or fissile material or it will be intercepted by any means possible; in such a scenario, the United States will retaliate in a form and manner of its choosing.
No missile or missile test aimed toward the ROK, Japan, or the United States in violation of UNSC resolutions or the United States reserves the right to shoot down or pre-empt the action.

 Step 6–Communicate

Develop ongoing back- and front-channel communications.

The intel-to-intel channel could be initiated through the United States and ROK, respectively, with DPRK intelligence contacts to quietly clarify and emphasize US positions and to probe a North Korean moratorium on nuclear tests, missile tests, and fissile material production. In addition, and in active consultation with our ROK counterparts, we also should offer to reopen the regular US-DPRK dialogue conducted by the State Department and the DPRK “New York Channel” or at higher levels.

Make clear that the United States is open to dialogue based on the September 2005 Agreed Statement, which is comprehensive and links denuclearization to energy and economic aid, US-DPRK normalization, security guarantees, and a peace treaty. As North Korea walked away from that agreement, they must demonstrate sincerity (e.g., a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing) and willingness to put their nuclear weapons program back on the table to enable restarting of the Six-Party Talks.

The new Moon ROK government should pursue a similar approach, but might be advised to avoid “sunshine” policy measures that provide direct economic benefits. Instead focus on “people-to-people” cultural, sports, and educational exchanges, expanded divided family visits, and North-South mail, telecommunications, train, and air links.

 Step 7–Inform

Institute an “active measures” influence campaign.

Distribute information in North Korea and work to improve human rights. Significantly enhance rewards for defectors.
Finally, a clear and consistent messaging campaign is essential to garner US public support and to signal our unambiguous policy to our allies and adversaries. That includes knowing when to be silent.

Barry Pavel is a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. 

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and its Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council.


This piece is written and published in accordance with the Atlantic Council Policy on Intellectual Independence. The authors are solely responsible for its analysis and recommendations. The Atlantic Council and its donors do not determine, nor do they necessarily endorse or advocate for, any of this report’s conclusions.

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© 2017 The Atlantic Council of the United States. All rights reserved.

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