12.11.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

USA-North Korea: US Experts Offer Strategies

3412312312Continuing the topic of the American reaction to the development of North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programme, it can be noted that the expert opinions on “what to do and who is to blame” are quite different. Different camps encourage (or disapprove) different versions of the American response on the basis of a very similar set of input data.

Here, we will look at three studies representing various think tanks and political camps.

  • materials drawn up by Jane Harman, the Director of The Woodrow Wilson International Center, former Congressman, and her colleague James Pearson, an expert on Korean issues, published in The Washington Post (supporters of negotiations);
  • the works of Evans Revere, a former diplomat, the Ex-President of the Korean Society and the head of the Albright Stonebridge Group think tank (supporter of hard pressure measures);
  • materials drawn up by Richard Haass, the head of Council on Foreign Relations think tank, a former head of Planning Division of the US Department of State, prepared for publication at The Strategist (focuses on prognostics and risks assessment).

The Current Situation

Each of the three authors notes that the development of the North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programme will mean the next President of the United States faces a very serious challenge, and it requires a different policy – not Obama’s strategic patience.

The following theses are common to all three materials:

  • North Korea has adapted to life with sanctions. It creates and tests ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads regardless. As J. Harman and J. Pearson wrote, “for years we have applied severe unilateral and multilateral sanctions in an attempt to force North Korea to denuclearize”, but “the chosen strategy has not worked”.
  • Moreover, the effectiveness of sanctions is limited due to China’s position. J. Harman and J. Pearson believe that China considers the occurrence of a unified Korea in alliance with the USA as a worse scenario than North Korea with nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, as long as Beijing remains concerned about instability on its border with the North, cooperation with China concerning the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula won’t work to the extent required. E. Revere goes even further, suggesting that the new President will have to deal with the fact that China has changed its position: it seems that the USA has approached the limit of China’s willingness to cooperate, and Beijing does not intend “to do Washington any favours” by expressing solidarity with it concerning the North Korean issue. Accordingly, all the efforts the USA makes to strengthen its sanctions will be met by opposition from China and can lead to a cooling of US-Chinese relations.
  • Nuclear weapons provide North Korea with the capacity to defend itself, thereby strengthening the regime. This prevents it from being dealt with like Libya or Iraq, giving a sense of security to the regime. Therefore, Pyongyang has no intention of using nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool, i.e. denuclearizing in exchange for something. As E. Revere notes, Pyongyang regards the six-party talks as “dead”, and it does not intend to fulfil the decision of the Joint Statement dated September 19, 2005.
  • North Korea will continue to develop its Nuclear and Missile Programme. At that, the North is theoretically able to deliver a blow to the United States, which in itself Revere openly calls “a nightmare”. According to R. Haass, at the moment the arsenal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons amounts to somewhere between eight to twelve warheads and by 2020 it will have succeeded in placing a nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the continental territory of the USA. R. Gallucci is more pessimistic – he believes that by 2020 the arsenal of the North might reach 100 nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads which modern American ABM Defense System may fail to handle (especially if talking about solid fuel rockets). In any case, the threat of North Korea to US interests will only grow.

Pyongyang’s goals are defined by all the authors one and the same way. North Korea believes that the USA will be forced to accept North Korean nuclear status and will begin to negotiate on its own terms. That is why it is raising the stakes: “we are ready to risk starting a nuclear war to achieve our goals – what about you?” However, although the North thinks that the USA will be forced to bow down, the threat of military provocations will only strengthen the US-ROK alliance and lead to the development of countermeasures.

Conservatives, in addition to this, indicate that North Korea has a clandestine goal of nuclear blackmail (wheedling support or demanding negotiations and diplomatic recognition) and seizing South Korea with the aim of introducing communism there. R. Haass believes that if Pyongyang was potentially capable of delivering a strike to the territories of the USA, it may believe that it has no reason to be afraid of America any more and can begin the invasion of South Korea using, regular, non-nuclear weapons.

At the same time, it is understood that it won’t be possible to use Russia and China to apply indirect pressure. J. Harman and J. Pearson specifically note that US analysts have been exaggerating “Pyongyang’s obedience to Beijing” for a long time. Meanwhile, as noted in their article, according to documents from North Korea, Pyongyang has been maintaining the opinion, that Beijing has treated it disrespectfully and violated its sovereignty for many decades.

R. Haass in particular draws attention to the regional consequences of North Korea’s progress in the field of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. If Seoul or Tokyo were to come to the conclusion that North Korea had the capacity to hold back the USA from participating in a war on the Korean peninsula, they would lose confidence in the assurances of security provided by Washington and may begin developing their own nuclear weapons, thus, in its turn, causing increased concern in China. Besides, R. Haass offers the scare story that “facing a shortage of funds, North Korea may yield to temptation to sell its nuclear weapons to the most generous buyer – a terrorist group or another state”.

The right and wrong ways to respond/carry out risk assessment.

As fairly observed by E. Revere, the cost of inaction is unacceptable but there are several solutions and, as Haass notes, “there are several possible actions to take but none of them are particularly pleasant”.

J. Harman and J. Pearson suggested that Washington “show some flexibility”. The USA should understand all the fears of Pyongyang and thus not demand the surrender of weapons or other actions that would “cause an unprotected Pyongyang to become even more rebellious”. They even suggest that Washington “consider the opportunity of suspending joint military exercises with South Korea and offer to sign a non-aggression pact with North Korea, which has long been waited by the latter”. Although this step could only be taken in case of progress in “freezing all North Korean nuclear and missile test programmes and returning the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency”.

Robert Gallucci, the former head of the US delegation in the negotiations with the North, also believes that the next US Government should pay attention to the possibility of dialogue with Pyongyang. But R. Haass believes that Pyongyang will never give up the means and the tools that it considers the best guarantee of its regime survival. Even if negotiations began, North Korea would only use them in order to get more time and achieve greater results in its nuclear and missile programmes.

E. Revere considers five options for the future US leader’s policy, also criticizing the idea of negotiations and paying particular attention to the impact on the US reputation a deal with Pyongyang would have.

Leave everything as it is, gradually increasing the pressure of sanctions and expecting that over time that Pyongyang will agree to denuclearization under such pressure. However, this approach has not worked out yet as the fourth and fifth nuclear tests testify. R. Haass also criticizes this option, noting that China, concerned by possible inflows of refugees and that a unified Korea would be in the US geopolitical orbit, would most likely continue to supply fuel and food needed by North Korea.

The military solution, implying the destruction of both the nuclear and missile infrastructure and the whole supporting infrastructure, including the North Korean ABM Defense system. Such a blow should render the Korean People’s Army unfit for action or at least unable to counter-attack. However (and R. Haass agrees), the risk is that the strike might fail to achieve all the goals and cause North Korea to attack South Korea. Moreover, North Korea would have the chance to severely damage the Republic of Korea using artillery, and besides, the likelihood of a possible counter strike by North Korean WMD must be taken into account. As a result, a pre-emptive strike might grow into a protracted war, which would be a heavy blow for South Korea. In addition, we know that in all likelihood China would not be involved in a conflict if it was initiated by North Korea, but how would it react if the USA were to strike first? Besides that, E. Revere does not particularly believe that even a victory in such a conflict would bring about a good outcome – the process of post-war “stabilization” would be long and difficult. (However, E. Revere supports a hard military response if a conflict was to be initiated by North Korea)

Living with nuclear North Korea, even though its nuclear status is unlikely to be recognized by the NPT. In this case everything would only get worse: it would negate decades of our efforts, undermine the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime, destroy the confidence of Japanese and South Korean allies, which as a result might start thinking of their own nuclear programmes. At the same time, North Korea would not be contained and it would become an increased threat. Moreover, Pyongyang is likely to be buoyed by this success and would continue to blackmail and threaten the international community.

Changing the goal of dialogue. For example, finding a compromise in terms of their proposals regarding concluding a Peace Treaty with the USA instead of the Armistice Agreement (1953). However, it is an illusion to think that Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear programme after taking this step. The Peace Treaty would not be accepted by Seoul, and any declaration of peace on the peninsula would not possible without the participation of the Republic of Korea. In addition, if we were to agree with the proposals put forward by the North, there would be no guarantee that in return it would indeed agree to terms concerning nuclear weapons. In general, according to E. Revere, the peace proposal is aimed at destroying the strategic alliance between the United States and the ROK.

Freezing. Freezing the nuclear programme development and trying to eliminate it over time. This looks like the best solution, but how can it be achieved? Again, a temporary freeze would not end up with denuclearization; there would be a lot of technical issues regarding the verification of whether the programme has actually been frozen (incidentally, this was cause the collapse of the six-party talks); serious warranties can be only provided by on-site monitoring (and North Korea will likely not allow it to be carried out). Therefore, it would all only be an illusion of progress, nothing more. And that’s not to mention the price, which North Korea would ask for agreeing to freeze its programme. In any case, it would take advantage of the break in pressure to build up its military power, albeit not directly related to its nuclear and missile programme.

E. Revere’s plan – “unprecedented pressure on the regime.” The USA and its allies must make North Korea choose between denuclearization and its regime survival in the strictest possible way. If North Korea sees the preservation of the regime as its main purpose and believes that the nuclear programme is the main method of such preservation, the USA must convince Pyongyang that developing the programme will, on the contrary, increase its problems by forcing it to pay an unlimited high price.

What needs to be done to achieve this? E. Revere offers a whole package of actions. Strengthening measures aimed at cutting off all North Korean channels for earning hard currency and removing all possibilities for North Korean companies to do business with UN countries while under sanctions, both international and unilateral. Increasing sanctions up to the level of those applied to Iran, knocking North Korea out of the international banking and financial system; imposing secondary sanctions on anyone cooperating with North Korea (primarily on Chinese companies and banks), forcing them to sever ties with North Korea – right up to full tourism ban. Organizing the strictest inspections and arrests/confiscations of North Korean ships and aircraft, as well as and the ships and aircraft of countries trading with North Korea. Quarantine/sea embargo under the veil of “not allowing North Korea to conduct illegal trade in drugs or goods prohibited by UN resolutions.” Strengthening international pressure and international cooperation for the creation of a united front in order to influence Pyongyang. An information war conducted using the vulnerability of their mobile phones, maximizing the influx of information.

In fact, E. Revere suggests a complete diplomatic and economic blockade (albeit without mentioning the word itself), backed up by military demonstrations and both secret and explicit measures “to exploit the vulnerabilities of the regime”. He understands that this approach carries risks, including increased complexity in terms of relations with China and danger for the Republic of Korea, but Seoul agrees with Washington in that it’s time to take risks to avoid an even more terrible future. South Korean authorities, according to him, are ready to choose the lesser evil for the sake of preventing a greater one: the development of North Korea leaves no other chance.

R. Haass suggests focusing on diplomacy with China. After consultations with Seoul and Tokyo, the USA should hold a meeting with China and offer it an attractive option of what unified Korea would look like. He maintains that China might agree on a compromise if the unified country was guaranteed to be a non-nuclear weapon state, and the contingent of USA forces on the peninsula would be reduced and deployed more to the south than it is now.

If these actions did not lead to significant reduction in China’s support for North Korea, the USA should not focus on a pre-emptive strike, but on strengthening its defence and the deployment of a greater number of ABM systems. Yes, North Korea has missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to the territory of the United States of America, but America has the capacity to destroy them completely before they arrive and can also carry out a much more powerful counter attack. This would create a form of containment where Pyongyang would acknowledge that it would fail anyway.

In addition, if intelligence showed that North Korea was preparing its missiles for military action and was about to deliver a strike, it would be possible to execute a preventive liquidation campaign – the main thing here would be that “intelligence gave accurate reports” in time. In parallel with all this, there is an opportunity to use cyber weapons. The progress of the North Korean development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles could be thus suspended. The question of how this can be achieved (in the absence of widespread Internet in North Korea) is just a formality.

As you can see, there are many options but when summing them up, it’s easy to say that the next US President will face a difficult choice in any case. We will cover the tough decisions he or she can choose from and what might influence the decision in our next article.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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