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A best-chance North Korea policy

Pyongyang may think it can threaten ― or even win ― a limited nuclear war aimed at pushing the U.S. out of the Korean Peninsula.
May 30,2017
The relentless barrage of North Korean ballistic missile tests (12 already this year) — and a matching endless barrage of op-eds proposing solutions — point to a new urgency for resolving the North Korea problem. Yet it is an issue that has eluded the best efforts of four U.S. presidents over the past 25 years.

Driving the new level of concern is the frenetic pace of Pyongyang’s efforts to obtain an operational intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland. This is unlikely to occur before the early 2020s. Developing an operational ICBM involves complicated physics and difficult-to-obtain components. Nonetheless, it should be assumed that they will eventually obtain such a capability, which may become part of a robust land-, air- and sea-based dyadic nuclear arsenal, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

This raises a troubling question. After watching U.S. efforts in Iraq and Libya, one can understand why Pyongyang might want a few nukes as an insurance policy against a U.S. attack. But why this inordinate effort to build a sophisticated land-and-sea nuclear dyad? It is possible Pyongyang thinks it could threaten — or even win — a limited nuclear war aimed at pushing the United States out of the Korean Peninsula. At a minimum, obtaining ICBM capability could embolden North Korea to pursue more reckless provocations or the sale of WMDs to other nations and terrorist groups for much-needed cash.

The other side of the debate is an argument for deterrence. Even with an ICBM, Pyongyang, whose priority is regime survival, would not commit suicide. Thus, deterrence could still hold. But this assumption rests on dubious assumptions: that the North Korean leadership will share the same concepts of deterrence dynamics as U.S. leaders; that nuclear stability will hold during a crisis; and that North Korea’s national security decision-making process is necessarily disciplined, rational and effective.

U.S. policies have been aimed at preventing such a predicament from being realized. But despite 25 years of consistent U.S. policies focused on multilateral dialogue, a comprehensive approach to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and an ever-improving U.S.-South Korea alliance, the North Korean nuclear threat is accelerating. Time is not on our side. Predictions of regime collapse have come in waves, and all have been proven wrong. There is no evidence of looming instability in the Kim dynasty, and the North Korean economy is growing, albeit in the 1 percent range.

Clearly, continuing the status quo is not an option. The best chance of halting this nuclear juggernaut is an approach of high-pressure containment. Convince the North Korean leadership that unless it halts its nuclear weapons program, it will have neither a viable economy nor future. As Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, has put it, our goal is to bring North Korea “to its senses, not its knees.”

Chinese cooperation is essential. Beijing understands that North Korea will either be a significant source of cooperation or confrontation in a U.S.-China relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants more stable U.S.-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. This policy requires several key steps:

• The United States could work with China and others to escalate sanctions. Collectively, they could step up efforts to remove North Korea’s access to the international financial system and all sources of hard currency (as was done to Iran). They could shut down North Korean operations in Malaysia, China and other nations used to procure missile and nuclear components.

Additionally, they could 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, U.S. officials should press for a full UN Security Council ban on coal exports and press China to significantly cut back oil shipments. Sanctions will only work if China is willing to enforce them.

• The United States could 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 U.S. bombers to the region.

• America could launch a new five-party mechanism to enforce UN Security Council resolutions and broadly coordinate policies with China and Russia along with allies Japan and South Korea.

• The United States could significantly step up its cyber reconnaissance and offensive activities. They could also constrain, disrupt and disable North Korea’s nuclear weapons-related research, programs, manufacturing and services.

• The United States could issue a new declaratory policy to North Korea. It should include 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; and no missile tests aimed at South Korea, Japan or the United States, or the U.S. reserves the right to react to or pre-empt the action.

• America could develop ongoing back- and front-channel communications. The quiet intel-to-intel channel could be initiated through South Korean, North Korean and U.S. intelligence contacts to quietly clarify and emphasize U.S. positions — and to probe a North Korean moratorium on its nuclear program.

America should also offer to reopen regular U.S.-North Korea dialogue conducted by the State Department and “New York Channel” or at higher levels. The U.S. must make clear it is open to dialogue based on the September 2005 Agreed Statement and that North Korea must demonstrate sincerity and willingness to put its nuclear program back on the table to enable the restarting of six-party talks.

• The United States could institute an “active measures” influence campaign, which would involve distributing information in North Korea, working to improve human rights and distributing “fake news,” such as “the CIA has agents in the North Korean missile program” or “Kim Jong-un had a heart attack.” Additionally, U.S. officials should consider significantly enhancing rewards for defectors.

• Finally, a clear and consistent messaging campaign is essential to garner public support for the United States and to signal our unambiguous policy to our allies and adversaries. That includes knowing when to be silent.

*Barry Pavel is director of the International Security Program and director-designate of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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

A version of this op-ed appeared only online in The National Interest.

Barry Pavel, Robert A. Manning