Learning to Live with a Nuclear North Korea

February 24, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaKim Jong UnNuclearCrisisDonald Trump

Learning to Live with a Nuclear North Korea

Despite vague commitments made at the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, Pyongyang has taken no concrete steps since then to dismantle or substantively disable its nuclear weapons program.

Apply Massive Maximum Pressure

The UNSC sanctions now in place are comprehensive and unprecedented:  In their totality, they include a ban on exports of minerals, coal, iron, textiles agriculture and seafood exports, imports and exports of heavy equipment, limit 90 percent of imports of oil and bans natural gas imports, the return of all overseas labor, permits interdiction of ships to or from North Korea carrying cargo and authorizes confiscation of illicit goods. No nation on earth has been so completely censured and isolated. This shrunk the North Korean economy, with negative GDP growth of -3.5 percent in 2017 and -4.1 percent in 2018, as well as collapsing its exports. 

To date, however, sanctions have been painful, but not crippling. Although they have meant two years of negative economic growth and exports, the value of the Won and prices of gasoline, rice, and corn have remained relatively stable. The quality of life for both the elite and average citizen has required varying degrees of belt-tightening but has not been traumatized. This is partly because of revenues from illicit activities and because the North has developed other coping mechanisms. Key among them are private markets springing up during the 1990s famine, the Jangmadong, now some five hundred nationally, officially sanctioned, have largely replaced the state distribution system. They have introduced some price discipline, and reportedly spurring e-commerce, with nearly six million North Koreans using the national intranet on their smartphones. In addition, the local elite has begun investing in the light industry, creating import substitution. Further, cross-border activity with China, with whom the DPRK has 90 percent of its trade, is growing. Whether such a “muddle through” strategy is sustainable over time or vulnerable to foreign pressure is unknowable

Massively intensifying maximum pressure on North Korea in response to its obstinate behavior may be correct, in theory, but it is in practice unlikely to be sufficiently implemented to be able to change behavior or the regime. Sanctions have been relatively effective because they were global and included China. But in recent months, China’s enforcement has steadily waned, if not its willingness to look the other way. As diplomacy stalled, recent efforts by China and Russia in the UN Security Council to lift sanctions suggest, neither Moscow nor Beijing would, at present, support additional sanctions.

Some argue for unilateral U.S. ‘massive pressure,’” including completely cutting the DPRK off from the international finance and trade system; interdicting its illicit activities, conducting overt and covert actions to shut down its overseas firms; and perhaps impose a naval quarantine. Such actions would likely spark tensions with China, the ROK and other U.S. partners would be problematic to implement, and could trigger provocative DPRK kinetic responses.

Given the evidence of the DPRK’s ability to cope with current external pressure, and the strong probability of further erosion of sanctions, turning the screws tighter appears highly problematic. Barring some spectacularly incendiary North Korean act, such as an EMP shot to show their nuclear prowess the United States should expect limited cooperation in squeezing North Korea. That said, maintaining as much of the existing sanctions architecture as possible should be one component of a broader deterrence and containment strategy.

Negotiate Arms Control Measures

The failure of denuclearization has spurred a growing chorus in the arms control community for proposals to cap DPRK nuclear weapons and fissile material at current levels and freeze ballistic missile and nuclear testing. Such a deal is usually presented as “an interim step,” which would reinforce stability, predictability, and buy time in the hope of securing an eventual rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities. But is it feasible and would it be an interim deal, as some of its proponents describe it, or a final end state? Given his long-term goal of gaining acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status, as Kim would likely be open to a freeze at current levels. For both the North Korean leader and the United States, however, the question is at what price? 

At a minimum, Kim would likely demand the lifting of all UN sanctions, normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations and a peace treaty, and an end to the U.S. “nuclear threat” including measures that would provide extended deterrence. Kim may also demand U.S.-North Korean arms control talks which would risk getting sucked into a slippery slope of endless negotiations. These would not only allow Kim to buy time but also could potentially decouple the United States from the security of the ROK and Japan if a deal ends ICBM tests yet allows testing of shorter-range systems.    

For the United States, the prerequisite for negotiating a cap and freeze should be a full DPRK declaration of its inventory of nuclear weapons program and agreement to permit IAEA monitoring and verification, including on-site challenge inspections. Otherwise, how would we know what is frozen? Absent these front-loaded commitments, Pyongyang would game any accord, and talks should be avoided; if North Korea accepts these conditions, then talks would be worth exploring. But what would Kim demand for such a cap and freeze, and what would it be worth to the United States and its partners? A package might include lifting UN sanctions; establishing interest sections and cultural exchanges, if not normalization; and supporting DPRK accession into the World Bank/IMF and regional development banks and APEC and EAS. The United States should also consult with the ROK and Japan on parallel steps both countries could take to improve relations with the DPRK.

The benefits of this approach would have to be weighed, however, against some serious downsides. First, it would legitimize a nuclear North Korea and devalue the Non-Proliferation Treaty and non-proliferation norms. Second, transparency is anathema to North Korea; holding Pyongyang to whatever verification commitments it made would be a source of constant friction. Third, United States normalization would stumble over the North’s egregious human-rights behavior, and entry into International Financial Institutions would be a problem due to financial transparency requirements.  An alternative, if less elegant, response to the current predicament is simply realpolitik: enhanced deterrence and containment. 

Strengthen Deterrence and Containment 

North Korea’s conventional capabilities have declined significantly over the past decade, in both relative and absolute terms. As a result of ROK defense reforms, a significant boost in defense spending, the emergence of new military technologies, and an impressive force modernization program, U.S. and South Korean forces already have a viable conventional option for deterring, and defeating if necessary, North Korean conventional and nuclear aggression. Significant force enhancements, for example, have been made in precision conventional strike capabilities, C4ISR, missile defenses, and the procurement of new F-35 fighters, surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, armed and unarmed UAVs, multiple-launch rocket systems, and improved sea-based land-attack capabilities. 

Moreover, reports suggest the United States may already have the potential with cyber-weapons and artificial intelligence to degrade, disrupt, and disable North Korean networks that provide command and control and surveillance information for the military’s nuclear and conventional operations. The use of these capabilities—and, in the future, missile-killing lasers (able to hit missiles in their boost phase) and hypersonic weapons—do not necessarily require pouring additional U.S. physical assets into South Korea, which would only incite a hostile North Korean reaction, increase tensions, and raise the risks of an unintended conflict.   

Some experts claim, however, that the North’s modernization of its ballistic missile forces signals “a distinct evolution in North Korea’s defense strategy away from massive retaliation and toward a policy to use its missile forces to degrade allied conventional and logistics operations to limit damage to the regime, a policy that retains an option for massive retaliation but envisions more rapid escalation against military targets.” There is no conclusive evidence, however, that the North has embraced a strategy of massive retaliation; nor is it possible to know precisely the DPRK’s nuclear doctrine or strategy. But more importantly, fears that the North will use the threat of nuclear weapons as cover for a conventional invasion of the South seem misplaced, because of the significant risk of nuclear escalation which would end the North Korean regime. Kim may have a brash, impetuous streak, but he is not suicidal—his primordial concern is long-term survival. The United States needs to repeatedly make clear that a North Korean conventional invasion of the ROK or nuclear attack against the United States or its allies would result in a swift and overwhelming response and the demise of Kim, his family dynasty, and North Korea.

There are three measures that would reinforce the U.S. conventional extended deterrent with South Korea: 1) measures to integrate the use of cyber and hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence in joint US-ROK military operations into joint planning;  2) the resumption of significant joint and trilateral military exercises; and 3) the augmentation of missile defenses in South Korea (e.g.; AEGIS Cruisers) and from U.S. air- and sea-based assets deployed in a crisis (or based in Japan).  

Credible deterrence requires both ample military capabilities and the less tangible but vital ingredient of psychological assurance. The U.S.-ROK conventional defense posture provides a robust deterrent against a North Korean conventional attack. The bigger problem is persuading South Koreans that the two countries do not need to shore up the nuclear component of extended deterrence. The biggest obstacles to strengthening deterrence are political: the needless tensions the Trump administration has sown in the U.S.-ROK alliance and the painful rift in ROK-Japan relations. This will require very adept U.S. diplomacy to help fix, admittedly a tall order. Finally, two other mechanisms are required for this approach to be effective: first, a U.S.-DPRK communication channel and clear signaling to minimize the risk of miscalculation; and second, more robust bilateral cooperation with the ROK and trilateral action with Japan, the latter problematic, as well as clear understandings with China.