When Dealing with North Korea, Go Big or Go Home

December 29, 2023 Topic: military Region: Northeast Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaNuclear WeaponsDeterrenceDiplomacy

When Dealing with North Korea, Go Big or Go Home

North Korea is evolving from a relatively contained regional nuisance to a threat with far greater potential reach. As the change occurs, past U.S. methods of dealing with Pyongyang under both political parties won’t work.

North Korea is evolving from a relatively contained regional nuisance to a threat with far greater potential reach. As the change occurs, past U.S. methods of dealing with Pyongyang under both political parties won’t work. 

Remember the good old days when North Korea was destitute? It trafficked labor to Russia and the Middle East to generate modest foreign currency. Its embassies abroad needed to finance themselves and kick back loot to Pyongyang. The North Korean embassy in Berlin ran a hostel. The one in Bangkok ran a restaurant. Others smuggled exotic items ranging from currency to crystal meth to elephant tusks. Apparently, a diplomatic pouch need not only contain cables that no one reads. 

North Korea's Cycle of Aggression, Explained 

On a larger scale, North Korea ran an extortion racket to obtain foreign aid. It would commence a cycle of aggression—firing up its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, revealing it also had a uranium bomb project, sinking a South Korean corvette, or testing missiles or nukes themselves. The United States, backed by South Korea and Japan, would offer humanitarian and economic assistance in exchange for promises of better behavior. 

The North Koreans would pocket the aid and then take a breather before starting the cycle again. It produced major gains for Pyongyang during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Clinton approved $4 billion in energy aid. Bush was a little cheaper with payola, but the funds eventually flowed. 

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and his associates must laugh at such trivialities today. According to one report, North Korea stole $3 billion in cryptocurrency over the past six years, with $1.7 billion of that accruing in 2022 alone. The full number is likely larger still and is supplemented with other cyber scams. Government finance meetings in Pyongyang probably resemble mafia confabs in the 1970s when participants suddenly realized narcotics distribution made protection rackets look like child’s play. 

The reality is that North Korea no longer cares about swindling humanitarian assistance from Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo. Its nuclear weapons are crude by the standards of other nuclear powers, but its last test probably yielded at least five times the fifteen-kiloton shot that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. (Pyongyang claims it has a hydrogen bomb capability, but a less-powerful boosted fission bomb is a better bet.) Its past tests of long-range ballistic missiles and the recent launch of a spy satellite suggest it can deliver at least a handful of city-destroying nuclear weapons to most places on the globe, including all of the continental United States.

What North Korea lacks is a “second-strike” capability that could survive a large preemptive nuclear attack. Theoretically perfect deterrence requires this capability. Such a development, which Pyongyang may have in mind, would require a much larger, better-tested, and mobile arsenal, which would make the world a less safe place, especially given the risk of miscalculation or accidents in the paranoid and insular North Korean state. 

What Should Washington Do? Go Big or Go Home on North Korea

To meet the threat, Washington should go big or go home.

President Joe Biden has tacitly rejected the approach of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who boldly held two summits with the North Korean dictator and tried to entice a process of engagement and opening, at least after a period of brinkmanship and enjoyable personal insults

Today, the brinkmanship won’t work. Who cares if ancient U.S. B-52 bombers fly across South Korea or vulnerable U.S. aircraft carriers drift around the vast expanse of the Western Pacific until their next lengthy overhauls in distant San Diego? Kim Jong Un doesn’t, despite pro-forma condemnations of allied military exercises to the contrary. 

However, Mr. Biden’s approach doesn’t work either. He repudiated Trump’s policy and hasn’t pursued top-level meetings. Pyongyang has rejected lower-level meetings. Over the past three years, North Korea has grown more militarily capable—despite closing itself off from the world during the COVID pandemic. 

However, North Korea would have to respond diplomatically following the nullification of its nuclear arsenal and second-strike capabilities. That outcome would require fixing U.S. military procurement by fielding the next generation of pervasive, autonomous drones in the air and sea that could attack North Korean military targets or shoot down North Korean missiles in their powered-flight boost phase. The United States should have redundant space-based systems that could destroy missiles from North Korea (or others) in mid-flight, even in mass numbers, and terminal-phase defenses at key military sites and major U.S. cities. These steps are also crucial to deterring nuclear powers China and Russia—and perhaps Iran one day soon

Washington also needs to replace its increasingly vulnerable nuclear missiles, which are slower and easier to detect and foil than new hypersonic missiles that adversaries are developing that travel at five to ten times the speed of sound. America needs its own hypersonic nuclear and conventional missiles—both cruise missiles that fly like planes and ballistic missiles that transit space—that are stealthy, maneuverable, and survivable. The Pentagon hasn’t even tested a nuclear warhead since 1991—a negligent act that calls into question the arsenal’s safety and reliability. Absurdly, our failed defense procurement experts are planning to field redesigned warheads that would never be tested. If you were a cop or soldier, would you trust your life to a new gun model or ammunition that had never been tested?

The United States must also protect itself by putting an end to the scam that is cryptocurrency and ensuring all government and eventually all business computer networks are built with zero-trust software-design principles that encrypt information at the data level to radically reduce the opportunity for cyber-attacks. 

Only after Washington has embarked on this effort, which is also crucial to defending against China, will it be possible to engage North Korea diplomatically. Until then, we simply don’t have enough chips on our side of the table to prevail. 

After that point, we can be magnanimous, offering the elimination of sanctions, arms reductions, and the removal of conventional U.S. forces from South Korea where they defend a country that can defend itself from conventional attack and where, due to South Korean politics, they will be of little use in a conflict of China. 

The cost should be freezing North Korea’s nuclear program and opening a dialogue on issues ranging from diplomatic normalization to economic engagement to human rights, similar to the U.S.-Soviet Helsinki Accords that enabled détente with Moscow in the 1970s. Both sides would foreswear efforts at regime change or preemptive war. Still, North Korea would agree at least to begin liberalizing its brutal tyranny, whose insularity increases the chance of accidental war. As with the Soviets, the North Koreans could conversely criticize America’s form of government to their heart’s desire. 

North Korea

This program could only work if undertaken at the secretary of state and presidential level. In the past, when the United States and North Korea established “working-level groups” of diplomats, it was clear the North Koreans couldn’t negotiate anything and were paralyzed by fear. Following the United States’ defense and nuclear renaissance, a U.S. president would likely have to devote considerable time and energy to such a diplomatic project.

The alternative is a North Korea that evolves into a more dangerous threat that can attack the United States directly.

About the Author 

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations and was the deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and author of  Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.