A Way Forward in the North Korea Crisis

23 minute read

There is nothing the US can do to North Korea that will lead to its renunciation of its nuclear weapons program. That is because North Korea already holds US allies hostage to violence we cannot control—and may already or will soon pose a similar threat to the US homeland—and thus presents an unacceptable risk of retaliation for any American offensive military action. There is nothing the US can do for North Korea that might induce it to denuclearize, because keeping North Korea on a war footing vis-à-vis the US keeps the regime of Kim Jong Un in power. There is nothing the international community, including China, can do to North Korea by enforcing sanctions, or for North Korea by relieving it of sanctions, that would convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons because the regime is convinced, with some reason, that it is only the threats it poses to others that keep it from suffering regime change. Nevertheless, the US cannot tolerate or co-exist with a North Korean nuclear capability; that is because such a capability would deter the US from protecting its allies were they threatened, extorted or attacked by North Korea. This result would risk dissolution of the American-Pacific alliance and the rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons to former allies that had become intensely nationalistic and anti-American. There is however one option that has yet to be considered and that has some promise.


On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted a test of a nuclear weapon following an August 28 IRBM launch over Hokkaido. Seismic tremors from this test registered 6.1-6.3 on the Richter Scale which suggests that the test was almost certainly of a hydrogen bomb in early stages of development. Estimates of the yield from this weapon range between 500 KT and 140 KT. A 300 KT bomb would release lethal thermal radiation over a 50 square mile area. If it were dropped on an Asian or American city, hundreds of thousands of deaths would occur instantly. The development by North Korea of a hydrogen bomb takes us into very perilous territory. In 1994, the former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Arnold Kanter proposed an ultimatum to North Korea that it must abandon its nuclear weapons program. Were North Korea to fail to respond to this ultimatum, it would have triggered a US pre-emptive attack. “If war is unavoidable, we would rather fight it sooner than later,” they wrote, before North Korea creates a significant nuclear arsenal. Then in 2006, the former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Ashton Carter (until recently his successor as Secretary of Defense) asked, “Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil?” and concluded that, “intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy…We cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature…. The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles.”

Unfortunately, that day has arrived.


On April 18, 2017, the director of the Brookings Foreign Policy Program convened a panel of experts with decades of diplomatic and military experience in the region, to provide policy recommendations for addressing the threats currently posed by North Korea. A summary of their conclusions makes for very dispiriting reading, in light of the most recent events. The principal policy recommendation was that the United States should significantly intensify economic and diplomatic forms of pressure on North Korea in order to compel the North Korean regime to negotiate a freeze of its nuclear and missile programs, to be accompanied by a long-term North Korean commitment to denuclearization. A review of more recent proposals from a wide spectrum of foreign policy sources reveals them to be similarly impoverished.

The first such option is containment. The US can try to contain North Korea—which it has done pretty successfully since the negotiation of a ceasefire in Korea in 1953—except that this will inevitably mean that it is the American homeland that is vulnerable to North Korean nuclear strikes. Perhaps it was a mistake to ignore the counsel of Scowcroft and Kanter who argued for preemptive strikes against North Korea in 1993 in order to prevent the development of a North Korea nuclear arsenal, but that’s water around the bridge now. The centrality of homeland deterrence, North Korean and American, should keep us safe. This is precisely what happened vis-a-vis China and the US. That rationale, at any rate, is responsible for our not preempting the nascent Chinese deterrent as many in the Kennedy administration wished to do.

A second option would propose that the United States could attempt a damage limiting, first strike against North Korean nuclear facilities. This may not be as crazy as many people who have not looked at the problem recently may assume, because such assumptions are relics of the US/Soviet competition when damage limiting strikes did look pretty hopeless. In the last decade, however, there have been enormous strides made in the development of surveillance, tracking and analysis, targeting and detonation procedures necessary for a successful preemptive strike. The digital revolution that has brought us GPS, the surveillance drone, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to accurately time explosions, have worked a revolution in nuclear targeting no less profound than in the everyday behavior of society at large. Given the right technology and the right intelligence, it might be possible to disarm the ballistic threat capacity of the North Koreans, and indeed to utterly destroy its nuclear weapons facilities. Still, US strikes might miss some hidden targets and even a partial failure to eliminate the North Korean capabilities could have catastrophic results from North Korean retaliation against American targets. And, too, our strikes would have to be carefully tailored to avoid the radiation fall-out that might ensue from striking North Korean nuclear facilities. Finally, there could well be historic consequences for the behavior of other states, including Russia and China, once the nuclear taboo has been broken.

The real problem with this option, however, is that, even if the US might be safe from retaliation, if we are lucky and if we act in the very near term, South Korea and Japan would certainly not be. So, in order to keep a possible threat to the US homeland from developing, the US would be put in the position of risking the security of two of our closest Asian allies. This would be a bitter irony since the reason we have deployed troops in Korea and Japan is to protect those countries from such threats. Part of the threat posed by a North Korean arsenal capable of reaching the American homeland is that American assurances to our allies with respect to extended deterrence that protects them would cease to be credible. That is called “decoupling”. But the consequence of a US preemptive strike that left Seoul in ruins would be an example of “uncoupling” for which the US would not be forgiven and which might well unravel the system of US alliances and the non-proliferation for which our deterrent has been responsible.

That, broadly speaking, exhausts US targeting options but of course not all our options. Those which have been proposed run the gamut from sanctions and other forms of non-military coercion to a conventional invasion. Having reviewed these in some detail, it is my conclusion that there is nothing the US can do for North Korea—no positive diplomatic or economic incentives or any combination of negative non-military incentives like sanctions—that will yield the denuclearization of the North Korean arsenal. Given the consistent record of North Korean duplicity and its unswerving campaign to acquire a nuclear arsenal despite undertakings to the contrary, anything short of denuclearization—like a freeze on the further development of nuclear weapons—is no longer a sufficient or even a reasonable objective.

It’s true that North Korea used to seek financial assistance in exchange for promises to restrain its weapons programs. Kim has changed all that. This isn’t because of his ferocious and aggressive personality so much as it arises from the evolution of the North Korean regime and its political role in the world.


That role has developed in an ominous new direction since 1989. When Russian subsidies to North Korea disappeared in 1990, the resulting famine killed up to 10% of the North Korean population, but North Korea neither collapsed nor moderated its policies. In fact, we can now see that the development of a nuclear weapons program was a crucial part of the regime’s domestic survival strategy after 1989 precisely because this program provokes US hostility and concern.

During the Cold War, North Korea and South Korea had comparable economic development, and South Korea had a series of highly authoritarian if not totalitarian governments. With the end of the Cold War, South Korea enjoyed a booming economy and a very promising democracy. Internationally, communist governments were collapsing everywhere. But the response of Kim Jung Il was to increase its reliance on military force and put the nation on a war footing for an imminent US invasion. Consumer shortages, famine, rationing were all justified in order to maintain an immense military—its active duty army is the fourth largest in the world. The external threat also justified political oppression to identify and destroy traitors. B. R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, has suggested that the famine “may have strengthened support for the regime by [animating a] sense of ethnic victimhood.” Myers concluded in a 2010 book, “it is the regime’s awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave evermore provocatively on the world stage.” Thus US reactions tend to consolidate power in North Korea; and there is nothing we can do to ease the threat to North Korean legitimacy in the long run because the threat to the regime derives from global trends that are weakening the domestic hold on power of all industrial nation-state regimes (though, as we shall see, there are steps that can ease Kim’s domestic anxieties in the near term.)

Moreover, North Korean weakness—as to which their aggressive foreign policy is a compensation—also tends to limit US options. I suppose it might be said, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” But it is true with respect to all states that while sanctions can force small foreign policy changes, they cannot effectuate changes that fundamentally threaten the stability and continuity of the government. North Korea sees its weapons as essential to its survival—not only by keeping its enemies at bay (this is the lesson of Saddam Hussein, Mouammar Khadafy and the Ukraine)—but nuclear weapons are also essential to the internal stature of the regime. It is a feature that is not often appreciated of sanctions that they work, or can work, quite successfully, only within a rather narrow sphere because that is their utility. People who say, “Sanctions don’t work,” don’t appreciate that if sanctions could result in the kind of policy changes that are wrought from military action, a military response would ensue. It’s their very limitation that makes sanctions useful.

Nevertheless, even in the face of such bleak options, the United States cannot tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea the way that it did China and the Soviet Union. As Scowcroft and Kanter, as well as Perry and Carter, warned, the US, “must not be paralyzed by the possibility of war.” The problem, as they foresaw, is that the US deterrent would itself be deterred by the development of an deliverable North Korean nuclear weapons capability. To understand the significance of this, it helps to revisit a few fundamental concepts from the analytical vocabulary of nuclear targeting and defense theory.


Central and extended deterrence: Central deterrence describes the relationship between states that protects a national homeland by targeting an adversary’s homeland; extended deterrence is maintained by imposing a nuclear threat in order to protect non-homeland theaters, such as the territory of allies. For example, during the Cold War the US central deterrent consisted of a threat to attack the Soviet Union in order to protect the American homeland from Soviet attack. The very term reflects a relationship between those vital objectives whose centrality to the state gives them the highest value to the deterring country and thus assures both a willingness to run the highest risk of retaliation or preemption as well as the willingness to inflict a level of harm commensurate with the necessity to protect vital central objectives. Extended deterrence, by contrast, was the objective of the policy according to which the United States promised to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the states of Western Europe or North Asia were attacked.

The problem with a North Korean deterrent is that it would prevent the United States from protecting South Korea if North Korea threatened that country with war—a not implausible scenario. Such a development presages a moment when South Korea requests that the United States leave its positions in Korea and cease its “protection” rather than risk a war of annihilation on the Korean peninsula. And this could well be followed by similar action by Japan, once the Japanese had developed their own nuclear weapons arsenal.

This suggests that the Chinese, who cannot be indifferent to the proliferation of nuclear weapons to South Korea and Japan, ought to be willing to pressure North Korea into denuclearization. And indeed, pressuring the Chinese to pressure the North Koreans is the substance of current US policy. There are risks in pursuing this policy; China would probably insist on the withdrawal of the THAAD systems from South Korea because they not only protect South Korea from North Korea but also degrade the effectiveness of the Chinese deterrent (even if only marginally). But more important than this is the fact that China really has very little leverage over North Korea. Indeed it should be noted that Kim has steadily weakened Chinese influence by purging pro-Chinese North Korean officials. Moreover, there is no negative pressure—cutting off fuel supplies or reducing an already modest trading relationship—that could force the North Korean regime to change course because, as has been remarked, one does not commit suicide for fear of death. Thus I have concluded that there is nothing the US or China can do to North Korea—no coercive acts at an acceptable cost to the US–that will yield the denuclearization of the North Korean arsenal.


But that doesn’t mean that there is no conceivable way out of this crisis. On the contrary, one can already see the outlines of a possible negotiation. What follows is a rather radical proposal that has many counterintuitive aspects but which, I have come to believe, represents the best way out of a rapidly deteriorating position. This option would be to induce a nuclear guarantee for the North Korean regime from China—an instance of Chinese extended deterrence.

We often neglect the role of nuclear deterrence in achieving the goals of nonproliferation. Though it sounds paradoxical, it was the deployment of American nuclear forces that achieved the truly great victories of non-proliferation with respect to Germany and Japan, two states that faced a mortal threat and had the wealth, technology and technocracy to deter that threat through the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons. That they did not was a consequence of extended deterrence, a concept often and unfortunately neglected, but which lies at the heart of the current crisis.

If China can be induced to give a credible guarantee to North Korea in the case of a US invasion or other attempt at regime change in Pyongyang, there will be far less point in North Korea risking the survival of its regime by developing long-range nuclear weapons. By cutting such a deal now, North Korea avoids the inevitable compromise of the security of its small arsenal as further technological revolutions in the US render the North Korea force ever more vulnerable.

The problem, however, is not simply a technological one, it is political: given the current state of their relations, there is little reason to assume that China would make such an offer or that North Korea would accept it.

Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle, was North Korea’s principal interlocutor with China. His arrest and execution—as well as the removal of dozens of other officials associated with closer ties to China—marked a turning point in Kim’s rejection of a foreign policy that attempted to promote economic growth in favor of a “military first” policy. His truculent indifference to Chinese sensibilities was confirmed when he ordered the assassination in February of his brother, Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in Macao under Chinese protection. Then earlier this month, Kim Jong Un pointedly chose the week of Xi Jinping’s BRICS summit in Beijing to detonate a nuclear test. So one mustn’t oversell the chance of success for this proposal.

Nevertheless, there are important advantages to China in making such an offer. China would join the “establishment” of great states who take responsibility for world order which would be of palpable importance to the PRC’s own domestic legitimacy. Unless one believes that international politics is a zero-sum game, this would also be in the interests of the US. The real difficulty remains the intransigence of the North Korean leader.

But if the policy I propose is the least bad for the US to pursue—if it is imperative that we at least try this new option before resorting to war or accepting defeat—is it not also the least bad option for North Korea in light of the certain decline of its long-term security in the face of advancing US first-strike technology? Remember that it was Kim’s awareness of a crisis in legitimacy that drove him to the “military-first” policy. The integration of China into the international system, rather than the collapse of the Soviet satellite regimes, could show a new path toward the domestic legitimation of Kim’s regime. Our aim must be to re-orient Kim’s paranoia, making him more afraid of losing an attractive opportunity for security in the eyes of his own people than he is afraid of dependence on China.

But what would such a guarantee of extended deterrence by the Chinese mean for the other states in the region? Actually our allies might be better off. Remember that US extended deterrence is what protects these states from Chinese and Russian threats, but American extended deterrence also evokes a constant anxiety that the US might abandon its allies if the fulfillment of the American promise to protect them were to become too costly. Thirty-five years ago, I described a “theorem” that posits the following dilemma: concern over decoupling (the detachment of the US nuclear threat from the protection of its allies for fear of retaliation against the American homeland) can only be validated by strategies that depend on uncoupling (detaching the US and Soviet homelands by confining retaliation by either side to the states of the extended theater). Thankfully the Cold War ended without this theorem being tested and I, for one, would like to keep it that way. The new appearance of a nuclear guarantee to North Korea could reduce the prospect of the US decoupling its fate from those with regional allies if it forestalled the development of a North Korea nuclear capability against the American homeland and, at least for South Korea, thus reduce the specter of a new Korean war and a terrifying uncoupling—a nuclear conflict confined to the Korean peninsula.

There are other elements of a possible deal of which the proposal I have described is the centerpiece. Both Russia and China have for some time been pressing the “double freeze”—a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile programs in exchange for US and South Korean renunciation of joint military exercises. The Americans have always opposed this idea on the grounds that joint military exercises are a response to the conventional North Korean threat, not the nuclear threat, but there might be a way to modify these exercises to make them somewhat less threatening. The North Koreans could also be offered reduced sanctions and a formal end to the Korean War by means of a peace treaty whose signatories included the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Finally there might be some Helsinki-like recognition of the legitimacy of the current borders and a renunciation of any effort to overturn those borders.

The biggest cost of this admittedly dramatic initiative would be borne by the people of North Korea. Dissidents there, if there are any, would know that there was no hope of any external relief for the North Korean people. But there is really very little alternative. The proposals of all thoughtful commentators reached the same conclusions as the Brookings panel: we can only do more of the same for the same reasons we have been doing the same things for the last several decades. To reiterate: there is nothing the US can do that will lead to North Korean denuclearization and the US cannot tolerate a North Korea armed long-range nuclear weapons as it has tolerated other states.

How might the US ever induce such a diplomatic thunderclap even if we wanted to? It would take the gifts of a Henry Kissinger and we don’t seem to have many persons of his talent in office at present. It would take the credibility of a venerable master whom the Chinese trust and respect. It might take Kissinger.


No one will take this radical proposal seriously unless we stop deluding ourselves about the incentives we can realistically employ to compel the North Korean regime. There is no chance that anything short of an ironclad guarantee of their preservation as a dynastic regime free from outside intervention will modify their behavior. They will starve their people and run almost incalculable risks because they have no other credible choice. And no guarantee that the US gives is credible to the North Korean leadership.

If North Korea refuses a Chinese guarantee and refuses to trade its weapons program for this guarantee, there are interim steps we might take. We could redeploy tactical nuclear weapons along the 38th parallel. We could consider maritime interdictions. But these are partial measures that are politically fraught and not particularly effective. More promising would be the destruction of a North Korean missile in international airspace by US anti-ballistic defenses.

Finally, there’s a further risk of pursuing our current policy or some variant thereof. If in fact we are entering a period in which the information revolution that has brought us GPS, smart phones, big data, and so much else will render nuclear sites more vulnerable than they have ever been, one consequence of this may be the paradoxical effect of increasing the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons. The vulnerability of small nuclear arsenals will tempt other states to launch preemptive strikes they would have regarded as reckless in the past, and the owners of these arsenals may put their weapons on hair trigger, launch-on-warning status to prevent preemption or disperse them in ways that make them vulnerable to capture by insurgents, criminal conspiracies and terrorists.


Earlier this summer, a number of commentators attempted to calm public opinion by saying that nothing has actually changed in North Korea. In fact, quite a bit has changed. To appreciate this we must look beyond the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang and look at real capabilities. Our best guess is that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear technology that can put a warhead on top of a missile, a real technological breakthrough, and that they have IRBMs with sufficient distance to hit US bases and will soon have ICBMs that can hit the American homeland. The strategic significance of this is not, I emphasize, that the US should be afraid North Korea will launch an attack on the US. Whatever the rhetoric, North Korea’s policy is decidedly tilted toward survival, not suicide, and the North Korean leadership, if disturbingly paranoid, is far from irrational.

Rather, the strategic importance lies in the impact of technological breakthroughs in weaponry on our alliances in the region. North Korea is now able to raise considerable doubts about the American commitment to defend South Korea and Japan owing to the fear that the leadership of those states would conclude that the US will not risk an attack on the American homeland in order to protect them. As Sir Michael Howard once trenchantly observed, it is far more difficult to reassure an ally than it is to deter an enemy.

This observation leads one to draw a couple of further conclusions that are sometimes absent in the public debate. The first is that as our alliances are what are actually threatened, we should move swiftly to shore these up. Consultations with our allies in Tokyo, Canberra and Seoul are paramount. What do they want to see from us? How can we avoid embarrassing them in front of their own publics without hamstringing the protection of our legitimate security interests? Second, we should not make threats that validate Kim’s rhetoric by making it appear that we are planning to punish him for his rhetoric. That there is a plot by the Americans to destroy his regime is the fundamental premise of his domestic propaganda as well as his thinking.

In summary, economic sanctions, and/or threats of our military action can push Kim towards negotiations but in the end those negotiations will be highly likely to founder on his need for nuclear guarantees. We need to prepare for the fact that a resolution of the current crisis will likely require a PRC guarantee. Are we prepared to support that? I think we should be. The course I propose is not without costs: it might increase the risk of a Chinese-US confrontation, and it would link Chinese nuclear strategy to a surrogate state that is inclined to get into conflicts. It is, however, a more promising option than any being canvassed at the present. And time, at this juncture, is not on our side.

Philip Bobbitt is the former senior director for strategic planning at the US National Security Council and is a law professor at Columbia where he is the director of the center for national security. He is the author of Democracy and Deterrence: The History and Future of Nuclear Strategy, and US Nuclear Strategy (with Sir Lawrence Freedman and Gregory F. Treverton).

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