Statement of Former Senator Sam Nunn on U.S. Policy toward North Korea

Former Senator Sam Nunn provided a statement for the record on U.S. policy toward North Korea to the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. The statement draws significantly from Senator Nunn's work as co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force, "A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.

Chairman Corker, Senator Cardin, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to provide a statement for the record on U.S. policy toward North Korea.  I recently served as co-chair, with Admiral Mike Mullen, of a Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force report titled “A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.”  My statement is greatly informed by our work with a distinguished group of experts with diverse backgrounds who served on the bipartisan Task Force, and broadly consistent with our findings. 

The Threat

North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs pose a grave and expanding threat to security, stability and peace in Asia and the world.  Its nuclear weapons tests, including the one on September 9, and its series of ballistic missile launches -- with more missile tests reportedly imminent -- underscore the gravity of the current situation. 

This threat deeply affects our close allies -- South Korea and Japan -- and U.S. personnel stationed in the region.  In the coming months and years, it will create increasing danger for the United States.  North Korea appears committed to gaining the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons.  North Korea also poses a grave proliferation danger.  As their nuclear stockpile grows and their economy deteriorates so too does the risk that they will sell nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to another country or to a terrorist group.

More broadly, North Korea’s policies and programs have endangered the emergence of a stable and prosperous Northeast Asia, one of the most vibrant and important economic regions in the world today and in our future.  
Our goal must be a stable and nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, at peace in the region, and with the world.  To achieve that, we need to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and prevent it from spreading nuclear and missile technology to dangerous actors around the world.

Our policy should be guided by facts and informed analysis; it should include elements both to offer genuine incentives for North Korea to participate in substantive talks aimed at reducing and eliminating this threat and to increase pressure on North Korea.  It is clear that we will have to sharpen Pyongyang’s choice:  offer greater benefits for cooperation and promise greater costs for continued defiance.  We should also be clear that we do not seek to promote conflict; we seek to promote peace.  

A unified policy approach to North Korea -- from our allies, from China, from Russia and the international community, including the United Nations --  stands the greatest chance of finding a lasting peaceful solution on the peninsula and of forging a stable and prosperous Northeast Asia.  It is by far the preferable course of action.  

The stakes are high.  If we are not successful, North Korea’s policies and programs will further strain the U.S.-China relationship, destabilize a region vital to the interests of all nations and leave us no choice but to take defensive action to protect our allies and our homeland.  

The recommendations I am highlighting below should be implemented in parallel.

China is Key to Addressing This Growing Danger

Addressing the North Korean threat should be a top issue between China and the United States.  China can help get North Korea back to the negotiating table by working with the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia on a diplomatic approach that will restart negotiations with the DPRK.  Without that cooperation and without progress, the United States and its allies will be forced to take additional steps.

To encourage China to participate, the United States should offer a new dialogue on the future of the peninsula that includes discussions over the future disposition of U.S. forces.  This dialogue should attempt to coordinate planning in the event of a crisis and convey that it is not U.S. policy to cause a collapse of the North Korean regime.  It is in both the United States’ and China’s interest to find a comprehensive resolution to this problem, but if we can’t manage to cooperate with China to engage North Korea, all risks increase, including the risk of a violent conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Offer Genuine Incentives for Negotiations with North Korea 

We should be prepared to offer genuine incentives for North Korea to participate in substantive talks -- which could result in a comprehensive deal in which North Korea, South Korea, and the United States, supported by China, sign a peace agreement that will finally end the Korean War and gradually normalize relations in exchange for complete nuclear disarmament and progress on human rights.

Although a negotiated agreement on complete and verifiable denuclearization remains a long-term goal for resolving the nuclear issue, negotiations are unlikely to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear or missile capabilities as a near-term first step.  Nonetheless, a new diplomatic approach could potentially freeze and eventually rollback North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, establish conditions for taking additional steps if North Korea rejects the proposal and lay the groundwork for the eventual peaceful elimination of the regime’s nuclear capabilities and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.  To truly test whether a diplomatic solution is possible, we should consider informal bilateral and direct talks without preconditions, while working closely with our allies on the modalities of resuming formal negotiations.

Increasing Pressure, Increasing Costs

At the same time that we offer negotiations, we must take further steps to increase economic sanctions and our defense capabilities. The previous administration laid an important foundation for this with the strong sanctions resolutions it achieved in the UN Security Council, most recently with UN Security Council Resolution 2270.  Creating a standing multilateral mechanism to coordinate the implementation of Security Council resolutions -- facilitated by the sharing of intelligence, coordinating enforcement operations and distribution of resources donated by partners outside the region -- would be a sound next step.  Resolution 2270, including the mandate to inspect all cargo entering or exiting North Korea, should be strictly enforced.  The United States should also expand U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation on strengthening its joint deterrence profile. 

If Pyongyang refuses to negotiate, the United States should carefully apply new military measures to deny North Korea the benefits of its actions and to strengthen deterrence of military attacks, as well as to impose new sanctions that more severely restrict the regime’s funding sources.  Increasing costs will not be easy; these policies will have to be calibrated carefully -- and we should be clear in particular with China that we do not seek a collapse of the North Korean regime.

In addition to posing grave nuclear dangers to the world, North Korea continues to perpetrate grave crimes against humanity.  We must continue working through the UN system with our partners to increase pressure on North Korea to abide by internationally recognized standards for human rights, including by considering suspension of North Korea’s credentials at the UN. 

A Broader Canvas

North Korea presents one of the most vexing and serious international security challenges we and the international community face. North Korea’s continuing unwillingness to address concerns about their nuclear and missile programs will require the United States to invest more heavily in the region -- tighten its alliances, enhance its military presence, and sanction entities that assist North Korea.
At the same time that the new Administration and Congress place a priority on addressing the North Korean nuclear threat, we must not lose sight of the broader nuclear dangers that we face.  

Russia today deploys hundreds of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that could be fired and hit their targets around the globe in less time than it will take to conclude today’s hearing.  For both the United States and Russia, the risk of an accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken launch of a nuclear ballistic missile is unnecessarily high -- particularly in our world of increasing cyber vulnerability. This too is, and should be, an urgent issue for this administration, and this Congress.  

The United States must lead to reduce nuclear risks in Europe.  The United States must lead to strictly enforce the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.  

In short, the safety of our citizens depends on the United States leading a truly global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world -- a consistent goal of U.S. policy since the dawn of the nuclear age.

Thank you.  


January 31, 2017
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Former Senator Sam Nunn provided a statement for the record on U.S. policy toward North Korea to the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. The statement draws significantly from Senator Nunn's work as co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force, "A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.”

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