From Bad to Worse: Options for the U.S. on North Korea

Frank Aum is currently a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He previously worked as a political appointee in the Obama administration, serving as the Senior Advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Special Counsel to the General Counsel at the Department of the Army.  In 2017, he received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service.

Aum shared his views with Atomic Pulse on the threat posed by North Korea, the status of its nuclear program, and options for the United States. Find NTI's latest resources on North Korea here.

Before he left office, President Obama told President-elect Trump that North Korea was the “most urgent problem” he would face.  Why?

North Korea poses a serious direct threat to the United States, our South Korean and Japanese allies, and our forces in the region due to its large conventional forces, its growing weapons of mass destruction program, its history of proliferation, and its willingness to flout international law to achieve its aims.

North Korea is considered to have an advanced and comprehensive nuclear program, with over 100 nuclear-related facilities. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, and the last one, in September 2016, had an estimated yield of 20 to 30 kilotons.  Experts assess that North Korea currently has enough fissile material and weapons inventory for approximately 25 nuclear weapons, and in a worst case scenario, could have up to 100 weapons by 2020.

With regard to delivery systems, experts estimate that North Korea has at least several hundred short- and medium-range ballistic missiles that can reach all of South Korea. North Korea also possesses intermediate-range missiles that can reach Japan and Guam, and has revealed different variants of mobile ICBM missiles that can potentially target the continental United States.

Most analysts believe that North Korea has developed the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to place on top of most of its missiles, but it’s unclear whether it has also developed a reentry vehicle that can protect the warhead from the stress of returning to the atmosphere. 

Frank Aum

Ultimately, without flight tests of its ICBM, we don’t know for sure about its capabilities. However, during his New Year’s address this year, Kim Jong-un claimed that the country was making final preparations for its first long-range missile test. 

What options does the United States have to confront this threat?

We have bad and worse options. Let me go through some of the options that the Trump administration has reportedly considered:

On one end of the spectrum is conducting military strikes, either on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities to degrade its programs or as part of an attempt at regime change. There are many problems with a military strike, whether done preventatively or preemptively in self-defense. First, as I mentioned, North Korea has over 100 related nuclear facilities and perhaps many more in its network of underground facilities. It also has mobile missile launchers that can be dispersed from garrisons and hidden quickly. So it would be nearly impossible to take out its nuclear and missile programs in a clean and comprehensive way, which allows for the possibility of nuclear retaliation. There is also a strong likelihood that North Korea would retaliate using conventional means, including the hundreds of artillery shells that could reach Seoul easily, or even using chemical and biological weapons. Another complicating factor is that if we are considering a risky strike, we would need to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens from Seoul beforehand, which also tips off North Korea and China about impending danger. This is why most experts believe that a military strike is not realistic. Another option might be covert action to degrade North Korea’s facilities, but all the attendant risks I mentioned before still apply.

On the other end of the spectrum is to tacitly accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state and shift the focus to counter-proliferation, sanctions, deterrence, and missile defense. The problem here is that North Korea’s nuclear weapons still remain, as does Pyongyang’s propensity to proliferate material and technology. Also, there is the concern that Kim Jong-un may escalate conventional provocations against South Korea, believing that his nuclear program will deter U.S. intervention. Furthermore, accepting North Korea’s nuclear status may erode South Korea and Japan’s forbearance, causing them to develop their own indigenous nuclear weapons to provide strategic balance in the region. This also has negative implications for the global non-proliferation regime. With regard to missile defense, our ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California don’t have a perfect track record in tests for interception of ICBMs, so this isn’t something we can rely on with high certainty.

In terms of deterrence, some have suggested that the United States should deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. But we already provide extended deterrence through our conventional forces on the Peninsula as well as extended nuclear deterrence from off-Peninsula. There may be some messaging or bartering value by deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea, particularly with regard to China, but this would be at the cost of undermining the U.S. and South Korean goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

What are the less bad options?

The current debate among North Korean watchers has centered around two conventional camps:  pressure vs. engagement. 

On one side are those who believe that the United States hasn’t come close to implementing a full pressure campaign against North Korea using diplomatic isolation and financial measures. This is true, we didn’t really have a robust sanctions regime on the level of Iran, Cuba, South Sudan, or Myanmar until just last year, when Congress passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act and the UN Security Council passed Resolutions 2270 and 2321. It appears that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy will largely follow this course, ramping up pressure against North Korea and, indirectly, China. This course could include more unilateral U.S. sanctions against Chinese banks and other entities in China that help North Korean front companies conduct prohibited activities. Stronger enforcement of sanctions, both by the U.S. government and other governments, would also be helpful.

However, there are several problems with the pressure approach. First, as the latest United Nations Panel of Experts report indicated, North Korea has been very good about adapting to international sanctions, using evasive methods and front companies to maintain access to the international financial system. These circumvention methods, as well as inadequate compliance and enforcement by UN Member States, have undermined the UN resolutions’ impact.

Second, since a large percentage of North Korean activities and exports go through China, any successful pressure campaign will require Chinese cooperation and enforcement. But China has been resistant to clamping down on North Korea too hard because it doesn’t want to risk regime instability and crisis on its borders. Also, if you directly sanction Chinese entities, you risk angering China and jeopardizing cooperation with Beijing on a range of other important issues.

The third problem is that it’s not clear what the goal of a pressure campaign is. Targeted financial measures are a tool or tactic but they are not an end in itself.  Some pressure advocates would argue that the goal of using pressure would be to either have North Korea collapse or to coerce North Korea to return to the negotiating table to talk sincerely about denuclearization. But given North Korea’s sanctions evasion and China’s unwillingness to tighten the vise too hard, I just don’t see either of these outcomes happening any time soon. In fact, North Korea recently said that the U.S. cruise missile strikes on Syria on April 6 vindicated its decision to develop its nuclear program. The bottom line is that pressure can and should be intensified, but it likely won’t lead to our desired outcome, at least not by itself.

On the other side are the advocates of engagement. This side recognizes that sanctions are an important tool but believe that at some point, there needs to be a political solution to this crisis that requires talking. The problem here is that we have been talking to North Korea, and this is over 25 years, both in terms of official negotiations that the public is aware of but also as part of confidential talks that the public is not aware of. When we do talk, North Korea refuses to discuss denuclearization and instead wants to come to the table as an equal nuclear power to talk about a peace treaty that would end the Armistice Agreement, which may entail the removal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. These are considered non-starters for the United States.

One group of engagement proponents have argued for negotiating with North Korea to achieve a freeze on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for humanitarian aid and sanctions relief, and then this would be a starting point for discussions later on related to denuclearization. However, skeptics claim this approach is disingenuous because even if North Korea were to agree to a freeze, which it has shown no interest in doing, it has not demonstrated a good track record about letting international monitors verify the freeze.

In summary, all of these options are not good. It appears that the Trump administration will continue to rely on diplomatic isolation, military deterrence, and financial pressure as its North Korea policy. And the April 6-7 Trump-Xi summit did nothing to change this expectation. But I hope that, in addition to bigger sticks, the Trump administration is also considering sweeter carrots – pressure and engagement don’t have to be mutually exclusive and can sometimes be mutually reinforcing.

Given the poor choices, what is your outlook for the future?

Barring an extreme shift in policy, I think in the future, we will likely be in the same unresolved situation as today but with greater risk. At some point in the next several years, North Korea will have demonstrated a potential long-range ICBM capability, which may cause the United States to consider even riskier options. Similarly, South Korea and Japan will need to demonstrate to their publics that they are taking measures to better defend themselves, including offensive strike capabilities in the case of Japan, and more calls for the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect is that even if our policies “succeed” in creating instability or regime collapse in North Korea, which seems inevitable, then we will face an incredibly daunting situation in terms of securing the weapons of mass destruction in North Korea. You not only have all of North Korea’s nuclear material and facilities – which the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s last Nuclear Security Index rated at the bottom in terms of theft and sabotage – but you also have the missile facilities, the chemical and biological weapons program, the potential for factionalization of the North Korean military, and three countries – China, U.S., and South Korea – that are all wary about the intervention of the other. So beyond the current efforts to achieve North Korean denuclearization, there really needs to be a concerted, sustained, and resourced effort to address this type of counter-WMD situation in a post-collapse scenario.

April 11, 2017
Mimi Hall
Mimi Hall

Senior Director for Content

Frank Aum


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