Pyongyang as a Challenge for the Next Administration: Nuclear Weapons are Becoming a More Important Part of the Landscape


2012-11-03 by Richard Weitz

All U.S. administrations have refused to accept North Korea as a legitimate nuclear weapons state.

In addition to wanting to avert a dangerous threat to the U.S. military forces and civilians located in East Asia as well as Washington’s regional allies, U.S. policy makers worry that North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities could soon threaten the continental United States with potential nuclear strikes.

No U.S. government official has expressed a willingness to accept a mutual deterrent relationship between an aggressive, congenitally anti-American and unpredictable DPRK regime and the United States.

Furthermore, many American experts worry that that Tehran is watching and weighing how the new U.S. administration is responding to the DPRK’s overt challenge when determining its own nuclear policies.

U.S. policy makers want to avoid making such generous concessions to Pyongyang as to encourage Tehran and other countries to seek WMD primarily as a means to pry similar rewards from Washington.

Another consideration affecting U.S. policy toward the DPRK nuclear issue is that American policy makers also do not want U.S. allies in the Pacific to perceive Washington as neglecting their security interests.

The DPRK’s developing nuclear weapons and improving ballistic missile capacities has already affected East Asian regional security in many dimensions, including by calling into question U.S. security guarantees to Japan and South Korea.

The main problem confronting the United States is that while North Korean leaders believe they need nuclear weapons to deter U.S. threats, the U.S. view is that enduring peace on the Korean peninsula requires that it be free of nuclear weapons. Supported by UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, Washington still insists on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula since a nuclear-armed DPRK threatened U.S. allies, promoted regional instability, and undermined the international treaties and regimes that underpin the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The tactics the United States pursues to achieve the objective of a nuclear-free Korea include coordinating U.S. policies with regional friends and allies to maximize their collective leverage, maintaining sanctions against North Korea until it ends its nuclear activities, and engaging in military exercises and contingency planning to deter and counter further DPRK provocations.

The Clinton administration largely supported the Sunshine Policy. In late October 2000, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang to discuss with North Korean leaders the country’s ballistic missile development efforts and other issues. President Bill Clinton himself was contemplating making a similar trip, though his term in office expired before satisfactory arrangements had been completed.

The Bush Administration

In contrast, the administration of George W. Bush, at least during his first term, adopted a firmer line toward the DPRK, leading to tensions with the more accommodating South Korean governments then in office. But then tensions dissipated during the 2005-2007 period when North Korea agreed to several compromise settlements with the United States and South Korea that saw Pyongyang dismantle key elements of its nuclear program, at least for a while.

For most of its years in office, the Bush administration refused to deal with the DPRK bilaterally or to discuss offering economic and other concessions to Pyongyang until North Korean leaders committed to its “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of all its nuclear weapons programs. Administration officials would only consent to engage in discussions with the DPRK within a multilateral framework that sought these U.S. denuclearization objectives. Members of the Bush administration regularly cited the Libyan example—in which case the national government first renounced its WMD programs before receiving formal offers of Western assistance—as the model by which states of proliferation concern could rehabilitate themselves.

The Bush administration only changed its approach, though not its goal, after the DPRK detonated a nuclear explosive device in October 2006.

The revised tactics permitted direct meetings between U.S. and DPRK representatives, but these were characterized as both occurring within the framework established by the Six-Party Talks and as seeking to support them. Although the Bush administration continued to exclude negotiating a bilateral deal directly with Pyongyang, it did describe the talks as a useful mechanism for developing contacts with all six parties.

The Obama Administration

The Obama administration has been willing to negotiate nuclear and other issues directly with the DPRK, but only within the Six-Party framework. The administration pledged not to negotiate bilateral deals with Pyongyang without the consent of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

The Obama administration has affirmed its willingness to offer Pyongyang generous substantive terms for abandoning its nuclear program. Washington is prepared to work with the other parties to compensate the DPRK for any steps it took towards ending its nuclear weapons and missile programs, including by supplying economic assistance and security guarantees.

But since Pyongyang has continued its wayward ways, most recently by launching a long-range missile, the United States and its allies have shunned the DPRK diplomatically and punished it with additional unilateral and multilateral sanctions.

In spite of a fantasy of a nuclear free world by 2013, the reality is that nuclear weapons are becoming a more important element in the world. Iran is close to having nuclear weapons, and the Israelis and the conservative Arab States are shaping policies to deal with Iran. North Korea and China are two key nuclear powers able to shape a fluid environment because of those weapons.

Representatives of the current U.S. administration, like its predecessors, have also affirmed a readiness to curtail North Korean nuclear threats by means other than negotiations, including by using sanctions, strengthening allied defenses in the East Asian region, and increasing U.S. and multinational interdiction efforts.

The Obama administration remains committed to the “action for action” approach that combines the use of positive and negative incentives with a willingness to engage the DPRK within the multilateral context of the Six-Party Talks.

Under its policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has demanded that the DPRK give some concrete indication, before resuming the Six-Party Talks, that the DPRK would make progress toward ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy does complement the position of the current ROK government by joining with Seoul in refusing to resume direct negotiations with the DPRK until Pyongyang clearly changes its policies.

U.S. officials have also tried to develop good relations between the ROK and Japan.

U.S. and Japanese ministers jointly denounce DPRK provocations against the ROK. Separately, the Japanese government has foresworn direct dealings with Pyongyang until the DPRK meets the ROK’s demand for an initial bilateral security dialogue. Although bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul have recently worsened, both parties appreciate the U.S. mediation efforts and the other U.S. contributions to their mutual security.

The Risks Moving Forward

But this policy of patiently waiting for verifiable changes in DPRK policies possesses several risks.

First, it provides North Koreans with additional breathing room to refine their nuclear and missile programs. It also risks that the DPRK might again launch more ballistic missiles or detonate another nuclear device to confirm and support this development process or out of simple frustration about being ignored.

The strategy also risks allowing a minor incident to escalate through the ROK’s “proactive deterrence” policy, which calls for responding immediately to DPRK military provocations.

The South Korean Army has deployed new short-range missiles and other weapons systems in the border area than are capable of responding rapidly against any North Korean infraction. When nervous ROK troops, seeking to implement the rapid response doctrine, shot at a civilian airliner in 2011, they underscored the risks of miscalculation when one or both parties is in a hair-trigger alert state.

The worst scenario would see the DPRK leadership, thinking that their nuclear and missile arsenals would protect them by deterring potential counterattacks, launching another provocation only to trigger the massive and prompt response posited in the new ROK strategy.

The DPRK might respond by detonating a nuclear device in order to shock the ROK and its foreign allies into de-escalating the crisis. Or it might simply bombard Seoul and its environs with the enormous number of artillery systems that the DPRK has amassed in the border region.

Editor’s Note: Another challenge is simply to fail to reform the defense of South Korea approach.  Continuing to sit in place to meet a threat from the North means that one is defending with a Sitzkreig policy rather than building the kind of mobile, projection forces which can envelop and contain North Korea, and at the same aid in broader regional contingencies.

For a look at the challenges as seen from the perspective of the 7th USAF see the following: