North Korea poses a multifaceted military threat to peace and stability in Asia as well as a global proliferation risk. Pyongyang has developed enough fissile material for six to eight plutonium-based nuclear weapons and conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang’s disclosure last year of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility validated U.S. assertions that it was pursuing a parallel uranium nuclear weapons program. The uranium facility increases not only the potential threats from an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal, but also the risk of nuclear proliferation. North Korea, for example, has assisted programs in both Iran and Syria.
Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in January 2011 that “North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States” because it will develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) within five years. Pyongyang has already deployed hundreds of missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa.
Pyongyang’s unprovoked acts of war in 2010 against a South Korean naval ship and a civilian-inhabited island were chilling reminders that its conventional forces remain a direct military threat to a U.S. ally. North Korea will feel compelled to conduct additional provocative acts in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
For years, many sought to absolve North Korea of responsibility for its acts by blaming U.S. and South Korean policies. It was also claimed that a one-track policy of returning to the “Six-Party” negotiations, offering concessions, and abandoning punishment for North Korean violations would resolve the nuclear issue and prevent provocations. Yet secret discussions underway last year did not prevent Pyongyang’s attacks on South Korea. Similarly, during the last four years of the Bush Administration, the U.S. engaged in multilateral negotiations and frequent direct bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang, but North Korean intransigence, noncompliance, and brinksmanship continued.
In early 2009, there were euphoric expectations that the election of Barack Obama would lead to dramatic breakthroughs with North Korea. Instead, Pyongyang quickly sent clear signals that it would not adopt a more accommodating stance, rejecting several attempts by the new Administration to engage in dialogue.
North Korea declared the Six-Party Talks agreements void because the regime had new demands. Pyongyang also conducted a rapid-fire series of provocations, including threats of war, abrogation of the Korean War armistice, a long-range missile launch, and a nuclear test. But biting the offered open hand of dialogue backfired on Pyongyang by causing a belated epiphany among U.S. experts that the regime, not U.S. policies under successive Administrations, was to blame for the North Korean nuclear problem.
The reality is that pressure and conditional engagement—along with strong military deterrence, offers of economic assistance, and public diplomacy—will be most effective when integrated into a comprehensive strategy. However, since it will be difficult if not impossible to attain North Korean denuclearization, Washington and its allies must ensure that they retain sufficient military resources, including missile defenses, to deter, defend, and if necessary defeat the multifaceted North Korean threat to peace and stability in Asia.
Kim Jong-il has recovered from his August 2008 stroke, but he continues to have serious health problems. The planned leadership succession to his third son, Kim Jong-eun, appears to be on track. Despite speculation that the son may be more amenable to implementing political and economic reform and pursuing a less belligerent foreign policy, there is no evidence to support this view. The young son’s legitimacy comes from his lineage as well as maintaining the policies of his father and grandfather. He may feel compelled to act even more provocatively in order to prove his mettle to other members of the senior leadership who may seek to challenge him.
The United States should continue the current two-track policy of pressure and conditional engagement, but with additional measures. Overall, it is a good strategy, but it has been weakly implemented by the Obama Administration. Stronger, increasingly punitive and coercive measures should be implemented while the door is kept open for diplomacy and negotiations based on the principles of compliance, conditionality, reciprocity, and verification. Specifically:
- Fully implement existing U.N. resolution requirements and sanctions, including freezing and seizing the financial assets of any complicit North Korean person, company, bank, or government agency. Strengthening sanctions on North Korea demonstrates to Pyongyang that there is a cost for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions and abandoning the Six-Party Talks. The regime is particularly vulnerable now as it goes through the succession process, a deteriorating economic situation, and internal problems.
- Close loopholes in the U.N. resolutions, such as to allow the use of military force to enforce them. This would prevent recurrences of the Kang Nam incident in which the U.S. Navy was prevented from boarding a North Korean ship suspected of proliferating proscribed items.
- Target both ends of the proliferation pipeline, including foreign companies, banks, and governments that assist North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. U.N. Resolution 1874 applies to all U.N. member states. The likelihood that Pyongyang received foreign assistance on the uranium program shows that it is past time for Washington and the United Nations to impose sanctions on more than just North Korean violators. U.N. and U.S. reluctance to target Iranian, Syrian, Burmese, Chinese and other government and private entities has hindered international efforts to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
- Advocate to maintain international punitive sanctions until North Korea complies with international law and U.N. resolutions. Do not agree to negotiate international or U.S. sanctions away for Pyongyang simply returning to the Six-Party Talks. Washington should take the lead and call on other nations to follow suit. Increased international pressure could impede North Korea's ability to import the components and materials needed for its nuclear weapon program and curb its destabilizing proliferation activities. More aggressively implementing U.N. resolutions would also signal decisively that there is a cost to abhorrent behavior.
- Press China to combat North Korean proliferation more aggressively and be more assertive in pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. China’s expansion of both its official and private sector economic dealings with North Korea and refusal to confront Pyongyang over its multiple transgressions has undermined the U.N. sanctions and removed the incentive for Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks, where economic benefits are conditioned on progress in denuclearization.
- Lead a global effort to target North Korea’s illegal activities, including counterfeiting of currency and pharmaceuticals, production and distribution of illegal drugs, and money laundering. Despite denials by Washington, law enforcement efforts against North Korea seem to have languished following abandonment of U.S. sanctions against a Macau bank accused of assisting North Korean money laundering—a naïve attempt to jumpstart the Six-Party Talks nuclear negotiations.
- Return North Korea to the state sponsors of terrorism list. Two North Korean agents confessed to South Korean authorities that they attempted to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect to the South. They stated that they had received their order from Kim Young-chol, chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated that North Korean weapons seized in Thailand last year were headed for Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Insist that North Korea fully comply with its existing Six-Party Talks agreements and make subsequent Six-Party Talks joint statements sufficiently detailed to prevent North Korea from exploiting loopholes. North Korea agreed to provide a “complete and correct” data declaration on its nuclear weapons inventory, uranium weapons program, and proliferation activities; disable all nuclear facilities; and accept a sufficiently rigorous and intrusive verification protocol that meets international standards.
- Insist on a rigorous and intrusive non-proliferation verification mechanism. North Korea should return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and commit to all required inspections. Pyongyang’s disclosure in November 2010 of a secret uranium enrichment facility will necessitate even more rigorous verification measures than were previously considered. Since uranium facilities are easier to conceal than those related to plutonium production, short-notice challenge inspections of non-declared facilities must be a verification requirement in future agreements.
- Expand broadcasting services, such as broadcasts by Radio Free Asia, and the distribution of leaflets, DVDs, computer flash drives, documentaries, and movies into North Korea through both overt and covert means to increase North Korean exposure to the outside world and encourage the transformation of the regime, as took place in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Because international diplomacy and U.N. resolutions have failed thus far to prevent North Korea from continuing its development and testing of nuclear weapons and ICBM delivery capabilities, the U.S. should also strengthen defensive measures to protect U.S. interests, the U.S. homeland, and our troops and allies abroad. Specifically:
- Continue to develop and deploy missile defense systems. The United States should reverse planned cuts in the budgets of U.S. missile defense programs, and call on South Korea to deploy a multi-layered missile defense system. Diplomatic efforts have failed to prevent North Korea’s continued development of long-range missiles, including an ICBM that could threaten the United States with a nuclear warhead by 2015. It is therefore necessary to deploy a multi-layered comprehensive allied missile defense system.
- Augment non-proliferation efforts, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. Make it clear that the United States will not tolerate any sea or air transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea. Orchestrate an international effort to interdict North Korean ships suspected of violating U.N. resolutions or international law.
Facts & Figures
- North Korea has a 1.1 million-man army, 70 percent of which is deployed within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea. These forces include mechanized infantry corps, artillery corps, an armored corps, and several infantry corps.
- North Korea has 600 Scud short-range tactical ballistic missiles, 300 No Dong medium-range missiles, and 100 to 200 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Scud missiles can reach anywhere in South Korea, the No Dong missiles can target all of Japan, and the Musudan missiles can hit U.S. bases on Okinawa and Guam.
- North Korea spends an estimated 25 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on its military.
- North Korea has 13,000 artillery pieces deployed along the DMZ. Many of these weapons, including chemical weapons–capable systems, already threaten the 13 million inhabitants of Seoul, which is located 30 miles from the DMZ.
Selected Additional Resources
Bruce Klingner, “Be Wary of North Korea’s Charm Offensive,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3344, August 29, 2011.
Bruce Klingner, “Talks About Talking Okay, but the Ball Is in Pyongyang’s Court,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3325, July 25, 2011.
Bruce Klingner, “Food Aid to North Korea: Time Is Not Right,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3229, April 18, 2011.
Bruce Klingner, “North Korea—A Multi-Faceted Threat to Peace and Stability,” Heritage Foundation Testimony, March 10, 2011.
Bruce Klingner, “The Case for Comprehensive Missile Defense in Asia,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2506, January 7, 2011.
Heritage Experts on North Korea