December 1, 2023 | The National Interest

Revitalizing America’s North Korea Policy

Kurt Campbell has been nominated as the next Deputy Secretary of State. Here are five recommendations for his possible successor as Asia Czar.
December 1, 2023 | The National Interest

Revitalizing America’s North Korea Policy

Kurt Campbell has been nominated as the next Deputy Secretary of State. Here are five recommendations for his possible successor as Asia Czar.

Kurt Campbell has been nominated as the next Deputy Secretary of State. Here are five recommendations for his possible successor, assuming the President wants another Asia Czar.

While the United States, as a global power, must be able to defend its global interests, Asia is and will likely remain a priority. Specifically, Northeast Asia is at once critically important to and potentially one of the most dangerous areas for U.S. interests, given that it is the nexus of the two largest economies and nuclear powers as well as a rogue nuclear state and the largest concentration of military forces anywhere in the world. If conflict breaks out in Northeast Asia, it will have severe global effects.

The new Asia Czar and his staff must examine the strategic assumptions about the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime. It is conducting political warfare to subvert the Republic of Korea (ROK) and split the ROK-U.S. alliance. It is conducting blackmail diplomacy to coerce political and economic concessions. And finally, it is developing advanced warfighting capabilities to support political warfare and blackmail diplomacy and prepare to unify the peninsula by force under the domination of the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State.

Although China is the dominant power in the region and the nation’s “pacing challenge,” North Korea is connected to almost every major conflict or potential conflict in many areas of the world. Too often, north Korea is neglected because it is a recalcitrant hard target for which no conventional diplomacy or strategy has ever been successful. The new Asia Czar should ask: what does the United States seek to achieve on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia? The answer can no longer be only denuclearization because Kim’s actions and statements make it clear he will maintain nuclear weapons for as long as he is in power. To that end, here are five steps the new Asia Czar should consider sponsoring.

Return U.S. Troops to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

North Korea has withdrawn from the Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018 and is rebuilding the guard posts that it removed. 

Until 1991, U.S. Army infantrymen conducted combat patrolling in an American sector surrounding the Joint Security Area. In 2024, the U.S. military should return to combat patrolling, but this time, it should support ROK forces throughout the entire DMZ. This will reduce stress on ROK forces, increase interoperability between ROK and U.S. forces, demonstrate commitment to the defense of the ROK, and improve morale by conducting missions that bring them eye to eye with the enemy. Rotating infantry battalions will conduct pre-mission training in the United States, spend three months preparing to conduct combat patrols on the DMZ, complete a three-month rotation with ROK forces, then three months of large-scale unit training, and then rotate back to the Homeland. 

Initiate a Holistic Information Campaign Against North Korea

The ROK-U.S. alliance has never effectively employed its information resources and capabilities to achieve strategic effects against North Korea in support of the Korean people. Its military forces have never been allowed to conduct aggressive, overt psychological operations. The only significant work in this area is done by escapees and the nongovernmental organizations that support them. While they are punching well above their weight, so much more could be done with the full support of the ROK and U.S. governments and militaries.

The United States must harness the capabilities and expertise of the escapees from the North. To that end, we should establish a Korean Escapee and Defector Information Institute to shape information activities. The State Department should also create a “Korea Desk” at the Global Engagement Center to synchronize Korean messaging.

Two specific overt strategic information activities should be considered based on the knowledge that Kim fears the Korean people in the North more than the military threat from the ROK-U.S. alliance. However, based on discussions with escapees asking why the Koreans do not resist, the consistent answer is that the people do not know what action to take.

The members of the Korean Escapee and Defector Information Institute should emulate the World War II OSS tactic of producing anti-regime literature. For instance, John Steinbeck authored a novel, The Moon is Down, to inform Germans living under the Nazis about methods of resistance, giving them hope in the face of tyranny and oppression. Koreans from the North could use this as a model to write similar stories specifically tied to their home provinces and show the people what a post-Kim future might bring. Such fictional stories could be adapted into K-Dramas for airing in the North and South. In addition, we need to send practical guides for collective action and resistance to oppression, such as Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, which is conveniently translated into Korean.

A channel of communication should be established between the frontline military commanders across the breadth of the DMZ. Soldiers conducting patrols along the DMZ should place South Korean cell phones in various locations to be picked up by soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army (KPA). These would be pre-programmed with ROK military commanders’ numbers and loaded with a wide range of applications that soldiers and commanders would find entertaining and useful. At the same time, Korea Telecom should build cell tower infrastructure along the South Barrier Fence of the DMZ to transmit cell signals as far into the North as possible. The soldiers and commanders would face dilemmas as to whether they should use these phones. A communications conduit with cell phones would be created along the DMZ, like the one along the Chinese border with North Korea.

Finally, some of the most important messages must be transmitted to the regime elite and second-tier military leaders. They need to know what a free and unified Korea will look like and how they will benefit. Military commanders must understand that if they do not attack the South and maintain control of their WMD, they will have a place in a unified Korea.

Conduct a Strategic Strangulation Campaign

The United States and the international community must aggressively go after North Korean illicit activities around the world. The regime is violating international law by using its diplomats for illegal actions. A concerted effort at strategic strangulation must be attempted to shut down drug trafficking, counterfeiting (from medicine to cigarettes to currency), money laundering, and overseas slave labor, as well as the proliferation of weapons, training, and expertise to conflict areas. As the international community has discovered, North Korea was complicit in supporting Hamas’ terrorist attack against Israel. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) should be implemented with great vigor so we know the exact routes the North is using. Current North Korean trade with Russia needs to be monitored by the PSI. While sanctions enforcement is critical, Chinese and Russian malfeasance prevents their effectiveness. Sanctions already in place need to be enforced against Russian and Chinese banks that are laundering illicit funds.

In addition, one of the most essential capabilities of the regime is its “all-purpose sword” of cyber warfare. The United States and its allies need to step up efforts to interdict and shut down North Korean cyber activities. Laws in the United States, the ROK, and the international community have not adapted to the current security environment. The cyber issue must be addressed because of its threats to critical infrastructure and its crucial role in funding the regime. 

In short, a strategic strangulation campaign must cut off resources for the regime while protecting friends and allies and stopping the proliferation of weapons in conflict areas.

Restructure the U.S. National Security Apparatus in Northeast Asia

It is time to rethink how the United States employs its instruments of national power in Asia and, specifically, in Northeast Asia. For more than a decade, the United States has paid lip service to an “Asian pivot,” only to find that the Middle East has a stranglehold on its strategic attention. A major restructuring should be considered.

Establishing a Northeast Asia Combatant Command is not a new idea. It has been studied for more than three decades. However, it is likely that INDOPACOM is too large and faced with multiple, complex challenges that are largely maritime. Of course, wherever military boundaries are established, there will always be resource gaps and competition for military resources. However, given the importance of Northeast Asia, a Combatant Command in Korea is necessary to ensure sufficient priority and resources are provided to protect U.S. interests. But a new military command alone is insufficient.

The State Department should set up a new office in Japan—a regional or “super” ambassador whose mission would be to synchronize regional diplomacy efforts, engage with multilateral diplomatic groups, and coordinate regional information activities. This ambassador would be very useful in sustaining and growing trilateral cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. This would help to reduce the adverse effects of stovepipe or bilateral diplomacy at the expense of regional efforts. Yes, this would supplant some of the activities and authorities of the regional desks in the State Department. Still, it would allow for more rapid responses and engagement in the region.

An Economic Engagement Center should be established in Taiwan to support the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Again, this would supplant some of the activities of State, Treasury, and Commerce Departments in Washington, but it would improve responsiveness to economic activities in the region.

Although this may seem like a relatively logical change in military and diplomatic posture, it is a radical change for the diplomatic, information, and economic instruments of national power. However, the radical nature of these combined actions would demonstrate a substantive U.S. commitment to the region and improve the application of all the tools available in a more synchronized, well-orchestrated, and effective manner.

Implement a New Korea Strategy

On 26 April 2023, President Yoon and President Biden provided strategic clarity in twenty-six words: “The two presidents are committed to build a better future for all Korean people and support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.” In addition. The two major documents from the Camp David Summit express similar ideas:

Spirit of Camp David: “We express support for the goal of the ROK’s Audacious Initiative and support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.”

Camp David Principles: “We support a unified Korean Peninsula that is free and at peace.”

The new strategy must move “onward toward unification” consisting of three lines of effort: a human rights first approach, a sophisticated information and influence campaign, and the pursuit of a free and unified Korea.

Although denuclearization of the North remains a worthy goal, it must be viewed as aspirational as long as the Kim family regime remains in power. The conventional wisdom has always been that denuclearization must come first, and unification will follow. Additionally, there should be no discussion of human rights out of fear that it would prevent Kim Jong-un from signing a denuclearization agreement. Today, even a blind man can read the tea leaves and know that Kim Jong-un will not denuclearize, even though his policies have been an abject failure. His political warfare and blackmail diplomacy strategies failed in 2022 because Presidents Yoon and Biden, like their predecessors, refused to make the political and economic concessions he demanded just to come to the negotiating table, namely to remove sanctions. His strategy is failing in 2023 and will fail in 2024, potentially making him more dangerous as he launches satellites, receives additional aid from Russia and China, and continues to improve his nuclear and missile capabilities. 

It is time for the ROK-U.S. alliance to execute a political warfare strategy that flips the conventional wisdom and seeks unification first and then denuclearization. Everyone must understand that the only way to end the nuclear program and the human rights abuses is through the unification of the Korean peninsula. The ROK and the United States must maintain the highest state of military readiness to deter war, adopt a human rights first approach and a comprehensive and sophisticated information and influence campaign, and focus all efforts on pursuing a free and united Korea.

David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel and has spent more than 30 years in Asia as a practitioner and specializes in Northeast Asian Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea). He is a member of the board of directors of the Committee for Human Rights In North Korea and the editor of Small Wars Journal.


Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy