January 23, 2023 | National Institute for Public Policy

National Strategy for Countering North Korea

January 23, 2023 | National Institute for Public Policy

National Strategy for Countering North Korea


Since the emergence of the nuclear threat from North Korea in the early 1990s, the primary objective of U.S. policy has been to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  While successive administrations have adopted different combinations of incentives and disincentives to achieve this end, all have pursued denuclearization through diplomacy and negotiations as the signature component of their North Korea policy.  All have failed.  Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Eve call for an “exponential increase” in the North’s nuclear arsenal only underscores the need for a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.

The North’s nuclear program has expanded from small-scale plutonium reprocessing, to enriched uranium, to six nuclear tests, to an estimated arsenal of 40-60 weapons and is rapidly growing.  The expansion of its weapons stockpile has been accompanied by an equally aggressive expansion of its ballistic missile force, which now includes several generations of short, medium, and long-range missiles, including the ability to hold all American cities hostage to attack.

While denuclearization remains central to U.S. national security interests, it is necessary to undertake a reassessment of the means to achieve this and other goals in the context of the full spectrum of threats from the North.  This includes the potential for further proliferation, both from the North selling nuclear materials, and perhaps nuclear weapons, to other rogue states, as well as from threatened regional states deciding that they must have a national nuclear capability to counter North Korea.

To meet this growing security challenge, it is imperative to design and implement a new, comprehensive strategy that incorporates all available tools of statecraft—diplomacy, economic, information and intelligence, military and others.  Most important, the strategy must be grounded in a pragmatic understanding of the North’s determination to continue its nuclear weapons program which it sees as essential to the survival of the Kim regime.  This is not to concede that North Korea is a legitimate nuclear weapon state as doing so would unleash a panoply of unintended consequences inimical to U.S. interests. Rather, it is to accept that three decades of U.S. policy under both Democratic and Republican presidents have failed and that a different approach is necessary for U.S. national security.

The new strategy is described below.  Although retaining elements of the current strategy—such as alliance relationships, defense and deterrence, containment, and economic sanctions—the new strategy represents a structural shift in the narrative of the past thirty years.   It requires a different way of thinking about the complex problem of North Korea.  While diplomacy to achieve denuclearization will be encouraged, the central feature of the new strategy will not be negotiations with the North over its nuclear program but rather the promotion of the rights and freedoms of the North Korean people in the broader context of unification with South Korea.  This is the envisioned pathway to achieving long-standing U.S. policy and security goals, including denuclearization.

Six Strategic Propositions

  1. A fundamental shift in policy toward North Korea is essential to meet U.S. national security requirements. As long as the Kim regime remains in power, Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear weapons program and will persist with efforts to get the United States to accept the North as a nuclear weapons state.  Its nuclear weapons arsenal will continue to expand in both numbers and sophistication, representing a central threat to U.S. forces and homeland, to our allies, and to the nonproliferation regime.  The near certainty that North Korea will sell nuclear technology, likely including weapons, to other rogue states and terrorist entities makes evident the need to adopt a new strategy to achieve U.S. security objectives.
  2. The Kim regime’s greatest vulnerability is from within, from the alienation of its own people who suffer under totalitarian repression. While insisting on complete and verifiable denuclearization, the foundation of U.S. strategy should be a human rights upfront approach, a comprehensive information and influence campaign, and the advancement of the strategic aim of a free and unified Korea.  This is not the promotion of human rights solely for the sake of human rights.  This is the most effective means to achieve U.S. national security imperatives.  Only in this way will the nuclear threat, as well as crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Kim regime, be ended.  The policy myths that have long asserted that the promotion of human rights conflicts with the goal of denuclearization should be replaced by facts. (See Annex A.)  The promotion of human rights is the primary means to achieve denuclearization.
  3. U.S. strategy must be based on active containment of the North, including prevention of proliferation, as well as effective deterrence based on both offensive retaliation and credible missile defenses to protect South Korea, regional allies, and the U.S. homeland. If deterrence fails, and North Korea initiates a large-scale attack, the United States and its allies will ensure the end of the regime as the strategic end state of the defense plan.
  4. U.S. strategy for countering the North Korean threat requires the integration of all tools of statecraft. Diplomacy is needed for any potential interaction with North Korea and essential to secure support from South Korea, Japan, and other regional and global allies, as well as to counter any resistance from China and Russia.  Given the prominence of human rights in the strategy, diplomacy should also be focused on gaining support from the European Union, the European Parliament, and other states supportive of human rights.  Economic sanctions and financial tools will be vital to contain North Korea and interdict its illicit proliferation activities.  Information and intelligence tools will be essential to empower the people of North Korea and to counter the North’s activities abroad.  Defense and deterrence capabilities, including defensive and offensive cyber, will be essential for the success of the strategy.
  5. The preemptive use of military force by the United States and South Korea should be considered only when there is high confidence that a large-scale attack by the North is imminent, especially if that attack is assessed to include weapons of mass destruction. While not taking the military option off the table, the preemptive use of force to achieve regime change is not a viable option.  South Korea continues to live under the threat of the sheer mass and proximity of the North’s military. The costs in lives, civilian and military, and treasure would far outweigh the gains.  Although the United States and South Korea must be fully prepared to repel any military provocation or attack from the North, initiating an armed confrontation to end the regime is neither necessary nor acceptable.
  6. Placing the promotion of human rights with North Korea at the center of U.S. strategy will be vehemently opposed by Pyongyang, as it was by the Moscow when President Reagan insisted that human rights be a core element of U.S. policy with the Soviet Union. But continuing the current course will result in even greater threats to the U.S. and allies.  A course change in U.S. strategy that facilitates the people of North Korea determining their own future provides the most viable alternative to the failed policies of the past.

Robert Joseph is senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy.  He served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.  He is a member of the board of directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

Robert Collins is a senior advisor at HRNK. He has 50 years of experience analyzing North Korea for the HRNK and the U.S. Government.

Joseph DeTrani was a senior official in the CIA and is the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea and former Director of the National Counterproliferation Center.  He is a senior advisor at HRNK.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is senior adviser at the National Bureau for Asian Research (NBR) and a founding member of the board of directors of HRNK.

Olivia Enos is the Washington Director for the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong.  Earlier, she spent ten years at The Heritage Foundation working on human rights issues in Asia.  She is a senior advisor at HRNK.

David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army officer who served multiple assignments at the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command.  He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation and is a member of the board of directors of HRNK. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMaxwell161. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Greg Scarlatoiu HRNK Executive Director.  He is also Vice President of the International Council of Korean Studies. Since 2003, he has authored and broadcasted a weekly Korean language column for Radio Free Asia.


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