Arms Control Defense Policy Korea National Security Nuclear Deterrence Nuclear Nonproliferation
Reality Check April 26, 2021

Reality Check #5: Learning to live with a nuclear North Korea

By Robert A. Manning

Key points

  • President Joe Biden has inherited a vexing North Korea problem: a more capable and defiant Pyongyang with a growing nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles that can target the United States and its allies.
  • The lessons from past failures of US diplomacy limit Biden’s North Korea policy options. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) seems intent on quantitatively and qualitatively improving its nuclear and missile capabilities.
  • The growing danger is spurring interest in more modest arms control approaches. Living with a de facto nuclear North Korea may be the least-bad option for now, requiring continued pressure and stronger deterrence measures.

What’s the issue?

President Biden has inherited the cumulative failed diplomatic legacies of four presidents over the past 28 years. Despite Trump’s two summit meetings with Kim Jong Un, North Korea now boasts an even more capable nuclear weapons arsenal, including some twenty or more bombs, the fissile material to manufacture six to seven devices a year, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that may be able to reach the US mainland. Recent short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) tests support Kim Jong Un’s claims in January that North Korea has “accumulated the technology” sufficient to develop tactical nuclear weapons, as part of an even more ambitious nuclear agenda.

The United States has entered uncharted waters not only on the nuclear issue, but also owing to a new wildcard: uncertainty about the DPRK’s internal situation. Kim has described his economic conditions as the “worst ever.” North Korea is in the midst of its most dire, protracted internal economic crisis since the famine of the mid-1990s, in which an estimated one to three million people died.

Although Pyongyang claimed the country had no COVID-19 cases, the pandemic led Kim to seal all the country’s borders in a self-imposed isolation and to mandate internal lockdowns in major cities. These measures created additional dire consequences for the country’s economy on top of the effects of sweeping United Nations economic sanctions that came into place in 2017. Estimates suggest the DPRK economy may have shrunk by as much as 10 percent in 2020, with negative growth projected for 2021 as well.

Pyongyang’s economic failures, as well as its nuclear ambitions and intentions, were on rare public display at the Eighth Workers Party Congress in January. In his opening speech, Kim admitted that the five-year economic development plan had “fallen short in almost every category” and that “bitter lessons” had been learned. He blamed the failures on a lack of implementation and subsequently fired several senior economic officials. So dire was the situation, Kim argued, that it required North Korea to “rearrange the economic foundations of the country,” as part of a new national plan.

For Pyongyang, denuclearization is only possible if the US “nuclear threat” is removed.

This new economic approach appears to be part of a hunkering-down strategy. Kim blamed the United States, which he described as “our biggest enemy,” an implacable foe that is committed to a “hostile policy” of confrontation. “No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change,” Kim said. Repeating longstanding rhetoric, Kim left a small crack in the door for future talks, but only if the United States abandons its “hostile policy.” To Pyongyang, ending the “hostile policy” means unilateral concessions by the United States, such as lifting sanctions and, more broadly, closing the US nuclear umbrella in East Asia. This is consistent with Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization, which it views as only possible if the US “nuclear threat” is removed. Trump’s inability to get Kim Jong Un to be more flexible on the framing of the necessary conditions for full denuclearization was one reason the summits failed.

In what may be an effort to set the stage for limited arms control talks, Kim described Pyongyang as a “responsible nuclear state” that would not “misuse” nuclear weapons. Such claims are belied by the fact that Pyongyang secretly built a nuclear reactor for Syria (which Israel destroyed in 2007), or that North Korea is the only nation to test nuclear weapons in this century. Most dramatically, Kim’s references to the “strategic and predominant” goal of expanding his capabilities to include “preemptive” and “tactical” nuclear capabilities indicate North Korea may be preparing for first use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. The agenda Kim laid out in January includes developing solid-fuel, road-mobile “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons.” The short-range ballistic missile Pyongyang tested on March 25th may have been nuclear-capable.

In addition, Kim promised to further develop and deploy solid-fuel submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and ICBMs—including multiple-warhead missiles—and even expressed a desire to develop hypersonic missiles. His new and aspirational capabilities not only underscore that he has no intention to denuclearize and seeks a second-strike capability, but also raise the question of whether he has offensive plans. North Korea’s nuclear doctrine remains largely unknown.

As Kim showcased the importance of nuclear weapons, he spurned efforts by the Biden administration to explore potential talks. Then, following the well-worn North Korea playbook for greeting new US presidents, Kim tested SRBMs on March 24th, rationalized as a response to US-Republic of Korea (ROK) mostly tabletop military exercises. This was accompanied by harsh, threatening words, first by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, then by Ri Pyong-chol, the second-ranking official in North Korea’s military hierarchy.

Some vexing problems do not have solutions: they can only be managed. Living with a nuclear North Korea might be the least-bad option.

The Biden administration has so far resisted taking the bait, which would have allowed Kim to manufacture another pseudo-crisis. Kim’s missile testing is probably still in its early stages in 2021. Having already conducted six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017, North Korea may not feel the need to conduct additional tests for now, despite Kim’s claims regarding tactical nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Pyongyang does need to test its missiles, especially the new ICBM and new solid-fuel SLBMs displayed in recent military parades. Testing is the only way for North Korean leaders to know whether their missiles are reliable and perceived as credible to the outside world. Analysts have already observed signs that Kim may be readying an SLBM test
This is the backdrop to Biden’s emerging North Korea policy, underscoring that the land of bad-to-horrible options has worsened. An initial flurry of Biden administration Indo-Pacific diplomacy—including an unprecedented Quad virtual summit (US-Japan-India-Australia) and bilateral two-plus-two (secretaries of defense and state) meetings with both Japan and South Korea, followed by a high-level meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska—highlighted a central pillar of Biden’s foreign policy: rejuvenating US alliances.

A prime example of this approach was the recent US-ROK-Japan meeting of national security advisors, where the participants pledged “concerted trilateral cooperation toward denuclearization,” the language used in the Trump-Kim Singapore declaration, and continuing support for all UN Security Council resolutions imposing economic sanctions on North Korea. Biden rightly sees multidimensional trilateral cooperation—diplomatic, intelligence, and security—as a pillar of his North Korea policy. The trilateral statement foreshadows that keeping pressure on Pyongyang and strengthening deterrence will most likely be key components of US policy toward North Korea. If so, at least a modicum of cooperation with both China and Russia will be needed.

What’s the solution?

With an inward-looking yet menacing North Korea, relatively few policy options are available to Washington. Policymakers should consider those outlined below.

1 Diplomacy. Given the risks of miscalculation, Washington should seek an ongoing, authoritative channel of communication with Pyongyang (the United States has had useful backchannel contacts in the past) and emphasize its openness to nuclear negotiations should Kim reverse course. The president should also periodically remind Pyongyang that any use of weapons of mass destruction would lead to swift and massive retaliation, which would result in the destruction of the regime. Although verified denuclearization of North Korea remains a US aspiration, it is not possible in the near term.

At the other end of the spectrum is the temptation to conduct preventive military strikes, which has been considered at previous moments of crisis. This was a nonstarter even before Pyongyang had nuclear weapons that could reach the United States and is unthinkable now. Seoul’s proximity to the Demilitarized Zone (40 kilometers) and Pyongyang’s forward-deployed long-range artillery and SRBMs create a state of mutual deterrence—even absent an escalation to nuclear war. Fully half of the ROK’s 51 million citizens live in the Greater Seoul area, and some 200,000 US citizens are there on any given day within range of DPRK artillery, cruise missiles, and SRBMs. What US president would risk taking steps that would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties?

2 Containment. The next least-bad set of options involve bounding and containing the problem, and, in any case, sustaining as much pressure as possible. With full denuclearization unachievable in the near term, there is growing interest in policy circles in pursuing an arms control approach to incrementally limit (e.g., ballistic-missile and nuclear-test bans) and/or cap and freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Negotiations toward that end would most likely start with what was left on the table at the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit: the partial dismantling of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facilities. This would inevitably be described as an “interim deal” or a “first phase,” but, for Kim, it would be a final deal to legitimize North Korea as a nuclear state. Any negotiations would founder on the critical issue of transparency, which unraveled the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement. The two principal transparency issues are: 1) a full declaration of Kim’s nuclear weapons program; and 2) full verification and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)―including challenge inspection rights. Absent these concessions by the DPRK, a full cap and freeze of North Korea’s fissile-material production would not be credible. Negotiators must know exactly what the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program consists of in order to know what has been frozen. IAEA verification and monitoring should be essential to confirm compliance.

A freeze of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is problematic. In any case, to contain the problem, two essential elements of US policy should be to sustain pressure on North Korea and strengthen deterrence to counter North Korean cyber activities as well as its current nuclear and missile capabilities. Cyber-defense and cyber-deterrence capabilities should be woven into US-ROK alliance planning.  

3 Deterrence. The third set of policy options would reinforce the US conventional extended deterrent with South Korea. Measures should include 1) enhanced C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance); advanced unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles; and integrating artificial intelligence-powered new and emerging weapons systems into joint US-ROK military operations and joint planning; 2) the resumption of significant joint and trilateral military exercises; and 3) the augmentation of alliance missile defenses in South Korea and from US air- and sea-based assets deployed in a crisis (or based in Japan).

 Credible deterrence requires both ample military capabilities and the less tangible but vital ingredient of psychological assurance. The United States has had extended deterrence dialogues with both Seoul and Tokyo. These efforts should be upgraded and expanded to include more detailed scenario planning and greater cooperation among all three parties.

None of these options are satisfying, but some vexing problems do not have solutions: they can only be managed. Living with a nuclear North Korea might be the least-bad option.

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