Submitted by Tom Oomen

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it is officially known, has been advancing its nuclear capabilities for almost forty years and has been trying to weaponize it for at least thirty years. As a result, economic sanctions have been repeatedly put in place against the regime under the premise that enough pressure will lead to an abandonment of its nuclear capabilities. The main source of sanctions come from the US, which has placed various economic sanctions on North Korea since the 1950s, long before the nuclear aspirations of North Korea started. Many years later, other countries joined the US in imposing sanctions on North Korea when the UN Security Council decided to punish North Korea after it conducted its first nuclear test. However, since 2006, North Korea has not only been able to increase the destructiveness of its nuclear bombs more than ten times, but it has also managed to reduce its nuclear warheads’ size in order to be able to mount them on rockets, despite the sanctions becoming increasingly severe. Furthermore, Pyongyang also developed intercontinental missile capability and now is capable of targeting the east coast of America. At this point, it is beyond clear that the strategy to pressure North Korea with economic sanctions in order to change its behaviour has failed to meet US expectations and has instead caused the situation to become more and more dangerous. Therefore, the US needs to reorient its strategy: it should remove hostile intent by trading sanctions relief for pause in nuclear production, reinstate multilateral talks, and improve US long-term commitment and trust.

To solve complicated issues like this one, we need to look at the root causes which led to the current circumstances. The most important cause is that, after the Korean War in the 1950s, little work has been done in order to reduce tensions between North Korea and the US. As a result, residual tensions have forced both parties into a state in which they put up a strong front in order to intimidate the other party so as to prevent it from starting an attack. The most notable examples of this are US-South Korean military practices on or near the Korean peninsula on one side, and North Korean missile tests on the other. While both sides provoke each other, it is clear for all, and especially for those in Pyongyang, that if it would come to a conventional war, North Korea would not win against the US. Therefore, in this highly tense and pressurized situation, the North Korean regime sees obtaining nuclear and ballistic capabilities as its only way to ensure its absolute safety. In the current situation, it fears foreign interference aiming at dethroning the Kim-lineage rule. Thus, it is precisely these tensions that are the drive for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Consequently, neither the US nor the rest of the world will see any improvement in its security situation if the US does not thoroughly revisit its strategy of maximum pressure. 

The US’s new strategic goal should be to steer the North Korean regime towards a future at which point it no longer has any hostile intentions towards the US and thus no longer feels the need to develop nuclear weapons. The first step would be to exchange a North Korean pause in its production and enrichment of nuclear material — with full access for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts to verify the process — for a partial relief in economic sanctions. The main purpose would be to change the whole discourse from one of mutual threats to one of understanding and common ground. Actions, too, need to be in line with that discourse. While applying pressure can help to some extent in some cases, the US should use it sparsely in order to not have an adverse effect. US strategy should, therefore, tolerate North Korea keeping a low-level retainment of its nuclear capabilities. 

Next, the US should re-establish the multilateral talks between regional actors (including North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the US itself) that collapsed in 2009. There are two reasons for this. First, these talks were a tool for the most relevant actors to agree upon a common solution, making the implementation of almost any solution more effective. Second, the talks can become more effective than they once were. For starters, the stakes are now higher, prompting every actor to spend more effort in finding a workable compromise. In addition, if the above recommendation concerning a new discourse is put in place, there would be more room for creating common ground and mutual understanding, which facilitates comprise. 

Another recommendation for US strategy is to focus on long-term commitment to this and any other peace-oriented strategy in order to increase the trustworthiness of the US and its commitments. This can and should be realised by creating internal unity in the American government, which can take the form of bipartisan cooperation within Congress and between Congress and the president through new and continued closed-door dialogues on North Korea between party members from both sides. The current polarisation in the US political landscape threatens the negotiating power of the president since North Korea is aware that an international agreement can be ratified only with the support of the often divided Congress, and only with bipartisan support can Pyongyang rely on the US to stick to the deals made by President Trump or his successors. Would bipartisan support not be reached, then it will cause hesitancy on the North Korean side to make concessions, since a concession to one president can now be interpreted as a show of weakness by a future president, who might later be inclined to take a more aggressive stance towards North Korea. Improving long-term trust can therefore raise the probability of a successful outcome of negotiations. 

The North Korean regime is in survival mode with nuclear capabilities exalted as its lifeblood. It would be in the US interests to reduce both North Korean nuclear capabilities and hostile intents, but hostile intents need to take precedence since they form the root cause behind the North Korean drive for nuclear capabilities. In order to improve its long term strategic plan, the US should stop demanding further reduction of nuclear and ballistic capabilities than what North Korea already has now, since this will only exacerbate the unfruitful and dangerous deadlock that we have been stuck in for the last few decades. In addition, the US should resume multilateral discussions with key players, strive to commit to incremental changes that constitute a win-win for both the US and North Korea, and focus on creating more bipartisan unity around such a North Korea strategy. Peace and prosperity can be achieved with enough commitment and with the willingness to adopt a better strategy. With the current status quo, North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear and ballistic capabilities, and provocations from both sides will continue to escalate the risk of conflict, potentially sparking a nuclear war. The time for pivoting the US’s strategic plan for North Korea is now.