The threat of North Korean nuclear weapons is real and growing, but it is not inherently different from proliferation challenges that the United States has confronted in the past. The inability to develop viable military options that could plausibly eliminate the nuclear weapons program without precipitating a disaster in Seoul precludes serious consideration of preventive military action. Therefore, a robust and comprehensive policy of containment of North Korea, fully utilizing all available military, economic, and diplomatic capabilities of the United States, in close coordination with allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, as well as other interested regional powers like China and Russia, presents the best way forward for addressing the current North Korean nuclear threat and supporting U.S. national security interests in the long-term.
The Logic of Containment: Raising Costs and Denying Benefits
Before explaining the key components of a U.S. containment strategy, it is important to clarify what this policy does not represent. Most importantly, it does not represent the formal or informal acceptance of the existence of a North Korean nuclear weapons program by the United States or its allies. North Korea’s persistent bad behavior cannot be rewarded with such recognition, and such a move would represent a dramatic reversal of decades of U.S. policy with dire implications for the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and undermine the credibility of U.S. extended deterrent guarantees to allies. Moreover, this policy does not undermine the longstanding U.S. commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. It does acknowledge that this ultimate goal may not be realized for some time, but it would maintain the position that any future normalization of relations with North Korea would be premised upon its acceptance of the obligations of a non-nuclear weapons state as defined by the NPT.
An effective containment policy will communicate one clear, unambiguous message to Kim Jong Un’s regime: nothing has changed with North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. The Kim regime will realize no benefits whatsoever—whether measured in terms of increased material capabilities, diplomatic influence, or national prestige—from crossing the nuclear threshold. Instead, an effective and comprehensive U.S. containment policy would consistently raise the costs on Pyongyang for its refusal to halt or reverse its nuclear weapons program and prevent North Korea from exploiting its new capabilities for any possible gains. Such a policy would not necessarily forego negotiations, as Secretary of State Tillerson has recently discussed, but the Trump administration should hold a firm line that no preconditions can be set by Pyongyang and that a verifiable freeze on the North Korean nuclear weapons program is a requisite for U.S. participation. Over time, diplomatic progress may be possible, but it must be premised on a reversal of the program. In the absence of cooperation from Pyongyang, the containment policy would remain in place.
Three Pillars of Containment: Military, Economic and Diplomatic Initiatives
The United States has already taken many prudent steps toward the construction of a robust policy of regional containment of North Korea. For all of its efforts, Pyongyang currently faces a formidable military coalition, extensive economic sanctions, and a galvanized international community supported by multilateral diplomacy driven by the United States. Building upon these three distinct-but-related lines of effort (or pillars) should be the core of the U.S. containment strategy.
Given the highly provocative and belligerent nature of the North Korean threat, the sufficient deployment of U.S. and allied military force is essential and constitutes the first pillar of a robust containment strategy. With a network of forward bases in the region and the deployment of theater missile defense systems to both South Korea and Japan, Kim faces a formidable and transparent counter to any military threats he may consider. The poor record of testing of U.S. strategic missile defenses does not instill confidence in the U.S. capacity to intercept an incoming ICBM, a point underscored by the concerns expressed over the North Korean missile program by many missile defense advocates. However, the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal – particularly relative to North Korea’s – remains a robust deterrent. The deployment of additional strategic assets such a B-2 bombers and Ohio-Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to the East Asian theater can further ratchet up pressure on the regime and signal U.S. willingness to retaliate at higher levels of violence in order to deter North Korean provocations or potentially compel a reversal of policy, if necessary.
The United States should also continue to enhance allied capacity and maximize interoperability among U.S., Japanese, and South Korean military forces in the event of a conflict. North Korea presents a wide array of potential operational scenarios, necessitating a spectrum of military capabilities that must be readily available to commanders in the theater. The “good” news is that this is not a new problem. However, while cooperation between the U.S. forces and those of its two respective allies is extensive and deep after years of effort, greater integration and coordination among all three allies would significantly enhance their combined capacity to address a full range of potential North Korean threats and should be a focus of future efforts.
Economic sanctions make up the second pillar of this containment approach. The United States has made significant progress in steadily increasing pressure on the Kim regime by shutting off various sources of illicit funding and raw materials that keep the hobbled North Korean economic from seizing up completely. Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed expansive sanctions effectively cutting off 90% of North Korean petroleum imports and demanded the expatriation of North Korean workers living abroad, another source or illicit revenue for the regime. It also provides a legal basis for preventing smuggling of materials and should facilitate U.S. and allied interdiction efforts. Aggressive, expanding sanctions, interdiction of North Korean (or suspect illicit) shipping, and pressure on past clients will continue to raise costs on Kim’s family, close advisors, and regime officials over time.
Skeptics find sanctions unsatisfying, precisely because it often takes time for their impact to be felt by the target regime. Moreover, for regimes that are willing to pass along the pain and costs of sanctions to their people, critics argue they are ineffective and fail to punish the true target. The history of the Kim regime clearly illustrates its willingness to allow the people of North Korea to suffer immense hardships to maintain power and develop nuclear weapons. Yet the growing danger of the North Korean nuclear testing program has galvanized the United Nations to take action, and broad participation of states in multilateral sanctions regimes increases the material impact on the target state. While sanctions have clearly not stopped the program, there is evidence, for example, that even traditional patrons China and Russia have been willing to cut off natural gas, petroleum and other natural resources that will severely impact North Korea’s economy and undermine the regime.
Finally, both the military and economic efforts must be supported by a third pillar, energetic and adept diplomacy. The hard work of maintaining a strong coalition in the United Nations focused on the North Korean nuclear threat is vitally important. Equally important is the consistent reaffirmation of U.S. security guarantees and reassurance of allies like Japan and South Korea. It seems clear that with regard to the latter, more work needs to be done. President Moon has alternatively been a target of President Trump’s rhetoric and an afterthought, particularly given President Trump’s close relations with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his stated willingness to rely on China’s President Xi Jinping to handle the North Korean challenge. Working closely with Seoul is essential, and improving relations between South Korea and Japan is necessary to increase the cohesion of the coalition facing down Pyongyang. This will further enhance military cooperation required to deter North Korean provocation or, if necessary, effectively respond to a North Korean military threat. It also enhances the impact of sanctions and related interdiction activities to truly isolate the North Korean regime.
Despite occasional lapses, China and Russia have both played relatively constructive roles in restraining the North Korean nuclear program in recent UN deliberations. However, it is important to recognize that their interests are not always aligned with those of the United States. This is exactly where shrewd, hard-nosed diplomacy should play a central role. If both Beijing and Moscow are convinced that their overall relationship with the United States will be heavily influenced by their perceived helpfulness in managing (and ideally resolving) the North Korean problem, they may provide tangible assistance. However, such a cooperation may come at a cost, and difficult choices are likely to emerge. Given the gravity of the North Korean threat, its resolution should take precedence over other priorities. This should guide the overall Trump administration approach.
The challenge of a nuclear-armed North Korea is daunting, but one that the United States is well-positioned to address. Moving on from earlier hardline rhetoric, a robust and comprehensive policy of containment that utilizes a “whole of government” approach and builds upon the contributions of allies in the region and around the globe, as well as like-minded members of the international community in venues like the United Nations, provides the best possible method of deterring North Korean provocations in the short-term and creating conditions for the halting and ultimately reversing the nuclear weapons program over time.