North Korea Goes Nuclear—Now What?

After last week's nuclear test, international diplomacy is no longer the way to deal with the threat of North Korea.

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Evan Moore is a senior policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

North Korea's nuclear test last week and its warnings of more tests dramatically illustrate that the past two decades of U.S. policy towards Pyongyang have failed. The Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations all have used international diplomacy—and at times promises of food, fuel, and technological assistance—to persuade the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to abandon its nuclear program. However, with the brief exception of the 2007 freezing of Pyongyang's financial assets in Banco Delta Asia, Washington has not advanced truly serious forms of coercive pressure against the Hermit Kingdom. If the United States has any hope of reversing North Korea's expanding nuclear ambitions, this must change.

It's time for the Obama administration to craft a new North Korea strategy around a new objective. At the heart of this approach would be the recognition that the dynastic Kim dictatorship is not only the underlying cause of the ongoing nuclear crisis, but also unlikely to voluntarily denuclearize. Armed with this recognition, the United States would work with allies and partners to exert truly crippling diplomatic, financial, and moral pressure against Pyongyang, with the aim of fundamentally undermining the Kim regime.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

This new strategy would feature six main components:

  • Aggressively target North Korea's financial assets and proliferation activities. The Democratic People's Republic's sale of conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and nuclear technology to rogue nations is a critical financial life-line. The United States should lead a coordinated multilateral campaign to stop these transfers, freeze the assets of North Korean elites in international banks, and strangle the the government's other illicit income generators so as to place a vise on the Kim regime's ability to support itself.
    • Work to get refugees out and radios in.  North Korea's regime continues to exist, in part, because it has prevented its own people from learning about the outside world. Indeed, the free flow of information and people across the border is a direct threat to the Hermit Kingdom. It is therefore not surprising that the Kim regime recently instituted a crackdown on foreign-origin radios and cell phones within the country, and also reduced the flow of refugees escaping across the Chinese border by nearly half in 2012. The United States should make common cause with the suffering people of North Korea, and find ways to provide them with the means to receive foreign radio broadcasts, just as America did with the captive nations of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In addition, it should bring greater world attention to dissidents who have escaped North Korea, like Shin Dong-hyuk.
      • Establish an internationally-backed truth commission to highlight North Korea's human rights abuses. The Obama administration and Congress have supported an initiative calling on the United Nations to establish an international commission of inquiry, with the aim of pushing the U.N. Security Council to take action against the Hermit Kingdom's horrific human rights abuses. However, if China or Russia tries to block this initiative at the United Nations, then the United States should work with like-minded nations to sponsor a multilateral truth commission to spotlight the testimony of refugees and morally pressure Pyongyang's international backers like Beijing.
        • Reaffirm efforts to deter North Korean aggression and reassure America's allies in the Asia-Pacific. In the face North Korea's growing nuclear and conventional threat, the U.S. military has deterred major aggression against itself, South Korea, Japan, and other allies. However,  at a time when the Kim regime is testing American resolve, the U.S. military faces the looming threat of automatic "sequestration" cuts to defense spending over the long term. These reductions cannot be allowed to occur because they will deny the U.S. military the capability needed to rapidly respond to a regional crisis—thereby emboldening the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and weakening America's extended deterrence over its allies.
          • Encourage security cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Before a squabble over contested East Asian islets erupted this summer, Tokyo and Seoul were to sign a bilateral military cooperation agreement that would have been the first military pact between them in the post-World War II era. The Obama administration should encourage the newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to sign that accord, and begin to work cooperatively against their shared security threats. Certainly, this accord is only the first step in healing the decades-long animosity between the two countries, but it can provide a needed foundation for future security cooperation between them.
            • Explore the possibility of creating an international reconstruction fund to prepare for Korean unification. Outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had proposed the creation of a reconstruction fund to help the process of reunifying the Korean peninsula if the Hermit Kingdom someday collapses. South Korea estimates that reunification will cost 7 percent of annual GDP for a decade. International assistance will be vital for easing the cost of transition as much as possible. The Obama administration should revisit this idea in discussions with incoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Such leadership would tangibly demonstrate America's commitment to ensuring the end of the Kim regime, and solidarity with the Korean people.
            • [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

              Under the current dictatorship, it is unlikely that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The United States should therefore abandon its decades-long policy of trying to bribe or appease Pyongyang into denuclearizing, and instead focus on the real and persistent source of the peninsula's problems: the dynastic Kim regime. 

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