Despite vague commitments made at the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, Pyongyang has taken no concrete steps since then to dismantle or substantively disable its nuclear weapons program.
An era is ending, though many are in denial and floundering over the next steps. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to have chosen a path that will end meaningful denuclearization diplomacy with the United States for the foreseeable future and usher in a new chapter in the North Korea saga: living with a nuclear North Korea. This raises the stakes on a longstanding challenge: how the US, South Korea, and Japan can best work together to contain and constrain a permanent and growing North Korean nuclear threat to peace and stability in Northeast Asia.  The three countries will also need some modicum of consensus with China and Russia to forge this cooperation under very adverse circumstances.

This essay explores the options that are available to the United States and its allies to successfully manage this challenge.

Denuclearization: Kim Declares it Dead 

Kim Jong-un has followed through on his warning that he would take a “new path” if the Trump administration did not make the concessions (e.g.; lift UN sanctions) he wanted. At the close of the recent Korean Workers Party plenum he laid out what that path will look like: it is a ‘porcupine strategy. The media has mainly focused on his statements that the North “should more actively push forward the project for developing strategic weapons” and that Pyongyang would no longer feel bound to observe the North’s self-imposed moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.

But Kim delivered a more fundamental message to party, military, and government officials, stressing the need to “rearrange the economic foundations of the country,” as part of a new national project. He also declared that, in addition to developing a much more threatening nuclear force and jettisoning a fruitless dialogue with the United States, North Koreans would have to hunker down for a long-term confrontation with the United States and live with tighter sanctions. In other words, he pronounced denuclearization diplomacy dead unless the DPRK’s more aggressive strategy yielded unilateral U.S. concessions as a precondition to renewed denuclearization talks—a prospect that Kim dismissed as highly unlikely.  As one prominent North Korean expert has observed, Kim is not hedging his bets or maneuvering for more negotiating leverage—he’s initiating a complete strategic policy reorientation, and it’s not the one the United States had hoped for.

The breakdown of U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks comes after more than twenty-five years of U.S. diplomacy aimed at achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Despite vague commitments made at the 2018 Trump-Kim Singapore Summit, Pyongyang has taken no concrete steps since then to dismantle or substantively disable its nuclear weapons program. The fatal flaw was that the United States and DPRK never agreed on a definition of denuclearization. North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, conducting thirteen missile tests since May 2019, testing intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) engines, and advancing efforts to obtain an operational SLBM.  It rejected U.S. offers to renew working-level talks and then demanded that the United States make concessions before it would talk was, which was not a serious offer. Instead, it was and is a political device to shift the blame to Washington for the collapse of diplomacy.

This turn of events suggests we are entering new and uncharted territory with North Korea. Kim’s new strategic orientation, which will likely feature demonstrations of new nuclear and delivery system capabilities, appears to validate the views of many US analysts that there are no conceivable circumstances under which Pyongyang would verifiably relinquish all its nuclear weapons. Kim’s goal appears to be to obtain a status similar to Israel or Pakistan as a de facto nuclear weapons state.

Uncharted Waters

Whether North Korea achieves such a status or remains isolated, there is a compelling need for the United States and South Korea, triangulating with Japan and, to the extent possible, China must now develop a common approach to safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula in a post-denuclearization diplomacy environment. Navigating our way through this challenge could not come at a less propitious moment:

– The U.S.-ROK alliance has been badly frayed by President Donald Trump’s transactional view of alliances and extortionist demands for a 500 percent increase in South Korean cost-sharing for U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula; continued White House rhetoric denigrating America’s alliance with the ROK, and Trump’s episodic threats to “bring the boys home;”

– South Korea’s relations with Japan, with popular nationalisms pulling in the wrong direction, have reached an all-time low over unresolved historical grievances, competing territorial claims, and trade disputes. Their antagonistic relationship, which shows few signs of easing, is increasing risk by precluding a range of cooperative deterrent activities to monitor and counter the North Korean military threat.

– An increasing number of South Koreans harbor concerns about the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent in the face of the growing North Korean nuclear threat and Trump’s denigration of the alliance. These anxieties were reflected in polls after the sixth North Korean nuclear test in 2017, which showed that 60 percent of South Koreans favored the development of nuclear weapons and 68 percent the re-introduction of US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) on South Korean territory. These numbers are likely to rise in response to future North Korean provocations.


There is a spectrum of options for coping with the current predicament discussed below. Regardless of the U.S. policy choice, Washington should seek an ongoing, authoritative channel of communication with Pyongyang, and be clear that the door for negotiations is always open should Kim reverse course.

Pre-Emptive Military Force

However noble the goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons, it ignored several inconvenient truths: it could not be complete absent a credible inventorying of all of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities; it could not be verifiable because the DPRK is not prepared to accept unhindered IAEA monitoring an verification; it could not be irreversible because a clever North Korean with a doctorate in physics and access to fissile material could succeed in making a bomb. Deep mutual distrust and the momentum of a forty years investment in its nuclear program appear insurmountable obstacles. The Kim regime will tend to cling to a nuclear deterrent because it is the ultimate guarantee of survival. The tools of diplomacy—logic, bribes, and threats—have failed over twenty-five years of trying to alter these realities. Thus, the U.S. strategy must begin with the assumption that it will always face a degree of risk with a nuclear North Korea. The policy question is how much risk is tolerable?

Amid talk of “bloody nose” strikes in 2017, then Trump NSC Advisor H. R. McMaster said the United States “can’t tolerate the risk” of coexisting with a nuclear North Korea.  The reality, of course, is that the United States has, as far as we know been living with a nuclear-capable North Korea for most of this century, one indicator that the viability of deterrence has been underestimated. As Evans Revere astutely observed in a Brookings Institution paper, there is an inherent contradiction in McMaster and others questioning deterrence because Kim may not be a “rational actor,” on the one hand, yet arguing on the other hand that “limited strikes” are unlikely to escalate because Kim’s overarching goal is regime survival. Indeed, while absolutist statements about not accepting a nuclear North Korea are politically de rigeur, they are not new.  Previous administrations considered preemptive military strikes on both the Chinese and North Korean nuclear programs. In 1963–64 there was a very similar debate about stopping Mao’s China from getting the bomb. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations considered pre-emptive strikes, covert sabotage, and working with the USSR to halt the Chinese nuclear program. Ironically, in the late 1960s, as Sino-Soviet tensions mounted, Moscow probed the United States about interest in joint efforts to destroy Chinese nuclear facilities. But the risks of these options were rejected as too dangerous for good reasons.

Seoul’s proximity to the DMZ (less than forty miles) and Pyongyang’s forward-deployed long-range artillery and short-range missiles creates a state of mutual deterrence even absent escalation to nuclear war. With 50 percent of the ROK’s fifty-one million citizens living in the Greater Seoul area, and some two hundred thousand U.S. citizens there on any given day, they are within range of some fifty-five hundred long-range multiple artillery able to fire ten thousand rounds an hour. Moreover, in the near future, Pyongyang may attain a nuclear-equipped SLBM, (though vulnerable to detection) providing a survivable second-strike capability to hit regional targets like Guam or Hawaii and possibly, the U.S. mainland from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred miles at sea without an ICBM. As with the issue of “limited strikes’” what U.S. or ROK leader is prepared to bet that limited preemptive strikes on North Korea’s nuclear assets would not escalate and risk tens, if not hundreds of thousands of casualties in a DPRK response?

The UNSC sanctions now in place are comprehensive and unprecedented:  In their totality, they include a ban on exports of minerals, coal, iron, textiles agriculture and seafood exports, imports and exports of heavy equipment, limit 90 percent of imports of oil and bans natural gas imports, the return of all overseas labor, permits interdiction of ships to or from North Korea carrying cargo and authorizes confiscation of illicit goods. No nation on earth has been so completely censured and isolated. This shrunk the North Korean economy, with negative GDP growth of -3.5 percent in 2017 and -4.1 percent in 2018, as well as collapsing its exports.

To date, however, sanctions have been painful, but not crippling. Although they have meant two years of negative economic growth and exports, the value of the Won and prices of gasoline, rice, and corn have remained relatively stable. The quality of life for both the elite and average citizen has required varying degrees of belt-tightening but has not been traumatized. This is partly because of revenues from illicit activities and because the North has developed other coping mechanisms. Key among them are private markets springing up during the 1990s famine, the Jangmadong, now some five hundred nationally, officially sanctioned, have largely replaced the state distribution system. They have introduced some price discipline, and reportedly spurring e-commerce, with nearly six million North Koreans using the national intranet on their smartphones. In addition, the local elite has begun investing in the light industry, creating import substitution. Further, cross-border activity with China, with whom the DPRK has 90 percent of its trade, is growing. Whether such a “muddle through” strategy is sustainable over time or vulnerable to foreign pressure is unknowable

Massively intensifying maximum pressure on North Korea in response to its obstinate behavior may be correct, in theory, but it is in practice unlikely to be sufficiently implemented to be able to change behavior or the regime. Sanctions have been relatively effective because they were global and included China. But in recent months, China’s enforcement has steadily waned, if not its willingness to look the other way. As diplomacy stalled, recent efforts by China and Russia in the UN Security Council to lift sanctions suggest, neither Moscow nor Beijing would, at present, support additional sanctions.

Some argue for unilateral U.S. ‘massive pressure,’” including completely cutting the DPRK off from the international finance and trade system; interdicting its illicit activities, conducting overt and covert actions to shut down its overseas firms; and perhaps impose a naval quarantine. Such actions would likely spark tensions with China, the ROK and other U.S. partners would be problematic to implement, and could trigger provocative DPRK kinetic responses.

Given the evidence of the DPRK’s ability to cope with current external pressure, and the strong probability of further erosion of sanctions, turning the screws tighter appears highly problematic. Barring some spectacularly incendiary North Korean act, such as an EMP shot to show their nuclear prowess the United States should expect limited cooperation in squeezing North Korea. That said, maintaining as much of the existing sanctions architecture as possible should be one component of a broader deterrence and containment strategy.

Negotiate Arms Control Measures

The failure of denuclearization has spurred a growing chorus in the arms control community for proposals to cap DPRK nuclear weapons and fissile material at current levels and freeze ballistic missile and nuclear testing. Such a deal is usually presented as “an interim step,” which would reinforce stability, predictability, and buy time in the hope of securing an eventual rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities. But is it feasible and would it be an interim deal, as some of its proponents describe it, or a final end state? Given his long-term goal of gaining acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status, as Kim would likely be open to a freeze at current levels. For both the North Korean leader and the United States, however, the question is at what price?

At a minimum, Kim would likely demand the lifting of all UN sanctions, normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations and a peace treaty, and an end to the U.S. “nuclear threat” including measures that would provide extended deterrence. Kim may also demand U.S.-North Korean arms control talks which would risk getting sucked into a slippery slope of endless negotiations. These would not only allow Kim to buy time but also could potentially decouple the United States from the security of the ROK and Japan if a deal ends ICBM tests yet allows testing of shorter-range systems.

The benefits of this approach would have to be weighed, however, against some serious downsides. First, it would legitimize a nuclear North Korea and devalue the Non-Proliferation Treaty and non-proliferation norms. Second, transparency is anathema to North Korea; holding Pyongyang to whatever verification commitments it made would be a source of constant friction. Third, United States normalization would stumble over the North’s egregious human-rights behavior, and entry into International Financial Institutions would be a problem due to financial transparency requirements.  An alternative, if less elegant, response to the current predicament is simply realpolitik: enhanced deterrence and containment.

Strengthen Deterrence and Containment 

North Korea’s conventional capabilities have declined significantly over the past decade, in both relative and absolute terms. As a result of ROK defense reforms, a significant boost in defense spending, the emergence of new military technologies, and an impressive force modernization program, U.S. and South Korean forces already have a viable conventional option for deterring, and defeating if necessary, North Korean conventional and nuclear aggression. Significant force enhancements, for example, have been made in precision conventional strike capabilities, C4ISR, missile defenses, and the procurement of new F-35 fighters, surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, armed and unarmed UAVs, multiple-launch rocket systems, and improved sea-based land-attack capabilities.

Some experts claim, however, that the North’s modernization of its ballistic missile forces signals “a distinct evolution in North Korea’s defense strategy away from massive retaliation and toward a policy to use its missile forces to degrade allied conventional and logistics operations to limit damage to the regime, a policy that retains an option for massive retaliation but envisions more rapid escalation against military targets.” There is no conclusive evidence, however, that the North has embraced a strategy of massive retaliation; nor is it possible to know precisely the DPRK’s nuclear doctrine or strategy. But more importantly, fears that the North will use the threat of nuclear weapons as cover for a conventional invasion of the South seem misplaced, because of the significant risk of nuclear escalation which would end the North Korean regime. Kim may have a brash, impetuous streak, but he is not suicidal—his primordial concern is long-term survival. The United States needs to repeatedly make clear that a North Korean conventional invasion of the ROK or nuclear attack against the United States or its allies would result in a swift and overwhelming response and the demise of Kim, his family dynasty, and North Korea.

There are three measures that would reinforce the U.S. conventional extended deterrent with South Korea: 1) measures to integrate the use of cyber and hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence in joint US-ROK military operations into joint planning;  2) the resumption of significant joint and trilateral military exercises; and 3) the augmentation of missile defenses in South Korea (e.g.; AEGIS Cruisers) and from U.S. 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 U.S.-ROK conventional defense posture provides a robust deterrent against a North Korean conventional attack. The bigger problem is persuading South Koreans that the two countries do not need to shore up the nuclear component of extended deterrence. The biggest obstacles to strengthening deterrence are political: the needless tensions the Trump administration has sown in the U.S.-ROK alliance and the painful rift in ROK-Japan relations. This will require very adept U.S. diplomacy to help fix, admittedly a tall order. Finally, two other mechanisms are required for this approach to be effective: first, a U.S.-DPRK communication channel and clear signaling to minimize the risk of miscalculation; and second, more robust bilateral cooperation with the ROK and trilateral action with Japan, the latter problematic, as well as clear understandings with China.

Play the Nuclear Card

The U.S. dialogue with South Korea on extended deterrence has apparently not sufficiently eased Seoul’s nuclear anxieties. This is underscored by public comments from prominent South Koreans, including former Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, suggesting the ROK might consider its own nuclear option. At present, the Moon government would fear—and oppose—the escalatory risks of raising the U.S. nuclear profile in and around South Korea. But over time, if faced with unconstrained North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles or the deployment of mobile ICBMs, this calculus could change for both a progressive and conservative government, especially if there is a groundswell of public sentiment in favor of South Korean nuclear weapons development.
While South Korean nuclear anxieties are understandable, there is no obvious military requirement or, at best, marginal deterrent value in reintroducing U.S. Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNW) into South Korea. The U.S. nuclear umbrella, which includes sea-based weapons in the Western Pacific and conventional forces in the ROK, supply more than enough deterrent to DPRK nuclear use. Any value in reintroducing TNW would be principally psychological but still may prove a compelling argument.

For a progressive ROK government that feels a growing domestic pressure to “do something” but doesn’t want to take serious decisions about hardware, options such as more frequent deployments of U.S. nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines, and U.S. dual-capable aircraft at bases in the ROK might prove reassuring and less divisive than the issues surrounding the redeployment of U.S. TNW.  Additionally, better informing the Korean public about the strength of deterrence might help bolster reassurance.

In sum, the U.S. strategy requires a strong but confident and realistic response to the new predicament on the Korean Peninsula. A resumption of DPRK IRBM or ICBM tests will not threaten the effectiveness of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis North Korea. There is no need to panic or overreact to future North Korean missile or nuclear tests and deployments. The current equilibrium of mutual deterrence remains stable, though we must recognize we are in uncharted waters and respond accordingly.

But above-mentioned measures to enhance deterrence should provide both reassurances to allies as well as give pause to Pyongyang. Pyongyang is still some distance from attaining a reliable, operational ICBM. Likewise, conventional deterrence of North Korean aggression against South Korea is alive and well, can be enhanced, and will remain robust regardless of renewed DPRK nuclear weapons and missile tests if the CFC fully implements conventional force improvement plans and resumes military exercises, which are needed for readiness. Washington should regularly consult with Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow on ways to mitigate instability and tensions on the peninsula; the U.S. and ROK should discuss how to incorporate new technologies and capabilities into their force structures and warfighting plans.

Indeed, the central challenge for the administration is reassuring Seoul of America’s commitment to South Korean security to dissuade it from pursuing its own nuclear option. The biggest obstacles to enhanced deterrence are political. Even more important than improving missile defenses is repairing the fundamentals of the U.S.-ROK alliance—taking ROK concerns and input seriously—and the ROK-Japan relationship. Both are key to enabling new levels of trilateral cooperation (e.g.; navy-to-navy, air-to-air, cyber trilateral exercises) that will be vital to bolstering deterrence and constraining North Korea.

The current equilibrium of mutual deterrence is stable, though we must recognize we are in uncharted territory. One wildcard for deterrence is that Kim has an impulsive/reckless streak that could spark a clash by miscalculation. The White House should avoid “fire and fury” rhetoric and not allow itself to be stampeded into taking reckless actions in response to breathless and melodramatic media headlines that the United States and North Korea are “on the brink of war.” It must avoid a full-blown crisis on the Korean Peninsula that is beyond the administration’s capability to handle. Americans tend to believe all problems have solutions but some problems can only be managed.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-2012 You can follow him on: @RManning4.

Image: Reuters