Understanding North Korea’s Nuclear Coercion Strategy

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North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, proclaimed during his annual 2017 New Year’s address that the DPRK military is in the “final stages in preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic rocket.” A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, would be capable of threatening the continental United States. As a counter-response, the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan, have forcefully condemned the frequent missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), particularly when coupled with a nuclear test, as clear signals of the North’s threatening stance toward the alliances and even the US homeland. In this vein, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis promised an “effective and overwhelming” response to any use of nuclear weapons against America or its allies, delivering a firm message to North Korea. And the Trump administration is in the process of conducting a comprehensive North Korean policy review, with all options on the table.

Bellicose statements, such as in Kim’s address, and provocative North Korean actions including the recent missile launch toward Japan, are manifestations of the DPRK’s coercive nuclear diplomacy. Strategically, the main coercive objective focuses on forcing the United States to abandon the two key principles underpinning its longstanding commitment to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program—the overriding goal of US policy toward the DPRK.

The first principle reflects the US refusal to acknowledge the North as a nuclear power and resistance to substantial improvements in relations with Pyongyang until it first undertakes significant steps to freeze and dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs. The second principle embodies Washington’s continued preference for negotiating a multilateral diplomatic solution to the North Korean problem within the framework of the Six-Party Talks (6PT), while maintaining strong alliances with Japan and South Korea and improving relations with China and Russia.

North Korea seeks to collapse Washington’s commitment to these principles by:

  • Forcing the US to abandon the strategy of “strategic patience.” By demonstrating its resolve and capacity to make continuing improvements in its missile and nuclear capabilities, Pyongyang shows that strategic patience has not worked. North Korea’s determined efforts to evade and mitigate the effects of sanctions, to deflect pressure and threats, and to end its isolation are all integral to these efforts.
  • Changing the dynamics of security talks. North Korea sees improvements in its nuclear weapons capability as a way to shift the format and dynamics of regional security talks in its favor. Instead of five countries arrayed against it in the Six-Party Talks, Pyongyang hopes to leverage its nuclear status to gain a more equal footing with the United States. Further, the North uses its relationships with China and Russia to strengthen its negotiating position vis-à-vis Washington. Finally, and maybe most importantly, acknowledging North Korean membership in the “nuclear club” serves to marginalize the ROK and Japan among 6PT participants.
  • Elevating its status. Possession of nuclear weapons strengthens North Korea’s hand in Northeast Asia and elevates its status in the world as one of a handful of countries that possesses nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. While many see the North as a rogue nation because it continues to violate UN Security Council resolutions and flouts the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in the face of strong opposition from the international community, numerous other states either openly or quietly admire it for such independence.
  • Leveraging greater security and economic benefits. Past North Korean brinkmanship has led to offers of engagement and assistance from countries that want to bolster regional stability. North Korea has seen that its threatening actions can compel concessions from its opponents as well as extract diplomatic and monetary gains. It appears that Kim Jong Un is continuing this pattern of coercive diplomacy.
  • Driving wedges between its opponents. In the past, the DPRK has experienced some success in driving wedges between divergent US and ROK policy positions. Depending on the outcome of this year’s presidential election in South Korea, the North may find ample opportunity for wedge driving. However, the DPRK’s coercive strategy is vulnerable to being over-played, and in the hands of a young and relatively inexperienced leader there is an even greater likelihood of blowback from South Korea and China.

So what options do the US and its allies have to counter the DPRK’s coercive strategy?

Maintain the status quo: The response of the United States and its allies to North Korean provocations—more sanctions, more appeals to China to pressure Pyongyang, and tougher rhetoric—and the results have become very predictable. It is likely that the North’s decision-making calculus has anticipated—and discounted the importance of—these responses, which only reinforce the North’s negative behavior. In addition, these responses provide further proof to Pyongyang that its nuclear coercion strategy is working. In short, there really is no upside to business as usual and plenty of downsides.

Expand and strengthen allied defenses: The US, ROK and Japan could take additional measures to protect and defend against a heightened North Korean missile and nuclear threat (e.g., testing of the long-range KN-08 or KN-14 missiles and highly accurate, short-range SCUD missile). Yet, even with increased US focus on ICBMs, highlighted by increased US-ROK-Japan trilateral missile defense, there should be no expectation it will bring about a significant change in the DPRK’s nuclear coercion strategy. More likely, it will harden it.

Undertake kinetic military action: Focused and proportional kinetic US-ROK military action in response to a North Korean provocation could effectively counter the DPRK’s coercive nuclear strategy, and alter its behavior by sending the message to Pyongyang (and Beijing) that Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear weapons and missiles are destabilizing. A kinetic response could signal to Kim Jong Un and other potential adversaries (e.g. Iran) that the US will not allow itself to be threatened. But, and a big but, such US-ROK military action would entail significant risk to the US and its allies, ranging, for example, from a West Sea warship battle or island shelling to an attack on a DMZ guard post to long-range artillery shelling of Seoul.

Demonstrate our Extended Deterrence strategy: Another possible and less risky course of action would be an unambiguous demonstration of US extended nuclear deterrence capability, such as strategic nuclear capable aircraft temporary deployments to Korea, which would be viewed as credible by the DPRK. However, such a demonstration would need to be carefully considered both strategically and operationally. This demonstration would have to involve a much-needed “shot across the bow” of the North to establish its credibility, not only with the North but also with Korea and Japan.

Seek broader engagement with the DPRK: Ending or neutering the North’s nuclear coercion strategy will ultimately require a genuine US-ROK combined effort to address North Korea’s security concerns. This will require a concerted effort to “normalize” North Korea through game-changing engagement, and employing a full set of tools in a concerted and coordinated fashion to support a US-ROK plan with well-defined and reasonable end states. Such an approach offers a more positive direction for both US-ROK relations and their relations with the DPRK than the present strategy, which relies on sanctions and isolation to force the North’s preemptive capitulation.

In conclusion, the North is pursuing a strategy to force the United States and South Korea to abandon their policies of minimal engagement with and isolation of the DPRK. US military efforts, both strategic and operational, are required to address the worsening North Korean nuclear threat, but are likely to further cement DPRK hard line positions. Moreover, kinetic action could alter the North’s behavior but only at significant risk to the US and its allies. A safer and equally effective course of action would be an unambiguous demonstration of credible US extended nuclear deterrence. Ending the DPRK nuclear coercion strategy, however, will require a genuine effort to address Pyongyang’s security concerns within the broader framework of normalizing US-ROK relations with North Korea.

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