from Asia Unbound

Assessing U.S. Policy Options Toward North Korea

January 31, 2017

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North Korea

South Korea

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United States

On January 31, 2017, I testified together with Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt from the American Enterprise Institute before the Senate foreign relations committee on policy toward North Korea. My opening statement appears below, and my written testimony and a video recording of the hearing can be found here.

Mr. Chairman and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. Your decision to hold a hearing on the North Korean threat so early in the new administration underscores the need for urgent and sustained attention to this vital national security issue.

In my statement, I argue that the window of opportunity to achieve North Korea’s peaceful denuclearization may have closed and that Kim Jong Un has decided based on lessons from Iran, Iraq, and Libya that North Korea must be too nuclear to fail. Moreover, he intends to threaten the United States with a direct nuclear strike capability, a development that would heighten the risk and likelihood of military conflict. My recommendations are designed to minimize the risks of miscalculation on both sides. I have also focused on ways of avoiding unintended consequences arising from some of the steps that we must take to address North Korea’s nuclear challenge.

To minimize miscalculation and underscore the urgency of the North Korea issue, I recommend that the president appoint a senior and trusted special envoy to comprehensively mobilize U.S. government resources, strengthen alliance solidarity with South Korea and Japan, separate the North Korea issue from other contentious issues in the U.S.-China relationship, and ensure that we can back our words toward North Korea with credible actions.

As North Korea attempts to underscore that time is not on the side of the United States through provocations and crisis-instigation, the United States must avoid falling into the traps of acquiescence to a nuclear North Korea or premature unilateral military actions that might help North Korea break U.S. alliances. The United States must strengthen alliance cohesion while preparing for North Korean instability. General Mattis’s decision to visit U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan later this week as his first foreign destinations following his assumption of office sends a badly needed message of assurance and resolve to our allies at a time of transition and uncertainty in both Washington and Seoul.

While China’s cooperation is necessary to place needed pressure on North Korea, we must also recognize that North Korea lives in the space created by Sino-U.S. strategic mistrust. This means that China’s inadequate enforcement of sanctions will never meet U.S. expectations due to differing American and Chinese strategic interests on the peninsula. An unintended consequence is that North Korea’s supply chain has become embedded in illicit Chinese procurement networks. While continuing to pressure China to enforce sanctions, the United States will have to use secondary sanctions on Chinese partners of North Korea if it hopes to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile parts procurement.

Tougher sanctions are necessary to block North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, but an unintended consequence of sanctions is that they reinforce the isolation and opacity that have enabled the Kim regime to survive by bolstering unity among North Korean elites. I recommend that we erode Kim Jong Un’s internal support base by making the argument that North Korean elites can have a better future outside the regime than in it and by increasing the incentives and pathways for them to exit North Korea. We should prioritize eroding the regime’s isolation by promoting information inflow and impose transparency by supporting and publicizing the powerful indictment of the Kim regime’s practices contained in the report of the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea.