U.S. Should Sharpen Strategy and Enlist China to Counter Threat from North Korea, Says CFR Task Force

A new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Independent Task Force report, A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia, finds that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea will neither halt that country’s recurring and dangerous cycle of provocation nor ensure the stability of Northeast Asia in the future. To the contrary, the Task Force warns, “If allowed to continue, current trends will predictably, progressively, and gravely threaten U.S. national security interests and those of its allies.” 

September 16, 2016

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A new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Independent Task Force report, A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia, finds that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea will neither halt that country’s recurring and dangerous cycle of provocation nor ensure the stability of Northeast Asia in the future. To the contrary, the Task Force warns, “If allowed to continue, current trends will predictably, progressively, and gravely threaten U.S. national security interests and those of its allies.” 

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Chaired by Mike Mullen, retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator and co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Task Force finds that “North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs pose a grave and expanding threat to the territory of U.S. allies, to U.S. personnel stationed in the region, and to the continental United States.” Without a shift in strategy, the group concludes, the next U.S. president may be confronted by a North Korea that has the ability to strike the U.S. homeland. 

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Asserting that “China’s policy toward the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will critically affect the fate of the region,” the Task Force urges U.S. officials to encourage China to work with the United States, Japan and South Korea to establish a nonnuclear and unified Korean Peninsula. “Encouraging a transformation of China’s policy toward North Korea should be the next administration’s top priority in its relations with China,” says the report.

“If China, the United States, and U.S. allies can work together to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and mitigate its threatening military posture,” the Task Force contends, “a stable, prosperous Northeast Asia led by China and U.S. allies can emerge.”

To the extent that China declines to cooperate and North Korea continues to refuse to negotiate, however, the report finds that United States will have no choice but to work with Japan and Korea to “consider more assertive military and political actions, including those that directly threaten the existence of the [North Korean] regime and its nuclear and missile capabilities.” 

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The Task Force proposes that the United States take steps to sharpen the consequences for North Korea, by imposing escalating costs on continued defiance and offering incentives for cooperation. The report offers the following recommendations for U.S. policymakers: 

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  • Promote a stable and prosperous Northeast Asia. Enlist China’s help and work with regional partners to jointly plan for the future of the Korean Peninsula, including planning for militarized crises, collapse scenarios, and the role of a unified Korea in Northeast Asian security.
  • Restructure negotiations. Propose restructured negotiations that would increase incentives for North Korea’s cooperation by covering a wider range of issues, starting with a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear program and working toward denuclearization and a comprehensive peace agreement.
  • Protect human rights. Continually exert pressure on North Korea to respect UN human rights resolutions and support the suspension of North Korea’s credentials at the United Nations if it does not comply.
  • Enforce sanctions and escalate financial pressure. Expand sanctions to “restrict the full range of North Korea’s criminal activities” and create a standing multilateral mechanism to strictly and actively enforce UN sanctions, including the inspection and interdiction of North Korean shipping.
  • Strengthen deterrence and defense. Strengthen the U.S. alliance with South Korea and Japan by issuing a “collective security commitment declaring that a North Korean attack against any one of these states is an attack against all” and building capacity “to intercept all missile launches with a range-payload capability greater than existing Scud missiles.”

The bipartisan Task Force is composed of seventeen distinguished experts from diverse backgrounds. The project is directed by Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former CFR Stanton nuclear security fellow.

For a full list of the Task Force’s findings and recommendations, read the report, A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia.

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Task Force Members:

Victor D. Cha, Georgetown University
Roberta Cohen, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Joseph R. DeTrani, Daniel Morgan Academy
Nicholas Eberstadt, American Enterprise Institute
Robert J. Einhorn, Brookings Institution
Bonnie S. Glaser, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Mary Beth Long, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Catherine B. Lotrionte, Georgetown University
Evan S. Medeiros, Eurasia Group
Adam Mount (project director), Center for American Progress
Mike Mullen (co-chair), MGM Consulting, LLC
Sam Nunn (co-chair), Nuclear Threat Initiative
Gary Samore, Harvard University
Walter L. Sharp, Sharp Advice, LLC
Mitchel B. Wallerstein, Baruch College
Robert F. Willard, Institute of Nuclear Power Operations
Juan Carlos Zarate, Financial Integrity Network, LLC

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CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force reports offer analysis and policy prescriptions of major foreign policy issues facing the United States, developed through private deliberations among a diverse and distinguished group of experts. Task Force members are asked to join a consensus signifying that they endorse “the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the group, though not necessarily every finding and recommendation.” They participate in the Task Force in their individual, not institutional, capacities. 

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