On Saturday, December 7, 2019, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, declared, “We do not need to have lengthy talks with the US now and the denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiation table.”1 It’s true. No one needs to waste time discussing denuclearization because it was never really on the negotiating table in the first place.

Kim Jong-un’s primary need is to remain in power, regime survival is paramount. Two critical components of that survival are nuclear weapons and economic prosperity. Kim even created his own political philosophy of Byungjin (advance in tandem) around the ideals. North Korea (NK) has invested about US$2 billion in its nuclear weapons capabilities and spend about 25% of GDP on their defense every year.2 They have in the past chose to develop nuclear weapons over sanctions removal.3 They even view nuclear weapons as a necessary defense against attack by the US.4 For NK, nuclear weapons are like breathing, they believe they must do it to survive. Similarly, Kim Jong-un has come to see their economy as equally important as it funds the development of the weapons and is the next step in the evolution of the state once the nuclear program is developed. Kim has staked his reputation and hold on power on a more robust economy and is the first leader to make any significant change to the economy.5 As such, Kim sees economic prosperity also as a necessity, like a heartbeat. It is, therefore, not surprising negotiations in Hanoi, Stockholm, and the DMZ broke down. It is not surprising that Ambassador Song made the above statements. Moreover, it should not be surprising when future negotiations break down because it is like asking Kim Jong-un to choose between ‘breathing’ or a ‘heart attack.’

Sanctions Aren’t Working

The sanctions on NK historically have not been effective. Sanctions haven’t prevented NK from developing nuclear weapons. In fact, NK not only acquired nuclear technology during sanctions but also advanced it. NK has tested six nuclear devices and more than one-hundred ballistic missiles.6 Critics of removing sanctions often make several arguments. First, ‘sanctions would work if they were implemented multilaterally.’ Yet, the EU, other Asian countries, and the US all enforced the rules. Next, ‘if China and Russia would abide by the rules, the sanctions would work.’ Sanctions have been in effect for more than 50 years and under several US and regional administrations. The ‘perfect storm’ scenario never materialized. Third, ‘secondary sanctions like the BRINK Act can be effective if we give them a chance.’ The secondary sanctions did have an effect on the Kim regime, just not the intended effect. At the New Year’s eve address for 2019, Kim announced moving forward with an economic plan because NK had achieved its nuclear capabilities. In order to move forward with his economic development, he needed sanctions removed, which brought Kim and President Trump together for their first summit. However, the sanctions never moved him towards denuclearization. Yet, sanctions and secondary sanctions are useful tools when connected to a viable outcome. It is also important to note that sanctions can have other unintended consequences. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US used trade embargoes and economic sanctions to punish Japanese expansionism. In response, Japan became more committed to the expansion and attacked the US as part of its strategy.7 The sanctions did not work and may have even provoked the attack. The same could be true for NK. Kim Jong-un does not want a war with the US but if sanctions were repressive enough, Kim might view an attack on the US or allies as a necessary option.

It’s long overdue to admit that the United Nations and US policies towards NK have failed. We know they failed because they were supposed to prevent NK from becoming a nuclear-armed state. NK currently has between 10 and 60 nuclear weapons ranging from 10 to over 200 kilotons.8 The 2014 Defense White Paper from South Korea’s (ROK) Ministry of Defense acknowledged NK as a ‘nuclear weapons state.’9 We know they failed because they were supposed to stop NK from developing effective delivery systems. NK has the ability to miniaturize its nuclear weapons, a key component of getting them on a delivery system.9 Additionally, NK has short-range ballistic missiles (120-500km), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (1200km), medium-range ballistic missiles (800-4500km), intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a satellite launch vehicle (5500-10000km).8 On December 7th, 2019, NK announced, “a very important test took place at Sohae Satellite Launching Ground.”10 This was most likely a successful liquid-fuel engine test (i.e. a long-range delivery system) at a facility that was supposed to have been closed to conform to sanctions.11 We know they failed because they were supposed to stop NK from developing guidance systems. The CIA found NK was contracted to sell Iraq Control and Guidance (CG) systems back in 2000.12 Admittedly, these were for short-range missiles but given 20 years of CG development NK has surely made strides. The sad truth is though NK doesn’t need extremely accurate ICBMs to threaten the US and its allies.11 Furthermore, there is some evidence dating back to 2014 that NK may be training on and using China’s BeiDou global navigation system.13 14

The US needs to accept that denuclearization has failed and is truly off the table. North Korea is a nuclear power that requires a change of goals and strategy for future policy. Underlying this change is the assumption that the policy remains a priority across future administrations. Moving forward then, a more effective strategy combines multilateralism, diplomacy, containment, and deterrence all united under a goal of stability in the region. Stability rather than denuclearization would align US interests with China’s and make it easier for China to take a larger role. Multilateralism unites regional and global interests under a single purpose for what will be a long-term commitment. Containment doesn’t demand denuclearization which aligns with NK’s goals as a state. However, containment still requires economic motivations to, as John Lewis Gaddis wrote, “encourage [NK] to evolve in a radically different direction.” The direction here is moving NK away from further nuclear proliferation and militarization, which they may be willing to do if they believe the US is not interested in destroying the regime. Kim has already shown a willingness to freeze his nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions. Therefore, the use of sanctions or the removal of them can still be useful tools during negotiations. For example, if NK keeps their current nuclear arsenal capped, provides a list of all nuclear sites, and allows inspectors back, they could restart exporting natural resources. In contrast, a departure from the agreements brings back economic hardships. Finally, deterrence and diplomacy are inextricably linked. In order to continue and strengthen deterrence, like missile batteries in ROK, an enormous effort of diplomacy is required. Diplomacy to implement the deterrents but also to open up communication channels with NK. During the Cold-War with the USSR, a direct line of communication was established to prevent misinterpretation of actions. A similar channel needs to exist for the US and NK.

None of this will be easy and several hurdles remain. Foremost among them, the US president has a trust-ability issue. North Korea has always been suspicious of US intentions. President Trump reinforces that belief when he speaks of walking away from NATO, or from regional allies ROK, and Japan as he did in 2016. It also doesn’t help that he reneged on the Iran deal, walked away from the Kurds in Syria, and stopped honoring the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). Furthermore, Trump will have to make a concerted effort to restore the diplomatic core of the US State Department. Second, China needs to be a partner to this plan. The problem in the past has been the US never aligned its goals with China’s for the region. For example, China never prioritized denuclearization but stability in the region. Aligning the US and Chinese goals makes it easier for China to play a larger role in containment. China is also NK’s largest trading partner, is integral to the NK economic plan, and therefore holds considerable sway over NK. For example, NK’s plan for tourism to the Kumgang mountain resort depends almost entirely on Chinese tourists.15 China’s commitment can keep Kim committed to stability in the region. Third, the US, ROK, and Japan must be unified in their approach to NK. NK thrives on dividing the US from its regional allies because division breaks deterrence. Trump’s agreement to suspend military exercises with ROK in exchange for a period of weapons inactivity from NK plays into that divisiveness. NK must know that the US is committed to ROK and Japan. In addition to joint exercises, increased defenses in the region not only illustrate US commitment but also reinforce the idea that there are repercussions for aggressive behavior.

Despite the US and UN’s sustained efforts, the Kim regime has made enormous progress in its nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. The current goal of denuclearization and it’s associated strategies have failed. Moreover, the idea that Kim will undo what he views as integral to the survival of his state is untenable and unproductive. In order to move forward with North Korea, a new goal, a comprehensive set of strategies, and an increased and sustained prioritization are required. If Victor Cha were to repeat his quip about NK being “the land of lousy options,” he might reword it to “the land of very few lousy options,” and time has run out.


1. North Korea says denuclearization not on negotiating table. AP NEWS. https://apnews.com/bdf3d4e46a823a3cc69776da962001f7. Published December 7, 2019. Accessed December 10, 2019.

2. Less than one aircraft carrier? The cost of North Korea’s nukes. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/20/less-than-one-aircraft-carrier-the-cost-of-north-koreas-nukes.html. Published July 20, 2017. Accessed December 13, 2019.

3. North Korea Gets Relief Only When It Gives Up Nukes, Mattis Says. Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-03/north-korea-gets-relief-only-when-it-gives-up-nukes-mattis-says. Published June 3, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2019.

4. Bush RC. The real reason a North Korean nuclear weapon is so terrifying—and it’s not what you think. Brookings. August 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/08/09/the-real-reason-a-north-korean-nuclear-weapon-is-so-terrifying-and-its-not-what-you-think/. Accessed December 14, 2019.

5. North Korea’s Economic Policy in 2018 and Beyond: Reforms Inevitable, Delays Possible | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea. 38 North. https://www.38north.org/2018/08/rfrank080818/. Published August 8, 2018. Accessed December 13, 2019.

6. Macias A. North Korea spent most of Trump’s first year in office perfecting its nuclear arsenal. Here is a timeline. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/01/north-korea-spent-most-of-trumps-first-year-in-office-perfecting-its-nuclear-arsenal-here-is-a-timeline.html. Published March 1, 2019. Accessed December 14, 2019.

7. Editors H com. Pearl Harbor. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor. Accessed December 12, 2019.

8. What’s the Status of North Korea’s Nuclear Program? Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/north-koreas-military-capabilities. Accessed December 14, 2019.

9. South Korea 2014 Defense White Paper Highlights DPRK Nuclear Threats. https://www.csis.org/analysis/south-korea-2014-defense-white-paper-highlights-dprk-nuclear-threats. Accessed December 14, 2019.

10. Times A. Asia Times | North Korea satellite site test sends warning for 2020 | Article. Asia Times. https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/12/article/north-korea-satellite-site-test-sends-warning-for-2020/. Accessed December 14, 2019.

11. Resumed North Korean ICBM Testing: Possible Technical Objectives | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea. 38 North. https://www.38north.org/2019/12/vvandiepen120919/. Published December 9, 2019. Accessed December 14, 2019.

12. Delivery Systems — Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/chap3.html. Accessed December 14, 2019.

13. North Koreans learn about China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. North Korea Tech – 노스코리아테크. https://www.northkoreatech.org/2014/07/31/north-koreans-learn-about-chinas-beidou-satellite-navigation-system/. Published July 31, 2014. Accessed December 14, 2019.

14. North Korea may use Beidou system to attack, Seoul fears | GLONASS Herald. http://vestnik-glonass.ru/en/news/technologies/north-korea-may-use-beidou-system-to-attack-seoul-fears/. Accessed December 14, 2019.

15. Gi JS. Has thriving Chinese tourism emboldened North Korea? Daily NK. October 2019. https://www.dailynk.com/english/has-thriving-chinese-tourism-emboldened-north-korea/. Accessed December 13, 2019.

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