Most of time, North Korea is a minor international irritant: a regime that throws public temper tantrums and makes outlandish claims and accusations. However, in recent weeks the world was reminded why the North poses a persistent threat to American and international security—and why the United States should do more to deter Pyongyang’s increasing belligerence.
Multiple times over the last 30 days North Korea has test fired intermediate range ballistic missiles, a demonstration of its unrelenting quest to develop the ability to launch a nuclear attack far beyond its own backyard. The United States is too attractive a potential target for the Kim regime. But its threats are not just limited to missiles. Just weeks ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have been behind the assassination of his exiled half-brother in Malaysia using VX nerve agent, the world’s deadliest chemical weapon.
The latter action serves as a reminder of how reckless this regime can be and the former is a warning of how dangerous this state is to the safety and security of the United States.. Pyongyang directs its ire at any nation that does not accept its rule, and is trying to extend its reach to threaten opponents throughout the world.
But it is important to recognize that North Korea’s arms build-up is and always has been strategic rather than irrational. The Kim family regime has taken an important lesson from history: Nuclear weapons are the best insurance policy against regime change.
What’s more, Pyongyang’s overarching goal — reunification of Korea under its own rule — is dependent on a constantly powerful show of force. Were it not for the United States and other world powers standing in its way, North Korea and its million-man army might pursue this goal more aggressively.
The new Trump administration must pay greater attention to the danger from North Korea than the last White House, but it needs to realize that the regime cannot be bargained with. Past presidents have tried to negotiate with the North Koreans, and almost all of those efforts ended in failure. What’s worse, negotiations bought North Korea time and space to build its nuclear weapons program into what it is today.
Neither President George H. W. Bush’s 1992 Joint Declaration on Denuclearization, President Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework of 1994, President George W. Bush’s 2004 Six-Party Talks, nor President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” achieved any meaningful results. If we have learned anything from the past eight years, it is that promises from autocratic adversaries are worth less than the paper they are printed on.
There are real options available to President Trump to deter North Korean threats to the United States and its allies, while increasing pressure on Pyongyang to cease ballistic missile development and rollback its nuclear program.
First, the United States must expand missile defenses. This is happening to some extent already with the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to South Korea (despite Chinese objections). The United States should also work with other allies in the region to broaden their missile defense shields, potentially bolstering them with U.S. manpower and technology.
And the United States must not neglect its own defenses. President Obama gave too little time, attention, and resources to protecting U.S. territory from missile threats. The new White House should restore the Bush administration’s aggressive missile defense posture, strengthening the current sea-based Aegis missile defense system by increasing the number of powerful ground-based interceptors on the west coast. It should also invest in new technologies and increased intelligence collection so that the United States has a clearer picture of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, missile development, as well as planned tests and actions.
Second, Congress should work with the executive branch to pursue more effective sanctions than those currently in place. North Korea depends on front companies, black-market exchanges, and coal exports to stay afloat, which is why the United States shouldn’t be shy about levying secondary sanctions on organizations doing business with the regime’s cutouts, such as complicit Chinese companies or terrorist organizations like Hizballah.
Much can still be done to expose and shut off these sources of funding. One investigative organization recently uncovered 562 ships, companies, and individuals “within one degree of separation” from North Korea. As a result of the study, the Departments of Justice and Treasury were able to crack down on a number of organizations for facilitating illicit transactions with North Korea.
While sanctions can often ruffle diplomatic feathers, states like China have done little to hold Pyongyang’s associates accountable, even when they are openly flouting unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions. The United States should pressure them to do so.
Finally, the United States needs to pursue a tougher diplomatic approach. It is time to immediately return North Korea to its spot on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which it should never have left in the first place. Additionally, the United States should counter-message the regime’s propaganda and redouble U.S. efforts to ensure the North Korean people have access to information from the outside world.
The president’s team cannot fall prey to endless, circular negotiations that result in Western concessions and fail to impose meaningful consequences for bad behavior. The United States must be willing to turn the screws on the North Korean regime, only releasing the pressure once the calculus changes and Kim Jong Un realizes the costs of naked aggression are far higher than the benefits.