The United States’ current approach to North Korea does not fundamentally resolve the risks of its belligerent behavior nor halt the development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. As these capabilities are improved, there is greater potential that Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea—confident he can deter a regime-threatening reaction—will attempt a violent provocation to achieve political objectives but in doing so miscalculates and instead sparks a crisis which escalates disastrously. While the United States has contingency plans for a wide range of conflict scenarios, executing them would be extraordinarily costly—the military capabilities Pyongyang has now amassed would inflict catastrophic damage.
James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, has repeatedly warned that Pyongyang is “committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States…” and that “North Korea has already taken initial steps toward fielding this system…”1 With such a capability, Kim is attempting force the international community to accommodate him to avoid conflict. However, he could underestimate U.S. resolve, which in turn would ignite conflict. If the Kim regime falls, a nuclear-armed, fragmented military could strike the United States.
To avert this, the United States should work with South Korea to develop an information campaign designed to reduce the risks of conflict or regime collapse by convincing regime elites that their best options in these circumstances would be to support ROK-U.S. Alliance efforts. This would require five key elements:
Enhance our ability to de-escalate a crisis by ensuring that the regime’s elites fully understand the consequences of a war by continually demonstrating the U.S.-ROK Alliance’s advanced military capabilities.
Reduce the potential for violence by formulating policies that provide credible assurances of amnesty to regime elites and, if they act in ways which support alliance efforts, a beneficial role after the Kim regime collapses or a conflict is resolved on Alliance terms.
Reduce the humanitarian costs by formulating policies that inform ordinary North Koreans what to expect in a contingency and how to act.
Reduce civil and military resistance by formulating policies that guarantee North Koreans full rights as citizens of South Korea.
Mitigate collapse of the civil infrastructure by incentivizing bureaucrats, technicians, and local commanders to protect and maintain critical facilities.
Reducing the wartime damage the North could inflict and lessening the potential chaos of collapse would provide renewed leverage for the U.S.-ROK Alliance to de-escalate a crisis before it erupts. However, if crisis does occur, this strategy would enable a more favorable and less costly conclusion.
The full report is available online
- James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Statement for the Record to the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, February 9, 2016, 7, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Clapper_02-09-16.pdf. ↩
More from CNAS
CommentaryNorth Korea and Joe Biden: Principled Diplomacy Doesn't Mean Strategic Patience 2.0
North Korea’s increased credibility as a nuclear threat and relevance to U.S. strategic competition with China will place it as a higher foreign policy priority than ever befo...
By Joshua Fitt
CommentaryBolton memoir: guide for how not to negotiate with North Korea
Even self-serving interpretations of history can be useful....
By Van Jackson
ReportsRestoring Strategic Competence
Executive Summary For the foreseeable future, America’s Northeast Asian allies Japan and South Korea must live in the shadow of a nuclear North Korea, whose capabilities they ...
By Van Jackson
CommentaryDo Not Forget Korean-Americans With Family Stuck in North Korea
It is important to reflect on the still-divided families which have suffered for decades and for whom time is running out....
By Joshua Fitt