Small Wars Journal

A New Way Forward on Addressing North Korea

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 12:17am

A New Way Forward on Addressing North Korea

Brenda A. Oppel, David M. Gohlich and John D. Dietz


The North Korean nuclear program has perplexed many Presidential administrations over the years, with no one able to fully bring the issue on the Korean peninsula to a close.  The United States had a policy of strategic patience when dealing with North Korea of waiting out an eventual North Korean government collapse.  North Korea’s multiple nuclear tests in the past few years and testing of assorted delivery systems for those weapons make it clear that these policies were not working.  Given that the current U.S. nuclear policy against North Korea has not stopped it from acquiring nuclear weapons and associated delivery technology, it is time for the United States to use another strategy.  We propose as an alternative that the United States recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, make it blatantly clear that this an unacceptable end state, and provide nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan that are jointly maintained, but still owned by the United States.  The move would allow the US to draw down militarily from the region and would also place China in a position requiring them to act.

The North Korean nuclear program has perplexed many Presidential administrations over the years, with no one able to fully bring the issue on the Korean peninsula to a close.  The United States had a policy of strategic patience when dealing with North Korea of waiting out an eventual North Korean government collapse.  North Korea’s multiple nuclear tests in the past few years and testing of assorted delivery systems for those weapons make it clear that these policies were not working.  Given that the current U.S. nuclear policy against North Korea has not stopped it from acquiring nuclear weapons and associated delivery technology, it is time for the United States to use another strategy.  We propose as an alternative that the United States recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, make it blatantly clear that this an unacceptable end state, and provide nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan that are jointly maintained, but still owned by the United States.  This would allow the United States to draw down militarily from both Japan and South Korea.  This move would also force China to help the international community address the missile and nuclear weapons programs being pursued by North Korea.

During the Bush ‘43 administration, North Korea was expected to uphold the 1994 Agreed Framework such that the government of North Korea would not produce fissile material and would come to an overall resolution of the military issue on the Korean peninsula (Kelly, 2004, 1).  Early on, the Bush administration looked upon North Korea with suspicion that it was maintaining a clandestine nuclear program, and U.S. intelligence confirmed these suspicions in finding that North Korea was in fact pursuing a covert program to enrich uranium.  After North Korea violated the Agreed Framework in the fall of 2002 by producing enriched uranium and expelling IAEA inspectors (Kelly, 2004, 2), the United States pursued the Six-Party Talks which held rounds infrequently from 2003 to 2009 (Liang, 2012, 1, 7) in the hopes of ending the North Korean nuclear program through diplomatic means.  The talks were hosted in Beijing, China, and notionally attended by the United States, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea (Liang, 2012, 1).

When President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, many believed that he would usher in a new era of foreign relations, one where we would finally start resolving our differences with many countries around the world with whom we had differences (Snyder, 2013, 1).  North Korea responded to President Obama’s inauguration with a multi-stage rocket launch and nuclear tests in April and May 2009.  Following the launch, on May 25, 2009, President Obama made statements in reaction to the nuclear tests and called to action the United States and the international community to, “Stand up to this behavior and redouble our efforts toward a more robust international nonproliferation regime that all countries have responsibilities to meet.” (Obama, 2009, 1).  After this declaration, the United States policy towards North Korea turned into what former Secretary of State Clinton had called Strategic Patience, under the auspices of the Six-Party Talks (Snyder, 2013, 1).  It was an aptly named approach given that, during his Presidency, President Obama managed only to produce four Executive Orders (13551 in 2010, 13570 in 2011, 13687 in 2015, and 13722 in 2016), which were basically a combination of expansion of sanctions and a continuation of the declared national emergency (Office of the Press Secretary, 2016, 1-4).  Ultimately, Strategic Patience produced no new positive outcomes and probably set back United States and North Korean relations (Hirsch, 2016, 1).

Strategic Patience Background and Why It Has Not Been Successful

The Strategic Patience approach policy is based on the United States and others waiting out the North Korean regime (Hirsch, 2016, 2).  The policy outlined North Korea’s continued provocative actions, such as missile tests and nuclear weapon tests, would ultimately lead to increased isolation and condemnation from its regional neighbors (namely China and Russia).  The desired result of the policy was that North Korea would come back to the negotiating table because of the ongoing diplomatic and economic isolation through various sanctions imposed by the United States and its Six-Party Allies (Clinton, Jandrokovic, 2009, 3).  Additionally, the United States has long tried to convince China, a primary ally of North Korea, to take much harder lines and apply pressure on the regime.  The United States also continued to expand military exercises with South Korea to further solidify U.S. commitment to North Korea’s southern neighbor (Avery, Rinehart, 2014, 4-5).

Unfortunately for former Secretary of State Clinton, former Secretary of State Kerry, and the Obama administration, the Strategic Patience approach did not produce the desired results.  The March 2016, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to impose the strongest sanctions ever against North Korea, in an effort to force North Korea to change course on its nuclear program.  A mere two months following the North Korean claimed hydrogen bomb test (January 2016), the U.N. imposed sanctions did more to advance international deterrence of North Korean than all previous seven years of the U.S. Strategic Patience approach (Morello, Mufson, 2016, 1).

There are many critics of the Strategic Patience policy.  Some of the biggest detractors point out that the policy effectively allowed North Korea to control the entire negotiating situation while simultaneously improving development of its nuclear and missile programs on the back end (Avery, Rinehart, 2014, 5).  Advocates of Strategic Patience mistakenly believe North Korea is a frail government on the verge of immediate collapse (Choi, 2016, 63).  Moreover, this belief in North Korea’s frail government created a policy environment that preferred hardline sanctions in hopes of hastening the regime collapse (Choi, 2016, 63).  Conversely, belief in collapse provided justification for North Korean external threats, thus legitimizing its need for nuclear weapons in order to ensure its survival (Choi, 2016, 65).  As we have seen for the many years, the North Korean regime has been under immense pressure from sanctions, but has transferred power to three different leaders, and obviously has not collapsed.

Another significant problem with the Strategic Patience approach is that it formally ends all communications between Pyongyang and Washington, D.C.  This has resulted in poor information on the North Korean nuclear program and no more meaningful engagements between delegations of the two countries.  Consequently, few individuals in the United States understand the mindset of Kim Jong-Un and his leadership circle.  This also works in reverse, as North Korea no longer has ways to understand the international community’s desire for peaceful denuclearization (Choi, 2016, 64).  In all, Strategic Patience looks like an implicit admission that there is no viable approach to this geopolitical problem, and it has done very little to enhance the security of the Korean peninsula and surrounding region (Choi, 2016, 65).

New Policy

The United States can no longer continue to work through failed policy.  No matter how well-intentioned, the North Korean threat still exists and is perhaps riskier than ever before.  It is time to chart a new course forward.  Many people are fatigued from extended operations in the Middle East and the United States is unlikely to take any military actions against North Korea because of costs that would be imposed upon Seoul, Tokyo, and other allies of the United States.  Furthermore, no one has a good understanding of China’s opinion on such options (Choi, 2016, 65).  Additionally, there is a great level of fatigue in the U.S. national security apparatus for any more work on the North Korean problem.  Our proposal is for the United States to formally recognize that North Korea is in fact a nuclear power and forward deploy U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan.  The purpose of this course of action would be to escalate the situation to convey to North Korea that the United States is serious and is willing to place Kim’s future in substantial risk (Colby, 2015, 6).

Forward staging U.S. nuclear weapons is not a new idea.  Throughout the Cold War, the United States had a number of nuclear weapons spread out across the globe to counter Soviet Union influence while simultaneously reassuring allies of U.S. commitment.  Even now the United States has shared nuclear weapons in non-nuclear European allied nations through the auspices of NATO under agreements set up in the 1950s and 1960s (Beach, 2009, 48).  In the NATO arrangement, the United States stores B-61 gravity weapons at six air bases in Europe.  The U.S. Air Force (USAF) bears the costs of the weapons and they remain under exclusive USAF control.  The weapons would only be delivered to the host nations in the event of war.  In war, the weapons could be delivered to targets via host nation or U.S. dual capable aircraft (Beach, 2009, 49).

Given the time and overwhelming economic resources that North Korea has put into its nuclear program, and the solemn fate of other adversary regimes such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, the North Korean regime is not likely to give up its nuclear program in the immediate future.  By recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power, developing a clear policy, and providing shared nuclear weapons to South Korea and Japan, we can set the course for a new normal in the region.  The recommended policy should be to recognize that North Korea has nuclear weapons but not recognize the legitimacy of these weapons.  As long as North Korea maintains the weapons the United States will place shared nuclear weapons and advanced missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea for their self-defense and deterrence purposes.  In this scenario, the United States can remove most of its forward presence in South Korea and Japan and retain only the forces necessary to maintain and safeguard the nuclear weapons and maintain training and advisory roles.  Additionally, the United States would maintain any kind of codes to prevent use of the weapons without explicit U.S. consent.  South Korea and Japan would assume increased responsibility for their own security and defense with the right to use these nuclear weapons only in a war.  The new approach would force North Korea to continue to spend an even larger percentage of its resources to develop its nuclear force, while Japan and South Korea would be able to keep pace at little to no cost.  This will eventually lead to a parody much like the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, where each side had the capability to destroy the other.  North Korea is dependent on China to keep its government functioning and placing nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan could influence China to finally cut off the regime (Iverson, 2016, 77).  If Chinese support dissipates, North Korea would quickly run out of already limited resources and would be forced to collapse or renounce and verifiably shut down most weapons programs to come back to the international community.

Challenges to the New Policy

One of the issues with U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan is China’s reaction (Iverson, 2016, 68).  We can expect a negative reaction but can potentially offset it with some other offers.  First, we can potentially use the U.S. troop drawdown as a way to offset a negative reaction to this change.  Second, and most important, we can use these U.S. nuclear weapons as a way to leverage China to take a more active involvement in advocating for a nuclear free Korean Peninsula.  The United States can engage China diplomatically with the promise that the United States will remove these forward deployed weapons and missile defense capabilities once North Korea eliminates its weapons.  Third, China may prefer this solution instead of South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which would likely result in permanent escalation of tensions in the region.  As a known nuclear power, the U.S. would oversee the nuclear weapon’s use, thus allowing U.S. force presence reduction from the region in the long term (Hughes, 2007, 77).  Overall, this strategy may be to China’s advantage because as the conventional forces draw down and North Korea eliminates its weapons, the United States would leave the region militarily.

This approach could upset the balance in the region, by causing the Philippines, Singapore and other countries to potentially desire their own shared nuclear weapons.  This approach will require diplomacy and messaging about the weapons and specifically countering North Korea to help rectify concerns that they may have about this new policy.  In addition, the U.S. pivot to the Pacific and increased presence in the area will help offset the fact that some allies and partners have shared nuclear weapons and others do not.

There is also the potential that as Kim Jong-Un and the government of North Korea collapse, North Korea could decide to use nuclear weapons as retaliation against the United States or its allies and partners.  While retaliation is a significant issue, with potentially catastrophic consequences, it is a risk regardless of the strategy, or lack of strategy against North Korea.  Even if we choose to do nothing against the North Korean regime and it collapses on its own, Kim Jong-Un may decide to do as much damage as possible during the fall.  We can help to mitigate this risk with forward deployed missile defense in the region to protect allies and the United States.


It goes without saying that this plan brings more risk of armed conflict into the region.  Unfortunately, there are not a lot of better options to consider when trying to bring this situation to a close while also ensuring the safety and security of our allies in the region.  North Korea has been working on its nuclear weapons and delivery systems for a long time.  As time passes, the North Korea is learning from its mistakes and its weapons capabilities are expanding.  In addition, the more time and treasure North Korea invests in its nuclear program, the more difficult it will be for them to give it up.  As North Korean capability grows it will likely be able to hold U.S. security at risk in addition to that of South Korea and others in the region.  The key to removing North Korea’s nuclear program may well be in China’s hands and not ours.  Forcing China to finally act to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue to get U.S. nuclear weapons and conventional forces out of the region, may finally be the change in the situation that gets China to act.  Our proposed policy provides balance of trying to get China to the table while also helping to address the long-term costs of keeping U.S. military forces in the region, as well as the continued security of our partners and allies.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


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Choi, Jong Kun.  “The Perils of Strategic Patience with North Korea.”  The Washington Quarterly 38, no. 4 (2015):  57-72.

Chanlett-Avery, Emma, and Ian E. Rinehart.  “North Korea:  US Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.”  Current Politics and Economics of Northern and Western Asia 23, no. 3 (2014):  333.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and Gordan Jandrokovic.  “Remarks with Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic After their Meeting.”  Embassy of the United States, Seoul, Korea:  Policy.  December 10, 2009.  Accessed July 30, 2016.

Colby, Elbridge.  “Nuclear Weapons in the Third Offset Strategy:  Avoiding a Nuclear Blind Spot in the Pentagon’s New Initiative.”  Center for a New American Security.  February 2015.

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Hirsch, Michael.  “Hillary’s North Korea problem.”  Politico.  January 6, 2016.  Accessed July 30, 2016.

Hughes, Christopher W.  “North Korea's Nuclear Weapons:  Implications for the Nuclear Ambitions of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.”  Asia Policy no. 3: 75-104.  International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed July 31, 2016).

Iverson, Shepherd.  “China's Nuclear-Armed Proxy--North Korea:  Hostile Surrogacies and Rational Security Adjustments.”  North Korean Review 12, no. 1:  66-81.  International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed July 31, 2016).

Kelly, James A.  “Dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program.”  U.S. Department of State.  Statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  July 15, 2004.  Accessed August 10, 2016.

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About the Author(s)

John D. Dietz. Mr. Dietz is currently serving as a Logistics Management Specialist at United States Strategic Command.  Mr. Dietz earned an MA in Military Operational Art & Science from the Air University in 2014 and is a current student at King’s College London.  Prior to his current assignment, Mr. Dietz served in Leadership Development at United States Strategic Command.

Lieutenant Colonel David M. Gohlich, USA. LTC Gohlich is currently serving as Operations Research/Systems Analyst at United States Strategic Command.  He was commissioned through the United States Military Academy in 2000.  LTC Gohlich earned a MS in Operations Research from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011.  Prior to his current assignment, LTC Gohlich served as an Assistant Professor at the United States Military Academy and as an Infantry Company Commander, Executive Officer, and Platoon Leader.

Lieutenant Colonel Brenda A. Oppel, USAF. Lt Col Oppel is currently serving as a senior Cyberspace Operations Officer at United States Strategic Command.  Lt Col Oppel earned a MA in Operational Art & Military Science from the Air University in 2012.  Prior to her current assignment, Lt Col Oppel served in various detachment, squadron, group, wing, direct reporting unit, and major command positions.




The authors do a superb job of describing the North Korean problem, however, there solution leaves much to be desired.  


Here is an outline of their recommendations:


  1. Official recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-armed state
  2.  Reintroduce US nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea under nuclear sharing agreements
  3. Withdraw US forward-deployed conventional forces from Japan and South Korea


These recommendations are based upon two related premises: firstly, that North Korea is the primary threat to the US and US interests in East Asia; and secondly, that these recommendations will, “force China to help the international community address the missile and nuclear weapons programs being pursued by North Korea”.


Although North Korea is the most acute threat to the US in Asia, it is one of several and by no means the primary chronic threat.  China has territorial or economic exclusivity disputes with four US allies: Japan (specifically the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands), Taiwan (in its entirety), the Philippines (its EEZ in the South China Sea), and even Canada (transit in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage).  The Chinese government has declared that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan are inalienable Chinese territory, and has not renounced the use of offensive military force in conquering these islands.  Fulfillment of this national policy by force would result in a PRC-US conflict.  Not only is China the strongest great power in conventional terms after the United States itself, but it is the only great power with declared territorial claims against US treaty allies that are currently non-negotiable.  Rhetoric aside, North Korea is not capable of invading, occupying, and annexing South Korea.  By comparison, China is capable of investing Taiwan and of capturing the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Therefore, we would not be looking at the North Korean problem in isolation or making unnecessary concessions to China.


China will only tighten sanctions on North Korea so far.  Beijing is rightfully concerned that if economic sanctions are too successful, North Korea may collapse, resulting in refugee flows into China, a nuclear-armed civil war in North Korea (a “Yugoslavia with nukes” to quote James Baker), and a Korea united under Seoul in which US and South Korean forces are deployed up to the Yalu River.  I highly doubt that Beijing regards North Korea as an ally or that it finds a nuclear-armed North Korea desirable: it is certainly not to China what Britain or France are to the US.  A more useful comparison for Chinese policy on North Korea might be US policies toward the Soviet Union and Russia from 1991 to 2012, or toward Pakistan from 2001-on.  Washington learned that it was preferable to provide funding and advice to adversaries and rivals rather than deal with the consequences of “loose nukes” or a “Yugoslavia with nukes”.  Despite qualitative and quantitative advances in Chinese military capabilities, especially since 2010 (years after North Korea’s first nuclear test), the PLA does not have the capacity to disarm North Korea by force without intolerable risk, as China’s largest cities and capital are within range of North Korea’s MRBMs.  Based upon the purges undertaken by Kim Jong-un shortly after his ascension to supreme leadership, one could infer that China was cultivating senior officials in the Korean People’s Army and the Korean Workers’ Party with a view to supporting a palace coup d’état, whereby a committee of pro-Chinese officials would seize power, abandon the nuclear weapons program, and reform the economy along Chinese Deng-esque lines.  Such a network would take years to develop and Beijing has neither the time nor the access to try again.  Needless to say, I am skeptical that the authors’ recommendations would affect Chinese policy toward North Korea in a constructive way.  


Returning to the recommendations, I would clarify that North Korea is a nuclear weapon-armed state, and was so from 2006-on.  The crisis in 2017 compared to say a decade earlier is that North Korea’s nuclear weaponry is advancing in both quality and quantity, from 6-8 warheads to 10-20, new ICBMs capable of reaching most of the US, and possible warhead miniaturization which would allow for nuclear-tipped missiles as opposed to crude gravity bombs dropped from cargo aircraft or used as nuclear mines.  Official US recognition of this fact would mean that the US and North Korea have a nuclear deterrence relationship not dissimilar to the US and Russia, and that North Korea would possess a status that only Russia and China currently have.  


What effect would recognition have on non-proliferation?  It may well embolden Iran, Myanmar, and other states that have or have had nuclear ambitions.  Where will North Korea stop its program?  At 80 warheads (Israel), 120-140 (India, Pakistan), or 200-300 (China, France, UK)?  What happens when North Korea has as many warheads capable of reaching the US as China (~50)?  At what level of development will North Korea’s arsenal cause China to increase its own, resulting in arms intersecting nuclear arms races between the US, China, North Korea, Russia, India, and Pakistan?  In such a scenario, it is improbable that strategic arms limitation agreements (e.g. New START and INFT) would survive.  


Reintroducing US nuclear weapons into Japan and South Korea would provide little in the way of military utility, as US strategic bombers can deliver nuclear gravity bombs and cruise missiles from the continental US or US territories such as Guam; ballistic missile submarines could also be used.  Rather than reassurance to the Japanese and South Korean people, deployment of US nuclear weapons is likely to face significant local popular opposition not unlike that in Europe over NATO’s Double-Track Decision.  US rhetoric and posture has consistently signaled to North Korea that it reserves the right to use all military means, including nuclear weapons, against a North Korean attack on its allies.  Placing such weapons under a nuclear-sharing agreement with Japan and South Korea (modeled on NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group) restricts the US’ ability to use these weapons for deterrence and if deterrence fails e.g. what if they are required to deter China from attacking Japan or Taiwan?  Or needed to counter Russia?  


Lastly, what of withdrawing US forward-deployed conventional forces from Japan and South Korea?  These forces provide at least as much assurance as the extended US nuclear deterrent does, provide military options to deal with a variety of regional threats, including North Korea, China, and Russia, and provide more flexible options in the event of a crisis.  Reliance upon forward-deployed nuclear deterrence is reminiscent of the US' risky ‘New Look’ or ‘First Offset’ posture of the 1950s-1980s, with all of the nuclear risks that this posture entails (e.g. Berlin 1961, Cuba 1962, Israel 1973, Operation RyAN/Able Archer 1983, etc.). Withdrawal of US conventional forces from South Korea would only be acceptable if there was a peace treaty with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula was free of nuclear weapons.