North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout—quantitatively (by ramping up its warhead numbers) and qualitatively (through mastery of warhead miniaturization and long-range ballistic missiles)—that directly threatens the U.S. homeland. Unclassified projections of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal by 2020 range from 20 to 100 warheads.

The United States now faces its third nuclear crisis with North Korea in 25 years. The nuclear issue is embedded in the broader question of North Korea’s societal evolution. The dilemma is that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) strategic and social timelines are not in sync: the nuclear challenge is immediate and urgent, while prospects for regime change are indeterminate.

U.S. policy should not be based on the assumption of regime collapse. The George W. Bush administration’s strategy was premised on the assessment that the Kim Jong-il regime was “teetering.” That assumption underlay the administration’s decision to abrogate the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, which had resolved the first nuclear crisis of the early 1990s by freezing a plutonium program of known scope and known urgency, in order to confront Pyongyang over a covert uranium enrichment program of unknown scope and unknown urgency. The Bush administration never clarified whether the U.S. objective was regime change or behavior change in this “rogue state.”

The Obama administration, dropping the “rogue” rubric and referring to North Korea as an “outlier” state, offered Pyongyang a structured choice: comply with international nonproliferation norms or face diplomatic isolation and punitive measures. In response to North Korean provocations (renewed nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests), the Obama administration embarked on a policy of “strategic patience.” A diplomatic impasse has persisted over Pyongyang’s insistence, rejected by the international community, that the DPRK be recognized as a nuclear power.

China, which aspires to be the primary security actor in East Asia, has conflicting strategic interests on the Korean peninsula: it favors a stable DPRK, as regime collapse would precipitate a refugee crisis in northern China and create a unified Korea allied with the United States; but it also wants to prevent a North Korean strategic breakout that would have adverse consequences for China, such as U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to the Republic of Korea (ROK).

North Korea regards nuclear weapons both as a deterrent vital to regime survival and as a bargaining chip to extract economic concessions from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. After the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, North Korea said that Qaddafi had been “tricked into disarmament” in 2003 through a U.S. assurance of regime security.

Strategic patience has resulted in acquiescence as North Korea builds up its nuclear arsenal and makes substantial progress in miniaturizing warheads and acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. In response, the UN and United States have imposed still stricter sanctions on the Kim regime. But sanctions are not a strategy.

With North Korea on the verge of a strategic breakout, the United States should pivot to serious diplomacy. The objective should be to prevent this quantitative and qualitative breakout by negotiating a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, calls these goals the “Three No’s”: (1) no new weapons (freezing North Korean production of plutonium and enriched uranium); (2) no testing of weapons or ballistic missiles; and (3) no exports of nuclear technology or weapons. A freeze would preclude the additional testing that North Korea still needs to master miniaturization and reliable long-range missiles.

The U.S. and China have a mutual interest in preventing a North Korean strategic breakout. This conjunction of interest creates the political space for coordinated diplomacy to freeze North Korean capabilities. Negotiating with North Korea has its pitfalls: Pyongyang has cheated on past agreements and any American concessions will be characterized as propping up an odious regime. 

Basically, to prevent a North Korean nuclear breakout, the Trump administration has two options: a preventive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure to destroy its capability to threaten the United States; or a revitalized diplomatic track to deny North Korea a breakout capability by negotiating a freeze of its nuclear and missile programs. This section critically analyzes these two options—identifying and assessing the key assumptions underlying each and placing them in historical context. The analysis sustains the conclusion that the military option, considered and rejected by Clinton administration during the first nuclear crisis in 1994, continues to carry the catastrophic risk that even a limited strike on the North’s nuclear infrastructure would likely escalate into a general war on the Korean peninsula.

In rejecting the use of military power, this study argues for a pivot to serious diplomacy through a strategy of coercive engagement. A new conjunction of factors creates an opportunity to achieve a freeze agreement—one that, in the near term, optimizes the interests among all the major parties. Such an interim agreement would forestall a North Korean nuclear breakout and reaffirm the goal of long-term denuclearization (the urgent U.S. interest), while preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime and the loss of a buffer state (the Chinese interest) and leaving the Kim family regime in power with a minimum nuclear deterrent (the paramount North Korean interest). This analytical option should be put to the political test through revitalized diplomacy.

The nuclear agreement with Iran is a relevant precedent. As with Iran, the goal of reinvigorated nuclear diplomacy with North Korea would be to buy time and prevent a deteriorating situation from getting worse. A renewed diplomatic channel would also lower the risk of an inadvertent military clash through miscalculation.

About the Author
Image of Robert S. Litwak
Robert S. Litwak

Robert S. Litwak, the Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Wilson Center, is one of the world’s preeminent experts on nuclear issues and policy, from Iran to North Korea to Russia. A consultant to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, he served on the National Security Council as Director for Nonproliferation. Read More