With so many foreign policy challenges to address — including the threat of terrorist attacks, the tenuous security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, a revanchist Russia and an expansionist China — the Obama administration has paid only limited attention to North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. This could prove a costly and dangerous mistake.
It is too easy to dismiss as bluster the near-constant stream of threats coming out of Pyongyang. But while the world looks the other way, North Korea’s young and isolated leader, Kim Jong Un, is aggressively pursuing four parallel military initiatives: expanding the amount of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) the country possesses; producing a longer-range missile capable initially of reaching targets in the Pacific and eventually the continental United States; developing a smaller and lighter nuclear warhead to sit atop a long-range missile; and seeking a survivable, strategic “deterrent” via a small missile-launch submarine or mobile, land-based missile launch system. There is much that we do not know about what goes on inside this highly secretive state, but there is both commercially available satellite imagery and credible deductive analysis to support the conclusion that North Korea is making progress on all four fronts.
Unclassified satellite imagery taken this year indicates that North Korea has restarted its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and an adjoining plant housing centrifuges used to enrich uranium. This has led to speculation that it could be in the process of expanding its nuclear stockpile, estimated to be about six to 10 weapons, to 20 or more by the end of 2016 and possibly to 50 or more by 2020. An arsenal of this size would significantly complicate any diplomatic effort to roll back and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. It would also make it much more difficult to pinpoint the precise location of each weapon in the event that they needed to be secured or destroyed.
For a country preoccupied with perceived threats to its security and sovereignty, the acquisition of a survivable nuclear deterrent would be a game-changer. But the possession of nuclear weapons does not deter unless a credible means of delivery exists that would be likely to survive an attack. This is what gives rise to the concern about North Korea’s ongoing effort to develop an indigenous, submarine-launched ballistic missile and a land-based, road-mobile missile capability. Just recently, it attempted to launch a missile from a submarine. While the test reportedly failed, it demonstrated that North Korea is actively seeking such a capability.
The Obama administration came into office determined to “reset” relations with its adversaries, including North Korea, but its overtures were rebuffed. Since then, the administration has seemed at times to be ignoring indications of the growing North Korean threat. This is likely because the available policy options are unappealing: 1. apply secondary sanctions, beyond those already imposed by the United States and the United Nations; 2. resuscitate the dormant six-party diplomatic talks; or 3. declare “red lines” for both nuclear weapons and missile testing and state an intention to use military force if North Korea crosses either line.
It is beyond dispute that sanctions helped produce a nuclear deal with Iran, but they are an imperfect instrument. They can be evaded (especially if other states assist), and Pyongyang has been relatively impervious to such pressure. For diplomacy to have any chance of success, North Korea must first agree to come to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the nation typically makes extensive and unreasonable demands that it says must be fulfilled before it will agree even to talk. The United States must not capitulate to this ploy.
The key to any successful diplomatic initiative is China, which due to its proximity and economic connectivity actually has leverage with the regime. If the Chinese can be persuaded to help, the United States should be prepared to make some bold moves to break the current impasse, including an end to the state of hostilities that has existed since the signing of the 1953 armistice — but only if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear inventory; to secure under international monitoring its nuclear production capability; and to cease the development of long-range missiles and submarine and land-based delivery systems in a verifiable way.
As was demonstrated in the recent Syrian chemical weapons crisis, it is problematic for the United States to establish red lines, because they are credible only if we are prepared to act if they are crossed. Thus, a multilateral diplomatic solution, preferably one brokered by China, remains the preferred approach. But if diplomacy fails — or if Pyongyang refuses to engage without making extortionist demands — the Obama administration should state unambiguously that the United States will impose secondary sanctions if any additional nuclear or long-range missile tests take place and that it is prepared to engage militarily to prevent North Korea from acquiring the capability to use nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to threaten U.S. territory or the territory of U.S. allies.
North Korea is unquestionably among the most difficult foreign policy challenges facing the United States. But continuing to play for time, in the hope that the autocratic Kim Jong Un will be overthrown, or that Pyongyang will decide unilaterally to stand down from the pursuit of these dangerous military capabilities, is not a realistic strategy. It is evident that the successive Kim regimes have responded only to firmness and to resolute statements of declaratory policy and intentions. It is also worth noting that North Korea has not conducted a long-threatened fourth nuclear test, nor has it tested a new, longer-range missile. So there is still time — and diplomatic maneuvering room — to address this problem before any red lines are crossed. Otherwise, the price of continuing to ignore the gathering North Korean military threat may be very high indeed.
Mitchel Wallerstein, the president of Baruch College of the City University of New York, was deputy U.S. assistant secretary of defense for counterproliferation policy from 1993 to 1997. This op-ed is based on an article that appears in the fall issue of the Washington Quarterly.