A major goal of United States foreign policy in 2017 has been to prevent North Korea completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
But despite President Donald Trump’s pledge in January that a North Korean “nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S….won’t happen,” Kim Jong Un on Tuesday declared that the DPRK has now “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
Having tested its Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBM designs a total of just three times, its uncertain whether the missiles can be reliably fielded just yet without more testing, particularly of warhead re-entry capabilities.
As a result, there may still be a small window of opportunity for the U.S. to stop the program before North Korea has battle-ready ICBMs capable of hitting cities throughout the homeland.
At the same time, North Korean standards are different to those in the West – Pyongyang said its Pukguksong-2 solid fuel missile would enter mass production and deployment after just two tests – meaning Kim Jong Un’s scientists might already feel comfortable to go without long-range testing for some time.
All together, the situation presents a difficult situation for policy-makers in the U.S.: Pyongyang appears to have achieved what Kim Jong Un set out to accomplish in his New Year’s speech.
NK News spoke to five North Korea watchers in the U.S. and Europe to better understand how things will change for Washington in the event North Korea deploys its new ICBM capability, what risk now surround U.S. military options, and what will happen if a lull in missile testing emerges.
The following North Korea specialists responded in time for our deadline:
- Andrea Berger, Senior Research Associate and a Senior Program Manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
- Evans J.R. Revere, Senior Director with the Albright Stonebridge Group
- Joshua Pollack, Editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a Senior Research Associate
- Lindsey W. Ford, Director of Political-Security Affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute
- Naoko Aoki, Graduate Fellow at the University of Maryland’s Center for International & Security Studies
1. North Korea says it has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power” – something Trump proclaimed wouldn’t happen under his watch. What changes now from a U.S. policy perspective?
Lindsey Ford: There’s unfortunately a difference between what ought to change and what will change in U.S. policy.
If it wasn’t already clear, this test ought to be a wake-up call that we’re going to have to find a way to live with a nuclear North Korea for at least the foreseeable future.
U.S. policy is continuing to operate on the outdated assumption that there’s still a window of time within which North Korea can be coerced into de-nuclearization. The statement North Korea issued yesterday makes pretty clear that time has past and their goal is now to force the international community to acknowledge them as a responsible nuclear power.
Kim Jong Un’s not going to get the formal recognition he’s seeking, but we’re not going to get the de-nuclearization we’re seeking either. So the United States needs to make some uncomfortable re-assessments and find a way to manage this problem over the long-term without going to war over it. Unfortunately, what we’re likely to see is simply more of the same: increased sanctions, more inflammatory rhetoric and military posturing, further calls for de-nuclearization.
None of this will move us closer to dealing with the fact that our strategy is based on outdated assumptions.
Joshua Pollack: Whether Kim Jong Un will in fact be satisfied with the outcome will depend on what reaction he sees from the U.S. He is looking for a softening of the U.S. line. He’s unlikely to get it, and I think he knows it, because the North Koreans have already moved on to talking about atmospheric nuclear testing.
Perhaps they hope the talk will be sufficient to change minds here, but they will probably find it necessary to make good on the threat at some point. And after that, they’ll probably have to contemplate the next step, and the next, because I don’t see any of these steps softening views in the White House when ICBM and H-bomb testing haven’t.
Evans Revere: North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM program is almost at the “finish line”.
The latest test was an ominous step forward in Pyongyang’s plan to target the United States homeland with nuclear weapons. The next step will be for the DPRK to bring a warhead back into the Earth’s atmosphere and have it strike an intended target with some degree of accuracy. When that happens, the psychological and emotional impact on the United States will be profound.
The new and impending developments add a greater element of urgency and threat to USG thinking and planning. This is likely to accelerate greatly U.S.-led international efforts to ramp up pressure on the North Korean regime. It is also likely to prompt U.S. leaders and defense planners to take an even closer look at other options, including military options, designed to prevent Pyongyang from achieving its goals.
Andrea Berger: I do not believe this declaration is going to cause the U.S. to significantly change its “maximum pressure” approach.
It will not, for example, lead the White House to conclude that expanded sanctions are now futile.
On the contrary, I fully expect that the U.S. will push for more UN sanctions in partnership with South Korea and Japan, who have already stated their intention to seek another resolution. Washington will also continue to use unilateral levers to try and persuade countries around the world to take those UN measures seriously. The open question is whether State will be given greater political scope to see whether diplomatic opportunities exist with the DPRK.
Naoko Aoki: While this is a significant milestone in North Korea’s missile development, I don’t see this as a catalyst for dramatic change in U.S. policy from the current emphasis on sanctions and pressure.
This could change if the technical development somehow translates into a political one – North Korea’s increased confidence in its nuclear deterrent leading to a willingness to talk, for example – but I don’t see the United States unilaterally shifting toward diplomacy.
2. What are the risks of U.S. military action to “force” North Korea to change course given this development?
Andrea Berger: The risk that the U.S. employs military action in an attempt to erode North Korean capabilities or otherwise compel Pyongyang to change its behavior is probably still very low.
In terms of military scenarios, a greater concern for me is how the U.S. would respond to a North Korean attempt to test a nuclear weapon off a ballistic missile, or even to test an ICBM using a more normal flight trajectory.
Evans Revere: The greatest risk of pre-emptive or preventive military action against North Korea continues to be the likelihood that even the most successful initial strike on North Korea would leave the DPRK with enough remaining firepower, including nuclear-capable missiles, that would cause horrific damage to South Korea, Japan, and perhaps the United States itself.
Initiating military action would almost certainly lead to a broader conflict. If the United States and its partners opt for military action, the goal of such action should not be to “force” North Korea to change its current course, but rather to destroy the Pyongyang regime, since Pyongyang’s reaction to military action would be to take major military action itself.
If our aim is to force Pyongyang to shift course, a better approach is to rely on overwhelming, unprecedented, globally coordinated, and powerful measures, including steps in the diplomatic, political, military, banking, financial, trade, human rights, cyber, military, and covert areas, to pressure and isolate Pyongyang. Only such an approach, which we have never tried before, has the potential to convince Kim Jong Un that he must change course or risk the collapse of his regime.
Naoko Aoki: I don’t think it is wise to assume that North Korea will stop developing its missile and nuclear arsenal because of a limited strike on its test sites or related facilities.
Gambling that North Korea will not retaliate is also not a good idea.
Judging from official U.S. government comments, the mainstream view still appears to be that there are no good military options for North Korea. I hope it stays that way.
Joshua Pollock: I think threats of U.S. military action to disarm North Korea are primarily expressions of frustration.
There is something about watching North Korea drag itself up toward our level in nuclear capabilities that many Americans experience as diminishment. So we call it unacceptable. But what can we actually do about it without millions of deaths? If there is a strategic aspect to these rumblings, it’s to put continued pressure on China to fix the problem for us.
I’m less concerned about the possibility of launching a war to disarm a nuclear-armed state in a calculated manner and more concerned about crisis instability: both sides fearing that the other is about to attack, leading to a desperate preemptive strike.
Lindsey Ford: The risks of a preventive strike on North Korea are staggering.
The idea of a limited strike requires believing that you have a credible reason to think you can control the escalation cycle, limiting the potential costs and risk of a wider conflict. We have no such assurances in this case. North Korea understands full well that they would be over-matched and eventually defeated in a full-on conflict with the United States.
As a result, they have a tremendous incentive to escalate quickly and decisively in response to a U.S. strike, in an attempt to dissuade the United States from expanding the conflict further.
The potential loss of life should North Korea attack Tokyo or Seoul with a nuclear weapon could easily exceed one million casualties. In the event of a broader conflict, recent assessments estimate that at least 300,000 people could die within just the first few days alone. We underestimate the risks of escalation at our own peril.
3. Some have said that once North Korea reaches its ICBM goal, the country will become open to dialogue with the U.S. What could be a realistic focus of discussions, assuming the U.S. side would be interested, given the current circumstances?
Evans Revere: Very senior DPRK officials have told us in recent years that they would be prepared to engage in “arms control talks” with the United States once the DPRK reaches its nuclear-weapon and missile goals.
As explained by the North Koreans, such talks would be held “between one nuclear-weapon state and another” – meaning that the basis for such talks would be USG acceptance of a permanently nuclear-armed North Korea.
These talks, as explained by Pyongyang, would also seek to conclude a peace treaty to replace the Korean War Armistice Agreement, which would lead to the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the termination of the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. It is impossible for me to believe that any U.S. administration would be prepared to enter into such discussions.
Andrea Berger: Though not without its challenges, dialogue aimed at compelling Pyongyang to refrain from further nuclear testing is a good place to start. No one wants to see another nuclear test by the DPRK, especially atmospheric. Restraining missile testing activities, or onward proliferation by North Korea would be worthwhile objectives as well.
In general, I also continue to support the idea of crisis management talks. Other nuclear-armed adversaries talked to each other regularly during the Cold War and appreciated the importance of doing so. Imagine if they hadn’t.
Joshua Pollack: The North Koreans may become more open to talks now, perhaps, but they are first going to study how the U.S. reacts.
The U.S. is going back to the Security Council, I am fairly certain, and will redouble its efforts to isolate North Korea more broadly.
That’s likely to drive the North Koreans back to the drawing board to start planning the atmospheric nuclear test they’ve been talking about.
Lindsey Ford: The surprisingly measured tone of North Korea’s recent statement and the emphasis it placed on being a responsible nuclear power certainly raise the prospect that North Korea may be angling for renewed negotiations.
The real question will be whether the United States and North Korea can agree to come to the table without either nation getting the assurances they are seeking on the nuclear question (i.e. – an agreement to discuss de-nuclearization vs. an acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons status).
If we re-start negotiations, the immediate focus could be as simple as talking about talking. Can we have a conversation to better understand each other’s interests and intentions and see whether there is any opening or step-by-step path we can begin to construct toward a more meaningful negotiation?
Naoko Aoki: Any dialogue would have to begin with the goal of capping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, starting with a freeze on tests. Assuming that is possible, the problem will be deciding at what cost.
The United States will have to make concessions, but there seems to be little tolerance for that at the moment.
4. In the event this marks the end of major missile testing from the North, how do you expect the international community will respond long term? Sanctions fatigue? More pressure?
Joshua Pollack: I’m not convinced that the North Koreans believe they have done enough with ICBMs.
They have only flown the Hwasong-15 once, and not to anything like its maximum range. They are probably thinking in terms of testing it with a live warhead at some point. But let’s assume they are done.
Will they stop testing other missiles? Probably not. Theater missile exercises have become part of their standard response to Key Resolve. Why would they drop their guard?
But let’s say that an understanding is reached: no more Key Resolve, and no more missile or nuclear testing. That would probably take some of the urgency out of the process.
Without missile and nuclear tests to prod and provoke, what would drive the next UNSCR? As it stands, anyway, the sanctions regime has become quite comprehensive indeed. I don’t know if that’s a stable situation: the North Koreans might chafe at being under sanctions indefinitely and go back to testing. But if the quiet persisted, then yes, they would chip away at the sanctions over time.
Evans Revere: The most recent test is most certainly not the end of the North Korean missile testing program.
In order for the North Korean nuclear and missile threats to be deemed credible, they will have to be tested, including by demonstrating the ability of these systems to accomplish the goals that the DPRK regime has set for them.
If the international community is serious about preventing North Korea from achieving its missile and nuclear goals, now is the time for it to step up and take the extraordinary measures that will be required to do so.
Naoko Aoki: The default position will be more sanctions, and calls for stricter enforcement.
But unless you believe that North Korea will stop developing its nuclear and missile programs because of outside pressure, there will have to be dialogue and diplomacy at some point to try to curb them.
Lindsey Ford: For the moment, there’s a fairly high degree of international consensus on punishing North Korea for its actions.
If, and as, time elapses without further North Korean provocations, this consensus is likely to fray.
U.S. allies are more likely to stay on side with the U.S. approach, but other countries with less vested interests in resolving the North Korean crisis will feel fewer and fewer incentives to keep this issue at the top of their priority list.
Without ongoing and concerted diplomatic efforts to keep other countries focused on the importance of resolving this issue, it’s going to be hard for the United States to hold together the strong international coalition it will need.
Andrea Berger: It is possible that North Korea will take its foot off the gas pedal and cease further developmental ICBM testing, but I have much greater doubts that they intend to refrain from other types of missile launches.
For example, I expect more operational missile testing to prepare and train units, as we have seen North Korea do with its extended-range Scuds and Nodongs. Further testing around the submarine program also seems likely.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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