The Way Forward on North Korea: Explained
Posted on March 19, 2018
North Korea poses a serious challenge to U.S. national security. The United States needs a proactive, comprehensive, and
consistent strategy on North Korea—one that is led by diplomacy and bolstered by deterrence, pressure, and containment.
While the United States has been dealing with this threat for decades, events often move quickly and unpredictably on the
Korean Peninsula. With so much uncertainty over the future of U.S. policy on North Korea, the Center for American Progress
has created a series of one-pagers that help cut through the noise and explain what a strategy should look like; outline
specific recommendations for each component of the strategy—diplomacy, deterrence, and pressure; and sift through the
myths surrounding the North Korea policy debate.
1. The Way Forward on North Korea
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and its destabilizing behavior pose a serious threat to U.S. national security. The
United States should be confident in its ability to handle North Korea, to protect America and its allies, and to secure American
interests through clear-eyed and consistent diplomacy fully integrated with deterrence and containment strategies. Adapting to
today’s threat from North Korea requires the United States developing a comprehensive, long-term strategy to protect U.S.
citizens, troops, and allies, as well as uphold regional stability.
The United States must pursue a three-pronged approach:
• Seize the diplomatic initiative: No progress will be possible—on denuclearization, avoiding miscalculations, easing tensions,
or anything—without diplomacy. The United States needs to use diplomacy to its advantage and confidently engage in a
regular, high-level dialogue that can maximize the chances of success.
• Strengthen reassurance and deterrence: The United States must take steps to reassure U.S. allies that North Korea cannot
divide the United States from its allies. The United States needs to make sure alliances are as strong as possible and take
the necessary steps to bolster our military posture and deterrence capabilities.
• Increase pressure: The United States has not yet exhausted the potential of effective sanctions. The United States must cut
off North Korea from finding resources for its illicit programs. If China does not ramp up its economic pressure on North
Korea, the United States needs to respond with additional secondary sanctions on China. The strategy must be
comprehensive, well-sequenced, and executed with dexterity, and this requires empowering the U.S. Department of State and
America’s professional diplomats to lead the diplomacy to advance U.S. interests.
2. The Costs of Preventive War with North Korea
The U.S. Department of Defense has said that completely destroying North Korea’s nuclear program would require a full
The potential human, economic, and strategic costs of this war would be catastrophic. Human costs: War with North Korea
would put millions of lives at risk
• American soldiers would be at risk: Roughly 27,000 U.S. military troops and civilian personnel live in South Korea, and
roughly 51,000 live in Japan.2 The United States might need to put an additional 690,000 U.S. troops on the line in the case of
war.3 And war wouldn’t be quick—the North Korean army is nearly 25 times the size the Iraqi Army was in 2003.
• Millions of civilian lives would be at risk: South Korea is home to 51 million people, including 150,000 U.S. citizens.4 With
conventional munitions alone, North Korea could kill upwards of 300,000 people in South Korea in a matter of days.5
Tokyo, which is within range of North Korea’s missiles, is home to nearly 40 million people. 6 Guam and Hawaii, home to
millions of Americans, are also at risk. And 25 million North Koreans—upon whose suffering the North Korean nuclear
program has been built— could be decimated by a war.
Economic costs: The repercussions of war are enormous
• Major world economies would be disrupted: The United States, China, and Japan are the world’s three largest economies.
South Korea is also the world’s 11th-largest economy, and the East Asia Pacific region overall comprises 30 percent of the
• Global trade would be seriously inhibited: In 2016, South Korea was the United States’ 6th-largest goods-trading partner,
and Japan was its 4th-largest.8. War could create worldwide shortages in ships, semiconductors, and liquid crystal displays—
all goods of which South Korea is a leading producer.9
• War is expensive: From 9/11 through 2016, U.S. military engagements and homeland security to prevent terrorism have cost
taxpayers roughly $4.4 trillion.10 New military operations will only add to this number, and rebuilding South Korea in the
aftermath of war could add 30 percent of gross domestic product to the national debt.11 The costs of fixing North Korea’s
economy alone could top $1 trillion.12
The United States would cede its place in the world
• Preventive war would destroy alliances: South Korea and Japan, treaty allies of the United States, do not want the United
States to launch a preventive strike because they know that their nations would bear the brunt of the economic and human
costs. Should the United States go ahead with a preventive strike that puts its allies at risk, American credibility—and its
alliances—would be destroyed.
• Rival powers would take advantage of the situation: China will almost certainly enter the fray on the Korean peninsula, likely
securing North Korea’s nuclear sites and potentially occupying the country. It could also take advantage of the United States’
focus on the peninsula and lost credibility to pursue its strategic aims related to the South China Sea, East China Sea, and
Taiwan. Russia, which shares a land border with North Korea, is also likely to play chaos agent in a wartime scenario.
• The opportunity costs are high: Time and money spent fighting on the Korean peninsula means time and money not spent
on other critical U.S. security interests such as its ongoing military engagements in the Middle East; countering destabilizing
Iranian behavior; pushing back against challenges from China and Russia; countering violent extremism; and building a free
and open Indo-Pacific region.
3. The Case for Deterrence
The United States can deter North Korean aggression—as it has for decades—by strengthening alliances and bolstering
allied military posture in Asia. Why is deterrence effective? Faced with dangerous North Korean nuclear capabilities,
deterrence remains an effective strategy for addressing the threat posed by North Korea.
• Deterrence works: The United States and its allies have effectively deterred North Korea for decades, and robust U.S.
diplomatic and military efforts can continue to deter North Korean aggression. As long as the United States maintains a robust
military presence in the region, and its extended deterrence commitments remain rock solid, North Korea will remain deterred
regardless of its intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Kim Jong-un wants to stay in power, and he knows that if he starts
a conflict the United States and its allies would wipe out his regime. Recommendations to deter North Korean aggression The
threat from North Korea is evolving, and there is much work to be done to bolster deterrence. Together with U.S. allies, the
Trump administration should take the following steps:
• Be a reliable ally: The strength of U.S. alliances cannot be measured by the number of U.S. troops deployed or joint military
exercises conducted. At its core, alliance strength is measured by shared values, trust, and coordination between the
governments. The United States should conduct regular, high-level trilateral meetings between the United States, Japan, and
South Korea to coordinate their positions on North Korea.
• Strengthen regional ballistic missile defense and homeland defense: The United States should consider whether an
additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense unit is necessary to protect the Korean Peninsula as well as what additional
regional ballistic missile defense capabilities are needed to support Japan and Guam. The Trump administration should
strengthen U.S. homeland defense, including by potentially increasing the number of Ground-Based Interceptors.
• Address Seoul’s vulnerability to North Korean rocket and artillery attacks: The United States and South Korea should develop
an action plan to safeguard Seoul from rocket and artillery attacks. The two nations should also take joint cooperative steps to
improve chemical and bioweapon preparedness and response for possible North Korean attacks using conventional,
chemical, biological, and cyber capabilities.
• Operationalize trilateral defense cooperation: The United States could start by regularizing reciprocal exchanges of South
Korean and Japanese military personnel in bilateral military exercises. The three countries should sign a trilateral General
Security of Information Agreement so that classified operational information could be more easily shared, making trilateral
cooperation more operationally effective.
• Strengthen extended deterrence: As North Korea increases its capabilities, the possibility of nuclear coercion will increase.
The United States therefore needs to work closely with South Korea and Japan to strengthen perceptions of America’s
extended deterrence commitments to defend its allies against attacks. The United States must elevate its extended
deterrence dialogues; invest genuine diplomatic capital in trilateral defense and intelligence cooperation; and ensure that its
extended deterrence and nuclear declaratory policies are crystal clear.
4. The Case for Diplomacy with North Korea
Diplomacy is a necessary part of an overall strategy—including strong alliances, deterrence, pressure, and containment—for
dealing with North Korea.
• Progress will only be made through diplomacy: High-level diplomacy is the only way to secure meaningful reductions in
North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Given that Kim Jong Un sees his weapons programs as securing the
safety of his regime, expecting North Korea to arrive ready to give up its programs is a fantasy.
• Communication reduces the chance of crises: Whether or not diplomacy yields quick results on denuclearization, there is an
immediate need for regular, direct channels of communication between militaries and diplomats to avoid miscommunication
in the event of a crisis.
• Diplomacy advances U.S. interests: The best way to secure American interests is to seize the initiative through diplomacy.
The most significant diplomatic breakthroughs in recent decades—the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal—
overturned previous third rails of diplomacy. There is well-founded skepticism about what diplomacy with North Korea can
produce, but there is also little cost to finding out what diplomacy could yield. As former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell
(D-ME) said of his success in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, “I had 700 days of ‘no’… and one ‘yes.’”
Recommendations for diplomacy with North Korea To test the possibilities of diplomacy with North Korea, the Trump
administration should immediately take the following steps:
• Develop a diplomatic game plan and empower diplomats to advance it: The United States must develop a phased approach
to denuclearization—such as missile and nuclear test freezes and curbs on proliferation—that would be necessary to create
momentum in a diplomatic process. President Donald Trump should empower professional diplomats at the State
Department take the lead in advancing a dialogue with North Korea.
• Pursue a sustained, high-level dialogue: One meeting alone will not solve the North Korean challenge. The United States
must conduct a regular, high-level dialogue with North Korea led by empowered counterparts from each country who have the
authority to tackle a wide range of issues, including missile and nuclear programs, confidence building measures, and
searches for the remains of U.S. soldiers who died in North Korea during the Korean War, among other things.
• Allow no daylight to come between allies: North Korea wants to divide South Korea and the United States. Any successful
diplomacy will therefore require the allies to stay on the same page and coordinate diplomatic positions and moves closely.
• Establish a military hotline: The United States should offer a crisis communication channel between the United States, South
Korea, and North Korea. A military-to-military hotline could ensure that in moments of crisis the militaries can immediately talk
to one another to discuss any miscommunications or accidents and determine ways to de-escalate.
• Do not let up on pressure: Until North Korea makes genuine, verifiable progress in curbing its illicit programs, the United
States and its allies should maintain economic sanctions and continue to strengthen regional U.S. military posture to deter
5. Ramping Up Pressure to Contain North Korea
Containment and pressure are necessary to limit North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and proliferation. Cutting of
North Korea’s ability to finance its illicit programs is a central part of an effective North Korea strategy, and much more should
Why is containment necessary? By limiting its options and resources, keeping up the pressure can contain North Korea’s
destabilizing behavior and provide the United States leverage at the bargaining table.
• Sanctions incentivize North Korea to negotiate: By cutting of North Korea’s financial and energy resources, sanctions create
incentives for North Korea to make concessions, as well as give the United States more space to work with in a negotiation.
• Isolating North Korea hurts its weapons programs: By cuting North Korea of from the rest of the world, the United States can
hinder North Korea’s ability to source foreign technology components for its nuclear and missile programs as well as its
proliferation programs. Recommendations to pressure and contain North Korea There is much work to be done to ramp up
the pressure, particularly when it comes to targeting the North Korean elites. Together with U.S. allies, the Trump
administration should take the following steps:
• Work with partners to improve implementation of sanctions: U.N. Security Council sanctions have the potential to cut of more
than 90 percent of North Korea’s export revenue and most of its oil imports. However, 49 countries have been found to be
complicit in sanctions violations. The United States should work with other countries to ensure that sanctions are being
implemented and impose penalties on countries found to be violating sanctions.
• Increase pressure on China: While the United States and its allies can monitor North Korea’s maritime borders, China is
largely responsible for the flow of goods and oil into and out of North Korea. More than 90 percent of North Korea’s
international trade flows through China, and China stopped releasing data on its crude oil shipments to North Korean in 2014.
The United States should establish a clear set of requested actions that China must take on a certain timeline and impose
harsh secondary sanctions if China does not comply.
• Dismantle North Korea’s international trading networks: North Korea conducts business through front companies across the
globe to get around sanctions and avoid detection. The United States should continue to expand sanctions against these
institutions to prevent the flow of capital into North Korea.
• Seize North Korean assets: North Korean entities amass wealth in overseas banks. However, while North Korean entities
are prohibited from accessing the U.S. fnancial system, North Korean entities have used front companies and other means to
evade sanctions, including to launder U.S. dollars. The Justice Department should investigate and use its authority to seize
any North Korean assets which are illegally routed through the United States.
• Engage in maritime interdiction: North Korea has been found violating exports sanctions by transshipping coal through
Russia and engaging in ship-to-ship transfers. The United States and its allies should intensify and support global maritime
interdiction operations to the extent allowed by U.N. sanctions and international law to cut of the flow of North Korean exports.
Maritime interdiction is also necessary to prevent North Korea’s proliferation efforts.
• Enhance intelligence sharing with partners on proliferation: North Korea has been found proliferating its weapons programs.
For instance, the United Nations found evidence that North Korea contributed to Syria’s chemical weapons, and North Korea
was caught selling rocket-propelled grenades to Egypt. The United States and its partners should enhance intelligence
sharing to improve cooperation on non-proliferation efforts.
5. Myths About North Korea
To build a case for preventive war against North Korea, the Trump administration continues to tout myths as fact. Many of
these myths are just that—myths.
Myth 1: Kim Jong-un is irrational and therefore undeterrable
“Classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea? —U.S. National Security
Advisor H.R. McMaster
• Experts consider Kim Jong-un a rational actor: The American intelligence community believes Kim Jong-un is a rational actor
whose main motivation is regime survival.2 Kim Jong-un knows that his regime would be destroyed should he launch a
nuclear weapon with the intent to strike; he is not going to recklessly endanger his own safety by attacking the United States.
• Even if he is irrational, attacking him is bad idea: If Kim Jong-un is an irrational actor, it would be unwise for the Trump
administration to believe that he would not react irrationally to a preventive strike by launching a disproportionate strike against
the United States.
Myth 2: An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a game changer “[An ICBM] is a bit of a game changer for us.” —
Commander of U.S. Forces Korea Gen. Vincent Brooks
• The strategic calculus has not changed: Having an ICBM does not change the underlying tenets of deterrence: North Korea
knows that if it attacks the United States or any of its allies, the United States will retaliate—regardless of whether North Korea
targeted Seoul, Guam, or Washington, D.C. An ICBM can only decouple the United States and its allies if the United States
allows it to. Additionally, one cannot assume that North Korea does not already have an ICBM that can be outfitted with a
Myth 3: American policy has failed “Our country has been unsuccessfully dealing with North Korea for 25 years, giving billions
of dollars & getting nothing. Policy didn’t work!” —U.S. President Donald Trump
• America’s policy has deterred North Korea since the end of the Korean War: Since the end of the Korean War, the United
States and South Korea have been deterring North Korea. While there have been provocations, North Korea has not pursued
reunification by force. The United States has nearly 24,000 active duty troops stationed in South Korea, and the South Korean
army has over 600,000 troops. Deterrence has kept Americans and their allies safe for over 60 years.
• South Korea is thriving: While North Korea can barely support and feed its people and has teetered on the brink of collapse,
American policy has helped South Korea to become one of the world’s largest economies and most vibrant democracies.
Myth 4: Time is on North Korea’s side “Time is running out.” —U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster
• North Korea is weak: Sanctions are cutting off North Korea’s access to hard currency. Information flows into the country are
increasing. North Korea’s key protector, China, is becoming increasingly frustrated with the country. Furthermore, North Korea
is small and vulnerable when compared with the capabilities of the United States and its allies.