"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Nuclear Shockwaves: Making the Best of Bad Options

Michael J. Green

North Korea’s October 9 nuclear test has been called a failure of U.S., South Korean, and Chinese policy, and those criticisms are undoubtedly accurate to some degree. Lost in the finger pointing, however, is the strong evidence that Kim Jong Il intended all along to demonstrate North Korea’s unambiguous status as a nuclear-weapon state regardless of what steps the other parties took.

North Korea’s steady march toward this test has left a trail of broken agreements and lost opportunities for greater interaction with the international community:

    • The 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This agreement explicitly forbade the kind of clandestine North Korean uranium-enrichment program that the United States publicly revealed in 2002.[1]

    • The 1994 Agreed Framework. This deal offered Pyongyang a path toward normalization and the provision of two light-water reactors in exchange for a freeze of the Yongbyon reactor and the eventual accounting and inspections for all other fissile material and programs. North Korea began violating this agreement in the late 1990s with work on its clandestine uranium-enrichment program and never made any progress on discussions toward inspections.

    • The September 17, 2002, Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration. This pact included not only a commitment to end the nuclear programs but also to maintain a missile launch moratorium, which North Korea violated in July 2006 with a test of seven missiles, including short-, medium-, and long-range varieties.[2]

  • The September 19, 2005, Joint Statement of the fourth round of the six-party talks. Pyongyang pledged to eliminate all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs in this agreement in exchange for an array of security assurances, non-nuclear energy cooperation, economic assistance, and normalization talks from the other parties. Only days after this agreement was signed, North Korea said it would not return to the talks until the United States dropped what Pyongyang called its “hostile policy,” specifically the U.S. clarification in coordination with the other parties that North Korea would not be allowed to discuss the provision of light-water reactors until nuclear weapons and programs had been completely dismantled.[3] North Korea also took exception to sanctions the United States imposed that month on a bank in Macau that had been laundering illicit North Korean funds.

In retrospect, each of these episodes suggests that North Korea treated agreements and negotiations as a tactic to buy time and space to continue with the one goal to which Pyongyang was truly committed: possessing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to target. Each diplomatic turn in the story, however, also demonstrated that North Korea is not completely immune to the coercive power of the international community or the possible inducements available from participating in diplomatic negotiations. In the end, no clear conclusion can be drawn about what might have stopped North Korea from testing or might in the future convince Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear weapons programs.

Four Schools of Thought

The debate in the United States over what might induce or compel North Korea to give up nuclear weapons has been framed by four basic schools of thought. With each provocation by Pyongyang, the dispute among these four points of view has only intensified. Engagers argue that the United States could make a breakthrough by directly negotiating a package of security assurances in exchange for denuclearization with Pyongyang.[4] Hawkish Doves argue for presenting such a package directly to Pyongyang but backing it with the threat of military action if Pyongyang does not change its behavior.[5] Tailored Containers argue for isolating North Korea and creating a prophylactic seal around the nation to prevent the transfer of nuclear materials in or nuclear weapons out.[6] Regime Changers argue for an aggressive policy to end the North Korean nuclear and human rights problems once and for all by toppling Kim’s government.

Thus far, the administration has not embraced any of these strategies in full, focusing instead on the six-party talks that bring together China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, and North Korea to address the North Korean nuclear issue. The six-party talks were designed to provide a framework for negotiation with North Korea that would bring to bear the additional leverage necessary to supplement the limited leverage of the United States. After all, the United States has virtually no trade with North Korea to embargo, while unilateral coercive military options are difficult to employ without counterproductive side effects, such as South Korean divergence from the United States or the risk of North Korean military strikes on Seoul or Tokyo. Moreover, the six-party talks framework ensures that powers thus far not fully engaged in the diplomacy, particularly China, are fully invested in the outcome. This aspect of the six-party dynamics helps to explain why Beijing has been far more forthcoming in the UN Security Council debate over North Korea than would have been the case four years ago.

At this point the focus is on implementing targeted sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 1718, approved October 14. The other parties, however, particularly China and South Korea, will expect a fuller tool kit that includes a diplomatic track. In the process of constructing that full tool kit, it may be worth re-examining the four schools of thought. North Korea may be the land of bad options, but within each bad option lies some useful elements of a new strategy.

Bilateral Engagement

It is a myth that the Bush administration has not engaged in bilateral dialogue with North Korea. In addition to the three days in October 2002 spent in Pyongyang by the delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Jim Kelly, senior U.S. officials have clocked hundreds of hours talking to their North Korean counterparts in sessions during the six-party talks and with North Korea’s UN representatives in the so-called New York Channel. Nevertheless, serious proponents of greater bilateral engagement argue that the North Korean power structure requires that U.S. negotiators participate in direct discussions and full negotiations with Kim in order to reach an agreement. In addition, Engagers argue that a substantive package has yet to be put on the table to demonstrate that North Korea can benefit from ending nuclear weapons. Finally, they maintain that public criticism of the North Korean leader or system is counterproductive to diplomacy and that security assurances and softer rhetoric will prove more effective.

Many of the advocates of more direct bilateral engagement are veterans of past negotiations with the country and know from that experience that the North Korean Foreign Ministry has little flexibility beyond strict guidance presented by Kim. Moreover, they are correct that if the administration is serious about implementation of the September 19 joint statement, there will have to be extensive direct negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials to work out many of the details. It is also clear that U.S. criticism of North Korea’s system or Kim will often cause the North to walk away from talks.

Yet, there would be serious pitfalls in a strategy premised on the assumption that the main obstacle to success is North Korean insecurity or an inability to deal directly with Kim. It should not be surprising that Pyongyang professes an interest in discussions of “peaceful coexistence” with Washington because North Korea’s version of such an entente would mean validation of the ongoing nuclear weapons program without requiring verifiable dismantlement. Indeed, North Korea benefited immensely in terms of international aid and diplomatic recognition after the Agreed Framework was concluded in 1994, and Pyongyang clearly sought a visit by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to consolidate those gains. The cost to North Korea was a temporary freezing of its known and easily targeted Yongbyon reactor, but weapons development based on previously extracted plutonium and a clandestine highly enriched uranium program continued, a massive investment by North Korea that was not simply a hedge against U.S. noncompliance with the Agreed Framework. North Korea’s demand for bilateral negotiations and specifically for light-water reactors is aimed at returning to that dynamic and casting the nuclear weapons program as a response to U.S. actions rather than an objective in itself that ultimately threatens the entire region. The demand for the provision of light-water reactors puts further pressure on the U.S. side to “deliver” and allows the North Korean side to delay any meaningful inspections or dismantlement, a tactic further enhanced by claims of a “hostile” U.S. policy.

There is also reason to question whether Pyongyang is waiting for the right enticements in order to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. It is striking, for example, that North Korea refused to follow up on South Korea’s July 2005 offer to transmit two million kilowatts of electricity to North Korea in exchange for steps to freeze and dismantle its nuclear programs.[7] Equally telling has been Pyongyang’s preoccupation with establishing a right to “peaceful” nuclear capabilities in the six-party talks and North Korea’s complete disinterest in exploring the other parties’ specific proposals for security assurances, non-nuclear energy assistance, and economic development.

Finally, although remaining silent about North Korea’s horrific human rights record and state-sponsored export of drugs and counterfeit money might remove a frequent obstacle to North Korea’s participation in the six-party talks, a policy of self-censorship on these issues would also define international deviancy downward in ways that would only enable North Korea’s illicit behavior and nuclear activities. If the international community is going to muster the will to stop North Korea’s nuclear programs, it is critical that the nature and actions of the North Korean regime not be brushed aside. It is important, however, that the international community speak with one voice on the nature of the regime while making it clear that the goal is a change in behavior and not in regime, a point that the U.S. delegation made very clearly to Pyongyang in October 2002.

Ultimately, it is the tactical insight that direct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang are critical at some point in the process that proves most useful to our comprehensive tool kit. Yet, those bilateral negotiations should not come in response to a nuclear test because that sends the wrong signal to North Korea and other proliferators, such as Iran. Moreover, the negotiations must be firmly embedded within the six-party process and must be part of the implementation of the North Korean agreements to address the concerns of the other parties.

Bigger Sticks and Bigger Carrots

The Hawkish Doves likewise begin with the premise of the Engagers that North Korea can be convinced to abandon nuclear weapons with the right incentive package, but they recognize that there also has to be considerable pressure to sharpen Kim’s thinking. This “preventive defense” concept informed former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry’s negotiations with North Korea in May 1999.[8] At that time, the Clinton administration was prepared to move toward flexible deterrence options if North Korea did not implement its commitments to verifiably abandon nuclear weapons. Advocates of this approach argue with some justification that the current multilateral approach toward North Korea has thus far lacked sufficient urgency or consequences for bad behavior, given Pyongyang’s undeterred development of nuclear weapons.

The main shortcoming with the preventive defense approach is that the strategic situation surrounding the Korean peninsula has changed in unfavorable ways over the past decade. North Korea now has an arsenal of about 200 Nodong ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan, a deterrent that did not exist in the mid-to-late 1990s. In addition, South Korean attitudes have shifted so profoundly against military options, encouraged by the left-leaning government of President Roh Moo-hyun, that even the implied threat of force can drive a dangerous wedge between Seoul and Washington, weakening the overall diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. Any actual use of force would put South Korea at risk of massive retaliation because Seoul is roughly 50 kilometers from the demilitarized zone and targeted with thousands of artillery tubes and Scud missiles.[9] If the United States struck and Seoul took the brunt of the retaliation, the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the overall U.S. strategic position in Northeast Asia could be irreparably damaged. Of course, North Korea is now widely acknowledged to possess at least several nuclear devices, a situation that was not as clear a decade ago.

Nevertheless, although military tools may be less useful to diplomacy today than they were a decade ago, the Hawkish Doves’ focus on the need for sticks to back diplomacy is an insight that can add to a better tool kit. North Korea must see that there are concrete negative consequences for noncompliance.

Tailored Containment

Recognizing the pitfalls of relying either on diplomacy or the use of force, a third view has emerged advocating prophylactic containment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Under this strategy, the international community would be encouraged to cut off trade and diplomacy with the North, and a web of export controls and active interdiction operations would be put in place to prevent Pyongyang from transferring nuclear weapons or related materials into or out of the country. Missile defense and enhanced deterrence planning would serve as further insurance until the North Korean regime no longer exists.

The assumption behind this strategy, that North Korea is prepared to incur great adversity rather than abandon its nuclear weapons program, appears increasingly accurate. Moreover, new tools developed in the war on terrorism to track terrorist financing have proven highly effective against North Korea, which relies heavily on banks in places such as Macau to launder drug and counterfeit money and to finance acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related materials. In addition, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has largely succeeded in establishing interdiction as an international norm, with about 80 states quietly cooperating with the United States and its allies to stop trade in WMD-related technologies. China and South Korea have not participated in PSI, but China’s support for UN Security Council Resolution 1695 on July 15 and Resolution 1718 three months later demonstrates that Beijing is increasingly willing to impose targeted sanctions, interdictions, and export controls on North Korea.[10]

A pure strategy of tailored containment, however, would face significant challenges. North Korea’s money flow is vulnerable to interdiction and sanctions, but it would be impossible to establish a leak-proof seal against the transfer of nuclear weapons or technology. Moreover, a strategy of tailored containment would signal that the United States has abandoned diplomacy, which could push South Korea and China to pursue separate diplomatic agreements with North Korea or risk undermining the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent in Japan, which rests on deterrence and U.S. diplomatic leadership.

Where tailored containment fills out, the tool kit is on the hedging and pressure side of the equation. North Korea may never abandon its nuclear weapons programs, and the United States has an obligation and an ability to use interdiction and other measures to slow Pyongyang’s progress and at least to complicate external transfer. These actions also provide useful sticks to back up diplomacy, although they would proceed regardless of North Korea’s diplomatic stance because they target activities that are in themselves threatening or illegal.

Regime Change

Given the human rights crisis in North Korea and the difficulty of convincing dictators to abandon nuclear weapons, regime change has struck many as the only reliable approach to North Korea. The very words “regime change” can cause panic in some parts of Washington and Seoul, but contemplating the implications of such an approach has merit. For one thing, there are fissures and vulnerabilities in North Korea. Kim does not enjoy the legitimacy or aura of infallibility commanded by his father, Kim Il Sung. The army is the spine of North Korean society, but its million-plus soldiers are undernourished, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. Finally, the October 9 nuclear test and the international community’s response may ultimately unleash forces within North Korea that have unpredictable effects.

Despite the intellectual merits of considering regime change strategies, however, the practical obstacles and risks are still insurmountable. China and South Korea each fear the chaos of regime collapse as much as they do North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Beijing at least appears positioned to inject enough aid into the regime to keep it afloat even if there is escalation by Pyongyang. Moreover, although regime change may be the most effective guarantee of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, it is also the most permissive scenario for transfer of nuclear weapons or technology outside of the country. After all, the regime can be deterred from using or transferring nuclear weapons, but a North Korean general with access codes, a Swiss bank account, and no central power above him might not be as easily deterred or stopped.

An active policy to force regime change is therefore least compatible with the six-party talks framework and the other three strategies reviewed here. There may be a day when regime change is the preferred strategy, but the situation has not reached that point yet, given the enormous complications and downside risks associated with any attempt to topple Kim. Nevertheless, regime change does prompt consideration of two elements that should be part of a tool kit. First, no actions should be taken that artificially prop up the regime or enable Pyongyang to continue with business as usual, absent significant steps at denuclearization. Second, given the probable fragility of the regime, it is important to prepare with our allies and the other parties in the talks for the possible consequences of instability or unanticipated unification.

In short, regime change is not a viable strategy at present, but it could still occur at any time. The other parties should begin quietly preparing for such a scenario.

Building a Tool Kit From the Range of Bad Options

Although each of these four strategies would be incompatible with the others if applied in toto, key elements from each could be combined as part of a new approach that would enhance both risk mitigation and the prospects for a diplomatic resolution. In some respects, the Bush administration has already been moving in that direction, but this brief review of the North Korea debate suggests additional components worth considering.

To begin with, the United States and the other parties should hold regular meetings of the six-party talks regardless of North Korea’s attendance. North Korea should not be empowered to extract concessions merely for showing up at the talks. If Pyongyang refuses to attend the scheduled meeting, the United States should refuse direct bilateral talks. China has thus far resisted cornering Pyongyang in this way, but the October 9 nuclear test has shifted thinking in Beijing in important ways.

Second, the United States should take the lead with the other parties in formulating a five-party package to Pyongyang. Modeled on diplomacy with Iran, the United States and the other parties to the talks should present Pyongyang with a coordinated road map for implementing the September agreement as well as the consequences for noncompliance. As with the Iran package presented by the European Union to Tehran on June 1, the United States should be prepared to put incentives, such as enhanced high-level dialogue and specific details about security assurances and non-nuclear energy assistance, in the package. In exchange, China and South Korea would have to agree to join in punitive sanctions should North Korea refuse to comply or escalate further.

Third, the Bush administration should move forward with discussions on a broader peace mechanism as captured in the September 19, 2005, joint statement, but in tandem with Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea, should North Korea not be prepared to return to the talks with meaningful steps toward rolling back its nuclear weapons programs.

Fourth, the United States, Japan, and South Korea should revitalize the Trilateral Oversight and Coordination Group, which has been largely dormant for the past year. Close trilateral coordination among the allies is essential to building momentum toward better cooperation from China and Russia.

Fifth, the United States and the other parties should maintain robust momentum in implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1718. This means picking up the pace of PSI and other diplomatic measures aimed at interdicting North Korean illicit trade in missiles and WMD-related materials as well as of establishment of a network for information sharing and cooperation in the enforcement of the sanctions under these two resolutions. Chinese and South Korean reluctance to participate may evaporate after the North Korean nuclear test but might be won either way if Washington is prepared to put forward some of the diplomatic initiatives and offer bilateral negotiations under the conditions described earlier. In addition, the United States should continue expanding cooperation to crack down on North Korean money laundering, drug exports, and counterfeiting.

Sixth, the Bush administration should multilateralize human rights. The focus should be on establishing a consensus that improvement of the North Korean people’s deplorable condition is a universal goal. The center of gravity is the younger generation in South Korea. If the South Korean government speaks more clearly on human rights, North Korea will no longer be able to dismiss the issue as an American-made obstacle to diplomacy. A clear voice on human rights is not incompatible with the diplomatic process, but the strategy must focus on finding a way to cooperate with Seoul on human rights rather than simply proclaiming U.S. indignation.

Seventh, the United States should continue to reinforce extended deterrence. Pyongyang’s nuclear test requires expanded missile defense capabilities to buttress extended deterrence as well as renewed dialogue with Japan and South Korea (the latter will have to be handled delicately) to ensure that U.S. retaliation is reliable and credible. President George W. Bush’s clear statement reaffirming the U.S. nuclear umbrella was a good first start and that declaratory policy must continue to be reinforced. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unequivocal declaration that Japan will not consider developing its own nuclear weapons followed directly from the U.S. statement and should also be repeatedly reinforced by Tokyo.

Finally, the United States and the other parties should expand dialogue on how unification or collapse might be managed in ways that protect the core interests of all the parties. Internal planning and bilateral discussions on how to manage the collapse of North Korea are not incompatible with diplomacy or deterrence, if handled discretely and, where necessary, i.e., with China, elliptically.

Although neither the six-party talks nor this expanded tool kit are likely to lead to a quick fix with North Korea—we should avoid the temptation of a quick fix above all else—the steps elucidated above would at least put the United States in a better position to mitigate risk and increase prospects for rolling back North Korea’s program. First and foremost, they would demonstrate that the United States has a sense of urgency about the problem, which is critical for shaping our allies’ own strategic decisions about how to respond to North Korea. Second, they would take the initiative away from Pyongyang by regularizing the six-party talks process. Third, they would accustom the other parties to working together to manage the Korean peninsula whether North Korea is helpful or even in existence. Finally, they would demonstrate to Pyongyang that failure to roll back the nuclear problem will have significant consequences, an important signal not only to Kim but to Iran and other potential proliferators.


Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor of international relations at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served as director and then senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2001 through 2005.


1. Bureau of Arms Control, U.S. Department of State, Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between the South and the North (to enter into force as of February 19, 1992).

2. Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, September 17, 2002 (signed in Pyongyang).

3. “Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry on Six-Party Talks,” Korean Central News Agency, September 21, 2005.

4. Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer, “Wrong Path on North Korea,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2006, p. A15.

5. Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot Be Allowed to Test This Missile,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2006, p. A29.

6. Michael Gordon, “Threats and Responses: Asian Arena; U.S. Readies Plan to Raise Pressure on North Koreans,” The New York Times, September 29, 2002, p. A12.

7. Glenn Kessler, “ South Korea Offers to Supply Energy If North Korea Gives Up Arms,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2005, p. A16.

8. Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999); Leon V. Sigal, “North Korea Is No Iraq: Pyongyang’s Negotiating Strategy,” Arms Control Today, December 2002, p. 8-12.

9. See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/rok/seoul.htm.

10. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, “UN Security Council Demands North Korea End Nuclear Program,” The Washington File, July 15, 2006.