North Korea believes it has the United States deterred, and that the United States will have to accept the permanence of its nuclear status and deal with Pyongyang on its terms. As it boosts its arsenal and threatens to use its new capabilities, North Korean rhetoric is conveying a warning to the United States: “We are willing to risk nuclear war to achieve our goals, are you?”
By taking denuclearization off the table and by rushing to build nuclear weapons and missiles, North Korea intends to present the United States and the international community with a nuclear fait accompli. The ominous implications of this will come to a head on the next U.S. president’s watch.
The new American president will soon discover that the list of options to deal with North Korea is narrow and unappealing, and that the price of inaction is unacceptable. A rapidly growing threat to U.S. interests posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea requires the next president to adopt a different policy approach. That approach must abandon incrementalism and steer clear of policies that offer illusory outcomes with no hope of success.Instead, the new president should adopt an approach that focuses on North Korea’s main goal: regime survival. The president should make clear to Pyongyang that the United States is prepared to put at risk the one thing that the DPRK holds even more dearly than its nuclear weapons—the preservation of its regime—in order to convince Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The United States and its allies and partners should make North Korea choose between nuclear weapons and survival.
A more robust approach should aggressively build on current policy by going after the financial lifeblood of the North Korean regime in new ways: starving the regime of foreign currency, cutting Pyongyang off from the international financial and trading system, intensifying sanctions, squeezing its trading networks, interdicting its commerce, and using overt and covert means to take advantage of the regime’s many vulnerabilities. A strong foundation of military measures must underlie this approach.
Such an approach carries risks, including more complicated relations with China and some danger for South Korea. Importantly, however, America’s South Korean ally agrees that now is the time to take risks in order to avoid a darker future and starker choices.
The United States should continue to pursue diplomacy, dialogue, and denuclearization, even in the face of North Korean obstinacy and rejection. But with the threat rising, the next U.S. president must try to convince Pyongyang to reconsider before it is too late using a broad and elaborate toolkit. By closing off other options, North Korea has left the United States with no other choice.