News analysis

Time for a new strategy to tackle North Korean nuclear threat

Experts in US urge reality check as Pyongyang continues to grow its missile capability despite talks

Left: A military parade in Pyongyang on Jan 14 to celebrate the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, with what appeared to be submarine-launched ballistic missiles on display. After three high-profile summits with the US, North Korea is actua
A military parade in Pyongyang on Jan 14 to celebrate the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, with what appeared to be submarine-launched ballistic missiles on display. After three high-profile summits with the US, North Korea is actually further along in its nuclear and missile capability. Experts reckon that it has close to or around 50 nuclear warheads and an array of missiles. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Left: A military parade in Pyongyang on Jan 14 to celebrate the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, with what appeared to be submarine-launched ballistic missiles on display. After three high-profile summits with the US, North Korea is actua
Then US President Donald Trump meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarised Zone separating the two Koreas in Panmunjom, South Korea, in June 2019. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

Pyongyang has yet to greet the Joe Biden administration with a good old-fashioned weapons test. But that could change at any moment.

Even though obvious tensions appear to be lower, a reminder of the challenge that North Korea poses to the United States was offered last Wednesday in the indictment by the US Department of Justice of three "North Korean military hackers" engaged in a "wide-ranging scheme to commit cyber attacks and financial crimes across the globe".

Former president Donald Trump is given credit for deterring North Korea from carrying out intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by threatening North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with "total destruction".

But after three rounds of high-profile summitry, North Korea is actually further along in its nuclear and missile capability. Experts reckon that North Korea has close to or around 50 nuclear warheads and an array of missiles - some of which may be able to reach the continental US.

NEW BALLISTIC MISSILE

At a military parade on Oct 10 last year, North Korea showcased what appeared to be the largest liquid-propelled road mobile ICBM in the world.

Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered a review of US policy on North Korea. The US is looking for a fresh approach.

"We are doing that in close consultation with our South Korean allies, with our Japanese allies, and with other allies and partners, both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly," State Department spokesman Ned Price told The Straits Times at a media briefing last Wednesday.

"We need to have them with us if we are going to take an effective and ultimately successful approach vis-a-vis the challenge of North Korea's nuclear programme, its ballistic missiles programme, its other areas of concerns," he said.

"And we do remain committed to the principle of denuclearisation. It is very much a part of that approach that we will have going forward."

But since the photo-op summitry failed in inducing any strategic shift, the conversation has shifted in US policy circles, where it is now loudly said that North Korea is not going to give up nuclear weapons.

That leaves the option of arms control talks - similar to those with Russia during the Cold War.

An interim deal is being mooted that would freeze or cap nuclear weapons. That would inherently recognise North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power - like Pakistan, for instance.

Until only recently, this idea has been an anathema to Washington.

REALITY CHECK

"A reality check is overdue," Mr Markus Garlauskas, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security, wrote for the United States Institute of Peace on Feb 9.

He was, until very recently, the senior official leading strategic intelligence analysis of North Korea; before that, he was chief strategist for US Forces Korea.

"The Trump administration's headline-grabbing threats and summits were just new packaging for the decades-old approach of expecting Beijing's help to pressure Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear programme," he wrote.

"This failed again and North Korea's threatening capabilities grew."

Mr Garlauskas continued: "Kim Jong Un has made his 'strategic decision' clear - to become and remain a nuclear-armed power despite the costs. The Biden administration should seek to escape the inertia of its predecessors by crafting a pragmatic new strategy... (focusing) on reducing the risks of regional destabilisation, military escalation and nuclear war."

In November last year, Dr Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, suggested seeking to "cap and contain the most dangerous elements of North Korea's weapons programmes, in order to stop their growth and minimise chances of inadvertent use, proliferation and leakage".

Earlier in October, Mr Joseph Yun, senior adviser to the Asia Programme at the United States Institute of Peace and a former US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, wrote that the US "should discard maximalist policies based on quixotic dreams about near-term denuclearisation".

STRATEGIC GOAL OF RECOGNITION

Another problem for the US is that it now has less bargaining power, contends Dr Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA North Korea analyst and currently senior fellow for Korea at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

North Korea has long maintained the same strategic goal, she noted.

"They seek regime survival, regime security, international recognition and the prestige that comes with nuclear weapons," said Dr Terry on Feb 10 in a discussion at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.

"Let's get to a practical solution, a realistic solution," she said. "North Korea is never going to give up their nuclear weapons. China is not the answer."

She continued: "If North Korea's goal is… gaining, securing international acceptance of (its) nuclear weapons power, they're going to achieve that goal. They are headed in that direction.

"And if our goal is denuclearisation, we're not anywhere near it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2021, with the headline 'Time for a new strategy to tackle North Korean nuclear threat'. Subscribe