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27 September 2017
Looking for a Solution to the North Korean Nuclear Threat

On September 20th in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, the UNA-NCA and its International Law Committee held a lively and very topical panel discussion on the threat posed by North Korean nuclear weapons and weapon delivery vehicles, North Korea's international behavior and objectives, UN sanctions, suggestions for U.S. policy, and possible future outcomes.

The speakers were Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. (retired), a U.S. diplomat who has participated at a senior level in every major arms control and non-proliferation negotiation in which the United States took part from 1970 to 1997, and Missy Ryan, National Security Reporter, The Washington Post, who happens to be Ambassador Graham’s daughter. After an introduction by Bob Kraft, Co- Chair of the International Law Committee, the panel discussion was ably moderated by Renee Dopplick, NCA Board member and the new Co-Chair of the Committee.

Speaking from the perspective of a longstanding observer of North Korea(DPRK) and participant in US nuclear non-proliferation policymaking, Ambassador Graham recounted the decades of past efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program and worried that this may be a challenge without a solution. Having performed at least six nuclear tests, fired a intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan, and threatened the US territory of Guam, North Korea has escalated tensions to unprecedented levels. Since September 20th, as Kim Jong Un and President Trump have exchanged insults and threats, drawing global media coverage, North Korea has announced plans to explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, stated that the US has declared war on the DPRK, and threatened to shoot down US aircraft in international air space. What is different about the situation today, according to Ambassador Graham, is that North Korea is very close to, and may even actually have, the capability to carry out a nuclear attack on the US mainland.

There is much speculation about the motivations, objectives and even the sanity of the mercurial and opaque Kim Jong Un, but Graham believes he has a strategic vision seeking recognition of the DPRK as a great power. He believes that his nuclear capability is essential insurance against an otherwise inevitable attack by the United States. He has learned the lessons of Gadhafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Kim Jong Un wants a security pledge, a guarantee of no attack on the DPKR or outside attempts at regime change, financial aid for his economy, and diplomatic recognition. Ultimately, he would like to see a unified Korea under the DPRK. Economic sanctions have not changed his calculus that giving up nuclear weapons would eliminate his one bargaining chip.

Other than “all options are on the table,” Graham and Ryan are concerned about the lack of a US strategic approach, the bombastic rhetoric from both sides, and inconsistent messages emanating from the White House and the State Department. They worry about an accidental war resulting from a miscalculation or misunderstanding. Graham noted that during the Cold War, there were at least six instances where we were within seconds away from total destruction, and yet there is no apparatus in place, as there was during the Cold War, to avoid miscalculations. Accident avoidance would be a useful way to begin negotiations.

There is a debate in the US about whether denuclearization of the DPRK is achievable or whether Cold War-style containment is a more realistic goal. In other words, a freeze on the nuclear program rather than eliminating it. There is also a debate as to whether pressure on China, which is responsible for 90% of trade with North Korea, is the key to a diplomatic solution, but there's a doubt that China would risk a collapse of the regime that would destabilize its neighborhood. The ultimate failure of the 1994 framework agreement looms large for those who are skeptical of a negotiated agreement.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, the Administration is pursuing a peaceful pressure campaign that may reap some results. China and Russia have joined the US in the UN Security Council in strengthening sanctions against the DPRK, and the US has instituted new sanctions against banks and other companies that do business with North Korea. On Tuesday of this week, President Trump appeared to tone down his rhetoric, praised China for its efforts, and, importantly, thanked the UN Security Council for voting twice unanimously “to adopt hard hitting resolutions against North Korea.”

Ambassador Graham and Missy Ryan provided an important historical backdrop to the current situation and the strategic options on the table. Graham acknowledged that the current Administration and Congress have not reached out to those with experience in dealing with this issue, which is a shame since, to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

What Role might the UN Play?*

In formulating a North Korean strategy, there are many good ideas on the table. One that has not received much attention is what role the Secretary-General might play. Secretary-General Guterres has proposed a surge in diplomacy for peace, however, many may caution that entering this minefield could put at risk this initiative. Nevertheless, it is worthy of consideration.

The DPRK, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US all have different interests and objectives in addressing this situation, and while the UN is hardly neutral, having authorized the defense of South Korea during the Korean war and having passed sanctions, it might be able to find common ground as the other parties pursue their own interests. For example, the US could pursue its peaceful pressure strategy, toughing up the enforcement of sanctions against States that do business with the DPRK, continuing joint military exercises, perfecting the THAAD missile defense system, prohibiting the entry to US ports of ships that visit North Korea and considering the interdiction of DPRK ships trading with other States or even an embargo, pursuing unconventional warfare tactics (“nonkinectic warfare”) including cyberattacks and missile intercepts, and initiating a psychological campaign to reach the people of North Korea.

Japan and South Korea can pursue their interests, strengthening their bilateral relationship, upgrading their military and defense capabilities and considering with the US whether the introduction of defensive nuclear weapons would be a useful deterrent.

China would be able to pursue its interest in managing an increasingly rouge regime without risking a collapse and the reunification of Korea that is a military ally of the United States. Russia also would pursue its interest in stabilizing a buffer state on its border.

Then, the Secretary-General steps in, perhaps added by some neutral parties from Europe, South Asia, Latin America, or Africa, and seeks to negotiate a diplomatic solution. Everything would be on the table, including a peaceful settlement of the Korean war, a unified neutral Korea, or denuclearization of North Korea in exchange for a nonaggression pact, recognition of the DPRK and the removal of US troops and missile defense systems from South Korea, and the installation of UN Peacekeepers (perhaps provided by China) in the demilitarized zone. Negotiations might start with the establishment of protocols to reduce the threat of miscalculation and a ceasefire on escalating rhetoric. 

Whether or not this is a viable strategy, it is useful to think outside the box. Ultimately, a diplomatic solution must be found. Sanctions and other pressure tactics have value only if they lead to a diplomatic solution. From the perspective of UNA-NCA, it is useful to explore what role the United Nations, and particularly the Secretary-General, might play in finding a solution.

*The comments in this section are that of Don Bliss and do not reflect positions taken by Ambassador Graham, Missy Ryan,  the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area or its International law Committee.