Country Brief: North Korea
North Korea is a totalitarian military state, ruled by a despotic regime that exercises near-total control over the daily lives of its often-starving citizens. The United States currently stations over 62,000 troops—23,468 in South Korea and 39,345 in Japan—to defend those countries against attack from North Korea, something it promised to do after the Korean War.1 While permanent bases in Northeast Asia were originally meant to deter an attack on South Korea and stabilize the region more broadly, they now help to protect the United States; North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have transformed its government into a serious threat to the U.S. homeland.
Legacy of the Korean War
At the end of World War II, Soviet and American troops divided Korea into North Korea and South Korea. The Soviet Union installed the Kim regime as the Communist rulers of North Korea. In 1950, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea, starting a three-year war that killed nearly 2.5 million people—including 36,000 Americans. Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, is the grandson of Kim Il Sung.2
In 1953, North and South Korea signed an armistice, but not a peace treaty, and the two countries technically remain at war. The border between North and South Korea at the 38th Parallel, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is the most heavily fortified region in the world, dotted with millions of land mines.3 Around 23,500 U.S. military personnel live on dozens of bases across South Korea.4 The United States has signed two bilateral treaties that commit Washington to defending South Korea and Japan from any North Korean attack.
Nuclear Weapons Program
North Korea developed nuclear weapons to deter South Korea from a conventional conflict.5 Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, most recently in September, with mixed success; none have rivaled the power of the relatively primitive Hiroshima bomb.6 North Korea's fifth nuclear test on September 9th, however, produced the largest explosive yield of the five, indicating North Korea's increasing capabilities. It has somewhere between 10-20 nuclear weapons, a figure that could double by 2020.7
It has also conducted a series of illegal ballistic missile tests to threaten the U.S. and its allies, with the latest in May 2017 exhibiting the North's potential ability to hit the U.S. territory of Guam.8 In February 2016, North Korea launched its second satellite into orbit, showing it might be able to fire a missile across the Pacific Ocean.9 Although many experts doubt North Korea can build a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a land-based missile, the regime is working hard to change that.10 It is also testing submarine-launched missiles, which, if deployed, would make it much harder to detect a North Korean attack prior to launch.11
Exhaustive diplomacy to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program has proved disappointing for the past three administrations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids signatory states from pursuing nuclear weapons. North Korea signed the NPT in 1985, but international inspectors uncovered a secret nuclear weapons program in 1992.12 This led to the landmark 1994 Framework agreement, which lasted until tensions between Pyongyang and the Bush Administration, in addition to revelations about the North's secret uranium enrichment program, led to its demise in 2002 and 2003.13 North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and accelerated its weapons development.14
Since then, North Korea has engaged in cycles of (1) demonstrating progress on its illegal programs and committing military provocations, (2) negotiating international agreements to roll back that progress in exchange for aid, (3) suspending talks and ejecting U.N. inspectors, and (4) withdrawing until the next round of threats.15 Until 2009, negotiations were conducted through the Six Party Talks between North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.
Donald Trump has suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves against North Korea. Such a proposal directly contradicts 70 years of U.S. nuclear policy, which has tried to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to cover vital allies—such as Japan and South Korea. Donald Trump also believes that China can reign in North Korea, but history has clearly demonstrated that the Chinese themselves are frustrated by their inability to control the Kim regime.
Concerns of Collapse
As North Korea’s main trading partner, as well as a main source of food, arms, and energy, China has the most leverage over the Kim regime, minimal as it is.16 But although China is fed up with North Korea’s behavior, it tolerates it in the name of stability on the Korean peninsula. Beijing fears that placing too much pressure on North Korea with sanctions might trigger a regime collapse, a refugee crisis in northern China, and a regional influx of U.S. troops.17
A Tough, Smart Approach to North Korea
We have to be wary when it comes to North Korea. A tough and smart approach means (1) maintaining a robust U.S. capability to defend regional allies and the U.S. homeland, (2) preventing the North from advancing its weapons programs any further, and (3) working with China to prepare for a potential regime collapse.
We Must Defend Our Allies and the Homeland
The current U.S. presence of 23,468 troops in South Korea and 39,345 in Japan will deter a land attack by North Korea, shaving the cost of defending both countries. The United States also carries out regular training exercises with forces from both countries.19 The more dangerous threat comes from North Korean missiles. The United States, South Korea, and Japan all deploy short-range Patriot missile batteries to defend bases in the region from missile attack. In July, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to counter North Korean missile threats.20 The system became operational in May 2017.21
To defend itself, the United States is developing layered missile defenses to intercept a possible launch of the most advanced North Korean missiles. The first layer is a sea-based capability based on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers, which can take the first shot at a long-range North Korean missile before it gets close to the U.S. mainland.22 The second line of defense is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, based in Alaska and California, which was specifically designed to defend against missiles from North Korea. The GMD has had a troubled development, and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency is working to improve its reliability.23
We Must Slow North Korea’s Progress on its Weapons Programs
The United States restricts the export of technology to North Korea,24 but U.S. law cannot prevent other states from helping the regime develop its nuclear and missile programs. The Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR)25 is an international agreement to prevent just that, but it has only 34 participating states.26 The United States must bring more nations into the fold.
Two UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, passed in 2006 and 2009 respectively, created an arms embargo prohibiting any country from shipping weapons or missile technology to North Korea.27 In March 2016, the UNSC passed another resolution in response to North Korea's tests, imposing new financial and shipping sanctions, which include inspections of cargo to and from North Korea.28 On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the U.S. and China agreed to cooperate in responding to North Korea's fifth nuclear test.
We Must Prepare for North Korea’s Implosion
Aside from North Korea’s nuclear program, the greatest concern held by regional powers and the United States is that a collapse of the North Korean regime could create a humanitarian crisis that sends millions of refugees into South Korea and China. A regime implosion would also open its nuclear program to plundering by arms dealers who could sell the technology to the highest bidder. Thus, the United States must begin high level talks with China to plan for such a crisis. Because securing loose nuclear technology would require foreign intervention, Washington and Beijing must be able to coordinate and avoid any military confrontation.