Optimizing the ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign Against North Korea

By: Doug Livermore, Columnist

Photo Credit: Scientific American

As North Korea continues to defy the United Nations by developing a reckless and provocative nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration announced a “maximum pressure” strategy to try and change the isolated nation’s course.[i] To date, international approaches to curbing North Korea’s misbehavior have focused on economic sanctions and threats of potential military responses on the Korean Peninsula. However, to truly maximize pressure on Kim Jong-Un’s regime and undermine his nuclear ambitions, the new U.S. strategy (which is predictably classified) should pursue aggressive goals outside of the Korean Peninsula. This strategy should seek to disrupt, degrade, and compromise the entirety of North Korea’s extensive financial, economic, supply, technical, and intelligence/operational networks through a comprehensive interagency strategy. Particularly as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal grows in size and capability, the international community must consider the danger of the cash-strapped regime selling nuclear weapon components (or even chemical and biological agents) to interested third parties such as terrorists and other “rogue” nations.

In the last several months, the rate of North Korea’s nuclear weapon development, ballistic missile testing, and fiery public rhetoric have all significantly escalated. In addition to regularly threatening to obliterate neighboring South Korea and Japan, Pyongyang has accelerated its ballistic missile testing program to the point that it can now reportedly reach the U.S. West Coast with a nuclear tipped rocket.[ii] In early September 2017, North Korea detonated its first thermonuclear device, a roughly 160-kiloton behemoth many magnitudes of yield larger than anything previously tested by the “Hermit Kingdom”.[iii] North Korea has accomplished all this despite being subject to perhaps the most stringent sanctions packages ever imposed. In many cases, the North Korean government has devised creative work-arounds to access global markets, surreptitiously move cash to fund its R&D, and smuggle critical technological components and expert knowledge into the country. Admittedly, inconsistent enforcement of existing and resistance to new sanctions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russian Federation (RF) have greatly contributed to North Korea’s ability to endure international pressure.[iv] Any comprehensive strategy to resolve the nuclear showdown on the Korean Peninsula will absolutely require greater cooperation from the PRC and RF.

North Korean overseas illicit economic activities, such as narcotics trafficking, poaching, and modern-day slavery, all bring hard cash back to fund North Korea nuclear program.[v] Meanwhile, agents of North Korea use front companies and offensive cyberspace operations to steal critical technology or clandestinely smuggle such materials to support that same program. North Korean networks occasionally engage in direct violence, such as when operatives used deadly nerve agents to assassinate Kim’s estranged half-brother earlier this year in Malaysia to eliminate a potential source of Chinese advantage against the regime.[vi] In many ways, North Korea’s shadowy global networks resemble those of international terrorist groups, and the U.S. efforts to combat these networks should resemble those already in widespread use. To borrow General Stanley McChrystal’s well-known maxim: “It takes a network to defeat a network”.[vii] An interagency and international effort, combining diplomatic, intelligence, military, law enforcement, and economic measures, should “find, fix, and finish” nodes at critical points throughout North Korea’s global networks.

North Korea continues to defy international will regarding its nuclear ambitions partly thanks to these expansive global networks, most of which have been only marginally affected by previous approaches to pressure the regime. Economic sanctions on non-humanitarian commodities and punitive financial designations against key North Korean officials have significantly degraded the coffers of the North Korean state. However, these measures have largely ignored other North Korean networks, many of which either directly contribute to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or which Pyongyang leverages for strategic effect. The new U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy should address the supply chain, technical expertise, and intelligence/operational networks that contribute to North Korea’s nuclear weapon and rocket delivery programs while also expanding other disruptive options for Pyongyang. The smuggling of technology, particularly those types with both civilian and military applications (known as “dual-use” components), has reportedly played a critical role in the recent rapid progress of North Korea’s missile program.[viii] The instrumental work of key scientists likely enabled significant improvements in North Korea’s nuclear weapon performance.[ix] North Korea’s global intelligence and operational networks provide the Kim regime with strategic options that it has already leveraged to great effect.

Alon Ben-Meir, a Senior Fellow at both New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and the World Policy Institute, is one of several foreign policy experts who argue that the world must now accept North Korea’s uninvited membership in the “nuclear club” and rely primarily on diplomacy to try to reason with Pyongyang.[x] While it is unlikely that the nuclear “genie” will ever be jammed back into the proverbial lamp, North Korea’s nuclear status gives even more reason to develop a comprehensive approach to degrading and severing its global networks. As one of the poorest states in the world, largely due to Kim’s prioritization of his nuclear program over the people’s welfare, North Korea is likely to seek to financially profit from its nuclear program. Even if Pyongyang were unwilling to sell complete nuclear weapons to third parties, including state and non-state actors, there’s all manner of “lesser” weapons (or the expertise to produce them) that it could readily market—biological, chemical, or radioactive “dirty bombs” are at the top of the list.[xi] Similar to the process used to develop the recently-approved Defeat-ISIS Strategic Framework, a “whole-of-government” strategy that leverages all elements of U.S. national (and potentially international) power will be the most effective means of closing off Pyongyang’s pathways to further develop and potentially export nuclear weapons.[xii] The cost of failure is far too high to employ anything short of the fullest effort.

[i] Matthew Pennington, “Trump Strategy on NKorea: ‘Maximum Pressure and Engagement’,” Associated Press, April 14, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-04-14/trump-strategy-on-nkorea-maximum-pressure-and-engagement.

[ii] David E. Sanger, Choe Sang-Hun and William J. Broad, “North Korea Tests a Ballistic Missile That Experts Say Could Hit California,” The New York Times, July 28, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/28/world/asia/north-korea-ballistic-missile.html.

[iii] Alex Lockie, “Satellite images show North Korean mountain after nuclear test that could collapse and unleash an environmental disaster,” Business Insider, September 6, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/satellite-images-north-korea-nuclear-test-site-could-collapse-2017-9.

[iv] Nicole Gaouette and Zachary Cohen, “Trump says UN North Korea sanctions are ‘not a big deal’,” Cable News Network, September 12, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/12/politics/trump-north-korea-pressure-china-congress/index.html.

[v] Brian Todd, Dugald McConnell and Joshua Berlinger, “North Korean money man reveals smuggling operations,” Cable News Network, August 3, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/03/politics/north-korea-defector-ri-jong-ho/index.html.

[vi] Alex Lockie, “It’s starting to look like Kim Jong Un had his half-brother killed to thwart a China-backed coup,” Business Insider, August 24, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/kim-jong-un-half-brother-kim-jong-nam-killed-china-initiated-coup-north-korea-2017-8.

[vii] Stanley McChrystal, “It Takes a Network,” Foreign Policy, February 21, 2011, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/02/21/it-takes-a-network/.

[viii] Joby Warrick, “How North Korea got its missile engines,” Stripes, July 8, 2017, https://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/how-north-korea-got-its-missile-engines-1.477319#.WcMtkrpFyoA.

[ix] “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un fetes nuclear scientists, holds celebration bash,” Reuters, September 9, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-anniversary/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-fetes-nuclear-scientists-holds-celebration-bash-idUSKCN1BL01H.

[x] Alon Ben-Meir, “The US Has to Accept North Korea as a Nuclear Power,” The Globalist, September 10, 2017, https://www.theglobalist.com/north-korea-united-states-kim-jong-un-donald-trump-nuclear-war-china/.

[xi] June Park and J. Berkshire Miller, “The Scariest Thing North Korea Could Ever Do: Sell a Nuclear Weapon,” The National Interest, November 6, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-scariest-thing-north-korea-could-ever-do-sell-nuclear-18313.

[xii] Barbara Starr and Stephen Collinson, “Pentagon sends ISIS options to White House,” Cable News Network, http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/the-pentagon-has-sent-isis-options-to-the-white-house/index.html.

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