The risk of a new crisis stemming from North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and associated long-range delivery systems had seemingly abated by the beginning of 2020. Earlier veiled threats that North Korea would deliver an unwanted “Christmas gift” to the United States and reveal a new strategic weapon if Washington failed to make new concessions to restart stalled denuclearization talks never materialized. With the region subsequently consumed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the likelihood of another crisis erupting on the Korean Peninsula appeared to recede still further. However, the unexplained disappearance of North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un from state media for a series of twenty-plus-day absences in February, April, and May of 2020 serves as a stark reminder to never assume a period of prolonged calm and stability on the peninsula.
The potential for another crisis will persist until concerns about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles have been resolved, or at least mitigated to everyone’s satisfaction. Continued vigilance and planning are therefore essential. This memorandum follows up on an earlier contingency planning assessment on the risk of military escalation in Korea and examines a range of plausible crisis scenarios that could arise over the next twelve months. It recommends that the United States rebuild international cohesion in opposition to North Korea’s nuclear development by revitalizing multilateral diplomacy and revamping UN sanctions.
A new crisis on the Korean Peninsula could arise in several ways. First, a crisis could be triggered by North Korea significantly ramping up development of its nuclear and missile capabilities. Since the beginning of 2020, North Korea has tested short-range ballistic missiles on at least five occasions in a bid to enhance its nuclear deterrence. Tests of existing systems such as solid-fueled rockets may not seem threatening beyond the Korean Peninsula, but they could have applications for the development of longer-range missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Intensified North Korean testing would appear to flow directly from the December 2019 party plenum of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which declared that North Korea would take measures to guarantee its own security independent of negotiations with the United States. North Korea’s leadership could also see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to further develop its military capabilities while the world is distracted and less inclined to react vigorously. Indeed, the absence so far of any serious objection by the Donald J. Trump administration to North Korea’s short-range missile testing, even though it violates several UN Security Council resolutions and the spirit of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement between Pyongyang and Seoul, could embolden the North to increase the scope of its military activities. Furthermore, as the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches, the North could calculate that President Trump would not react in the absence of significantly ramped-up testing of more capable, longer-range missiles that would risk a potentially costly military escalation. Such calculations could be mistaken, however, if Trump views domestic criticism of his permissive approach toward North Korea as imperiling his reelection chances, or if he sees electoral advantage to taking a harder line and reverts to a policy of “fire and fury.”
Second, a crisis could arise from growing economic duress in North Korea due to the economic effects of sanctions and quarantine. Dramatic reductions in North Korean imports in the first quarter of 2020 and the regime’s attempts to raise currency domestically by floating domestic bonds indicate that North Korea faces a hard currency crisis. North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine in response to COVID-19 appears to have been more effective than U.S.-led sanctions pressure in temporarily cutting off North Korean supply chains. Also, rather than accepting renewed U.S. appeals to return to dialogue, North Korea has redoubled economic self-reliance measures in an effort to overcome U.S.-led sanctions. The combined effect of external sanctions plus internal quarantine measures could cause severe price spikes and supply shortages that add to the already dire humanitarian conditions in many parts of North Korea. Should economic conditions deteriorate further, Kim Jong-un could fear civil unrest, prompting him to take drastic measures to enhance internal control mechanisms and rally public cohesion against an external threat. These measures could include provocative military actions as defiant demonstrations of national strength to conceal the regime’s vulnerabilities while pressuring the United States to relieve the sanctions regime.
Conversely, a weakening of the sanctions regime brought about by Chinese efforts to stabilize North Korea would allow North Korea to exploit any ensuing tensions between China and the United States. Should U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate in the wake of the pandemic, Beijing could see an advantage in further helping Pyongyang to circumvent the UN Security Council’s sanctions regime. North Korea could in turn use the growing U.S.-China rivalry to play the major powers against each other for its own benefit.
Third, Kim Jong-un could calculate that he can wait until after the 2020 U.S. presidential elections to instigate a new series of military provocations. If Trump is reelected, North Korea could again use provocations to gain the upper hand, shape the environment, and induce concessions. If a Democrat comes into power, North Korea could see the need to apply early pressure to force the issue to the top of the new administration’s agenda. Thus, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, tensions on the peninsula could once again rise, increasing the risk of unintended military escalation.
These scenarios underscore the failure of top-level diplomacy to advance denuclearization or bridge the enormous chasm of mistrust between the United States and North Korea. Instead of providing a mechanism by which the two countries can overcome or at least manage their differences, the Trump-Kim summitry has exposed the deep differences in their goals and opposing strategic perspectives. Most of all, North Korean senior leaders have taken issue with Trump’s claims that summitry has reduced the likelihood of a U.S.-North Korean confrontation. Thus, the risk remains that renewed tensions could suddenly spike, allowing North Korea to frame its nuclear pursuits in the context of U.S. hostility while profiting from rising U.S.-China tensions.
Kim Jong-un’s summit diplomacy was premised on a détente with the United States, not denuclearization, while the United States sought a détente in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization. But North Korea’s framing of U.S. demands as part of a hostile U.S. policy fails to take into account that the rest of the world, including nuclear powers other than the United States, perceives de facto acceptance of a nuclear North Korea as an unacceptable threat to global security. To highlight the global dimension of the nuclear threat, the United States should reframe North Korea’s nuclear program as a danger to international security. The United States should do this by revitalizing a coordinated multilateral approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. Demonstrating multilateral cohesion could reduce the likelihood that the North will exploit and magnify differences among major powers as its primary mechanism for deflecting pressure. North Korea has previously resisted multilateral approaches to its nuclear issue in favor of bilateral negotiations with the United States, and it could attempt to escape international pressure by escalating further. However, such provocative actions have been self-defeating in recent years as they have strengthened a consensus at the UN Security Council on the need to apply even stronger sanctions toward North Korea.
Accordingly, the United States should do the following:
- Revitalize the UN role by proposing a standing dialogue among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) plus Japan and South Korea. In light of the failure of bilateral summitry between Trump and Kim, the United States should use the UN Security Council as the basis for revitalizing diplomacy while strengthening enforcement of the UN resolutions that North Korea continues to violate. China and Russia hold shared interests in preventing a crisis on the Korean Peninsula from escalating into a military conflict and also in mitigating the harm that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would have on further international nonproliferation efforts. Inclusion of China and Russia in a multilateral diplomatic process focused on denuclearizing North Korea would lessen the possibility that North Korea could manipulate China or Russia into playing a spoiler role against the United States. Moreover, implementation of any U.S.-North Korean bilateral denuclearization-for-peace process will require cooperation from regional governments and institutions, necessitating multilateral buy-in and diplomatic representation. Offering China and Russia a central role in a new diplomatic process involving the P5, along with Japan and South Korea (P5+2), would give them an opportunity to address the international security risks posed by a nuclear North Korea and shape a regionally acceptable solution that would necessarily entail more active enforcement of the sanctions regime against North Korea. The first stage of the P5+2 talks would first test Chinese and Russian commitments to denuclearization by rebuilding a region-wide consensus against North Korea’s nuclear program among the seven parties—and limit the risks—while magnifying the consequences of the North’s continued violation of UN resolutions. The dialogue should go further than previous North Korea–focused talks by offering concrete and compelling benefits, including security assurances and economic assistance from neighboring states to accelerate its integration into the region, which North Korea would earn if it denuclearizes. Such a package would present North Korea with the best multilateral offer it can expect through diplomatic negotiations, while reinforcing an international consensus in favor of North Korean denuclearization. After completing an agreed-upon denuclearization-for-peace-and-prosperity package, the P5+2 would begin the second stage of the process by inviting North Korea to rejoin a revamped multilateral negotiating process, contingent on North Korea’s reiteration of its support for the denuclearization-and-peace process.
- Improve the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions against North Korea to counter sanctions evasion and push North Korea toward negotiations. To incentivize North Korea to accept a multilateral denuclearization package, the United States should strengthen the existing sanctions regime while working with its partners to mitigate the attendant risk of destabilization. More specifically, to block North Korea from pursuing alternatives to diplomatic negotiations and to strengthen pressure on North Korean leadership, the U.S. Treasury Department, backed by reinvigorated intelligence collection and analysis, should refine U.S. sanctions against North Korea from enforcement of sectoral bans on trade to a more granular approach targeting internal regime enablers. This would allow for more effective targeting of high-level North Korean sanctions violators, mitigate the unintended humanitarian costs of sanctions, counter the North’s evasion efforts, and address other illicit activities, including in the realm of cyber fraud. The United States should commission a private study on the micro-level effect of sectoral sanctions under UN Security Council resolutions to improve the effectiveness of the existing sanctions regime. The UN Security Council should likewise update its sanctions regime on North Korea.
- Restore U.S. and allied military exercises to the 2018 pre-Singapore summit exercise schedule. To improve readiness for potential provocations from or domestic instability in North Korea, the United States and South Korea should revert to a joint military exercise schedule similar to the timetable operational prior to 2018. The strengthened U.S.-South Korea military exercise regime would restore full-scale military readiness and deterrence capabilities following the toning down of exercises in 2018 and cancellations of exercises in 2020 due to COVID-19.
- Update preparations for instability in North Korea. As underscored by international concerns over a series of twenty-plus-day absences from the public eye since the beginning of 2020, the Kim family regime will face the most serious succession challenge in its over seventy-year history in the event of Kim Jong-un’s incapacitation and the absence of an adult male heir. A provisional successor or regent could be appointed, but in the absence of a viable adult successor, the possibility has never been higher that the next North Korean leadership succession could pass to someone outside the Kim family. Such a transition could destabilize the regime or result in an internally contested power transition. To prepare for such circumstances, the United States and South Korea need to revisit assumptions underlying past contingency planning in the event that North Korean instability spills over or affects South Korea or China and take into account the rising possibility of Chinese intervention.
North Korea claims that long-standing U.S. hostile policies justify its continued nuclear weapon development, but such a justification ignores the risk to global security arising from the possibility that North Korea could use nuclear weapons for extortion or conduct unfettered nuclear proliferation. The revival of multilateral negotiations would reaffirm the North Korean nuclear issue as a global security concern rather than a U.S.-North Korea bilateral issue, help restore international consensus that North Korea is an illegal nuclear state, and signal resolve to contain North Korea in response to its continued violation of the UN Security Council sanctions regime. Such negotiations would help restore multilateral economic pressure on North Korea and limit North Korean alternatives to diplomatic negotiations.
The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for its generous support of the Contingency Planning Roundtables and Memoranda.