Post #129: Carrots or Sticks? Addressing North Korea’s Fifth Nuclear Test

As many experts predicted, North Korea (DPRK) followed another ballistic missile test with its fifth nuclear-weapon test on September 9.  The event continues a pattern of testing increasingly sophisticated weapons and delivery systems (see my Post #116) designed as much to thumb noses at the international community’s sanctions as to demonstrate that North Korea, unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, has the ability to defend itself.  Once again the community of North Korea watchers is divided as to Pyongyang’s motives and what to do to rein in its military program.

Among these observers is a substantial number who believe that sanctions alone will not move Pyongyang from its current course.  They believe the North, and for some China as well, needs to be provided with incentives to return to the bargaining table, with nuclear disarmament of North Korea the goal.  But they also believe North Korea must be punished if it rejects the bargain the US would offer, lest it become an unmanageable threat to its neighbors and eventually to the US homeland.

Retired Joint Chiefs chair Admiral Mike Mullen and former Senator Sam Nunn, for example, offer a four-point plan:


  1. . . . China can help get North Korea back to the negotiating table. . . . To encourage China to participate, the United States should offer a new dialogue on the future of the peninsula that includes discussion of the disposition of U.S. forces. This dialogue should coordinate planning in the event of a crisis and convey that it is not U.S. policy to cause the collapse of the North Korean regime.
  2. New and genuine incentives should be offered for North Korea to participate in substantive talks. These talks would include the possibility of a comprehensive deal in which North Korea, South Korea and the United States — supported by China — signed a peace agreement that would finally end the Korean War and gradually normalize relations in exchange for complete nuclear disarmament and progress on human rights. A new diplomatic approach could potentially freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
  3. Further steps must be taken to increase economic sanctions that more severely restrict the regime’s funding sources. The Obama administration laid a foundation for this with the strong sanctions recently achieved by the U.N. Security Council with the support of China and Russia. . . . Current enforcement of sanctions is far too lax.
  4. . . . The Pentagon should step up its work with U.S. allies to build the capacity necessary to enhance deterrence on the peninsula, enforce sanctions and impede North Korean missile programs. Expanded naval capacity will be needed to interdict North Korean vessels, detect submarine activity and intercept North Korean missile launches. (

Included in their plan is a military response if North Korea refuses to negotiate:  “future North Korean aggression would be met with an active and proportionate self-defense response, including inside North Korea,” and interception of long-range North Korean missiles.

Joel Wit, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, also advocates a new deal with North Korea that would stop and eventually eliminate its nuclear arsenal (  He endorses negotiating a permanent peace treaty with North Korea as well as suspension of annual US-South Korea military exercises.  But like Mullen and Nunn, Wit calls for enhanced sanctions against the North and supports the Obama administration’s decision to deploy a regional missile defense (known as THAAD)—a decision that China has vigorously opposed in the belief the system is actually directed at its missiles.

These ideas are an improvement over the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which has relied on escalating sanctions, UN Security Council declarations critical of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and the mistaken belief that China is the key to denuclearizing the North.  (See my Post #106.)  As was true under George W. Bush, Obama has ruled out direct talks with North Korea unless and until it first agrees to eliminate its nuclear weapons—a nonstarter if ever there was one. We should therefore welcome calls for resuming negotiations with Pyongyang, whether in the Six Party Talks that ceased in 2009 or in some other format.

Kim Jong-un evidently is amenable to denuclearization talks, based on a North Korean statement of July 6.  But combining carrots with sticks is very unlikely to interest Kim Jong-un for the simple reason that he and his military leaders will see the formula as sticks now, carrots later.  They will need to see real carrots from the US, South Korea, and Japan up front before they put their sticks down.  What they are seeing now is commentary from pro-engagement sources that stress the North Korean nuclear threat, and the urgency of a multilateral effort to halt it.

Specifically, calling for North Korea’s complete denuclearization as a condition of an agreement puts the cart before the horse.  Its nuclear weapons, as the North’s leaders see it, are the only thing standing between survival and regime change—and probably also between China’s support and abandonment.  North Korean leaders are not about to surrender those weapons at the outset or during negotiations; and even if a new agreement is arranged, it seems doubtful at this point that they would surrender them. We have to believe Kim Jong-un when he says the DPRK will never give them up.  No doubt the Chinese believe him; they understand that many years of living under the shadow of US nuclear superiority requires a credible deterrent, and the North is clearly bent on having one of its own.

Denuclearization should therefore be the last item on a negotiating agenda, not the first: It should follow on other agreements that build trust and convince the North that regime change is not US or South Korean policy, as Mullen and Nunn say.  If the North Koreans are given incentives that are meaningful and reliably delivered, nuclear weapons will be useless to them except as the ultimate deterrent and a prod to the great powers to accept them as negotiating partners.

One such incentive, supporters of engaging North Korea generally agree, is concluding a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice. The treaty, guaranteed by the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, would provide security assurances to the DPRK by acknowledging the legitimacy of the North Korean state and pledging not to attack it.  Establishing diplomatic relations with the North, providing official economic development aid, and resuming delivery of humanitarian relief (the US has provided virtually none any since 2009, and the DPRK’s northeast is recovering from major floods right now) are among other steps that would help build trust.  Eventually, military matters must be discussed, including the North’s substantial weapons modernization program that keeps tensions high on the Korean peninsula.  Only when a pattern of faithful implementation of agreements by all sides has been established can negotiators move on to nuclear weapons.

Now that North Korea has a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons, however—at least 10, probably closer to 20—and is getting closer to having the capability to deliver them across the Pacific, complete denuclearization no longer seems achievable. The best deal might be to freeze and later warehouse those weapons under strict international supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  As Andrew Nathan writes, a new deal may even require US recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state (“Who Is Kim Jong-un?” New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016).

China has every reason to support a diplomatic resolution that forestalls a nuclear confrontation on its border. But it will not be party to a US-engineered strategy that amounts to regime change. US-China differences over theater missile defense, the South China Sea islands, human rights, and several other issues have created a contentious relationship.  (The Obama-Xi agreement on climate change is a welcome exception.)  Even in better circumstances, China could never be expected to undermine Kim’s rule and create a chaotic border situation that ultimately would redound to the benefit of South Korea and its US ally.  But given today’s US-China tensions, marked by a widespread belief in Beijing that the US is again seeking to contain China and undermine its reforms, full-out Chinese pressure on North Korea is inconceivable.  To the contrary, many accounts suggest official and local-level tolerance for North Korean evasion of UN sanctions in collaboration with Chinese trading firms.

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” –Abraham Lincoln

In my most recent posts on North Korea—#115 and 116—I argued that sanctions will not be effective against a regime that has historically found itself on the defensive, is internationally isolated, and is led by a young man who seems out to demonstrate that he is even tougher than his father and grandfather.  Only by returning to the negotiating table can the US clarify its and the DPRK’s intentions and discuss incentives that might persuade North Korea to shelve its nuclear weapons, open them to international inspection, stop producing more of them, and agree to a ban on selling or transferring ballistic missiles.  Negotiations are probably the only way to regain China’s (and Russia’s) cooperation in bringing about a deal.  The alternative of constantly upping the pressure on North Korea has led it to produce longer-range missiles and more powerful nuclear weapons—with the prospect that the next US president will have to deal with 50 to100 North Korean nukes (


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  1. As usual Mel, a very well crafted analysis and summary. However, I would argue that you buried the lead in paragraph 13 — “complete denuclearization no longer seems achievable.” This should begin the analysis as this is the new reality. After a successful ballistic missile tandem launch and a successful SLBM launch, it seems only plausible that the North will no longer entertain the idea of denuclearization, but they may very well entertain arms control talks. David Lai makes a good argument here ( regarding that.
    This leaves open a very thorny question for the US — how does the US convince the world that all UN resolutions, newly crafted international law, were simply tools of leverage and can now be tossed in the dust bin of history as fruitless and unnecessary? This seems potentially devastating to any rhetoric later that “UNSC resolutions have teeth.” (After all the message, “the period between starting and finishing your WMD program will be filled with difficulties” hardly seems to warrant fear.)
    Nonetheless, we often focus on North Korea and what they want in negotiations. Much like that July 6 statement by the North, which lists the first step toward denuclearization as withdrawal of US troops from the South. We know that is a non-starter for the US as a first step–that will be the last step for the US.
    At this point, I can’t shake the belief that the US has backed themselves into a corner with no way “of getting to yes.” I would be interested in your take on how will a change of course now by the US (to recognize North Korea as a nuclear armed state) damage US and UN credibility. So, when arms control talks start, do we just acknowledge the impotence of the UN and move on without it? And what damage will that leave in its wake for other negotiations on global issues ?
    Keep up the good work. Cheers.

  2. Very fine comment, Sean, and good questions. The US certainly has backed itself into a corner, but diplomacy is the art of getting out of the corner without appearing to have done so. There are plenty of subtle ways to acknowledge NK’s nuclear status without actually saying so. The big issue remains the shape of a new package deal–the incentives to the North and the verifiable commitments given in return.

  3. Writing from Cape Town—flight was very long but equally uneventful from start to conclusion.

    I agree that Kim is highly unlikely to give up his nuclear modernization program and that China is not predisposed to put decisive pressure on the DPRK to do so—with or without a call from the US and international partners.

    I also agree that carrots need to precede sticks. However, I’m stuck on the carrots scenario. It seems to me the smartest play on the part of the DPRK would be asymmetric: to accept bushels and bushels of carrots without offering any response or pledge to respond, at all. If the West is willing to offer a “give” option without any corresponding gives from the DPRK—just a hope and a prayer—why would the DPRK turn it down?

    Why not some form of graduated tit for tat with the West going first and doing enough to provide material assistance and to build confidence but with defined expectations along the way?

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