North Korea has been warning for months that the United States only has until the end of the year to change its hostile attitude. If Washington does not make amends for its “betrayal,” Pyongyang may restart its nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. These accusations may ring hollow, yet North Korea is clearly comfortable making threats and setting deadlines.
President Trump made history by engaging Kim Jong Un in multiple rounds of unconventional and experimental top-down diplomacy, but North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as its conventional and asymmetric forces remain as dangerous as ever. It is time for a new strategy – call it Maximum Pressure 2.0 – that puts Kim in a position where he must disarm or pay a heavy price.
North Korea is eager for relief from U.S. sanctions. The regime elite, military, and population have been expecting relief since the first Trump-Kim meeting at the Singapore Summit. At their Hanoi summit in February, Kim pressed hard for sanctions relief, only to discover that Trump was ready to walk away from the table. When Kim approved working-level discussions in Stockholm in October, his negotiators demanded the same thing, but to no avail.
Between the Hanoi summit and Stockholm discussions, North Korea conducted 12 short-range ballistic missile and rocket tests, including the launch of a submarine launched ballistic missile just three days before Stockholm. Kim continued demands for security guarantees and sanctions relief. Clearly, Kim believes that he is the one positioned to secure concessions by exerting more pressure. The response to Trump’s recent tweet seemingly calling for a summit, was Kim Gye Kwan and Kim Yong Chol making pronouncements that there will be no more “fruitless” summits until the U.S. makes a “bold decision” and provides concessions.
There are two assumptions that should guide the rethinking of U.S. policy toward North Korea. First, Kim Jong Un will only denuclearize if he determines that holding onto his nuclear weapons is more dangerous than of giving them up. The second is that Kim will continue to pursue the traditional North Korean strategy of employing subversion, extortion, and force to unify the Korean Peninsula under the rule of his “Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State.” In short, Kim will not change, but his fear and internally generated threats can be used against him.
In a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), my colleagues and I lay out in detail how to accomplish this goal. It depends on maximizing the pressure on Kim Jong Un along five distinct but complementary lines of effort: diplomacy, military deterrence, sanctions enforcement, cyber operations, and information and influence activities. All these lines of effort will require close coordination between Washington and Seoul.
The diplomatic line of effort should promote the imperative of enforcing domestic and international law to stop the Kim regime’s illicit activities. Military efforts should enhance the readiness of the ROK/U.S. alliance, since Kim only respects strength. This will require greater combined training and other military activities.
The U.S. and its partners should expand sanctions to target the non-North Korean entities, banks, and individuals who facilitate Pyongyang’s sanctions evasion activities. A much more aggressive cyber campaign is also necessary because of the damage caused by the North’s “all purpose sword” of cyber activities as well the funds they generate through theft. Finally, a robust information and influence activities (IIA) campaign should work to drive a wedge between the Kim family’s inner circle and the country’s second-tier leadership and broader population. This last line of effort is essential, because only an internal threat can persuade Kim that keeping his nuclear weapons is riskier than giving them up. The IIA and diplomatic approaches must include a human rights component since Kim Jong Un denies human rights in order to remain in power.
Our new report proposes specific measures to ensure the effectiveness of each of the five critical lines of operation. It is effectively a blueprint for the White House and Blue House (Korean president’s residence) to employ once they recognize the current approach is incapable of delivering the long-promised breakthrough. That breakthrough never materialized, because a close personal rapport between the U.S., ROK, and North Korean leaders – while valuable on its own – could not change Pyongyang’s strategic calculus.
The Trump administration’s original maximum pressure policy, which persisted throughout 2017 and into early 2018, helped persuade Kim that negotiating was a better option than continued threats of “fire and fury.” Yet the pressure campaign lost momentum amid the fanfare of the Singapore and Hanoi summits and backsliding by China and Russia. This may be exactly what Kim hoped for.
A Maximum Pressure 2.0 strategy rests on the foundation of sustained pressure and military strength to support diplomacy. Pressure and deterrence are essential to the success of working level negotiations. Ultimately, however, the choice about North Korea’s future belongs to Kim. He can make the strategic decision to denuclearize (which also entails putting an end to his chemical, biological, and missile programs). If Kim makes the wrong choice, then Maximum Pressure 2.0 will weaken the north, and bring Korea one step closer to unification and a United Republic of Korea (UROK).
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
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