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Maximum Pressure: America’s Approach to North Korea


Published January 25, 2021

Flawed assumptions about North Korea and the Kim family regime have stunted efforts to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons. A stronger US foreign policy would convince China to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions and ensure that steps toward denuclearization are well under way before removing sanctions. North Korea should know that the United States and its allies are willing and capable of using military action if it will not voluntarily denuclearize.

Discussion Questions:

  1. For what reasons is North Korea a threat if it develops nuclear weapons?
  2. How have the United States and its allies misjudged the Kim regime?

Additional Resources:

  • Read Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, by H. R. McMaster. Available here.
  • Watch “The Threat from North Korea and the Future of the South Korean–American Alliance,” a conversation with Ho-Young Ahn and H. R. McMaster. Available here.
  • Listen to “Defending the Free World,” an episode of the GoodFellows podcast with H. R. McMaster. Available here.
View Transcript

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles is an urgent U.S. foreign policy concern. That is because a nuclear-armed North Korea would threaten homeland security, regional security and global nonproliferation efforts. A nuclear North Korea could engage in nuclear blackmail and attempt to force the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula as the first step in accomplishing the Kim family dictatorship’s goal of Korean reunification.

Multiple diplomatic efforts to prevent the North Korean regime from threatening the world have resulted in disappointment.  Efforts failed, in part, because they were based one of two flawed assumptions about the North Korean regime.

First, the hope that opening up to North Korea would change the nature of the regime. This is sometimes called the “Sunshine Policy.”

But while the Kim family was happy to accept payoffs in exchange for limited opening, once it pocketed the money, it slammed the door shut lest the North Korean people gain access to information other than the propaganda and brainwashing to which they are subjected.

Second, the belief that the Kim family regime is unsustainable and that the regime will collapse before it develops and fields nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

If North Korea’s ultimate goal is a “final victory,” through red-colored unification by force, allowing North Korea to become a limited nuclear power and then pursuing a strategy of containment is not acceptable. 

Not acceptable because North Korea has never developed a weapon that it did not try to sell, including the sale of its nuclear technology to Syria before an Israeli Defense Force airstrike destroyed a secret facility there in 2007. 

To prevent a devastating war or the sale of nuclear weapons, the United States’ should sustain support behind a strategy of maximum pressure to convince Kim Jong-Un that his regime is safer without nuclear weapons than with them.    

Allied leaders should make it clear that the removal of the Kim regime is not a goal unless Kim refuses to denuclearize.

The United States and likeminded nations should base the strategy of maximum pressure on three principles.

First, offer no rewards or payoffs just to get to the negotiating table. Previous “freeze for freeze” agreements that relaxed sanctions in exchange for a suspension of weapons tests locked in the status quo as the new normal. After collecting payments, the North Korean regime breaks agreements and restarts the cycle with new provocations.

It is vital to resist the temptation to lift sanctions prematurely. Sanctions should remain in place until there is irreversible momentum and verifiable progress toward denuclearization.

Second, convince China to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions. Ninety-five percent of North Korea’s trade in merchandise is with China. Chinese leaders should recognize that a nuclear-armed North Korea is not in their interests due not only to the direct risk to China, but also because other nations, such as South Korea and Japan could conclude that they need their own nuclear weapons. Secondary sanctions are appropriate to impose costs on countries and companies that assist North Korea in circumventing UN sanctions.    

Third, Kim Jung Un must know that the United States and its allies possess the capability and, if faced with a potential nuclear strike, the will to impose denuclearization through military action. Recognizing that war on the Peninsula would be horrible, military exercises and preparation for an overwhelming response to North Korean aggression are critical for successful diplomacy.

The success of coercive diplomacy in the form of maximum pressure depends in part on Kim’s belief that the United States and its allies are more motivated to achieve denuclearization than he is to hold on to nuclear weapons and missiles.

Some argue that maximum pressure has not worked, but sanctions on North Korea have never been fully enforced and other forms of pressure have been pursued half-heartedly. 

Finally, North Korea and China should see every provocation as driving the United States and its allies closer together. A unified effort among likeminded nations is the best hope of convincing the Kim regime that it is better off without the most destructive weapons on Earth.