After Hanoi summit, North Korea experts propose new strategy: Contain threat, encourage change
TOKYO — North Korea is not about to surrender its nuclear weapons, because the regime considers them essential to its survival. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cannot be starved into submission, and sanctions will only make him more hostile and unpredictable.
Those views are reflected in a report released Thursday that recommends upending decades American policymaking in favor of a new strategy that can be broadly summarized as contain, engage and transform.
The paper, published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), is the product of a year of debate and analysis by 14 experts on North Korea from around the world. But its timing carried added resonance.
The White House and allies are trying to regroup after the unraveling of last week’s summit in Hanoi between Kim and President Trump, which ended without any progress on efforts to dismantle the North’s nuclear program.
There are no signals that the United States or its partners in the region, including South Korea and Japan, would shift their strategies from denuclearization to containment — effectively acknowledging Kim’s regime as a de facto nuclear state.
The FAS report, however, underscores the widely held belief that North Korea is unlikely to fully relinquish its nuclear arsenal, which Kim sees as the best hedge to keep his regime in place. This view was echoed in January by Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“The unrealistic goal of rapidly dismantling the North Korean nuclear arsenal has consumed the military, economic, and diplomatic policies of the United States and its allies,” said the FAS report, which note that the policy would undermine efforts to “manage other critical interests.”
They include attempts to control North Korea’s “ballistic missile proliferation” and pressing Kim’s regime to ease “the continued suffering and repression of the North Korean people.”
The report argues for a broader strategy that keeps complete disarmament as a central objective, but a much longer-term one.
“The North Korea challenge is far broader than the nuclear threat,” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the FAS and one of the report’s authors.
“Washington and Seoul should together be opening conversations on a much wider range of issues. With a broader agenda, we may not have come out of Hanoi with the whole North Korean arsenal, but might have had something else of considerable value,” he added.
The collapse of the Hanoi summit has quickly brought new concerns and a shift in tone from North Korea.
On Thursday, Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Service issued a strongly worded condemnation of ongoing U.S.-South Korea military exercises, even though the scope of the war games was reduced. Last year, the exercises — on a larger scale — were called off before the first summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.
Meanwhile, satellite images released Thursday showed North Korea appeared to have completed rebuilding work at a satellite rocket launchpad and engine test site, according to 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea. Rebuilding work at the site was first revealed earlier this week, but it appears to have been completed quickly.
At last week’s summit, North Korea offered to close its main Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for the lifting of all meaningful economic sanctions. Trump said this was a bad deal and many experts agreed: sharply reducing U.S. leverage while leaving North Korea’s entire nuclear and missile arsenal intact.
But the FAS report argues for a similar “threshold agreement” to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals and their proliferation to other countries.
“Hanoi demonstrated that if the Trump administration can set aside its exclusive insistence on immediate disarmament, it may be in reach of an agreement that can provide real security benefits,” Mount said.
Economically, the report said an approach relying on isolation and coercion is unlikely to force North Korea to disarm. Instead, it called for a process to lift international sanctions in return for improvements in living conditions and human rights by Kim’s regime, which has punished dissidents with forced labor and internment in political prison camps.
“International sanctions have exacerbated North Korea’s ongoing humanitarian crisis,” the report says, noting widespread malnutrition and dangerously high levels of fatal, drug-resistant tuberculosis.
On Thursday, the United Nations said natural disasters, including a heat wave, typhoons and floods, undermined harvests last year and left millions of people facing food shortages, with U.N. appeals for aid underfunded.