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The goal is not regime change per se: a replacement might not be any less onerous than the Kims. The preferable solution is unification in a way that brings despotism on the peninsula to an end.

Regime change is not an immediate answer to the current challenges posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK). But North Korea’s bellicose actions and statements since late 2012 reinforce the conclusion that, in the long run, there is only one happy ending to this long-running tragedy: unification of the Korean Peninsula as a democratic, free-enterprise-based republic that would be free of nuclear weapons.

As a policy tool for dealing with troublesome governments, regime change has a chequered past. The carnage and turmoil stemming from the Iraq invasion and ensuing loss of American power and prestige remain a fresh lesson in the hubris of external action to replace a hostile authority. Washington’s enunciation that regime change was the goal of sanctions on Saddam Hussein led him to stop cooperating with UN inspections.1 In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, however much one may wish for a Green Movement-type transformation of the leadership in Tehran, positing this as a US policy goal would only spur Iran’s move toward nuclear armament. Suspicions that regime change is the goal behind US-led sanctions already make Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disinclined to compromise, or even talk, with the United States. Moreover, there is no reason to think that any other set of Iranian leaders would forego the nuclear programmes of concern.

The case of North Korea, however, is sui generis. For three generations, the DPRK has been the single greatest source of tension and instability in Northeast Asia. Its 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel and shelling of an inhabited island were but the latest in a long history of lethal provocations. No country is more brutal to its own people or has a longer rap sheet of violations of international norms and conventions. Kidnapping, drug running, trafficking in endangered species and counterfeiting foreign currencies, pharmaceuticals and cigarettes are among the many well-documented and oft-repeated cases of state criminality.2 Until recently, such activity by what has been called the ‘Sopranos state’ might have been dismissed as petty crime, the provocations counted as one-off disturbances and the human-rights abuses judged to be an internal matter.3 Yet North Korea now has the means and expressed intent, via missiles and nuclear weapons, to inflict an unacceptable level of damage on its neighbours. It is time to advocate the endgame for the Kim-family regime.

What makes North Korea unique as a case for regime change is that it is known, with reasonable certainty, what will replace the DPRK. Undoubtedly, the fall of the house of Kim will entail a dangerous transition period. But, eventually – and probably sooner rather than later – the Korean Peninsula would be unified under the leadership of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The ROK government has indicated that, when this happens, it will remain free of nuclear weapons.4

Broken agreements

The premise of this article, shared by most outside analysts, is that North Korea will not trade away its nuclear arsenal for any amount of economic or political benefits. The ruling elite regard the strategic weapons as essential to preserving their authority – and not just because they see themselves as under siege by powerful hostile forces. Big-bang weapons are the only product of which the regime can boast. In every other field of human achievement, North Korea lags far behind its southern counterpart, be it in areas of economy, industry, science, culture or political development. Nuclear weapons fulfil the regime’s sense of power and pride. North Korean officials insist their nuclear weapons programme will not be discarded as long as the United States has its own nuclear arsenal within range. There is every reason to believe them.

One might contend that this cannot be known until the theory is tested through negotiation. Yet we are not without data points. Glyn Davies, US special representative for North Korea policy, tested the theory last year and the negotiation strategy appeared to work – for about two weeks. The 2012 ‘leap-day deal’ incorporated the seeds of its own demise by not spelling out what was meant by the long-range missile launches that were to have been suspended, but American negotiators left no room for doubt that a satellite launch would be a deal-breaker.5 Two UN Security Council resolutions had expressly banned any activity using the ballistic missile technology that was incorporated in the space launch. The 13 February 2007 agreement under the Six-Party Talks also heralded a short-lived success in the partial dismantlement of key aspects of North Korea’s plutonium programme, including the cooling system for the 5MW(e) reactor at Yongbyon. But North Korea’s refusal to accept customary verification unravelled the deal. North Korea’s denuclearisation pledge in the joint statement of 19 September 2005, which resulted from the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks, also came undone, punctured by the country’s first nuclear test just over a year later.

Earlier, the 1994 US–North Korea Agreed Framework achieved more and for a longer period: it stopped plutonium production for over eight years. Yet not long after it was signed, Pyongyang began clandestine pursuit of the uranium enrichment path to nuclear weapons. A pattern is apparent here. North Korea was in each case willing to trade away some elements of its nuclear programme, but never to give it up entirely.

It has been argued that Washington did not try hard enough – not at a high enough level and not with a large enough offer.6 By this line of reasoning, however, the test of intent can never be proven; because fault of insufficiency can always be found with the gift and the giver, the offer will never be enough. Those who say that the leader of the free world should himself call Kim Jong Un or send the secretary of state to Pyongyang to begin talks on a peace treaty that excludes South Korea cannot be serious.7 No US president will give in to blackmail so cravenly.

Another way to assess North Korea’s nuclear intentions is to examine the history of its nuclear programme. It is now clear that from the beginning of the effort, nuclear weapons were Pyongyang’s intent. East Asia scholar Jonathan Pollack demonstrated this conclusively. Drawing on former Soviet archives and Chinese sources, he illustrated North Korean interest in nuclear weapons dating back to the early 1960s.8 It is also instructive to note that the 5MW(e) reactor that North Korea began to build around 1980 was designed primarily for plutonium production and only ostensibly for electricity, as was the 50MW(e) reactor.9 When North Korea accepted the conditions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, it did so under duress from the Soviets and with the clear intention of violating it. The delays and omissions in North Korea’s declaration of nuclear holdings should have made that clear.10 Granted, North Korea may have been motivated by US consideration of nuclear weapons use in the Korean War and by the stationing of nuclear weapons in South Korea. However, those weapons were removed by 1989, long before North Korea declared itself a nuclear power. The United States was willing to negotiate an agreement to verify this nuclear-weapons-free status. Although North Korea continues to insist that US nuclear weapons remain on the peninsula, no serious observer anywhere else in the world harbours such doubts.

The premise that North Korea will not voluntarily give up its fissile material and verifiably dismantle all related facilities does not mean that negotiation is worthless. As noted, North Korea has been willing to barter away some aspects of the programme. It might be willing to do so again. Even though North Korea violated the Agreed Framework by pursuing uranium enrichment, the freeze on plutonium production was far better than the alternative. Another cap on production, along with a moratorium on weapons testing and a non-transfer agreement, may still be possible. In keeping the door of engagement open, however, the United States cannot accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, which is Pyongyang’s stated condition for talking.

Nor should the United States seek senior-level talks now, in response to threats. The speed with which Washington agreed to bilateral talks two months after the first nuclear test in 2006 gave Pyongyang a reason to think that provocations bear fruit. That impression should not be reinforced. While pressing for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the nuclear weapons programme, the United States and its allies should not expect that diplomacy by itself will produce a nuclear-weapons-free North Korea. This is because Washington cannot give Pyongyang what it wants. The United States cannot offer a substitute for what DPRK leaders think nuclear weapons provide: a guarantee of regime survival and a path to dominance of the peninsula.11

Areas of weakness

The sad irony for North Korea is that the strategic-weapons programmes undermine regime survival because they hamper prospects for economic development. The trade, aid and investment from South Korea, Japan and the West that could help North Korea escape its poverty trap and dependence on China will not be forthcoming as long as Pyongyang wields a nuclear threat.

North Korea has compounded its economic problems by closing down the Kaesong joint enterprise zone, which provided one of its few legitimate avenues for earning hard currency: most of the $80 million in annual wages paid to its 53,448 North Korean workers went directly to Pyongyang.12 It was at one time intended to employ up to 700,000 North Koreans and to have spawned additional joint industrial zones. Even if the complex reopens, what South Korean business would now take the risk of starting up any new operations there? Meanwhile, keeping Kaesong closed will have created resentment among a large swathe of the population of North Korea’s third-largest city, for whom the joint industrial zone was the largest employer. The zone created a sense of rising expectations that have now been dashed. In doing so, Kim is replicating his father’s propensity for own goals. The Mount Kumgang resort, north of the eastern end of the DMZ, once attracted up to 300,000 South Korean tourists a year but has been closed since 2008, when one female visitor was shot dead by a North Korean guard for straying off a path.13

Meanwhile, the new leader has serious vulnerabilities. His near-daily threats to South Korea and the United States reflect more a sense of weakness than of power. Throughout history, autocrats uncertain of the reach of their authority have exaggerated an external enemy as a means of maintaining internal cohesion. Creating an artificial crisis with the United States is Kim’s way of demonstrating power so that he can later boast of having stood up to the ‘Yankee imperialists’ and forced them to forego their plans to invade.

North Korea’s constant claim of facing an imminent threat from the outside has no basis. No foreign forces seek to invade or attack. The United States put this in writing in the 2005 joint statement. Instead, the regime has something worse to worry about: a threat from the inside. There is insufficient evidence to deduce that Kim faces a crisis of leadership. He survived his first year at the helm far better than many had predicted. Yet he remains on shaky ground. One cannot help but wonder how much dissension was sown by the purges of senior military leaders in the past year and the shift of control over certain sources of foreign revenue from the military to the party. The capital city shows pockets of wealth: more restaurants, kiosks, mobile phones and cars. But the countryside remains bleak. Last summer’s stated plans for agricultural reforms show little sign of implementation. Meanwhile, the government cannot control the creeping black market. The huge disconnect between the ostensible rules and the reality of economic exchange has accelerated a culture of corruption.

Most importantly, the regime can no longer control the flow of information. With DVDs and memory sticks of South Korean soap operas and pop stars flooding the country, ordinary North Koreans can now see by comparison the depth of their own impoverishment. The regime’s propaganda message of superiority obviously has no credibility. This is one case in which Seoul probably does not care much about copyright infringements in the pirated reproduction of these DVDs. The wealth across the 1,300 kilometre border with China provides another basis for unfavourable contrast. Adding to the information flow are the tens of thousands of North Koreans who now work overseas, where they cannot help but come into contact with foreign concepts.

As former South Korean National Security Advisor Chun Yungwoo contended at a presentation at the IISS on 25 March 2013, these vulnerabilities should be exploited to give North Korean leaders reason to understand that there is a choice between regime survival and nuclear weapons.14 If the lesson does not take hold, and it probably will not, policies by the United States and its allies and partners that sharpen Pyongyang’s binary choice will also hasten the day of Korean unification.

Increasing the information flow to the people of North Korea is a cost-effective and non-kinetic way of encouraging conditions for change. This does not have to be carried out in ways that publicly confront the regime. Balloons carrying information pamphlets can be quietly launched at night. Powerful radio signals can be beamed in, using domestic frequencies so they can be picked up by local radios. Overseas North Korean workers can be targeted for political proselytising.

Complaints about North Korea’s appalling human-rights record should not be stifled again in deference to dialogue over strategic issues. Thanks to a push by the EU and Japan, and a growing sense of global disgust, in March the UN Human Rights Council finally agreed to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate such violations. Next spring, the report the commission presents may well find the DPRK leadership guilty of crimes against humanity. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in January, North Korea’s deplorable human-rights situation ‘has no parallel anywhere in the world’.15 Such statements and findings should be highlighted in the information packets showered on North Korea, to let the victims and their oppressors know that the world is watching. The strategic logic in decrying North Korea’s human-rights abuses reinforces the moral imperative to do so.

Economic sanctions should be applied that target the survivability of the regime. Inevitably, China does what it can to limit the impact of sanctions against North Korea. UN Security Council Resolution 2094, adopted on 7 March 2013, three weeks after North Korea’s third nuclear test, omits the tighter measures affecting shipping and financial activity that Washington sought. These included a requirement to inspect all North Korean shipping for possible contraband. The resolution does mandate interdictions if member states have reasonable grounds to believe that vessels or vehicles are transporting materials that ‘could contribute’ to North Korea’s banned nuclear or missile programmes.16 The ambiguity of this phrase provides much latitude for inaction. But it does give states that want to take action a legal basis for stopping nearly any North Korean ship for inspection, on grounds that the regime’s extensive use of false labelling and other evasions casts doubt on all of its cargo declarations.

China also protected North Korea’s accounts in Chinese banks from being targeted for freezing by the resolution. Going after these accounts would deny Kim access to the slush funds that help him keep the loyalty of the North Korean elite. The freezing of North Korea’s accounts in Banco Delta Asia in Macao in 2005 got the attention of the regime like few other measures before or since. Although only $25m of North Korea’s money was directly affected, the freeze was a personal affront to the leadership and cast a cloud on all of its international banking transactions. The action by the US Treasury to declare the bank an ‘institute of primary money laundering concern’ (which led the bank to freeze 30 North Korean accounts) was badly timed, undermining the gains of the 2005 joint statement.17 Apart from the poor timing, however, it was a well-thought-out operation. Now that Kim has thrown down the gauntlet, it is time to retry this approach.

The type of secondary sanctions that have been employed against Iran should also be applied to North Korea. Pyongyang relies far less on international trade than Tehran does, and has no oil sales to cut off. But it is a much worse actor than Iran and should not be treated more leniently. One suggestion has been to designate the entirety of North Korea as a ‘jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern’ to reduce its ability to finance proliferation activity and to pressure it to constrain its nuclear programme.18

More sanctions should also be applied to the commercial actors outside North Korea who knowingly or inadvertently abet black market activity at various stages of the supply chain. As recommended by researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, this means individuals who register or manage the ships and aircraft involved in the trade, those who serve as directors, staff or sponsors of front companies and those involved in financing arrangements.19 In addition to targeting such partners with penalties, a way should be found to offer rewards for cooperation in thwarting black-market transactions and exposing key players. Sanctions are not an end in themselves, of course. They are a means, rather, to put pressure on the regime to either rollback its nuclear threat or face growing strain on its areas of vulnerability.

Such pressure may hasten the day when the world will no longer have to worry about North Korea because there will no longer be a DPRK, but rather, one unified Korea. The goal is not regime change, per se. A replacement set of warlords would not necessarily be any less onerous and threatening than the Kim family. The better solution, rather, is unification in a manner that entails the end of the regime.

This is not to call for external action to overthrow the Kim dynasty. To be successful, regime change has to come about indigenously. But external players can help to create conditions that foster a change. Policies vis-à-vis North Korea by the United States and its allies should take into account their impact on the unification goal. As I have argued since 1991, Korean unification is inevitable and in the interests of the United States and its partners because it would entail the absence of the greatest factor of instability in the region.20

The countries that help create the conditions for change for the maltreated population in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula will win their gratitude for generations. Just as the United States correctly called for the reunification of Germany, so too should it advocate the reunification of Korea. In fact, although not well known, Korean reunification on the principles of free democracy and a market economy is a stated aim of the US government. This goal was announced in a joint vision statement during former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington in June 2009. The reference to reunification was buried in the seventh paragraph of the statement, and was not mentioned by either president in their remarks at a joint press conference.21

* * *

The unification goal may have been downplayed by US President Barack Obama because it is not a burning desire for most South Koreans and because efforts to effectuate it may be considered an unfriendly act by China. Beijing opposes any course of action that might bring about the loss of the buffer zone that North Korea provides between northeast China and potentially hostile US forces. Beijing also fears the influx of refugees that could result from a DPRK collapse and the irredentist feelings that a unified Korea might stir among the 2m Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity. If it sees the United States pushing for regime change, China could become less cooperative in the UN Security Council. For all of its foot-dragging, Beijing has agreed to four sets of increasingly tough UN sanctions to date. It would be a loss if international unity on the North Korean issue were to erode.

China’s concerns about the impact of unification are not immutable, however, and can be allayed. Chinese academics are increasingly bold in condemning North Korea’s provocations and in assessing that the DPRK is more of a liability than an asset to China.22 The suspension of Deng Yuwen, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper editor, for writing in the Financial Times that China should abandon North Korea shows the lingering force of old habits and alliances. But the direction of change in Chinese thinking is clear: away from North Korea.23 Just as China’s commercial interests are increasingly interlocked with South Korea, so too would its strategic interests be better served by a Korean partner that does not provoke Japan and the United States into strengthening their military posture in the region in ways that impinge on Chinese security. Once the North Korean threat ceases to exist, the rationale for US ground forces to be stationed in Northeast Asia will be reduced.

The United States, South Korea and Japan should do what they can to convince China that in the event of a North Korean collapse, they would act to ameliorate any humanitarian crisis and to assist refugees. Washington should give Beijing a firm undertaking that it would not establish military bases north of the 38th parallel. This should be put in writing and made public, so as not to repeat the sense of betrayal felt by Russian leaders over what they claim was then US Secretary of State James Baker’s assurances that NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe – a pledge that Baker said was meant to refer to NATO forces other than Germans in East Germany.24 Reducing tensions with China over other areas would also help.25 In the end, China has reason to honour its stated policy that unification is up to the Koreans to decide.26

Acknowledging that unification must be decided upon by the Koreans themselves is consistent with the foreign policy of the United States and Japan.27 Yet this policy need not pre-empt efforts to hasten the conditions for unification. Meanwhile, it would be helpful if newly elected South Korean President Park Geun-hye repeated, in even more clear terms, the policy of her predecessor that the ROK will not retain any nuclear-weapons-related assets it might inherit upon unification.


1 Rolf Ekéus and Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, ‘Don’t Go Baghdad on Tehran: How to Avoid Repeating the Iraq Debacle’, Foreign Affairs, 18 October 2012.

2 ‘Non-military Security Challenges Posed by North Korea’ in North Korean Security Challenges: A Net Assessment, Strategic Dossier (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), pp. 27–46.

3 Sheena E. Chestnut, The ‘Sopranos State’?: North Korean Involvement in Criminal Activity and Implications for International Security, Stanford University honours thesis, 20 May 2005.

4 At a luncheon speech at a conference on ‘Unification and the Korean Economy’ in Seoul on 22 October 2012, then South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said ‘a unified but nuclear Korea is the last thing regional powers would want to see on the Korean Peninsula. This is why the Korean Government, together with the international community, time and again is urging North Korea to turn over a new leaf by taking concrete measures aimed at denuclearisation and return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.’ Source: communication with the South Korean Embassy, London, April 2013. Myung-bak also made clear Seoul’s nuclear intentions after unification when he said in a speech to the US Congress on 13 October 2011 that ‘a unified Korea will be a friend to all and a threat to none. A unified Korea will contribute to peace and prosperity, not only in Northeast Asia but far beyond. We therefore must achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.’ ‘Full Text of Lee’s Address to U.S. Congress’, Yonhap News Agency, 14 October 2011,

5 Karen Parrish, ‘Officials Suspend North Korea Nutrition Aid Over Planned Launch’, American Forces Press Service, US Department of Defense, 28 March 2012,

6 See Leon V. Sigal, ‘Managing an Unmanageable North Korea’, Huffington Post, 31 October 2011,

7 ‘Obama’s Phone Call to Kim Jong-un Could Add to Defusing Regional Tensions – Russian MP’, Voice of Russia, 11 April 2013,

8 Jonathan Pollack, No Exit: North Korea Nuclear Weapons and International Security, Adelphi 418–19 (London: Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), pp. 53–59.

9 North Korean Security Challenges, pp. 97; 123 (fn. 8).

10 Ibid, p. 66.

11 Testifying before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Kim Jong Un appears to believe ‘maybe more intensely than his father’ that nuclear weapons are ‘the key to their survival’. Tony Capaccio and Sangwon Yoon, ‘Kim Won’t Talk on N. Korea’s Nuclear Arms, DIA Chief Says’, Bloomberg, 19 April 2013,

12 ‘Q&A: Kaesong Industrial Complex’, BBC, 3 April 2013,

13 Jeremy Laurence, ‘North Korea Ghost Town Reflects Deeper Woes as it Woos Chinese’, Reuters, 1 September 2011,

14 Chun Yungwoo, ‘Examining the North Korean Paradox’, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 26 March 2013,

15 Nick Cumming-Bruce, ‘U.N. Official Urges Scrutiny of North Korea’, New York Times, 14 January 2013,

16 Security Council Resolution 2094 (2013), UN Security Council,

17 ‘Finding that Banco Delta Asia SARL is a Financial Institution of Primary Money Laundering Concern’, US Department of the Treasury,

18 David Albright, ‘A Dangerous Nexus: Preventing Iran–Syria–North Korea Nuclear and Missile Proliferation’, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, 11 April 2013,

19 Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody, ‘Sanctions Beyond Borders: How to Make North Korea Sanctions Work’, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 13 February 2013,

20 Mark Fitzpatrick, ‘Why Japan and the United States Will Welcome Korean Reunification’, Korea and World Affairs, vol. 15, no. 3, Autumn 1991, pp. 415–441.

21 ‘Joint Vision for the Alliance of the United States of America and the Republic of Korea’, the White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 16 June 2009, The first US president to speak publicly in support of Korean unification was George H.W. Bush in January 1992. ‘Joint Remarks by President Obama and President Lee Myung-bak’, Council on Foreign Relations, 16 June 2009,

22 See Xie Tao, ‘What’s Wrong with China’s North Korea Policy?’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 26 March 2013,; and Adam Cathcart, ‘Incinerated Fantasy: Kim Jong-un, Zhu Feng, and a Censored Article in Beijing’, Sino–NK, 9 February 2013,

23 Jane Perlez, ‘Chinese Editor Suspended for Article on North Korea’, New York Times, 1 April 2013,

24 Bill Bradley, ‘A Diplomatic Mystery’, Foreign Policy, September–October 2009,

25 Peter Beinart, ‘Hey, Obama: Keep Out of North Korea’, Daily Beast, 8 April 2013,

26 Liu Xiaoming, ‘The Foreign Policy of the New Chinese Government’, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 17 April 2013,

27 Japan’s policy toward Korean unification was stated in a 9 March 2007 written response to a question submitted by a Diet member. It can be translated as: ‘As for the unification of the Korean Peninsula, the Government of Japan expects the establishment of the mutual relationship of trust between South and North, and the promotion of the dialogue and cooperation in order to foster the environment toward the peaceful re-unification of the Korean Peninsula.’ Source: communication with the Embassy of Japan, London, April 2013.

The deal held the seeds of its own demise

Kim remains on shaky ground

Pyongyang has no oil sales to cut off

Unification is inevitable

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme and author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes (IISS Adelphi Paper 398, 2008).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June–July 2013

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