Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

Our Nagging North Korea Problem

Claudia Rosett

When North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un inherited power upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011, there were hopes in some quarters that the new ruler might take his country in a less malign direction. Unlike his father, or his grandfather, North Korea’s founding tyrant Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un had studied in the West, at a boarding school in Switzerland. He had a pretty wife. And he liked Walt Disney cartoon characters so much that in July 2012 he appeared on North Korean television with actors dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Surely, some speculated, in totalitarian North Korea this augured a turn for the better.

It has not worked out that way. Not only does North Korea still qualify as one of the most dangerous countries on the planet, but as the country heads into its fourth year under the rule of Kim Jong Un, the dangers emanating from Pyongyang have continued to grow. Indeed, the threats have been expanding in such dazzling variety and abundance that it might help to sort them into three rough categories. There are the weapons programs themselves, including conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear, as well as an increasingly adept program for cyber warfare. There are the precedents—corrosive to any civilized 21st century world order—that North Korea’s regime sets for other rogue states, most notably Iran, by grossly abusing and exploiting both its own people and international rules and norms, and demonstrating that with enough threats, weapons and lies, it is possible to get away with it. And then there are North Korea’s global networks for illicit trafficking, through which the Pyongyang regime sustains itself and in some cases makes common cause with other despotisms that double as business partners, including Iran, Syria, China, Cuba and, increasingly in recent times, Pyongyang’s old patron, Russia. Put together, all this amounts to a menace that extends far beyond Northeast Asia.

From bad to worse

When Kim Jong Un arrived in power, North Korea under his late father’s regime had already racked up a long record of developing missiles and nuclear bombs, proliferating missile and nuclear technology to the Middle East, practicing nuclear extortion, abetting terrorism, and brutalizing its own people. Young Kim has further advanced this family business. He has presided over a multitude of missile tests, including North Korea’s most successful long-range missile launch yet—which Pyongyang dressed up as a satellite launch—in December 2012. In February 2013, under Kim Jong Un, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, following those carried out under Kim Jong Il in 2006 and 2009.

In March 2014, North Korea threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test, which according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency would take an unspecified “new form.”(1) As of this writing, North Korea had not yet carried out this threatened test, though satellite photos in early 2014 showed that preparations had been made at the same Punggye-ri site where North Korea performed its first three. There has been widespread speculation that the new test, whenever it comes, might involve a uranium-based bomb. That could be neatly compatible with the uranium enrichment program of one of North Korea’s longtime allies and missile clients, Iran, which has already borrowed a few pages from North Korea’s venerable playbook on how to exploit nuclear negotiations as byways to the bomb. As of December 2014, Iran was heading into a second lengthy extension of nuclear talks with the U.S. and five other world powers, in which the negotiating—initially envisioned as lasting six months—has already dragged on for more than a year. One way Tehran might attempt an end run around this process, while still enjoying the related easing of sanctions, would be to outsource its bomb development and testing to North Korea.

Pyongyang, for its part, has been working energetically in recent years to shore up its supply of both uranium and plutonium for nuclear bomb fuel. Since unveiling a uranium enrichment plant in 2010 (after having previously denied any such program), North Korea has expanded its illicit uranium enrichment facilities. It has also restarted its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which was mothballed as part of a 2007 denuclearization deal on which North Korea cheated and from which it finally walked away at the end of 2008.

Summarizing this trajectory, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified in January 2014 to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States and to the security environment in East Asia.”

Clapper’s further testimony is worth quoting at some length, because he threw in a few profoundly alarming details. He added that “North Korea’s export of ballistic missiles and associated materials to several countries, including Iran and Syria, and its assistance to Syria’s construction of a nuclear reactor, destroyed in 2007, illustrate the reach of its proliferation activities.” He also warned that “North Korea might again export nuclear technology.” Finally, citing North Korea’s public display at military parades in 2012 and 2013 of KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, Clapper assessed that “North Korea has already taken steps toward fielding this system, although it remains untested.”(2)

In other words, North Korea is homing in on the ability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Even if North Korea has no intention of actually launching what would be a suicidal nuclear strike on America—thereby inviting devastating retaliation—the ability to credibly threaten such a move could be a serious boost to North Korea’s long-running nuclear extortion racket. That’s a package Pyongyang might sell to others as well, or so Clapper implied in his next comment: that North Korea’s “efforts to produce and market ballistic missiles raise broader regional and global security concerns.”

In October 2014, the top commander of U.S. Forces in Korea and the Combined Forces Command, General Curtis Scaparrotti, took this warning a step further. Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, Scaparrotti said he believes that North Korea by now has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and fit it for delivery on a ballistic missile, something North Korea itself claims it has already done: “They’ve had the right connections, and so I believe have the capacity to have a miniaturized device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have.” Scaparrotti was at pains to add that he did not know if North Korea had actually done this. But asked to identify the “right connections” that could have put the assembly of a nuclear-tipped missile within North Korea’s reach, he replied “they have proliferation relationships with other countries, Iran and Pakistan in particular.”(3)

That raises the specter of Pakistan’s old AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network, officially rolled up more than a decade ago, which included as clients, among others, both Iran and North Korea. North Korea sold missiles to Pakistan, from which it received nuclear technology. Oil-rich Iran, and its terror-sponsoring sidekick Syria, were clients of both. Pakistan already has nuclear-tipped missiles. If North Korea now has the ability to produce a nuclear warhead small and light enough to be delivered with a ballistic missile, and is marketing its products, would Iran or its terrorist proxies say no? The implications of North Korea proliferating its increasingly sophisticated arsenal are dire, not only for South Korea and the U.S., but potentially for Europe and even more so for the Middle East, especially for Israel.

It gets worse. In a lecture delivered in November 2014 in Seoul to the Association of the Republic of Korea Army, Scaparrotti raised additional disturbing points about recent developments in North Korea. Describing Kim Jong Un as “overconfident and unpredictable,” Scaparrotti said that Kim realizes he cannot win a conventional war, so he has focused his military efforts on “asymmetric capability,” and “the North Korean military is making progress in those areas.” South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, reporting on Scaparrotti’s remarks, elaborated that “Asymmetric capabilities refer to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, biochemical weapons and submarines that can be used to carry out a surprise attack and lead to mass destruction.”(4)

In testimony in March 2014 to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Scaparrotti also included in a description of North Korea’s asymmetric arsenal, “the world’s largest special operations forces, and an active cyber warfare capability.”(5) In late 2014, Americans got a front row seat for one of North Korea’s cyber forays. Hackers carried out a massive attack on a Hollywood filmmaker, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and issued terrorist threats (“Remember the 11th of September 2001”) against Americans who might go see Sony’s new film, “The Interview,” a comedy in which two American TV tabloid journalists are asked by the CIA to assassinate North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. On December 19, U.S. authorities publicly blamed the government of North Korea for the cyber attack and threats on U.S. turf.


North Korea has also been making greater use of its seat at the UN, where it is a pernicious influence—recently wielding the threat of a fourth nuclear test to try to deflect penalties for its barbaric human rights record. North Korea’s methods of internal control are so monstrous that after decades in which evidence kept piling up about horrifying abuses, including politically-targeted famine, politically-driven infanticide and the now notorious labor camps for entire families of any individual deemed disloyal to the regime, the United Nations finally bestirred itself to conduct an in-depth inquiry. In February 2014, the UN investigators issued their report, accusing North Korea’s leadership of crimes against humanity. They urged that those responsible be brought to justice, either before the International Criminal Court or via the establishment by the UN of an ad hoc tribunal.

The report of this UN Commission of Inquiry included an open letter from the commission’s chair, Australian jurist Michael Kirby, addressed directly to “His Excellency Mr. Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”(6) In the letter, Kirby informed Kim that even if he had not been directly involved in crimes against humanity, he could be held accountable for such crimes committed under his command.

At the UN, the European Union and Japan began the process of shepherding a nonbinding resolution through the General Assembly, urging the Security Council to refer North Korea’s leadership to the International Criminal Court. That evidently set off big alarms within the North Korean regime, for which the prime imperative is the protection and preservation of the all-wise and all-powerful supreme leader, who serves as the core figure of North Korea’s totalitarian ideology. North Korea’s envoys initially embarked on a so-called charm offensive to thwart any attempt to hold Kim to account. North Korea issued its own report on its human rights situation, declaring in Orwellian terms that North Korea had no human rights abuses, and that its “Juche” ideology provides North Korea’s people with “a worthwhile and happy life without any social and political uncertainty,” all under “the wise leadership of the respected Marshal Kim Jong Un.”(7)

North Korea’s diplomats at the UN in New York emerged from their usually cloistered rounds to speak with reporters about their country’s virtues. And though the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, one of North Korea’s UN envoys, Jang Il Hun, who serves as de facto emissary to the U.S., made a highly unusual appearance as main speaker at a roundtable at the New York offices of the Council on Foreign Relations. Jang touted as examples of North Korea’s commitment to human rights a list of luxuries reserved for the ruling party elite— including the building of “ski resort, horse track” and “pleasure parks all over the country.”(8) He included, in his smiling and polite presentation, the pointed message that North Korea did not want its leadership referred to the international criminal justice system.

On November 18, the draft UN resolution, including the recommendation of referral to the ICC, came before the General Assembly’s main committee dealing with human rights, known as the Third Committee. In the debate just before the vote, North Korea’s delegate, Choe Myong-nam, took the gloves off. Denouncing the resolution as a plot against North Korea, he threatened, in slightly fractured English, that the UN actions were “compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear test.”(9)

This was an extraordinary threat for a diplomat to utter on UN turf, publicly invoking North Korea’s nuclear program as a shield for the brutal repression back home with which the regime keeps its grip on power. It was also the second time in 2014 that North Korea—which is under UN sanctions for its rogue nuclear program—made use of UN premises to tout its next nuclear test. The earlier occasion was a press conference, held on April 4 in the UN press room, at which yet another North Korean envoy, Ri Tong Il, confirmed that his government was planning a new test. Asked what form it might take, he said “Wait and see.”(10)

Whatever else North Korea’s regime might hope to accomplish with this sort of nuclear bullying within the chambers of the UN, there’s a sly element to these threats that bears noting. North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state. When its diplomats threaten nuclear tests while speaking on UN turf, they are de facto pushing toward that goal—a way of exploiting even a debate meant to address the depravities of the Pyongyang regime.

To that extent, North Korea got away with it. The UN imposed no penalty on North Korea for using its auspices to threaten another nuclear test. To the committee’s credit, its members went ahead despite North Korea’s threat, and passed the resolution by a vote of 111 to 19, with 55 abstentions. Whether that will ever result in Kim facing the ICC is a big question, however. As of this writing, the resolution had been passed by the General Assembly, but looks likely to languish on the agenda of the Security Council, where Russia and China wield vetoes, and in a December 22 debate effectively threatened to use them. Beyond that, even indictment by the ICC, a problematic institution in its own right, is no guarantee of justice. In 2008, Sudan’s President, Omar Bashir, was indicted by the ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He remains at large, and is still president of Sudan.

The UN vote, including the 18 countries that excused North Korea’s atrocities in order to vote with Pyongyang against the resolution, does serve the useful function of highlighting the roster of some of North Korea’s best friends and business partners around the globe. This is a rising axis, or network, of states hostile in various ways to American democracy and U.S. interests. Along with such major powers as China (North Korea’s chief patron) and Russia (which, while increasingly defying the West, has been warming to Kim), the list includes Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe. These are countries rife with alarming records, which, in various permutations, span the spectrum from histories of rogue nuclear proliferation, to murderous dictatorship, terrorist sponsorship and ties—and in the case of Syria’s regime, the recent use of chemical weapons on its own people. (According to former senior defense intelligence analyst Bruce Bechtol, North Korea has been a “cradle to grave” participant in Syria’s chemical weapons program, selling supplies, and helping build facilities and train and advise troops.(11)

In sum, while the U.S. and its allies seek to contain and manage North Korea, the Kim regime, despite sanctions and censure, is neither contained nor alone. Pyongyang continues to cultivate its own network of business partners and allies. There may be little love lost among this collection of thug regimes, but they do help sustain and even embolden each other.

This is a growing problem, as the U.S. under Obama retreats from its role as world cop. With Obama’s “red line” over chemical weapons erased in 2013 in Syria, with Russia rolling into Ukraine in 2014, with Iran stipulating at the nuclear bargaining table an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium, with the ISIS beheadings of U.S. hostages on video, the message, increasingly, is that the rules of the current world order are up for grabs.

Still a cipher

While Kim is reading that message, the U.S. is having difficulty reading Kim. Parsing the internal intrigues of North Korea’s regime has long been a murky business. The reign of Kim Jong Un, overconfident and unpredictable, pre-sents even more than the usual difficulties. There has been considerable debate at times among North Korea watchers over such basic matters as whether he is really in charge, and whether some of his more curious or ruthless moves are the result of guile or fumbling inexperience. Writing in November for Al-Jazeera, veteran North Korea analyst Andrei Lankov argued that Kim, with the aim of rescuing North Korea’s disastrous economy, has quietly embarked on China-style economic reforms, most of which are still in the planning stages, but which nonetheless mark a “seismic shift.”(12) In a paper published the same month, titled “Dependencia, North Korea Style,” American Enterprise Institute Scholar Nicholas Eberstadt and his associate, Alex Coblin, argue that the Kim regime is fed up with China, and is likely to try to bolster North Korea’s warped and dysfunctional economy through Pyongyang’s more traditional tactics of extracting “aid and other benefits politically, from foreign governments, either through peaceable negotiations or military menace.”(13)

Fattened and coiffed to resemble his despotic grandfather, Kim makes the customary North Korean tyrant’s rounds of farms and factories, captured on camera issuing “field guidance” with the usual entourage of grinning senior officials. He has played affable host to an eclectic set of American visitors, ranging from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to basketball talent Dennis Rodman, whose capers in Pyongyang ended with a public apology to his fellow Americans and a trip to rehab.

These scenes have been offset with episodes reminiscent of Caligula’s court. In December, 2013, Kim presided over the denunciation and execution of his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek—once a close crony of his father, long perceived as a staple figure of the Kim regime and major handler of Pyongyang’s dealings with China. There have been reports of a continuing purge. This past September, Kim himself vanished from public view for weeks, prompting questions abroad about whether he was still in charge, or even alive. He then reappeared, walking with a cane. (According to remarks about that time by Scaparrotti, whose troops have skin in the game, “He’s clearly in control of the country.”(14)

Desperately seeking a strategy

Confronted with the Kim regime’s threats and volatility, the Obama administration has responded with an approach dubbed “strategic patience,” which some have suggested might more accurately be called strategic neglect(15)—though it is hard at this stage to discern any strategy at all. About the best that can be said for U.S. policy toward North Korea is that the Obama administration has largely steered clear of the nuclear bargaining table, where the Pyongyang regime has a long record of negotiating in bad faith, collecting aid and diplomatic concessions, cheating and walking away to continue enhancing its arsenal. On February 29, 2012, shortly after Kim Jong Un took power, the U.S. tried striking a deal with Pyongyang—the so-called leap day agreement—offering food aid in exchange for such items as a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing. That collapsed with a North Korean long-range missile test just a few weeks later.

But neither has the U.S. developed any effective policy to stop North Korea’s pursuit of increasingly dangerous weapons. Back in April 2009, less than three months into the Obama presidency, North Korea tested a long-range missile in violation of UN sanctions, claiming it had launched a satellite. President Obama responded with a public statement that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”(16) The North Koreans read this, correctly, as meaning pretty much nothing. The following month, in May 2009, Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test, its second since 2006. The U.S. and UN responded by slapping additional sanctions on North Korea.

Neither those sanctions nor subsequent rounds of sanctions have deterred North Korea from continuing its nuclear program and missile tests. Part of the problem is that as the U.S. has relied chiefly on sanctions as a tool of coping with rogue states, North Korea has become adept at evading them—a process in which it helps to border, as North Korea does, on China and Russia. Both are countries with records of doing brisk business in enabling, and profiting from, the lucrative business of sanctions evasion. It was a Chinese company that sold North Korea the vehicles for the road-mobile ICBM system it is now working on, with the excuse that they did not know the end-use to which the vehicles would be put. In March 2014, a report by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions noted that North Korea “makes increasing use of multiple and tiered circumvention techniques.”(17) This is a game in which it is hard for U.S. enforcers to keep up, especially if North Korea’s friends and patrons somehow fail to cooperate. 

There are halfway measures the U.S. can try, or try again: more sanctions; more energetic opprobrium; far more energetic measures to help refugees trying to escape North Korea. The U.S. could try walking back some of its reputation as a chump by restoring North Korea to the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring states (from which it was removed as a concession under the failed 2007 Six-Party nuclear deal). The U.S. could take far more energetic measures to exile North Korea diplomatically, such as mounting a major campaign to expel it from the UN (to which it was admitted in 1991, in undeserving tandem with South Korea).

But the fundamental problem here is that until the Kim regime is gone, North Korea will continue to pose a grave and growing danger to U.S. interests. To date, North Korea has pioneered the precedent that in the 21st century, a brutal and ruthless regime can build and test nuclear weapons, hone the missiles to deliver them, and not only will it be allowed to survive, but these weapons of mass destruction will help to preserve it in power. The increasingly urgent question for the U.S. is how to prove Pyongyang wrong.

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

1.    “DPRK FM Blasts UN for Taking Issue with DPRK over Its Justifiable Rocket Launching Drills,” KCNA, March 30, 2014, http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2014/201403/news30/20140330-15ee.html.

2.    James R. Clapper, “Statement for the Record Before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee,” January 29, 2014, 6, http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/140129/clapper.pdf.

3.    U.S. Department of Defense, “News Transcript, Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti and Rear Admiral John Kirby, Press Secretary,” October 24, 2014, http://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5525.

4.    Oh Seok-min, “N. Korea Makes Progress in Building Asymmetric Capability: USFK Chief,” Yonhap (Seoul), November 25, 2014, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2014/11/25/38/0301000000AEN2014....

5.    General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, “Statement for the Record Before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” March 25, 2014, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Scaparrotti_03-25-14.pdf.

6.    This report can be found on the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the letter to Kim Jong Un is in document A/HRC/25/63, pages 23-25, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/Documents.aspx.

7.    No permanent link to this North Korean report exists on the KCNA site where it was released, but an accurate copy can be found at https://adamcathcart.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/report-of-the-dprk-asso....

8.    “Ambassador Jang Il Hun on Human Rights in North Korea,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 20, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/north-korea/ambassador-jang-il-hun-human-rights-north....

9.    Ray Sanchez, “North Korea Threatens More Nuclear Tests,” CNN, November 20, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/19/world/asia/un-north-korea/.

10.  Michelle Nichols, “North Korea Tells World ‘Wait and See’ on New Nuclear Test,” Reuters, April 4, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/04/us-northkorea-usa-un-idUSBREA3....

11.  Bruce E. Bechtol, “Military Proliferation in the Kim Jong-un Era; The Impact of Human Rights in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2014, 98-101, http://www.icks.org/publication/pdf/2014-SPRING-SUMMER/5.pdf.

12.  Andrei Lankov, “Reforming North Korea,” Al-Jazeera (Doha), November 30, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/11/reforming-north-korea-2....

13.  Nicholas Eberstadt and Alex Coblin, “Dependencia, North Korea Style,” American Enterprise Institute and Asan Institute for Policy Studies, November 6, 2014, http://www.aei.org/publication/dependencia-north-korea-style/print/.

14.  U.S. Department of Defense, “News Transcript, Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti and Rear Admiral John Kirby, Press Secretary.”

15.  William H. Tobey, “Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ on North Korea is Turning Into ‘Strategic Neglect,’” Foreign Policy, February 14, 2013, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/22761/obamas_strategic_p....

16.  White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Barack Obama,” April 5, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-O....

17.  United Nations, “Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009),” March 6, 2014, 4, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2014/394.