Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Rejecting high-risk coexistence with North Korea

Reading Time: 6 mins

In Brief

Although much remains murky regarding the technical details, North Korea’s second nuclear test on May 25 was considerably bigger and far more sophisticated than the previous one.

Up until this year, few attempted to define North Korea as a Nuclear Weapon State: however, much-increased yield of North Korea’s recent nuclear detonation (10–20 kilotons) compared with the 2006 test has convinced many observers that North Koreans have not only improved the precision of their implosion technology but have overcome a major technical hurdle to miniaturizing its nuclear device. Analyses suggest that North Korea’s nuclear capability is at least on the brink of the operational deployment stage, if not indeed there already.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

The emergence of North Korea as a state armed with fully operational nuclear weapons would have a profound impact on the deterrence structure in Northeast Asia. At the same time, we have to admit that nearly six years long effort for denuclearizing North Korea was resulted in an obvious failure. Before pursuing the availability of new sets of measures, we need to revisit the reason why we have failed so far.

‘Déjà Vu’ Fatigue

There is every reason to believe that Pyongyang’s consistent basic goal is to maintain its regime. We can assume, as long as Kim’s decision making is rational, that the probability oftaking the offensive adventurism by North Korea is very low. The track record of Pyongyang’s negotiating behavior suggests that they have carefully avoided the escalation into a full-scale military confrontation.

However, North Korea’s conventional capability, especially by long-range artilleries, to attack Seoul and US forces in Korea are still too mighty to be ignored. With this capability, North Korea has succeeded in making US decision makers realize the cost of the US military operation in the Peninsula. The multilateral negotiation seemed only viable options to be pursued.

Inside multilateralism, China played a key role in assuring North Korea to join in, given Pyongyang’s political and economic interdependence with Beijing. In Beijing’s fear of escalating the crisis, however, this operational outsourcing ironically ensured to avoid the immediate solution through intense military and economic pressure, despite Pyongyang’s repeated violation to honor its commitments.

The result of these sets of game was a reluctant ‘high-risk coexistence’ with North Korea. No matter how far Pyongyang crosses over the ‘red line’, five-parties reluctantly coexist with it as long as the cost of potential turmoil exceeds the benefit of immediate solution. Meanwhile, the level of the risk has been stretched ever higher; the déjà vu of the same old brinkmanship game still gets points.

This is the structural reason for our failure. We seem to have overestimated the current policy framework in the six-party talks.

Strategic Convergence for Denuclearization

Is there a viable policy alternative beyond such ‘high-risk coexistence’?

If we want Pyongyang to make the strategic decision to abandon nuclear arms, we must create a situation in which it has no other viable option. In this regard, we need to take the risk of significantly raise the bid against Pyongyang.

There are four types of pressure to bear: 1) military pressure from the United States, 2) economic pressure from China, 3) rewards/compensation (security assurances, normalized relations, energy assistance, etc.) agreed on in the six-party talks, and 4) economic and financial sanctions adopted through UN Security Council resolutions. It is essential to combine these forms of pressures to significantly raise the price of North Korea’s nuclearization.

To achieve the optimum mix of sticks and carrots, a three-stage process is required. The first stage consists of using the sanctions under a UNSC resolution, the matter on which concerned parties are currently focused, to impose penalties and costs commensurate with North Korea’s violations.

Especially, stronger financial sanctions will have an effect. The new resolution should contain rigorous measures that freeze an even wider spectrum of North Korean financial assets and further restrict Pyongyang’s access to international financial institutions.

The second stage is China’s full participation in strict economic sanctions. To encourage China to join the effective sanctions, it is essentially important to create a framework designed to minimize the specific risks that China wishes to avoid: 1) an extreme reaction from Pyongyang will lead to a military confrontation, 2) North Korean refugees will pour over the border into China, and 3) the collapse of the current regime could have US forces occupying the entire Korean Peninsula and confronting China along its border with Korea.

The key components of such a framework would include 1) agreements by top defense officials of Japan, the United States, China, and South Korea and on joint planning to prevent escalation of any military clash with North Korea, 2) the adoption of a trilateral plan by Japan, China, and South Korea for controlling borders and dealing with refugees if a mass exodus were to occur, and 3) independent, parallel efforts by Washington, Beijing, and Seoul to devise plans and systems for maintaining order, securing nuclear weapons, and restoring government in the event that the current regime were to collapse.

The third phase is military pressure by the United States. The US unilateral military campaign against North Korea remains a difficult option. However, it is important to demonstrate that the US-South Korea and the US-Japan alliances enhance the full spectrum dominance against North Korean possible attacks, either small scale or else. These alliance capabilities serve both to contain North Korea’s further options and to control the further escalation if such attacks occur.

Finally, it will still be necessary to maintain a framework for compensating and rewarding Pyongyang. In the event that Pyongyang makes the strategic decision to abandon its nuclear weapons and begins taking steps in that direction, we must reward it in a manner commensurate with its actions while incrementally relaxing the abovementioned sanctions. For this reason, we should leave the door open for an unconditional revival of the six-party talks and continue to honor the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration. It is vital to have at hand the means for rewarding a flexible approach whenever Pyongyang realizes that its hard-line policies have brought it to a domestic impasse.

A fundamental resolution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will require progressive intensification of pressure on multiple fronts as described above. Since each of these options entails risks, it is only natural that political decision makers would prefer to avoid them if possible. However, if we can agree that living with a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, then we must also agree to adopt a new policy framework capable of pressuring Pyongyang into making the appropriate judgment. For the Japanese government, too, the time has come for a strategic decision.

This article initially appeared in the commentary ‘Policy towards North Korea after the Nuclear Test’ (in Japanese) on Tokyo Foundation. The article has been revised significantly by the author.

2 responses to “Rejecting high-risk coexistence with North Korea”

  1. This is an excellent article and Ken Jimbo has really injected new strategic thinking into considering practical options to deal with the North Korea regime and the denuclearisation in the Korea peninsular.

    However, the six party framework is important and Russia should be included as an important partner in the process, although some matters could be decided among if others if they only concern them.

    The most important thing is to assure China that the other party members are with it in dealing with any challenges. If China’s is really resolute and the five are a united front, the denuclearisation issue should not be too difficult.

  2. “A fundamental resolution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will require progressive intensification of pressure on multiple fronts…”

    – Hmmm… The problem cannot be resolved by “intensification of pressure” simply because no more pressure can be exerted upon North Korea. Neither the neighboring countries nor the United States have any leverage left to apply (except for a military strike). All possible sanctions have already been implemented, all links severed, all promises broken. The result is obvious – North Korea is going ahead with its nuclear and ICBM plans, paying no attention to our indignation. The country is already perfectly isolated from the rest of the world and this is another bonus to the Pyongyang regime, which can survive only if shielded by an information iron curtain.

    Since the external sanctions and boycotts only contribute to the regime survival, shouldn’t we use the opposite tactics trying to soften it from inside? The recipe is old and benign — engagement and cooperation. North Korea needs to trade, to learn, to modernize, etc. Let’s help its companies earn foreign exchange legally, let’s teach its managers to trade with us; let’s open our embassies and cultural centres in Pyongyang, telling them more about our good intentions.

    The ten years of Sunshine Policy (also known as Policy of Peace and Prosperity, 1998-2008), which South Korea pursued in relation to the North, created the atmosphere of trust and resulted in mutually profitable economic cooperation. Why not repeating this positive example at a regional level? Even though North Korea now has nuclear weapons it does not mean we should stop talking to it. The policy of insults, pressure and confrontation does not bring any good but can lead to conflict, a nuclear one. Instead, give Pyongyang a good reason to scrap its nuclear capability. Offer something more useful and less dangerous than ballistic missiles. Invitation to cooperation always works better than threats.

    Thus, a fundamental resolution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will require progressive relaxation of pressure on multiple fronts and acceleration of engagement and cooperation policies, just like it was 30 years ago in the Soviet-US relations. Surely, a mere nuclear détente will be followed by significantly more impressive results.


Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.