Shifting the Strategic Balance to Force North Korea to Change

This article proposes a new strategy to force a change in North Korea, a change that will result in a regime that does not develop nuclear weapons, does not threaten its neighbors, insures its citizens have the human rights as defined by the United Nations, and is on the road toward reunification with the ROK. I do not spend much time discussing what it has or is doing to increase its nuclear and conventional capabilities in order to threaten its neighbors and the United States. Nor do I go into details on how it is treating its citizens. These matters have been well covered. Given that most of the world understands and agrees that North Korea needs to change in this fashion, I also do not dwell on why change is needed. North Korea’s capabilities, actions, and intentions are well known. Here, I focus on recommendations for a strategy to force the current regime to change or for a change of its leaders.

North Korea is rapidly approaching the capability to attack anywhere in the world with a nuclear weapon. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, there have been numerous missile and nuclear tests. It is clear he will continue to develop and test missiles capable of striking anywhere in the world until he has a proven capability. Numerous times he has stated he will develop this capability and never give it up. North Korea has demonstrated the ability and willingness to attack and kill ROK citizens. This occurred twice in 2010 and was attempted by the planting of land mines in the DMZ in 2015. In addition to missiles and nuclear weapons, NK continues to develop its special operations forces, submarine capability, and cyber offensive ability. Although Kim Jong-un claims all these capabilities are defensive in nature, they also provide tools for Kim to use to extort and threaten other countries. Clearly North Korea has used such threats in the past to gain economic support. In summary, North Korea continues to grow stronger militarily; and is becoming an even more dangerous and threatening country.

The North Korean people continue to face malnutrition, their basic needs are not met, and they have few human rights as defined by international norms. Yet, they are gaining a better understanding of prosperity and rights in the ROK and the rest of the world. They have continued to survive with little or no support from their government, becoming more and more disconnected from the North Korean regime. With a poor economy and a disconnected but more knowledgeable populace, Kim Jong-un will increasingly need to portray the ROK and the United States as enemies that require a united, loyal, and sacrificing North Korean people to deter and defeat. Kim Jong-un will conduct more frequent and dangerous provocations in the hope of continuing to keep the loyalty of his people.

In the past the strategy to change North Korea has emphasized dialogue, carrots and sticks, sanctions, strategic patience, and accepting the “status quo.” Because of the fear of the destruction in the ROK that even a limited attack would cause, there has been only measured pressure on North Korea. However, since 2010, the ROK has stood firm against North Korea and understands the longer the current regime survives the more dangerous the situation becomes. Since 2010, it has been clear the ROK people demand and are willing and able to strongly respond to North Korean provocations. It is unclear whether Kim Jong-un understands this. Therefore, future North Korean provocations will be very dangerous, making escalation control more and more difficult. Future provocations will likely lead to limited attacks and instability. The longer the current regime survives the more dangerous the situation becomes. For the ROK, the United States, and Japan to agree to put more pressure on North Korea the people of each nation must be confident their militaries are prepared to control escalation and stop any North Korean provocations and attacks as quickly as possible.

This dangerous situation demands a new strategy…a strategy to force North Korea to change its ways or collapse and be replaced by a new, more open leader. Over the past several decades, the ROK, the United States, and others have tried numerous ways to apply external pressure on and offer incentives to the regime in an attempt to force it to change. I believe no amount of external pressure will force a change. To force a change, there must be both external and internal pressure. Below I discuss the external pressures that must be strengthened and focus on the measures needed to promote internal pressure on the regime.

Diplomatically and Economically

Continue but Strengthen:

The United States and the ROK must continue to apply diplomatic pressure on North Korea to change, working with all freedom-loving nations to apply pressure through their diplomatic channels and organizations. The multiple UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions have hurt North Korea but not been sufficient to cause change. They should be strengthened to the level of previous Iranian and Syrian sanctions. We should implement secondary sanctions on Chinese and Russian banks, trading companies, and shipping companies that violate UN Security Council resolutions. We should also sanction those supporting slave labor in foreign countries.

The United States and ROK should continue to push China to force a change in North Korea. China could force a change by cutting off all aid to North Korea. We should push China to take action, but we should not make China’s cooperation and actions the key and required component of our strategy; it may continue to choose not to take these actions.


The key to forcing effective external and internal pressure is an understanding and agreement on the desired end state—a reunified peninsula. We should conduct a dialogue with the ROK, China, and Japan on the definition of the end state of a unified peninsula—a construct that protects and enhances the vital national interests of each of the countries. This dialogue is not just about the location and presence of US forces after reunification. It needs to go into the details of diplomatic issues such as the initial form of government in North Korea as it moves toward reunification, the role of its current and future leaders at the national and provincial level, how elections will be held, what legal and judicial system will be in place, etc. Economically, we must discuss items such as property rights for the people of North Korea, currency exchange rates, how we will deal with and pay for refugee needs, how port rights, mineral rights, and trade agreements with China will be handled, etc. Militarily, we need to discuss the location of US forces, the border security structure, the future of the North Korean military and police, the disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, etc.

Getting more clarity on the end state is needed to reduce the uncertainties of North Korea’s neighbors and convince them that a reunified peninsula enhances their vital national interests. This is especially important for China. China has understandable security, diplomatic, and economic concerns regarding a loosely defined reunified peninsula. Agreements on such matters as a United Nations border monitoring force (with China as the lead nation); the location and size of US forces; the disposition of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; trilateral diplomatic measures that insure transparency of all action; mineral, port, and economic rights and benefits; etc. could greatly reduce these concerns and lead to China agreeing that a reunified peninsula is in its best interest.

Also, a clear end state is critically needed to enable the people of North Korea to see a future for themselves in a reunified peninsula. Today, they are taught there will be no place for them in a country ruled by South Korea. Clearly defining a reunified peninsula is necessary to effectively apply both external and internal pressure.

Next, we should establish a diplomatic mechanism that allows us and others to enforce the UN sanctions. We should push the United Nations for a Chapter 7, Article 42 resolution, which authorizes military enforcement of certain sanctions such as those against missile launches, nuclear production, and missile or nuclear proliferation. This enforcement mechanism should include destroying missiles on their launch pads or in the air and allowing countries to stop and search vessels on the high seas.

Informationally—the major change to our current strategy

Other than NGOs getting information to the people of NK through leaflets, thumb drives, and radio/TV broadcasts, there is little or no means to educate them about freedom, human rights, the norms for the rest of the world, nor the failure of their government. Neither the ROK nor the US government has established the education of the North Korean people as a policy goal; therefore, they are not conducting operations to accomplish this, nor are they funding such operations. To force internal pressure on the regime an information campaign must be conducted.

Continue but Strengthen:

Continue to encourage and allow NGOs to get truth and information to the people of North Korea. The ROK and the United States should be more vocal on human rights violations and the provocative actions of North Korea. This needs to be a continuous drumbeat, not just during times of crisis.


The ROK and US governments should publicly state a goal and a plan to break the isolation of the people of North Korea and to inform them about freedom, human rights, and their leadership. We need to make the information campaign a government plan, not just an NGO initiative. The people of North Korea need to know that the ROK and US governments, not just NGOs, will support their push for change.

For an information campaign to work, the ROK, the United States, Japan, and others need to develop the messages that convey truth into North Korea and challenge the legitimacy of the Kim Jong-un regime. We must fund and execute the campaign through multiple means of broadcast. Also, I believe defectors should be better trained, housed, fed, and employed in the ROK. Information about the fate of defectors gets back to the North Korean people. The message must be clear that the world is ready to help them and back them if they force a change within their country.

Most importantly, the message must convey that there is a place in the future reunified peninsula for all North Korean people who have not committed crimes against humanity. Clearly, to date they have been told since birth that the ROK and the United States are enemies and will try to kill all the North Korean people when they invade. The ROK and the United States have never directly countered this propaganda. To effectively change this mindset a clearer definition of the future for the North Korean people must first be developed. As recommended earlier, a much more defined end state will enable these messages to be developed.

A defined end state and information campaign are required to force internal pressure. Without both of these elements the people of North Korea will believe all neighbors are enemies, and they will have no faith for their future in a reunified peninsula. Without both of these elements there is no hope for internal pressure on the regime. Also, without these elements there would be large insurgencies if the ROK and the United States were forced to enter North Korea to suppress instability or take control of nuclear weapons. The bottom line is whether the future brings collapse, instability, loose nuclear weapons, or more peaceful change as a result of internal pressure, a clear end state must be defined and communicated to the people of North Korea.


Kim Jong-un is not stupid, and he will understand the potential effect of the actions described above. Hopefully, it will force him to change and embrace freedom and human rights, and stop threatening his neighbors. However, we must be prepared for provocations and actions he might take to try to halt the above actions or to distract his people and keep them loyal by striking out against the ROK or others. Militarily, we should work to deter North Korean military actions, and, if deterrence does not work, insure we are ready to strongly respond and defeat North Korean provocations.

Continue but Strengthen:

First and foremost, we should look for ways to strengthen the ROK-US alliance. We should continue and strengthen self-defense and provocation planning and exercises. This will enable quick execution of well-conceived responses, enhancing the ability and willingness to strongly punish North Korea for its actions. Provocation planning and exercises must also include elements designed to control escalation. Alliance reactions should not just be tit for tat, they need to hold something that is important to Kim Jong-un at risk. This must be clear to him, as only a very strong response will deter future provocations. The people of the ROK and Japan must also be confident that the ROK and the United States are capable of aggressively striking into North Korea to control escalation and limit damage in the ROK and Japan.

We should also increase instability planning and exercises, preparing to respond to instability in order to get control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, to protect the North Korean people, and to stabilize the country. All plans must include actions to be taken on short notice and with limited troops. This planning and these exercises should be conducted not only with the ROK, but also with Japan, the UN Command sending states, and, ideally, with China.

We need to develop a more robust intelligence capability. This capability must include systems and means that can look and listen deep into North Korea and do this 24 hours a day. Persistence is key to defeating camouflage and deception capabilities and better understanding enemy intent. A more robust intelligence capability includes a regional intelligence sharing architecture among the ROK, the United States, and Japan.

Next, we must develop a regional, layered, and robust missile defense system, which includes both defensive and offensive systems that can quickly strike anywhere in North Korea. This includes increased defensive capabilities such as radars, Aegis, and Patriot capabilities. There is also a need to acquire and deploy an upper-tier missile defense capability to destroy some of the missiles before the end game. Included in a robust missile defense system are offensive capabilities and persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) to find the missile launchers and survivable strike capability to destroy them before they can launch missiles. A robust missile defense system must also protect the ROK population. I recommend that the ROK examine the Israeli tiered system for possible solutions to defend Seoul and other ROK cities.


I recommend that we work to form a true trilateral military alliance among the ROK, Japan, and the United States. Currently, only limited intelligence is shared among these countries. Most sharing and planning is done in a hub-and-spoke fashion with the United States as the hub. Such a trilateral military alliance would not only share intelligence but also plan together, have inter-operable command and control systems, exercise together, and operate as a full-fledged alliance to deter North Korea and be ready to respond to its threats. Ideally, in the future this alliance would view an attack on one of the countries as an attack on all. We need to strengthen the alliance’s defensive and offensive cyber capability, using cyber to disrupt the North Korean command and control and to get information into North Korea.

A military hotline between the ROK, the United States, Japan, and China should be developed. Mutual understanding of actions by these four countries during North Korean provocations, instability, or attacks will be key to controlling escalation and eliminating unintended actions. Once these countries agree on a defined end state for a reunified peninsula the development and use of a hotline will be easier.


North Korea is able to and becoming more willing to threaten and attack the ROK, Japan, and the United States. It is a regional problem, not just a ROK and US concern. Therefore, I recommend the ROK, the United States, Japan, and China do the following.

External Pressure:

  • Increase diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea
  • Militarily enforce selected sanctions
  • Increase informational actions to inform the world about North Korea
  • Increase military capabilities: intel, missile defense (including offensive strike capability), cyber, etc.
  • Increase planning and exercises for instability and provocations scenarios
  • Increase diplomatic and military coordinating mechanisms among the ROK, the United States, Japan, and China

Internal Pressure:

  • Develop the details and benefits of a unified peninsula. Do this with the ROK, the United States, Japan, and China.
  • Develop and execute an information campaign to inform the people of North Korea about freedom and human rights. Include messages that demonstrate our willingness to support them. Most importantly, lay out the future for the people of North Korea in a reunified peninsula.

Given the growing threats and capabilities of North Korea, the worsening economy, the increasing amount of information getting into it, and the increasing likelihood of escalating provocations and instability, there needs to be an urgency to force change. When considering actions to change a country like North Korea, there is always a balance between actions that are focused on stability and gradual change and actions that focus on forcing a change sooner rather than later. I believe it is time for the ROK, the United States, Japan, China, and the world to shift the balance to forcing North Korea to change. In order to cause a change in the regime there must be constant, coordinated, external and internal pressure on the regime that leads to a well-defined end state good for the people of the ROK, the United States, China, Japan, and, most importantly, North Korea.