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North Korea

The Issue

The rogue regime in North Korea poses one of the most dangerous threats to U.S. national security interests. Pyongyang presents a multifaceted military threat to peace and stability in Asia as well as a global proliferation risk. The Hermit Regime has developed enough fissile material for 10–16 plutonium-based nuclear weapons and conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Pyongyang has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility, increasing not only the potential threats from an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal, but also the risk of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, North Korea has contributed to nuclear proliferation by assisting programs in both Iran and Syria.

North Korea has declared that it already has a full nuclear strike capability, even altering its constitution to enshrine itself as a nuclear-armed state. Among North Korea’s many direct verbal threats to the U.S., in December 2014, the National Defense Commission warned that Pyongyang would “carry out an ultra-harsh war of reaction targeting the entire U.S. mainland, including the White House and the Pentagon. Our military and people are perfectly prepared to fight with the U.S. in all kinds of war, including a cyberwar.”

The U.S. and South Korea have revised their estimates and now see a more dire North Korean threat. After recovering components of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched by North Korea in December 2012, South Korea assessed that it had “a range of more than 10,000 kilometers.” In April 2015, General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, testified that he believes the North Koreans “have had time and capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. They have stated that they had intercontinental missiles and they had a nuclear capability, and they paraded it. As a commander, I think, we must assume that they have that capability.”

In April 2015, Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told reporters that the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM “is operational today. Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.” Pyongyang has already deployed hundreds of missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and U.S. bases on Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam.

North Korea has approximately 1 million people in its military, with reserves numbering several million more. Pyongyang has forward-deployed 70 percent of its ground forces within 90 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), making it possible to attack with little or no warning. Pyongyang’s unprovoked acts of war in 2010 against a South Korean naval ship and a civilian-inhabited island were chilling reminders that its conventional forces remain a direct military threat to a U.S. ally.


North Korea will continue to conduct additional provocative acts in order to achieve its foreign policy objectives. New North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be just as belligerent and dangerous as his predecessors.


Resist the Siren Song of Re-engagement with North Korea. Washington and Seoul repeatedly tried diplomatic overtures, but all were firmly rejected by Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un’s regime vowed never to abandon its nuclear weapons or return to the Six-Party Talks. Another envoy would get the same message.

Urge China to Pressure Pyongyang. Beijing should be told that its reticence to join international pressure on North Korea is triggering the crisis that China seeks to avoid. Pyongyang has only been emboldened to ratchet up tensions still further, pushing Washington and its allies to take necessary military steps that Beijing does not want.

Since the U.N. Has Been Reluctant to Impose Measures Against North Korea, the U.S. Should:

  • Insist that the next U.N. resolution—to be implemented after a North Korean nuclear test—include Chapter VII, Article 42 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for enforcement by military means. This would enable naval ships to intercept and board North Korean ships suspected of transporting precluded nuclear, missile, and conventional arms, components, or technology.
  • Demand that all U.N. member nations fully implement U.N. resolution requirements to prevent North Korea’s procurement and proliferation of missile-related and WMD-related items and technology.
  • Publicly identify all North Korean and foreign banks, businesses, and government agencies suspected of violating U.N. resolutions.
  • Freeze and seize the financial assets of any involved North Korean and foreign person, company, or government entity violating U.N. resolutions and U.S. or international law.
  • Call upon foreign banks, businesses, and governments to reciprocate U.S. actions against North Korean and foreign violators.
  • Lead an international effort against North Korean illegal activities, including currency counterfeiting and drug smuggling. U.S. law enforcement actions in 2005 against Pyongyang’s accounts in Banco Delta Asia were highly effective, but they were later abandoned in acquiescence to North Korean demands to “improve the atmosphere” for nuclear negotiations.

Fully Implement Existing U.S. Laws Against North Korea’s Illicit Activities. Contrary to Obama Administration depictions of North Korea as the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, the U.S. has imposed stronger punitive measures against the Balkans, Burma, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe. Washington should impose the same measures on Pyongyang as it has already done for other countries for far less egregious violations of U.S. law, including:

  • Designate North Korea as a primary money-laundering concern such as the U.S. Treasury previously designated Ukraine, Burma, and Iran.
  • Ban North Korean financial institutions’ correspondent accounts in the U.S. The U.N. Panel of Experts concluded that North Korean transactions continue to be mostly in “United States dollars from foreign-based banks and transferred through corresponding bank accounts in the United States.”
  • Publicly identify and sanction all foreign companies, financial institutions, and governments assisting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and call on foreign banks, businesses, and governments to reciprocate U.S. actions.
  • Formally charge North Korea as a currency counterfeiter.

Fund U.S. Defense Commitment to Asia. While the Obama Administration has been stalwart in its rhetoric pledging an “Asia Pivot,” it has not provided the military budget necessary to honor fully American commitments to security in the Pacific. Massive defense budget cuts are already affecting U.S. capabilities in the region, increasing risk to allies, U.S. security and economic interests, and the safety of U.S. service personnel and American citizens living and working in the region.

Improve U.S. Homeland Ballistic Missile Defense. The U.S. should accelerate the deployment of additional ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Alaska and California to prevent an emerging gap between North Korean ballistic missile capabilities and U.S. defenses.

Facts and Figures

  • North Korea has a 1.1 million-man army, 70 percent of which is deployed within 60 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. These forces include mechanized infantry corps, artillery corps, an armored corps, and several infantry corps.
  • North Korea has 13,000 artillery pieces deployed along the DMZ. Many of these weapons, including chemical weapons–capable systems, already threaten the 13 million inhabitants of Seoul, which is located 30 miles from the DMZ.
  • North Korea has 800 Scud short-range tactical ballistic missiles, 300 No Dong medium-range missiles, and 100–200 Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Scud missiles can reach anywhere in South Korea, the No Dong missiles can target all of Japan, and the Musudan missiles can hit U.S. bases on Okinawa and the U.S. territory of Guam.
  • North Korea spends an estimated 25 percent of its gross national product on its military.

Selected Additional Resources

Bruce Klingner, “Allies Should Confront Imminent North Korean Nuclear Threat,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2913, June 3, 2014.

Bruce Klingner, “Respond Cautiously to North Korean Engagement Offers,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3011, April 20, 2015.

Bruce Klingner, “South Korea Needs THAAD Missile Defense,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3024, June 12, 2015.

Bruce Klingner, “Time to Get North Korean Sanctions Right,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2850, November 4, 2013.

Bruce Klingner, “The U.S. Needs to Respond to North Korea’s Latest Cyber Attack,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4367, March 20, 2015.

Bruce Klingner, “U.S. Should Augment Sanctions After North Korean Crimes Against Humanity,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4152.