The North Korea Crisis: Causes and Cures


On September 18, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “The North Korea Crisis: Causes and Cures.” Speakers included Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks with North Korea, and Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson (USMC, Ret.), Senior Director of the China and the Pacific Program at the Center for the National Interest, moderated. The event was broadcast live on C-SPAN and can be found here. It was also streamed live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the event can be found below.


Kim Jong-un is determined for his regime to survive, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, the Executive Director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Scarlatoiu based his argument on multiple factors. First, over 340 individuals between 2011 and 2016 have been purged or executed by the Kim regime. These include members of the military, the Workers’ Party, security agencies, and even the “inner core” of the Kim family.

The Kim regime’s methods of survival and control also extend to the general populace, often involving human rights violations. The UN found that “120,000” individuals have been placed in political prison camps, including up to three generations of some families, noted Scarlatoiu. For those not imprisoned, they must participate in indoctrination sessions, self-criticism, and a neighborhood watch program to keep tabs on community members, Scarlatoiu said. He also stated that North Korea’s determination to survive can be further seen by its willingness to let millions die during a famine in the 1990s. Linked to the regime’s survival is its determination to acquire nuclear weapons, which are part of North Korea’s identity, explained Scarlatoiu.

Despite numerous efforts to halt North Korea from possessing nuclear technology, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1985, the Agreed Framework in 1994, and the Six Party Talks in 2003, North Korea has continued down the path of obtaining nuclear weapons, Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. Special Envoy to the Six Party Talks with North Korea, stated. He said that North Korea has made significant progress in its nuclear and missile technology, including newer missiles, a possible hydrogen bomb test, and the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit in a warhead. North Korea has even demanded to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, which “would be a regional disaster,” DeTrani stated. Scarlatoiu further explained that nuclear weapons contribute to government propaganda and are even mentioned in the North Korean constitution.

DeTrani called for three conditions for any talks with North Korea: denuclearization, cessation of illicit activities, and non-violation of human rights. Citing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he argued that the United States “cannot talk with a gun to its head.” These talks are needed to determine whether North Korea can actually engage in diplomacy.

According to DeTrani, deterrence and pressure are needed to help resolve the nuclear crisis. Existing U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises are one form of deterrence. Deterrence could also include nuclear weapons for South Korea and Japan, but this could open the door to possible arms races, proliferation, and miscalculation, argued DeTrani. Preemptive strikes, he contended, should not be ruled out if an imminent threat to the United States or its allies exists, as presuming this option ensures that Kim Jong-un would have to be cautious in how he acts.

In addition to deterrence, sanctions could pressure North Korea to denuclearize, argued DeTrani. He asserted that China needs to do more to sanction North Korea, or fully implement already existing sanctions, to compel North Korea to act. DeTrani reasoned that China has leverage and should use it to help eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat, especially since China wants a non-nuclear North Korea that is respectful and dependent on Beijing. If China should be unwilling, then the United States could be pressure its government through secondary sanctions on Chinese firms.

DeTrani also claimed that human rights are the “core element of the United States’ value system,” which should be understood by North Korea as a prerequisite to establishing a potential bilateral relationship. Scarlatoiu pointed out that human rights can also be a tool for confronting Kim Jong-un’s government.

Scarlatoiu said that North Koreans needs to be made aware of the Kim regime’s human rights abuses and corruption, as the people are the only ones who can make real change in the country. Moreover, he argued that, “if [the United States] brings up nuclear weapons once, [it] should bring up human rights five times” as it helps “undermine the legitimacy of the regime.”

Beyond effective policy, the most important, long-term threat to the survival of North Korea is the mere existence of “a free and democratic and prosperous [South Korea].” Scarlatoiu ended by saying the international community should be patient “to induce transformation from within [North Korea].” DeTrani agreed, suggesting that strong U.S. deterrence could contribute to this.