News Release

October 12, 2017

For Immediate Release
Contact: Danielle House, Senior External Communications Specialist, 703-824-2541

Sanctions Aren’t Solving our North Korea Problem, but Other Options Might Work

Two of the nation’s leading experts on North Korea and China sat down with David Sanger of the New York Times to discuss the North Korea problem and provide expert perspective on the options available to the United States.

Arlington, Va.  “If you engage North Korea in a reasonable manner, they will come to the table” said Ken Gause, CNA’s leading North Korea expert. “Dictating the terms of a nuclear surrender is a non-starter.”

Gause and the director of CNA China Studies, David Finkelstein, sat on a panel moderated by David Sanger, National Security Correspondent for the New York Times. The three discussed the implications of the provocative rhetoric between North Korea and U.S. leaders, Kim Jong Un’s ultimate goals, and the predicament China faces for the future. Gause started off by encouraging U.S. leaders to reshape the narrative they’re using to approach this problem.

North Korea would need significant economic aid in exchange for freezing their program, but CNA’s experts warn we’re past ideal solutions – the goal now should be to eliminate immediate threat. Gause continued to explain, “Success means the art of the possible now. Success means that South Korea and other countries in the region are not negatively affected by the solution…but then the question is what avenue would you take to satisfy those requirements? There are several things on the table including diplomacy, economic pressure and military options.” 

The U.S. has tried to use economic sanctions to stop North Korea from pursuing a fully-capable nuclear program, establishing denuclearization as the only acceptable outcome. To Gause, this is the wrong perspective. “The question is not whether Kim Jong Un will get rid of the nuclear program, but if he’ll freeze it.” Gause suggests that if the U.S. were to agree to slowly roll back economic sanctions on the condition that North Korea ceases nuclear testing, North Korea might be willing to discuss freezing its nuclear program. As of now, though, the only benefit the U.S. has offered is not to invade, which doesn’t sound credible to North Koreans after the decisions to bring about regime change in Iraq and Libya.

Finkelstein pointed out the U.S. isn’t the only country pushing for denuclearization; China has been pushing for the same outcome. “The international community has a dog in this fight,” said Finkelstein. China has been unable to influence the behavior of North Korea and the U.S., and relations with South Korea are strained. Chinese leaders are starting to debate how long they should tolerate North Korea as the country continues to evolve into a multi-threat state with nuclear and cyber capabilities. At the very least, the Chinese are concerned about environmental impacts of nuclear testing. If North Korea continues such testing, China will be forced to make a decision. 

Continued provocation from Pyongyang would likely put more pressure on China to get involved, but it’s difficult to predict how. Although China knows its policy isn’t working, Finkelstein emphasized that China has two major priorities that are unlikely to change: putting Chinese interests first and preventing a major conflict on the peninsula that would create instability on its border.

CNA’s President and CEO, Katherine McGrady, attended the event and remarked on the difficult nature of the situation. “What you heard from our analysts today is that this is a very complex issue for the United States. There’s no one perfect solution, and any position we take has the potential to disrupt an entire region. The high stakes mean it’s critical for decision-makers on every side to understand the implications for everyone involved.”

There’s no way to predict what will happen next given the challenges and unpredictable dynamics, but Finkelstein is certain of one thing.  “No matter what happens, I think we are living through a moment where the security landscape of Northeast Asia is going to be changed.”

CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to developing actionable solutions to complex problems of national importance. With nearly 700 scientists, analysts and professional staff, CNA takes a real-world approach to gathering data. Its one-of-a-kind field program places analysts on carriers and military bases, in squad rooms and classrooms, and working side-by-side with a wide array of government decision-makers around the world. In addition to defense-related matters for the U.S. Department of the Navy, CNA’s research portfolio includes criminal justice, homeland security, energy security, water resources, enterprise systems and data analysis, and education.

Note to writers and editors: CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as "CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA."


Elizabeth Cutler
Sr Communications Specialist

John Stimpson
Communications Associate