North Korea and the US: Political Relations

Topic: International Relations
Words: 1642 Pages: 6


  • In the aftermath of the Korean War in 1953, the US has maintained difficult and antagonistic relations with North Korea
  • North Korea is a rogue state, led by Kim Jung-un a totalitarian dictator in a highly isolated and impoverished country
  • North Korea for decades has been pursuing the goal of obtaining nuclear weapons
  • US policy has been to isolate and pressure the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but it has been unsuccessful, and tensions are growing

Thesis: North Korea and the US have escalated tensions over the years with North Korea threatening military or nuclear action; a clear US policy needs to be established around the realities of a nuclearized North Korea to improve relations while implementing common sense defense policies.

Brief History

  • The Korean War (1950-1953) at the early stages of the Cold War was the first ideological conflict between Communism and Democracy, and the first major proxy war
  • The conflict ended with an armistice, but peace treaty was never signed. North Korea became an isolated and militarized nation antagonistic towards South Korea and the West
  • North Korea virtually became a satellite nation for China after the establishment of Communism – no diplomatic relations with the US since the end of the Korean War
  • Post-Cold War, North Korea was suspected of violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and pursued creating a nuclear weapon
  • Mid-2000s, North Korea conducts nuclear underground tests and achieves nuclear fusion
  • Mid-2010s, North Korea claims hydrogen bomb test and demonstrates test of primitive ballistic missiles
  • Currently, North Korea continues to conduct missile tests and is significantly improving its missile technology include intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, with intelligence estimates believe the country can deliver a primitive nuclear weapon at short-to-medium distances (Revere 2018)

Assessment of Policy Goals

  • North Korea has called for a normalization of relations with the United States and seeks protection of its national sovereignty which it feels is threatened because of ideological differences with the West.
  • Security guarantees and limits on military cooperation with South Korea
  • Reduction of US contingents in South Korea
  • Stopping military and economic threats
  • Reducing economic sanctions and stopping the practice of withholding economic assistance
  • Calls to stop hostile rhetoric and actions which include the above and more
  • It is assumed that North Korea wants legitimacy and a recognition as a de facto nuclear threat (Wertz 2018)
  • The United States aims to denuclearize North Korea, viewing it as a rogue state which is a direct adversary to the US and its allies
  • The US views North Korea attaining nuclear capability as dangerous and illegal
  • Achieving denuclearization through diplomatic means and economic pressure
  • Military action has been threatened but never carried out, viewed as a last resort due to the potential of use of a rough nuclear weapon on South Korea (and eventually the continental US) by North Korea if directly attacked
  • Some US policymakers have been concerned with North Korea’s human rights abuses by the totalitarian government led by a dynasty of tyrannical rulers
  • Although rarely directly stated, the US would want to see a regime change in North Korea with hopes of achieving a diplomatic solution as current leadership is highly unwilling to consider full denuclearization (Wertz 2018)

Analysis of Past Policy

  • Through the Cold War, North Korea was largely ignored by the US
  • Several international incidents occurred but the US chose not to provoke USSR and China into conflict
  • Pres. Reagan began modest contact with North Korea in 1988 and allowed for unofficial non-government visits with limited export of humanitarian goods.
  • Pres. Clinton (1993-2001) adopted a policy of engagement with North Korea with the goal of achieving regional stability and denuclearization of the peninsula
  • A nuclear deal was struck known as the Agreed Framework (1994), with North Korea promising to freeze its nuclear program while the US would normalize relations and trade with the country, and even make some sacrifices such as reducing military cooperation with South Korea (cancelling military exercises, smaller contingent)
  • Clinton sought to engage the “Sunshine Policy” adopted by South Korean leaders at the time to attempt to normalize relations between the two culturally and ethnically intertwined neighbors (Kim 2017)
  • The deal never came to fruition as the US accused North Korea of secretly high-enriching uranium, while also not lifting sanctions as late as 1999, leading to NK to eventually break off the deal and pursuing the nuclear program (Feffer 2003)
  • Pres. Bush Jr. (2001-2008) was extremely antagonistic towards North Korea, calling it an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran
  • Bush adopted a hawkish policy towards North Korea, focusing on isolating and increasing pressure on the regime
  • Bush openly stated that his goal in North Korea was regime change
  • Rather than attempting to build transparency, security, and confidence, Bush’s policy sought to create a rationale for punitive action (Feffer 2003)
  • Policy was provocative and belligerent, increasing confrontation and antagonizing North Korea
  • However, at several points, North Korea was provided aid and given the offer to purchase more humanitarian products in exchange for shutting down the nuclear program, with Bush personally appealing to Kim Jung-il.
  • Faced with a crisis, in 2007, North Korea engaged in Six-Party Talks and began steps to shut down its nuclear facilities, with a potential for diplomacy arising again (Cha and Katz 2018)

Analysis of Modern Policy (2008-2020)

  • Pres. Obama (2008-2016) took a very patient and limited approach, using sanctions for pressure and attempting diplomatic contact
  • North Korea continued to test and develop its nuclear technology and missiles
  • Diplomatic contact was rare and largely ineffective
  • Economic sanctions were employed by the US but bypassed by North Korea through various means and third countries (Cummings 2020)
  • Obama relied on public condemnation of the North Korean regime in the public and international arenas, attempting to entice collective global action and pressure to reach denuclearization
  • UN Security Council imposing sanctions on North Korea in 2015, which led to some economic pressure as even China limited some imports to their ideological ally (Ahn, 2015)
  • Pres. Trump adopted a highly mixed policy approach to North Korea, attempting to both be hawkish like Bush Jr. while also engaging the regime similar to Clinton
  • North Korea continued to test intercontinental ballistic missiles despite all sanctions
  • Pres. Trump personally met Kim Jung-un at the DMZ representing the first meeting between the current US president and North Korean leadership (Cummings, 2020)
  • North Korea was seemingly open to diplomacy, but only gave vague statements on denuclearization while receiving major victories on the international arena, such as Trump cancelling war games with South Korea and seeking to potentially draw back US troops in the region
  • Trump’s approach was radical and nontraditional, but did bring North Korea to the table and provided insight into their mindset (Cha and Katz, 2018)
  • No commitments or clear progress have been made under Trump

Analysis of Ongoing Policy (Biden Administration)

  • Biden has not made North Korea a foreign policy priority so far in his first term
  • North Korea is rapidly testing missile technology but remains relatively quiet in its rhetoric towards the US
  • Biden’s administration has shifted away from the phrase of “denuclearization” understanding that North Korea is unlikely to accept unilateral disarmament. They are instead pursuing a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” (Revere 2018)
  • Biden is adopting a middle-ground approach between Obama’s strategic patient (nothing for nothing approach) and Trump’s bargaining (everything for everything). The administration is taking a “step-by-step” basis to eventually reach denuclearization by gaining diplomatic traction and compelling the regime (Panda 2021)
  • Realistically, nothing has occurred beyond intelligence monitoring of North Korea, and no known high profile diplomatic efforts have been revealed to the public

Presentation and Analysis of Proposed Policy

  • Policy to date has been virtually ineffective, with the North Korean regime able to bypass any sanctions and pressures
  • The North Koreans had used the same approach consistently across all administrations, to gain as many benefits as possible through deceit and to buy time as it continues to enhance its nuclear program (Chubb, 2017)
  • Policy of Public Diplomacy
  • Approach of pursuing long-term solutions with North Korea with aims to promote sustained change in the country, parallel to nuclear negotiations, such as lifting of sanctions, introducing market forces to the country, building trust through economic aid
  • Both direct and indirect diplomacy efforts, particularly aimed at information distribution in North Korea in order to change views of their own country and the US, sow skepticism in state propaganda and lies, reduce loyalty to the regime
  • Seek to understand, inform, and empower North Korean society to prefer and demand a different country for themselves
  • Policy provides long-term actions that are better suited to reactionary short-term policies which are having no effect and only strengthening North Korea’s resolve
  • Enables a more informed and accurate approach to reducing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities while enhancing their social mindset
  • The policy is meant to eventually create internal pressure, either leading to a regime change or forcing the government to adapt, leading to potential improved human rights and a self-driven denuclearization (Baek, 2021)
  • Policy will likely see more progress and success since it relies on internal self-realization of North Koreans, rather than outside forces attempting to pressure the country into submission, which will always garner an adverse extremist reaction


  • Relations with North Korea have historically been antagonistic and tense
  • Despite international and US policy efforts, North Korea has successfully developed a nuclear weapons program
  • Past and current US policy at attempting denuclearization through pressure and force have been ineffective
  • Proposed policy aims at a pragmatic approach that is more focused on human rights and democratization through public diplomacy and internal pressures to force the regime to change its approach and relationship with its people or face a potential revolution
  • Denuclearization will continue to remain a US policy goal, but a drastically different approach is necessary given the realities of the circumstances, both in North Korea and geopolitically

Reference List

Ahn, Taehyung. 2018. “Patience or Lethargy? U.S. Policy toward North Korea under the Obama Administration.” North Korean Review, 8, no. 1: 67–83. Web.

Baek, Jieun. 2021. “A Policy of Public Diplomacy with North Korea.” Harvard Kennedy School: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Web.

Cha, Viktor, and Katrin Fraser Katz. 2018. “The Right Way to Coerce North Korea: Ending the Threat Without Going to War.” Foreign Affairs, 97, no. 3: 87–100. Web.

Chubb, Danielle. 2017. “A Nuclear North Korea and the Limitations of US Security Perspectives.” Critical Studies on Security 5 (3): 317–32.

Cumings, Bruce. 2020. “Obama, Trump and North Korea.” In The United States in the Indo-Pacific, edited by Oliver Turner and Inderjeet Parmar, 79-93. Manchester.: Manchester University Press.

Feffer, John. 2003. North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. New York: Seven Stories Press

Kim, Inhan. 2017. “No More Sunshine: The Limits of Engagement with North Korea.” The Washington Quarterly 40 (4): 165–81.

Panda, Ankit. 2021. “Biden’s Next Steps on North Korea Contain a Dose of Realism.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Web.

Revere, Evans J.R. 2018. “U.S. Policy and Pyongyang’s Game Plan: Will We Accept a Nuclear-Armed North Korea?” Brookings Foreign Policy. Web.

Wertz, Daniel. 2018. “Issue Brief: The U.S., North Korea, and Nuclear Diplomacy” The National Committee on North Korea. Web.

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