North Korea (DPRK) is a rogue state, led by Kim Jung-un a totalitarian dictator in a highly isolated and impoverished country. The Communist state has been an adversary of the United States for decades, since aftermath of the Korean War in 1953, the US has maintained difficult and antagonistic relations with North Korea due to ideological and security reasons. Since the 1990’s, North Korea has actively pursued in developing a nuclear weapons program, and US policy has been aimed at attempting to prevent this. US policy has been to isolate and pressure the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but it has been unsuccessful, creating a greater threat to the US and its allies. North Korea and the US have escalated tensions over the years with the DPRK coming closer to full nuclear capabilitity which it sees as its only means to survival; 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.
In 1950, as the Cold War began, the United States engaged in a proxy war with the Soviet Union on the Korean peninsula which became known as the Korean War. After three years of fighting, the parties agreed to an armistice, but never signing a peace agreement. North Korea became an independent nation, under the rule of totalitarian Communism, which it remains to this day (Cha 2012). It has been ruled by a dynasty of dictators, for three generations, with the current leader being Kim Jong-un. North Korea has become largely isolated on the world arena, due to ideological differences, sanctions, and self-isolating behavior of the hermit state. It has historically relied and continues to only interact only with its ideological allies and other rogue states such as China, Soviet Union/Russia, and Iran (Cha 2012). Meanwhile, South Korea has become a prospering democracy and a strong US ally. The US maintains military bases in South Korea and regularly conducts military drills with regional allies. North Korean leaders have consistently seen this as a threat, fearing a repeat of the Korean War, and have built their nation around a highly paranoid and militarized environment, along with significant violations of human rights and prevalence of propaganda as commonly seen in authoritarian states.
Outside of a few provocations and incidents, North Korea was largely ignored after the Korea War. However, as the Sovie Union fell apart and the world order was rapidly changing towards an American hegemony, the DPRK leadership decided to pursue developing nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, something it was already considering for years (Cha 2012). This was a popular development at the time, as conditions were ripe, since the collapse of the Soviet Union had allowed for many of the old Soviet military hardware and technology to be sold to the highest bidder. Furthermore, given that many of the countries that chose to pursue nuclear programs (DPRK, Iraq, Iran, Lybia) were once under soft protection of the USSR due to their opposition to the US, they were now left vulnerable (Cha 2012). For North Korea especially, it became a matter of existential threat, and continues to remain so to this day.
North Korea began to deterministically pursue a nuclear weapons program. In the 1960s, it had already constructed a research reactor at Yongbyon. In 1993, North Korea withdrew from the UN Nonproliferation Treaty and acquired some of Pakistan’s nuclear technology in the late 1990s, beginning the process of enriching uranium. In 2005, North Korea publicly admitted to having nuclear weapons, conducting a first nuclear test in 2006 (Revere 2018). Since then, the country has periodically conducted nuclear tests, including a supposed hydrogen bomb in 2016. It has pursued rapid development of delivery methods including development of missile technology, and is nearing the point of potentially being able to launch a long-range ICBM, capable of reaching the US Western coast (Revere 2018). The US has been closely monitoring the situation and understanding the tremendous security concerns to itself and regional allies that the potential of a fully operational nuclear weapon in the hands of a rogue state is reckless and dangerous.
Prior to examining US policy over the years and into the future, it is worth considering the policy objectives for both sides. It is difficult to estimate North Korea’s true intention because it has rarely shown good faith in diplomatic relations. North Korea has called for a normalization of relations with the United States and its neighbor South Korea and seeks protection of its national sovereignty which it feels is threatened because of ideological differences with the West (Wertz 2018). The DPRK is seeking security guarantees, among which is a highly reduced US military presence in South Korea. While it is likely to accept some US presence, it would like to see limited capacity. Furthermore, North Korea wants legitimacy to its regime and avoid potential threats to its leadership or regime change. The country wants to see removal of sanctions and integration into the global trade system and society. Finally, it is likely that it wants recognition as a de facto nuclear state, while it can potentially halt its nuclear program in terms of ICMBs, full denuclearization is not an option (Wertz 2018).
The US policy objective centers around the primary goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and alleviating its security concerns (Wertz 2018) As part of the Nonproliferation Treaty and a range of other agreements, North Korea obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities is viewed as both dangerous and illegal by the US. The US is seeking to achieve denuclearization by creating political, economic, and military pressure on the DPRK. Preventive strikes have been a point of discussion but the US is well aware that North Korea has well-hidden and protected nuclear sites, and any military action is likely to start a conventional war on the peninsula. Given the size of North Korea’s army and its conventional arms (artillery and small arms), it will result in tremendous devastation to South Korea, including its capital located less than 200 miles from the border, as well as the possibility of a use of a nuclear bomb (Wertz 2018). Therefore, the US is seeking to avoid sparking the tensions that could lead to another major war.
Although that is not the official line, several US leaders and policymakers have voiced desire for a regime change in North Korea, particulary in hopes of establishing a democratically elected leadership in the country, one that would be more open to dialogue on denuclearization. Finally, a secondary policy objective for the US is to address human rights violations in North Korea which have been consistently ongoing for decades (Wertz 2018). This ranges from concentration camps and forced labor for its own people to jailing of any opposition and periodically, foreign nationals, under false pretenses. The US sees this as a gross violation of international law and condemns North Korea’s authoritatian regime.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, the DPRK became a satellite nation for China and US policy was simply to monitor and prevent escalation of tensions on the peninsula. There were some international incidents, which could have potentially triggered a US response, but the administrations at the time chose to not escalate tensions with the USSR or China. However, for decades, North Korea was sanctioned, and no US entity could interact, visit, or engage in trade with the country. A gradual warming of relations began with President Regan in 1988 which allowed some unofficial visits and laid the foundation for initial diplomacy (Cha 2012).
The greatest progress came under President Clinton (1993-2001) which adopted a policy of engagement with North Korea, seeking to achieve regional stability and denuclearization. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China’s influence not yet peaking, it was a perfect opportunity for the US to reset relations with its adversary. After intense negotiations with North Korea’s newly appointed leader Kim Jong-il, the US government and North Korea decided on what is known as the Agreed Framework (1994) (Feffer 2003). Based on this agreement, North Korea would shut down its primary nuclear reactor, and abandon others. In exchange, the US would lift sanctions, provide fuel, and help build ‘light fuel’ nuclear power plants that would be difficult to use for weapon-grade plutonium. Furthermore, the diplomatic freeze would be lifted and the US promised not to use nuclear weapons on the nuclear peninsula. However, the deal quickly fell through as Republicans who won Congress completely rejected the deal and did not offer funding for the framework (Cha 2012). Meanwhile, the agreement was not taken seriously in North Korea who understood that the US was waiting the socioeconomic collapse of the regime due to the dire situation in the country. However, the Agreed Framework was the closest the two countries have come to any bilateral treaty to this day.
When George W. Bush came into power in 2001, it was evident that North Korea was not going to honor the Agreed Framework and possessed much more advanced nuclear technology than assumed by the US. Bush quickly withdrew support for diplomacy and trade with North Korea, announcing it to be a part of the “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran after the 9/11 attacks (Feffer 2003). The relations between the two countries soured once again, and North Korea feeling threatened by aggressive rhetoric of the Bush administration and its invasion of Iraq, began to rapidly develop its nuclear program, conducting first tests in 2006. The Bush administration failed in its attempts of using coercive diplomacy because it created an artificial context of isolation and insecurity for the DPRK. It both, pushed North Korea into a corner, but also could not make it clear what the consequences would be if the DPRK continued with its nuclear program (Cha & Katz 2018). Therefore, evaluating the cost-benefit, it was more beneficial for North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons rather than not, and the Bush administration never engaged in measures to build confidence or assurances for the DPRK not to do so.
When President Obama came into office into 2008, the US was in the middle of a large strategic pivot towards the Asia-Pacific to address the expansion of China. Obama acknowledged that the DPRK was on the wrong side of history, but for the first time since the Cold War, it was essentially ignored for several years (Ahn 2018). It is only by Obama’s second term that some attempts at diplomacy began by attempting to resume the Six Party Talks, but was quickly marred by scandal. Obama sought to pursue a strategy of patience, but was often accused of being lethargic on the issue. It is only once North Korea greatly increased tests of its delivery systems and openly engaged in aggressive rhetoric, did Obama act by placing more heavy sanctions on North Korea (Cumings 2020). Furthermore, the administration rallied the UN Security Council to unanimously condemn and sanction North Korea’s nuclear program, even gaining the support of Russia and China (Ahn 2018). This administration’s approach was ineffective and demonstrated weak engagement policies while sanctions have little effect as the DPRK is able to bypass them.
Upon entering office, President Trump in 2017, initiated a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on North Korea, which was testing intercontinental missiles, now capable of potentially reaching the US territory (Cumings 2020). Tensions were rising as Trump also used Twitter to trade insults with Kim Jung-un. However, North Korea than proclaimed its nuclear forces completed and drastically shifted rhetoric towards diplomacy. Trump became the first active US president to meet with a North Korean leader, which brought significant publicity to Kim Jung-un. In a series of two summits, Trump sought to engage North Korea in the attempt to thaw relations. However, Trump failed to think in the long-term, portraying the meetings as a success to policy, which was not the case (Cumings 2020). In fact, negotiations were difficult as each leader proposed highly radical positions that the other could not accept, Trump wanted full denuclearization while Kim Jung-un wanted a full lifting of sanctions. Although a nonbinding declaration was made towards cooperation, there was no substantial progress (Cha and Katz 2018). However, the DPRK did not even halt development of its weapons, producing one of the largest missiles to date and launching a satellite into space, both components of an intercontinental nuclear capability.
The Biden administration which came into office in 2021 has not made their approach to North Korea abundantly clear. They have indicated a “calibrated, practical approach” suggesting that they are attempting to view denuclearization of North Korea more realistically, meaning that it is a long-term strategic challenge (Panda 2021). Biden is taking a policy approach which is between Trump’s all out method and Obama’s laissez-faire. Seeing the numerous failures of the past policies, Biden is pursuing a realistic approach of taking small steps with concrete goals. The administration hopes to begin negotiations to secure an agreement that would be acceptable for both the US and the DPRK (Panda 2021). Biden has also secured support from South Korea and have laid out a framework of cooperationg with them aimed at building the inter-Korean ties, with potentially declaring an official end to the Korean War, being a first step of decreasing hostilities with North Korea.
This pragmatic policy approach by Biden of ‘management through deterrence’ is one of the more realistic possibilities, but still holds numerous challenges including North Korea’s current hostile stance, China’s influence, and other geopolitical crises, such as Ukraine (Kim 2022). Ironically, the Ukraine crisis provides a greater push for North Korea to achieve full nuclear capability. That is because it is yet another example of a country which gave up its nuclear ambitions (back in the 1990s as part of the Budapest Agreement promising security guarantees) but saw its sovereignty violated by an invading large military power, similar to the fates of Iraq, Lybia, and Syria.
Although past policies failed to deter North Korea, they presented certain lessons for the future. Bush showed that hostilities would only fuel the DPRK’s insitance on nuclearization. Obama demonstrated that sanctions and hoping for North Korea to collapse due to economic hardship is ineffective, a mistake that Clinton also made. Trump showed that engagement is possible, and despite his hubris, lowered the plank for future presidents to meet with North Korean leadership (Stellard 2020). Given the top-down approach of North Korean authoritarian governance, it is inherently up to Kim Jung-un and leadership to decide the country’s nuclear direction and diplomatic direction. 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).
Biden has made the most realistic approach to policy to date which is accepting that North Korea will not denuclearize in one clear sweep. At the same time, despite assumptions, Kim Jung-un and his leadership are highly pragmatic and rational. They are driven by the desire of North Korea to rejoin the world economy and improving relations with South Korea and the United States. While that is partially self-focused, as the DPRK is currently under tremendous economic pressure due to declining trade with closed borders because of COVID-19, and has faced issues with their agriculture and natural disasters (Einhorn 2021). The correct policy approach would be to start rebuilding trust and reaching out to North Korea, providing the aid necessary, with an understanding that they should be making concessions. These may be small at first, such as committing to not test anymore missiles or stop production of plutonium, but they should be concrete, not abstract promises.
Going forward, it is suggested that the US adopt an approach known as public diplomacy. Public diplomacy supports traditional diplomatic efforts and measured interactions between politicians on short-term nuclear negotiations. However, it also seeks to create change in North Korea in the long-term through a bottom-up approach (Baek 2021). As in any authoritarian isolated society, people are seeking freedoms, information, and support, both at the elite level and the regular working class. The more North Korea opens up to the world, the greater the opportunity to influence this. Public diplomacy is three tiered approach focusing on 1) sustained change, 2) information distribution and access in North Korea, and 3) understanding, informing, and empowering the North Korean population towards change (Baek 2021)
This is a complex policy position, but it ultimately focuses on long-term proactive planning and soft power influence rather than a reactionary approach which only forces North Korea into paranoid isolation. If effective, it would enable the population to seek change in the country from within, moving towards some elements of democratization and creating internal pressure for the regime to rejoin the global economy and world order (Baek 2021). However, to do so, they would need to significantly denuclearize. Therefore, the change is self-driven and likely to be more sustainable, and can potentially lead to a regime change or forcing the government to adapt, leading to potential improved human rights and a self-driven denuclearization (Baek 2021). The policy will likely see more progress and success since it relies on the internal self-realization of North Koreans, rather than outside forces attempting to pressure the country into submission.
From analysis of past, current, and potential future policy, it becomes evident that the approaches commonly exercised in the past of attempting to isolate and sanction North Korea with the hopes that it collapses or changes its perspective, is hopeless. In fact, approaches which showed the most promise were policies of engagement with North Korea. Despite the common misconception of its leadership being erratic and ideologically extreme, they are too driven by pragmatic realities of the survival of their country.
It is recommended that direct diplomatic contact is resumed immediately and discussions begin on the ways of normalizing relations between the two countries. It should be accepted that North Korea is a nuclear nation so a hard push for denuclearization will not achieve progress. Instead, the aim should be to softly offer incentives to halt development of the program and begin to find ways to build trust, including through South Korea which continues to remain culturally tied to its former brotherly nation. Using the policy of public diplomacy of soft power influence, information dissemination, and diplomatic interactions, potential change can be achieved over long-term. Even if the DPRK develops a fully capable nuclear weapon, it would be best to have a cooperative relationship with the country and provide assurances to avoid any potential tensions or misunderstanding that may lead to a nuclear crisis.
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