The policy approach toward North Korea is notoriously difficult. So far, no US leader has been able to achieve meaningful progress. That is likely due to the fundamentally different policy goals between the two countries, and neither is willing to accept the other’s demands. 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.
US Policy Goals
In order to understand the policy issue, it is critical to identify the policy goals of both sides. The US views North Korea as a rogue state which poses a regional and potentially global threat. That is because North Korea has consistently threatened to attack US bases in allied countries such as Japan or South Korea. North Korea was largely ignored until it began to rapidly develop its nuclear program in the 1990s. Since then, denuclearization has been the primary objective of US policy, as it has tried diplomacy, aid, economic pressure, military threats, and much more unsuccessfully. The US views DPRK as a totalitarian state which does not accept its values or seek to engage in goodwill diplomacy.
North Korea Policy Goals
The policy approach by North Korea can be viewed as highly paranoid, perhaps justifiably to an extent, but it is a remnant of the Cold War era. The US is concerned with the nuclearization of North Korea more than with its inherent ideology. While yes, human rights are a worry for the US. It is also believed that if relations with North Korea were normalized, there would be greater access to resources and information in the isolated country. However, DPRK’s active pursuit of nuclearization and ballistic missile technology, both of which are meant to be non-proliferated technologies, are threatening and concerning.
Background to the Issue
The US and North Korea have been in antagonistic relations since the end of the Korean War. The US largely ignored DPRK outside of several instances of provocations with the US contingent in South Korea. However, towards the end of the Cold War, North Korea began to pursue nuclear weapon programs similar to various other rogue states at the time, such as Iraq, Iran, and Libya, given the globalization that was rapidly occurring. Given North Korea’s isolated status, it was actually a benefit, as its program advanced more rapidly and without Western intervention. Almost all nuclear tests and later tests of hydrogen bombs and missiles were a surprise to the US and demonstrated the tremendous technological progress of North Korea.
Main Issue and Status
The US policy towards North Korea is tremendously outdated. It is attempting to denuclearize a country that is essentially just a few years away from full nuclear capability and most likely has that ability on short-range delivery modes. North Korea also highly mistrusts the US because it is evident that for decades, the US has wanted to sponsor a regime change in the country. Given the family ruling dynasty, Kim Jung-un is unlikely to back down from its nuclear status even in exchange for lifting sanctions. The US must change its approach to focus on the security of the region with the general acceptance that DPRK is now a nuclear nation and seek to improve relations so that the conflict between the two countries does not evolve beyond some ideological confrontations.
Up until the 2000s, the policy approach to North Korea was either to largely ignore it or attempt to engage it, which the most progress was achieved by Clinton. His diplomatic attempts made the furthest progress with North Korea out of all the other administrations before and after. The Agreed Framework was inherently a good first-stage deal, leading to DPRK stopping producing enriched plutonium for a number of years, which set their program back significantly. Unfortunately, it failed due to both sides failing to compromise and come to the negotiating table again because of inherent mistrust. This was then followed by one of the most aggressive administrations toward DPRK, which likely set back progress because the country saw the US as an existential threat to its regime and survival.
Obama’s approach was viewed as one of patience but also highly questionable. It was during his presidency that DPRK arguably made the most progress on its nuclear and missile technologies. Obama expected sanctions to be effective, and when they were not, they encouraged other countries to join in creating pressure, even involving China. Similarly, Trump attempted to apply a maximum pressure campaign on North Korea, but DPRK’s isolation made it resilient, and the regime has been able to control its population despite multiple ongoing crises. The ‘carrot’ attempt to then engage with Kim Jung-un directly led diplomatically to nothing more than non-binding declarations. Both leaders proposed deals that the other could not accept, allowing the talks to fall through.
Biden’s policy currently is largely not clear. They are not pursuing an actively antagonistic approach, but nothing is being done besides some public condemnations of weapon tests. Albeit, the administration is caught in a cycle of continued crises such as COVID, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine. Nevertheless, the administration has not formulated an approach other than to continue supporting Obama-era sanctions. There does seem to be some unspoken acceptance that DPRK is virtually a nuclear nation, so it remains highly unlikely it would willingly give up and shut down the whole program.
The proposed policy takes on the approach of public diplomacy, which is focused on long-term sustained change in North Korea. There is an emphasis on attempting to restart diplomacy with the aim of influencing DPRK internally through aid, commercialization, empowerment of the population, and subtle efforts to counter state propaganda with information. The purpose is not necessarily to democratize North Korea but create an understanding and belief internally of its people that they would want a better country and society for themselves.
The aim of the proposed policy is a long-term approach, attempting to avoid the reactionary rhetoric and sanctions that have only inspired DPRK to pursue its program further. This policy is risky and relies on long-term access to the North Korean people and leadership, gradually molding their understanding of the world and the United States. The goal is lower tensions, promote negotiations, and establish ties not just economically and politically but culturally and socially. At this point, denuclearization is not possible, so the best temporary solution would be to halt further progression. By drawing North Korea out of isolation, there is greater potential to influence social and internal change, which would then create internal pressures on the regime to adopt measures to reduce human rights violations and potentially make steps back on its nuclear program in exchange for greater international support.
These are the recommendations to begin implementing the proposed policy. The first steps will have to come from the US as a demonstration of good faith diplomacy, even if the US government is well aware that North Koreans will not engage at first. The key is to establish diplomatic backchannels and begin negotiations to at least understand the full complexity of the situation and where sides can compromise. First-stage agreements, no matter how symbolic, are a step toward maintaining an open dialogue. The US should not demand full denuclearization but a phased approach, even willing to give up significant pressure if North Korea does not test ballistic missiles, for example. The approach should focus on a gradual build-up of trust and diplomacy.
Without a doubt, the foreign policy situation with North Korea is one of the most difficult it has faced. This is a country that is ideologically extreme, with a regime that views military posturing as its only means of survival, not just from external threats but internal ones, given the desperate socio-economic and practical realities. US policy to date has been ineffective and continues to push DPRK over the edge, so a maximum pressure campaign is unlikely to achieve anything beyond escalating the crisis. The goal of the proposed policy is to de-escalate tensions, begin building some foundations for trust, and provide ways for the regime to stand down on its nuclear ambitions without losing face or completely giving up its security. Phased denuclearization with more open relations can potentially achieve more progress in the long term.
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. Web.
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.