North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program remains one of the most challenging threats to the security of the United States and our allies. The despotic Kim Jong Un regime has used money laundering, counterfeiting, cybercrimes, overseas labor, and drug trafficking to enrich itself and pay for its WMD program, all while committing gross human rights violations at home. International efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program escalated after their first nuclear test in 2006, precipitating a series of binding U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development and leveraging multilateral sanctions to stymie the programs.
In recent years, the situation has grown even more dangerous. In the summer and fall of 2017, North Korea conducted two tests of its Hwasong-14 missile, fired ballistic missiles directly over Japan into the Pacific, and detonated what it claims was a thermonuclear bomb. That November, they test-fired its new Hwasong-15, a missile that analysts believe could have reached the entirety of the U.S. mainland.
of the American public opposes airstrikes against North Korea’s nuclear production facilities if no deal can be reached, according to a Chicago Council survey.
North Korea’s military advancements during this time were met with harsh and inflammatory rhetoric from President Trump, who threatened the nation with “fire and fury,” and warned that the U.S. would “totally destroy” the country. Reports indicated the White House gave serious consideration to reckless military strikes against the country – a so-called “bloody nose” approach. Experts agree that the U.S. lacks a viable military option against North Korea. Aside from massive casualties on the Korean Peninsula, including the deaths of thousands of American citizens, a conflict with North Korea could trigger a nuclear exchange or risk escalating to a regional conflict that would include other nuclear armed states.
In an abrupt reversal, President Trump embraced unprecedented diplomatic engagement with North Korea by meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June 2018. While President Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were a welcome change from the “fire and fury” days of 2017, the diplomatic opening did not yield any progress on the North Korean nuclear threat or advance peace in a lasting way. The Trump administration’s stubborn insistence that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons prior to any sanctions relief was an unrealistic goal. Instead of embracing a step-by-step process championed by experts, the Trump administration’s all-or-nothing approach spoiled any goodwill built up by the leader-to-leader outreach.
Crucial to any North Korea strategy is maintaining good relations with South Korea. However, during President Trump’s tenure, he strained the relationship by demanding South Korea increase its financial contributions for housing U.S. troops. President Moon of South Korea, meanwhile, has also staked his legacy on making peace with North Korea and an important aspect of that plan was to increase inter-Korean economic cooperation. However, despite President Trump’s diplomatic outreach, the U.S. sanctions regime against North Korea prevented South Korea from carrying out some of the economic projects that could have warmed relations.
President Biden took office with a North Korea whose military capabilities have increased. In early 2021, North Korea held a military parade that displayed new military hardware, including a road-mobile, solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missile, or SRBM and a new two-stage submarine-launched ballistic missile. This is on top of additional military capabilities that were displayed in a previous military parade in October 2020, which included a display of a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), but which has not been tested to date.
“The United States must continue multilateral pressure and diplomatic efforts tor each a solution that ensures the American people and our allies are safe from a nuclear Kim regime.”— Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) Hear this quote in context On North Korea-U.S. Relations
In recent months, North Korea has grown more aggressive in its nuclear saber-rattling, with Kim Jong Un saying that nuclear weapons could be used pre-emptively and would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent.” Indeed, North Korea seems intent on bettering its nuclear and missile capabilities. It launched over 18 missile tests in the first half of 2022 alone, it is advancing its submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and it is seemingly try to couple its existing intercontinental ballistic missile capability with multiple, independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) – allowing one North Korean missile to take out numerous cities.
South Korea’s situation has also changed of late, with a new administration elected in early 2022. Although a strong supporter of the U.S.-ROK alliance, President Yoon has voiced support for dangerously hawkish policies, such as a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Moreover, consensus at the U.N. Security Council on North Korea is proving even more elusive, with China and Russia recently rejecting language that would have have condemned North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches. President Biden has consistently tried to engage partners and allies to deal with North Korea; he moved quickly early in his term to conclude a cost-sharing agreement with South Korea for hosting U.S. troops. This approach stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s demand of exorbitant increases in the amount of money South Korea contributed to hosting U.S. service members. However, sources of tension still exist between the United States and its allies on how to best approach the North Korea issue. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in North Korea remains dire. The U.N. estimates that 40% of the population is in need of some form of humanitarian assistance related to chronic food insecurity, widespread malnutrition, and limited access to clean water and quality health services – challenges likely compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic, North Korea closed its border and implemented strict quarantine measures, which has drastically reduced trade and travel even with its main economic lifeline in China. Despite these measures, the Omicron outbreak has devastated the country and hampered its ability to negotiate.
The Biden-Harris administration promised a phased approach instead of the “all-or-nothing” grand bargain strategy of the Trump administration. The goal still remains “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” but it seems President Biden recognizes the path to get there will need to come in phases with potentially shorter or interim deals. While this position is a welcome shift, there remains the challenge of actually engaging North Korea. So far, North Korea has still refused to return the Biden-Harris administration’s attempts at diplomatic engagement.
A step-by-step approach remains the best and most realistic way to achieve a peaceful and denuclearized Korean peninsula. Confidence building measures to ungird this approach could include opening liaison offices in both Pyongyang and Washington, declaring an end of the Korean War, facilitating humanitarian assistance, reuniting separated Korean-American and North Korean families, verified dismantling of some of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and missile programs, and sanctions relief.
The Biden-Harris administration is right to conduct a policy review towards North Korea. A deliberate approach to weigh what worked and what didn’t during the Obama and Trump administrations is a necessary exercise to prevent the inconsistent approach that characterized the Trump years. The ultimate goal must be to prevent a conflict with North Korea and begin to roll back their nuclear program. A military conflict with North Korea could quickly result in the deaths of several hundred thousand people, including thousands of U.S. service members and civilians stationed in South Korea, and spiral into a broader regional conflict.
While the Biden-Harris administration undertakes its policy review, we’re asking Members of Congress to preserve conditions that will enable good faith diplomatic efforts to freeze and eventually roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. Here are two things you can do:
Wilson Center, May 2022A Principled US Diplomatic Strategy Toward North Korea
38 North, February 2021Empowering Congress on the Korean Peninsula
38 North, February 2021Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea
Arms Control AssociationThe U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance
Arms Control AssociationChronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy
Arms Control AssociationNorth Korea Nuclear Overview
Nuclear Threat InitiativeWhy Insisting on a North Korean Nuclear Declaration Up Front is a Big Mistake
38 North, November 2018Giving North Korea a ‘Bloody Nose’ Carries a Huge Risk to Americans
The Washington Post, January 2018The Myth of the Limited Strike on North Korea
Foreign Affairs, January 2018