The Challenge of a Nuclear North Korea

The Challenge of a Nuclear North Korea
Missiles during a military parade marking the Eighth Party Congress of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 14, 2021 (Photo by Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP Images).

Though North Korea’s nuclearization efforts have faded from the headlines, the country has continued to improve its capabilities. North Korea can now plausibly reach any location in the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, even as Pyongyang has diversified its delivery systems for launching long-range missiles, making its arsenals more likely to survive attack. In the absence of a deal to curb its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea’s arsenal will only grow more lethal.

Striking that deal was at the forefront of former President Donald Trump’s early foreign policy agenda. But despite a period of improved relations between North and South Korea and two unprecedented face-to-face meetings between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, no clear progress was made toward denuclearization. Instead of scoring his own foreign policy win, Trump handed Kim a monumental victory. In engaging with Trump, the North Korean leader not only avoided a military confrontation, but also won concessions—including the suspension of some joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises—and international legitimacy.

Trump’s approach also dug a hole for his successor, President Joe Biden. His insistence on meeting with Kim in made-for-TV summits undermined the work of U.S. diplomats, while signaling to Kim the benefits of brinksmanship. North Korea subsequently issued several early warning shots at Biden, including bellicose statements ahead of U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea and a flurry of short-range ballistic missile tests. Biden avoided the rhetorical tit-for-tat, while indicating he is open to renewed nuclear diplomacy and would even meet with Kim if it might help, though he has historically been a hawk on North Korea.

But so far Biden has taken no steps toward a more flexible posture, including potentially easing U.S. sanctions. Nor has he indicated any willingness to significantly alter America’s stance on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as the ultimate goal of any negotiations. Now conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has taken a harder line on relations with the North, even as Pyongyang has engaged in an unprecedented number of missile launches over the past year, signaling that the window of opportunity for engagement has closed even further.

Meanwhile, North Korean citizens have continued to suffer from the costs of the country’s isolation—and the Kim dynasty’s mismanagement. With global sanctions still in place, the population remains dependent on informal but officially tolerated markets and faces constant bribery demands from North Korean officials, according to a 2019 report from United Nations human rights officials. The World Food Program has estimated that more than 10 million North Koreans were suffering from food shortages, and that was before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which Pyongyang denied had reached the country until May 2022.

WPR has covered North Korea in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will Biden’s policy toward North Korea be any more effective than those of his predecessors? Will Pyongyang’s latest flurry of missile tests pressure him into reengaging? How will inter-Korean relations evolve under Yoon? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

The U.S. Shouldn’t Write Off Nuclear Nonproliferation and Arms Control

Nuclear risks, including that posed by North Korea, are steadily growing, while the fragile restraints that limited nuclear proliferation fall by the wayside. As we enter an era where major breakthroughs on arms control and nonproliferation are unlikely, the U.S. will face the unglamorous but still crucial task of trying to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

Nuclear and Missile Programs

Pyongyang marked the start of 2022 with a series of ballistic missile tests and ended the year with a flurry of test launches of shorter-range missiles. Whether that’s a message of defiance or an effort to pressure the Biden administration to come to the negotiating table is unclear. But one message is loud and clear: North Korea is pushing ahead with its weapons development. Pyongyang maintains that it has already developed a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States, but continued nuclear activity could lead global powers to raise the pressure on North Korea. That includes China, which would also like to see Pyongyang’s weapons program ended, as it would remove an excuse for Washington to maintain troops in South Korea.

Domestic Politics and North-South Relations

Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has made developing the country’s economy a priority, equal to the goal of achieving a nuclear weapons capability. As part of that initiative, he has tolerated the emergence of informal local markets, but any meaningful improvement in the population’s condition will require the lifting of international sanctions. Meanwhile, the relationship between North and South Korea continues to cycle between tensions and thaws, at times putting Seoul at cross-purposes with Washington.

Nuclear Diplomacy and U.S. Policy

After a bellicose beginning to the relationship between Trump and Kim, the two appeared to warm to each other. But ultimately, Trump’s team failed to put enough resources into its diplomatic engagement or to broaden the talks beyond just denuclearization, which may have backed Kim into a corner. Biden is distancing himself from the bombast of his predecessor, publicly indicating a willingness to restart talks. But Pyongyang’s response so far suggests he will have great difficulty in achieving any better results.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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