The Challenge of a Nuclear North Korea

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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 has already issued several early warning shots at Biden, including bellicose statements ahead of U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea and a more recent flurry of short-range ballistic missile tests.

Biden has so far 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, Biden has been under pressure from his allies in South Korea to take a more flexible posture, including potentially easing U.S. sanctions. But so far he has taken no steps to do so, 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. With a new conservative South Korean president set to take office in Seoul, the window of opportunity for engagement might be closing 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 are suffering from food shortages.

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 round of missile tests pressure him into reengaging? What’s ahead for inter-Korean relations under President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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North Korea’s Muscle-Flexing Is Driving Seismic Shifts in East Asia

The rest of the world is not standing still because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whatever appearance the headlines may give. Just beneath the surface, dramatic changes are taking place that will change region after region, or possibly even broadly affect life around the world. The best example is in Northeast Asia, where North Korea’s recent spate of missile tests has put in motion still barely audible but momentous regional responses.

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 and Missile Programs

Pyongyang marked the start of 2022 with a series of ballistic missile tests. 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.

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. Whether he will actually be able to pursue the conciliatory approach favored by his allies in Seoul will depend on how Pyongyang responds to his early overtures.

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

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