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North Korea Expects:

  • To eliminate existential threats from the United States.
  • That the United States will be deterred from attacking a country amply armed with nuclear weapons.

Q: What is the greatest challenge facing the United States’ relationship with North Korea?

A: With North Korea, President Elect Trump is inheriting a problem that has plagued his predecessors for over two decades; the country’s unrelenting development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. These programs, which grew rapidly after the Agreed Framework was abandoned, now represent one of the most serious national security challenges facing the new administration. The outgoing administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which rests on the principle of applying sanctions and relying on China’s leverage while waiting for North Korea to either collapse or make the decision to abandon its nuclear program, failed to halt and reverse the threat. A continuation of the outgoing administration’s policy will guarantee that four years from now the situation will be far worse and the options available to the United States will be even narrower.

It is difficult to gauge what North Korea, one of the most insular countries in the world with a highly opaque ruling power structure, expects from the incoming Trump Administration. With no diplomatic relations and extremely limited access to North Korean officials, American analysts struggle to penetrate into the strategic mindset of the North and understand the complex political and historical dynamics that shaped—and continue to shape—its leadership’s thinking on strategic priorities toward the United States.

North Korea has been trying to talk to the United States since 1974 in order to establish a modus vivendi and minimize an existential threat to the regime. Until 2006 they even used their nuclear program as a bargaining chip to achieve these goals. North Korea now treats its nuclear program as a vital component of the regime’s national security strategy and not as a bargaining chip, having learned from the Iraq War and NATO intervention in Libya that no outlier state without nuclear deterrence is safe. This is the justification for their ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile activities. The regime seems to believe that the United States will be deterred from attacking a country amply armed with nuclear weapons.

Yet, if we are to take North Korea at its word, the regime still seeks to eliminate existential threats from the United States. They hope to achieve this by extracting security guarantees and replacing the Korean War armistice with a permanent peace agreement. Pyongyang may therefore be encouraged by the election of Donald Trump. After all, as a candidate, President-elect Trump suggested that he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over hamburgers. North Korea in turn praised candidate Trump as a “wise politician.”  

Q: What can be done?

A: The incoming administration will need to immediately reconsider its continued dependence on China. As a candidate, President Elect Trump suggested that China has the ability to exercise significant political influence over North Korea. However, as Communist bloc documents obtained by the Wilson Center suggest, U.S. analysts of North Korea have long exaggerated the submissiveness of Pyongyang to Beijing. Over many decades, North Korea has perceived China as intrusive and disrespectful of Korean sovereignty. Expecting China to influence North Korean policies means asking China to do precisely what North Korea most resents. Chinese officials also recognize that complying with the West’s wishes would only antagonize North Korea further.

The incoming administration will also need to reassess the strategy of using financial sanctions as an instrument of political influence. While a policy of deterrence through sanctions is essential—and financial sanctions will certainly further impair North Korea’s economy over the long term—the near term impact of sanctions as an instrument of political influence or as an inducement for concessions is limited. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, North Korea has lived under sanctions-like conditions since the Korean War. Its leaders have developed methods for coping. Second, North Korea is not integrated into the global economy. They are not dependent on exports or on access to international institutions like other countries. By practicing a policy of economic autarky since the 1950s, they have essentially self-sanctioned. Third, China shields North Korea from the most crippling of sanctions to avert state and societal collapse and instability along its border. Fourth, like other authoritarian regimes, North Korea is skilled at mobilizing indigenous human and material resources to make do with less. Finally, North Korea’s leaders consider the loss of a segment of the population to starvation an acceptable loss as long as the ruling circle is shielded from the economic costs of the sanctions. This allows the regime to withstand what would topple most governments.

The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula must remain the top priority for the United States, which will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state. As a first step, the incoming administration should be aware of the shortcomings of the outgoing administration’s policy of depending on China and financial sanctions. It should also recognize that with each new test North Korea gets closer to mounting a warhead on a missile capable of striking one of our allies or a U.S. military base in the region, or even the U.S. homeland itself. In the face of North Korea’s continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, President Elect Trump should therefore consider entering into talks with North Korea to negotiate a freeze of nuclear tests and fissile material production as the start of a phased program of denuclearization.

A freeze would be only the beginning. North Korea has agreed to freezes before only to restart programs once talks stalled or the United States turned its attention elsewhere. Once a freeze is achieved, the United States and the international community need to take Pyongyang’s security concerns more seriously, abandon policies predicated on the regime’s anticipated collapse, and fully enmesh North Korea in a system whereby its leaders never again feel that they need to resort to provocations to achieve their diplomatic, political, or economic goals. This has never truly been done before. Robust and unrelenting diplomacy is needed to discourage a return to the old patterns. And if this strategy of initial aggressive and sustained diplomacy fails, the administration would reserve the option to significantly escalate pressure on the regime.


James Person

James Person

Global Fellow;
Professor of Korean Studies and Asia Programs, JHU SAIS; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS
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Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

North Korea International Documentation Project

The North Korea International Documentation Project serves as an informational clearinghouse on North Korea for the scholarly and policymaking communities, disseminating documents on the DPRK from its former communist allies that provide valuable insight into the actions and nature of the North Korean state. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more