A More Realistic and Restrained US Policy Toward North Korea

(Photo: Rodong Sinmun.)

The Washington foreign policy establishment—what Ben Rhodes, former President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser derisively dismissed as “the Blob”—is apprehensive and befuddled over what policies would be most effective in eliminating the threat posed by a hostile North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. US administrations of both political parties have tried several different tactical approaches over the past twenty years. But the policy framework—complete, immediate and fully verifiable denuclearization first; peace, reconciliation, normalization of relations, sanctions relief and stability on the Korean Peninsula later—has largely stayed the same, with predictable results: little progress in achieving any of these outcomes. An unconventional president who is desperate for a foreign policy win on North Korea, the persistent failure of US policy toward North Korea and the upcoming presidential election will hopefully spur a debate on whether a less establishment-oriented paradigm would be more successful in achieving US national security objectives on the Korean Peninsula.

The Central Flaw of US Policy

The liberal internationalist proclivities of the Obama years and the neoconservatism of the Bush era both centered on a similar combination of economic pressure on North Korea, measures to strengthen deterrence against North Korean aggression and the US-South Korea alliance, and denuclearization talks—and both failed to blunt North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in any meaningful way. Both administrations entered office with a woefully misinformed view of how quickly North Korea’s denuclearization could be achieved, in large part because they failed to internalize the reasons the North chose to go nuclear: a preternatural fear of external attack; distrust of US intentions on the Korean Peninsula; and a concern that any peace with the US would be short-lived.

Both Bush and Obama entered office believing that they were uniquely situated to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue once and for all. Throughout his two terms, Bush was highly skeptical about the utility of negotiations with the North Koreans and remained convinced that a carrot-and-stick approach would ultimately compel Pyongyang to embrace nuclear disarmament. Obama promised dramatic reform to his predecessor’s diplomacy with the DPRK. Yet like Bush, he underestimated the Herculean objective Washington was trying to accomplish and overestimated his power to achieve it. After the collapse of the 2012 Leap Day Deal, the Obama administration spent the remainder of its tenure wary of any dealings with North Korea.

To this day, there is a stubborn unwillingness by US policymakers to accept the reality that they are chasing an unrealistic and unattainable policy objective. Never in history has a country devoted so much intellectual, financial and political capital to acquire a fully operational nuclear arsenal of as many as 60 nuclear warheads, only to give them away in exchange for vague promises of future normalization, sanctions relief and security assurances. The reality that the North Korea nuclear problem can only be managed and contained rather than solved never sat comfortably with either administration. What we see instead from the Trump administration, especially from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is a lot of whistling past the graveyard.

A North Korea Policy Based on Realism and Restraint

Realists accept the world as it is and construct policies that are most appropriate to the circumstances, opportunities and constraints at hand. Policy is crafted with a steely-eyed understanding of what national security objectives are realistically achievable at a reasonable cost and which are highly unlikely given the circumstances. Realists also seek to understand the motivations, concerns, fears and desires of the other party, whether an ally, friend, partner or adversary. Unlike liberal internationalists or neoconservatives, realists understand that weak states, in particular, are inherently concerned about their own self-preservation in a highly competitive and unforgiving world. Equally important, a realist foreign policy aligns means with ends and values prudence and pragmatism over grandiose, pie-in-the-sky proclamations that are typically unattainable absent a transformational change in the geopolitical environment.

A realist North Korea policy would, therefore, treat denuclearization as a long-term aspiration prospect rather than an implausible short-term goal that the Kim regime may never accept due to its turbulent history with the United States and its own legitimate insecurities. Nuclear negotiations for the Kim regime are not just a discussion about the technical details of a nonproliferation agreement, but rather an existential matter that simply can’t be dictated by Washington’s calendar or fabulist thinking. It stretches credulity to believe that Kim would rip apart a security blanket his grandfather and father stitched together at considerable cost, no matter how much he claims that economic development is now a higher priority than nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration, although unconventional in its rhetoric and diplomacy toward North Korea, is largely following the same all-or-nothing playbook of its predecessors: if Pyongyang wishes to become a full-fledged member of the international community, it must first abandon its nuclear deterrent as quickly as possible. Realists understand that this is a poison pill for Kim—one that would kill a diplomatic process capable of producing significant, albeit incremental progress. From this perspective, complete and immediate denuclearization should no longer be the sole goal by which diplomatic success or failure is judged, but instead one goal among many —and not even the most important one in the short-to-medium term. While pursuing less ambitious objectives is anathema for the proponents of maximalist diplomacy, it is absolutely necessary if Washington hopes to stabilize and improve upon a historically adversarial bilateral relationship.

Washington’s entire negotiating strategy with the North is in desperate need of pragmatism and incrementalism. If the US expects North Korea to abandon its nuclear deterrent, it will have to offer political and economic concessions and ironclad security guarantees that are commensurate with nuclear disarmament. In addition, the diplomatic process will need to proceed in multiple stages, with parity and reciprocity in concessions the rule rather than the exception. The substantial lack of mutual trust will kill any agreement prefaced on an all-for-all grand bargain, which in turn would be used by hardliners in both Washington and Pyongyang to adopt a more confrontational strategy. Trust will need to be built slowly, with both sides testing one another’s intentions.

Similarly, the United States needs a heavy dose of restraint in what it aims to accomplish during each stage of the process. With immense patience and the right package of concessions, North Korea’s complete and verifiable denuclearization may still be possible on a longer time horizon. But it won’t be accomplished in weeks or months. Washington must focus instead on creating an environment where denuclearization becomes more conceivable over the long term because Kim has decided that the disadvantages of possessing nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits. Success should not be judged on the final resolution, but on whether realistic progress is achieved at every step in the process. A freeze on North Korea’s production of nuclear fuel, warheads and long-range missiles; international verification of any caps and freezes; a gradual rollback of the Yongbyon and Kangson facilities; and a general state of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula would be significant accomplishments.

A US strategy toward North Korea based on the twin pillars of realism and restraint would make the following adjustments to the current USG approach:

Normalization and Denuclearization

Establishing a more constructive, long-term US-DPRK relationship should no longer be a reward for the North’s complete nuclear dismantlement but would be treated as an explicit US security objective in its own right. Communication between US and DPRK officials at the senior and working levels would be encouraged and broadened to include more issues of mutual interest, with possible agreements focused around small but tangible issues that put the bilateral relationship on a more solid footing. In lieu of formal normalization of diplomatic relations—the political climate in Washington is highly unlikely to support granting the Kim regime such status until denuclearization is finalized and other aspects of its behavior, such as its egregious human rights violations, are addressed—the US and North Korea would agree to open liaison offices in one another’s capitals with the specific purpose of regularizing bilateral contact; increasing understanding about one another’s intentions and positions; solving issues as they arise; and diminishing the chances of a miscalculation turning into a crisis. All of these measures would occur before, not during or after, denuclearization is achieved.

End the Korean War

Despite a 69-year-old armistice of hostilities, the US and North Korea are still technically in a state of war. While the armistice has prevented a return to large-scale conventional hostilities, the hostility and antagonism underlying the US-DPRK and North-South relationships are very much alive and well. Replacing the armistice with a peace treaty would be the most dramatic way to erode that hostility. Such an initiative is low cost for the United States and would demonstrate to the Kim regime that Washington is serious about transforming the bilateral relationship (the South Koreans, who have been advocating an end-of-war resolution or peace treaty, would be quick to support such a move). While concern about a peace treaty’s impact on the US force presence in South Korea is understandable, a drawdown would prompt an entirely different conversation between Washington and Seoul and a decision to proceed would be unlikely absent a consensual decision.

Denuclearization Should Not Obstruct Inter-Korean Reconciliation

Currently, the stagnation in US-DPRK nuclear talks poses an insuperable obstacle to the separate inter-Korean peace track initiated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim. The Moon administration’s attempts to decrease military tension along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), enhance North-South relations through cross-border economic projects and formalize sustained political contact are all complicated by a US and UN Security Council sanctions regime that obstructs its work. As long as Kim is not getting the sanctions relief and security assurances he seeks, South Korea’s room to maneuver will be limited and its ability to improve the inter-Korean relationship will be hostage to the pace of denuclearization talks. The Trump administration, uninterested in relaxing its policy of maximum sanctions pressure on North Korea, possesses a veto over the inter-Korean peace process. Without US agreement to carve-outs and exemptions to the sanctions regime, South Korea is virtually helpless to proceed with even minor joint economic projects with the North. A central precept of a more realistic strategy would delink North-South talks and accept the notion that South Korea has as much right as any other sovereign nation to improve diplomatic relations with any government it so chooses.


With the notable exception of the Clinton administration’s direct negotiations in the 1990s, US policy on North Korea has largely remained static and path-dependent. The Kim regime’s full and irreversible nuclear dismantlement has been the paramount national security priority for Washington across four successive administrations, including the present one. The failure to accomplish this goal has acted as kryptonite to more realistic and achievable objectives that are just as valuable for US security and the stability of Northeast Asia. A new overarching strategy dictated by realism and restraint has the potential to do what the mainstream approach has not accomplished—move the Korean Peninsula towards a more peaceful and stable future; remove the animus that prompted the Kim regime to become a nuclear weapons power in the first place; and increase the possibility of North Korea making the decision sometime in the future to cap, roll back and eventually get rid of its nuclear deterrent entirely.

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