The Challenge of a Nuclear North Korea: Dark Clouds, Only One Silver Lining


Even before his election, Barack Obama had signaled his willingness to meet at a high level with officials of governments like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a stance that caused great anxiety on the part of America’s South Korean and Japanese allies. Specialists advising his campaign, some of whom would later join the new government, had conducted diplomacy with Pyongyang during the late Clinton Administration, perhaps the least acrimonious period in U.S.-DPRK relations. As it came into office, the new administration sent private reaffirmation of its intent to engage.

Yet despite the open hand that President Obama offered America’s adversaries in his inaugural address, North Korea chose to respond with a clenched fist. It tested a long-range ballistic missile on April 4, 2009 and a nuclear device several weeks later on May 25th. Planning for these provocations probably began before the president took office and before his policy took shape.[1]

We may never be sure why North Korea took this course of action. But its apparent failure to test the Obama Administration’s willingness to engage raises questions about its fundamental intentions. It also has implications for the Six Party Talks (6PT), the multilateral effort to which Pyongyang was a party, whose working assumption was that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs in exchange for normalization of relations with the United States and Japan, economic assistance, and a security guarantee. Since the United States has pursued denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula for much of the past two decades, a negative assessment of North Korean goals should prompt a shift in American policy. This essay explores these issues and what they mean for U.S. policy. It concludes the following:

  • As long as the DPRK’s top leader, Kim Jong-il remains in power, the chances of it giving up nuclear weapons in return for political and economic benefits are slim to none.
  • This is because a DPRK willingness to pursue the bargain proffered in the 6PT would force the regime to make fundamental and unpalatable choices about how to ensure its survival and ensure the security of the state. Eschewing the bargain is, for Pyongyang, the “least worst” way of ensuring its survival.
  • Because North Korea no longer accepts the primary goal of the 6PT, the other five powers must seek to contain the dangers and consequences of its recalcitrance, in part to enhance deterrence but particularly to shape the choices of the next DPRK leadership.
  • In the interim, the other five powers must be prepared for a series of North Korean provocations. Engaging in such actions is part of the Pyongyang playbook. In response, the United States, South Korea, and Japan need to improve their playbook.
  • The best chance for a significant change in DPRK policies (the “silver lining” of the current situation) is a political succession, apparently now underway due to Kim Jong-il’s poor health. The most likely arrangement is a Regency, in which the regime’s key power-holders will rule while grooming Kim’s youngest son to take over. There is a chance, and only a chance, that this group may decide that  they require a new policy approach to ensuring the country’s security and development, an approach that is more consistent with U.S., South Korean, and Japanese interests.
  • There is another reason for Five Power cooperation: the Pyongyang regime may not survive the transition from the Kim Jong-il era. Regime fragmentation or collapse will affect the interests of the other powers, but in different ways and creates the potential for conflict.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry once said, “United States policy must, therefore, deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be.” If the above conclusions are correct, dealing with North Korea as it is will be a short-, medium-, and long-term challenge. The odds are that the DPRK will refuse to give up its nuclear weapons, so Washington should no longer make that the basis of its policy. A more compelling premise is that North Korea will be a destabilizing factor in Northeast Asia for some time to come.[2]

[1] Jonathan D. Pollack, “Kim Jong-il’s Clenched Fist,” The Washington Quarterly, vol. 32 (October 2009), p. 155.

[2] “Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations,” unclassified report by Dr. William J. Perry, U.S. North Korea Policy Coordinator and Special Advisor to the President and the Secretary of State, October 12, 1999 (