Considerations for the United States in North Korea


By Alton Lu

Ensuring security, promoting peace, and spreading influence across the world have been cornerstones of every American president’s foreign policy initiatives. However, North Korea has challenged these goals since the 1950s, and it has become difficult to deal with the competing objectives of China, South Korea, and Japan. Multiple rounds of UN sanctions have done little to curb the DPRK’s[1] nuclear ambitions, and no international appeal has prompted China to apply stricter sanctions. Japan and South Korea –two American allies – face continual threats from North Kora militancy, which forces the United States to engage in the region. The result has been the continual advancement of the North Korean nuclear program despite denouncements from the rest of the world. Understanding the competing objectives of major nations in the North Korean issue is essential to resolving the issue peacefully.

Since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)[2] entered into force in 1970, the five official nuclear-armed states[3] have had an interest in limiting proliferation to maintain nuclear exclusivity, while smaller states have had an interest in preventing proliferation for their own security purposes. Since nuclear programs are expensive, many small states would prefer the continued equilibrium and safety that exists with the official nuclear club (Bracken).

But that small-state interest doesn’t apply to North Korea. Facing threats from the United States and South Korea, the DPRK has continued their nuclear weapons programs for self-defense (Perry). The state’s paranoia is not unfounded. Back in 1953, Secretary of State John Dulles[4] told the UN Security Council that use of nuclear weapons may be required to end the conflict in Korea (Gwertzman). Forty years later, the DPRK pulled out of the NPT, stating that “we [have taken] the resolute action of pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and have manufactured nuclear arms for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK” (Roehrig). After a recent test in 2016, North Korea released another official statement: “The DPRK will take further measures to bolster the state nuclear force in quality and quantity for safeguarding its dignity and right to existence and genuine peace from the U.S. increasing threat of a nuclear war (sic)” (Clinch). These perceived threats from the United States have been the reasoning for continued nuclear weapons development.

But even if North Korea had convincing evidence that the United States posed no threat, North Korea still wouldn’t disarm. Kim Jong Un, like most dictators, is concerned with maintaining and holding power. Robert Manning, of the Brent Scowcroft Center stated:

[T]he Kim Jong Un regime’s very identity is so bound up with nuclear weapons that he changed the country’s constitution to declare North Korea a nuclear state. The bureaucratic inertia of four decades in the development of nuclear weapons and deep mutual distrust between the United States and North Korea are a powerful combination precluding denuclearization (Manning)

One of his key objectives is to ensure the Kim family rule in perpetuity, which is only possible with the continued development of the nuclear program. For the last three generations of the Kim family, nuclear weapons have provided a symbol of independence, security, and self-sufficiency. It represents the power, not just of Kim, but of the entire DPRK. Any sort of discussion that even considers a disarmed North Korea is doomed to failure. A reversal in the nuclear program for North Korea would be akin to a denouncement of democracy in the United States.

The United States is now struggling to determine a policy in Asia that reinforces the nuclear umbrella while minimizing the possibility of a North Korean attack on American soil. Balancing the protection of Japan and South Korea is difficult when the North views these moves as a threat to their sovereignty. While the United States struggles to fully commit to either umbrella reinforcement or threat minimization, support for nuclear weapons development in South Korea and Japan grows (Dalton). Yet, this is also at odds with another United States goal – to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are no good options for the United States. On one end, the U.S. can recommit to the nuclear umbrella and face the threat of losing Seattle to save Seoul. However, to minimize the possibility of attack on the mainland, the United States may have to accept further nuclear proliferation in East Asia.

However, further proliferation in East Asia is also at odds with China’s objectives in Asia China’s primary goals are to restrict nuclear weapons proliferation in Asia while maintaining a stable North Korea. China has no desire to be surrounded by nuclear weapons. Russia, India and Pakistan already possess nuclear weapons and surround China from the north to the west; a nuclear Japan and South Korea would bring weapons to the east and south. However, China also wants to avoid a humanitarian crisis and American soldiers on its border. China doesn’t see itself as a charity and sees North Korea as a useful buffer towards U.S. soldiers in South Korea. Like the U.S., China seeks two-mutually exclusive visions – the stability of North Korea and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula (Chun). To this date, China has chosen stability.

Creating a coherent strategy for North Korea is essential to securing American interests in Asia. Ensuring that American influence continues in Asia is increasingly important as China seeks to solidify their power in Asia. American resolve for nuclear deterrence is already being questioned in Japan and South Korea. Pulling back and allowing this crisis to continue will only weaken American influence at a time when China has begun to flex its global power. To solve this crisis and return to a long-term focus on America’s role in Asia, the United States needs to fully consider options that align with the objectives of every other nation in the game – namely China and North Korea.

[1] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Another name of North Korea.

[2] Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

[3] The five official nuclear states are the United States, Russia, UK, France, and China. Three other declared nuclear states are India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons, but maintains ambiguity.

[4] Secretary of State under President Eisenhower.

Alton Lu is pursuing a Master of Public Policy and Management – Data Analytics at Carnegie Mellon University. He is interested in using data science to solve human-made challenges. Lu is currently a research analyst at the University of Washington.



Bracken, Paul. The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. Ch 4: The New Logic of Armageddon. (St. Martin’s Griffin 2013).

Bush, George W. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The President of the United States. September 2002.

Chun, Y. (2015, November 12). China’s Role in North Korean Nuclear Issue. The Korean Peninsula Forum. Seattle, WA.

Clinch, Matt. Here’s the Full Statement from North Korea on Nuclear Test. CNBC. 9 September 2016.

Dalton, Toby, et, al. South Korea Debates Nuclear Options. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 27 April 2016.

Gwertzman, Bernard. U.S. Papers Tell of ’53 Policy to Use A-Bomb in Korea. New York Times. 8 June 1984.

Manning, Robert A. The Next North Korea Debate. Foreign Policy. 15 September 2016.

Perry, William J. Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea. Office of the North Korea Policy Coordinator. 12 October 1999.

Roehrig, Terence. Restraining the Hegemon: North Korea, the US, and Asymmetrical Deterrence. The United States and the Korean Peninsula in the 21st Century. Page 179. (Ashgate Publishing, 2006).