Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation

North Korea’s threatening behaviour; development of proscribed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons capabilities; and pursuit of a range of illicit activities, including proliferation, has posed one of the most vexing and perpetual problems in U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. Since North Korea’s creation in 1948, the United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, the official name for North Korea). Successive U.S. Administrations since the early 1990s have sought to use a combination of negotiations, aid, and bilateral and international sanctions to end North Korea’s weapons programs, but have not curbed the DPRK’s increasing capabilities.


U.S. interests in North Korea encompass grave security, political, and human rights concerns. Bilateral military alliances with the Republic of Korea (ROK, the official name for South Korea) and Japan obligate the United States to defend these allies from any attack from the North. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in South Korea and Japan, as well as tens of thousands of U.S. civilians residing in those countries, are stationed within striking range of North Korean intermediate-range missiles. North Korea’s rapid advances in its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities may put the U.S. homeland at risk of a DPRK strike. A conflict on the Korean peninsula or the collapse of the government in Pyongyang would have severe implications for the regional—if not global—economy. Negotiations and diplomacy surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program influence U.S. relations with all the major powers in the region, particularly with China and South Korea.


Over the past 70 years, the Kims have created one of the world’s largest militaries, which acts as a deterrent to outside military intervention and provides Pyongyang with a degree of leverage over foreign powers that have helped the regime extract diplomatic and economic concessions from its neighbours. This same militarization, however—combined with North Korea’s often-provocative behaviour, opaque policymaking system, and willingness to defy international conventions—also has severely stunted North Korea’s economic growth by minimizing its interactions with the outside world.

Despite Kim’s solid hold on power and indications that the DPRK economy is strengthening, North Korea’s internal situation remains challenging, with most of the population deeply impoverished, and slowly increasing access to information from the outside world could lead to more considerable public discontent with the regime if growth does not continue.


Congress has both direct and indirect influence on the U.S. policy on North Korea. Through sanctions legislation, Congress has set the terms for U.S. restrictions on trade and engagement with the DPRK, as well as on the President’s freedom to ease or lift sanctions against the DPRK. Congress has also passed and repeatedly reauthorized the North Korean Human Rights Act, which calls on the U.S. government to address the DPRK’s poor human rights record as well as accept North Korean refugees. Under past nuclear agreements, Congress authorized millions of dollars in energy assistance, at times putting conditions on the provision of aid if it doubted North Korean compliance. In future arrangements, if the United States agrees to provide aid in exchange for DPRK steps on denuclearization, Congress will need to authorize and appropriate funds, as it presumably would if the Administration sought to normalize diplomatic relations as the June 2018 Singapore agreement implies. In its oversight capacity, Congress has held dozens of hearings with both government and private witnesses that question North Korea’s capabilities, intentions, human rights record, sanctions evasion, and linkage with other governments, among other topics.











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