Argument

A North Korea Strategy for the Next Administration

It is possible to engage the country, but it won’t be easy.

North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally in Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on Nov. 29, 2017.
North Korean soldiers attend a mass rally in Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang on Nov. 29, 2017. Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images

During an election year, it is natural to think about all the ways that U.S. foreign policy might change. One arena that seems particularly ripe for rethinking is its approach to North Korea. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has talked of a reset, particularly with allies and China, while President Donald Trump has said he’d seek to make a deal “very quickly” if reelected on Nov. 3. Engagement is a real possibility but achieving meaningful dialogue that leads to a more sustainable arrangement would require a phase-by-phase deal-making approach.

But before engaging Pyongyang again, the next administration needs to understand how North Koreans view the United States, and how they would interpret new policies.

Over the decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have tried to engage Pyongyang to improve relations and change its objectionable behavior. Some have made progress toward an agreement, but all have ultimately ended in failure. And in recent years, things have gotten worse. Unlike his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Un is less risk averse, having conducted nearly 120 missile launches, including two submarine-launched ballistic missile ejection tests, one of which was successful. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, tested only 16; his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, 15. After North Korea’s last nuclear test in 2017, Pyongyang announced that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. A North Korea with 300 nuclear weapons is very different from a North Korea with 30 nuclear weapons. As Pyongyang advances its delivery systems and technological capabilities, the threat grows. All of this should change the U.S. calculus.


Any new administration would have to apply pressure using economic, diplomatic, and liaison channels in countries in Africa and Southeast Asia where North Korea continues to operate, selling weapons and conducting illicit trade. The goal would be to squeeze North Korea out and cut it off from earnings through criminal activities. The message must be clear to those who turn a blind eye: They, too, will increasingly face serious sanctions.

Active measures to counter North Korean cybercrime must be likewise prioritized, given how lucrative it has become. Firms trading in commodities such as petroleum, coal, sand, and luxury goods should be put on notice, but countries involved in such trade with North Korea should be given a chance to take action against such trade if they are unwittingly involved. Suppliers and distributors that fail in their due diligence must be penalized. Meanwhile, banks wittingly processing North Korean transactions and holding accounts for front companies should be named, shamed, and penalized. Shipping activity needs to be closely monitored, as does Pyongyang’s desire to develop its chemical and biological programs. Disruption of North Korea’s arms trade and military cooperation with Iran and Syria should rank high on the agenda, as should seeking to sever military trade with countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

At the same time, Washington should reenergize work with its allies in Seoul, Tokyo, Canberra, the EU, and the United Kingdom to harmonize existing sanctions, introduce new ones, and coordinate diplomatic pressure to stop illicit North Korean activities abroad. Seoul and Tokyo are instrumental to this approach and both need to be committed to this effort. Time and time again, Pyongyang has tried to divide the alliance. Such activities cannot go unaddressed.

Nor can military provocations. Since the last U.N. Security Council resolution imposed on North Korea in 2017, Pyongyang has launched more than 20 missiles, including successfully test firing a submarine-based missile in October 2019. But Washington has not pressed for any action from the United Nations. The failure to do so sends the wrong message to Kim. Instead, the Security Council should adopt the recommendations from the latest annual report of the U.N. DPRK Panel of Experts. All nations agreed to the report when it went public, so there should be no hesitation on implementing its recommendations. Washington should also have a draft resolution ready to go for the next provocation. It is a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Meanwhile, a focus on Pyongyang’s weapons program must not be allowed to obscure its atrocious human rights practices nor to block any effort to mitigate them. In fact, improving human rights conditions in North Korea should be an integral policy objective. Pyongyang’s sensitivity to criticism of its human rights record, particularly from South Korea, should be leveraged toward positive change and no matter the temptation, should not be seen as a potential concession in negotiations.

Increased political and economic isolation will significantly increase North Korea’s dependence on China and Russia, particularly China, by far North Korea’s largest trading partner. But for Pyongyang, Beijing isn’t the be all and end all. It still seeks security assurances, sanctions relief, and diplomatic recognition from Washington, and while Beijing may be able to offer the country some support, only Washington can offer some of the things Pyongyang wants. Washington and Beijing will never be in lock step, but Beijing does share Washington’s desire for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula—even if it does not believe it is achievable in the short term.

A senior U.S. State Department official should lead an effort to meet regularly with Chinese counterparts, and working-level interagency experts should provide support on both sides for constructive engagement. The goal should be making steps toward developing a regularized U.S.-Chinese working group on North Korea to discuss isolating North Korea and to identify where North Koreans are violating U.N. Security resolutions on Chinese soil, which is an embarrassment to Beijing. If Beijing fails to enforce the United Nations’ resolutions after sustained engagement or coordination, Washington should be prepared to pursue unilateral action, ideally coordinated with allies. And Beijing should not be led to believe that cooperation is a tradeoff for other U.S. policy concessions.


For Washington, the challenge will be striking the balance between pressure and dialogue. How does Washington remain open to dialogue but not be so desirous of talks that it would significantly alleviate pressure on Pyongyang as an incentive to negotiate? Once pressure begins to work, relieving that pressure too prematurely or indiscriminately removes the motivating force that was moving Pyongyang in the right direction.

For 30 years, Pyongyang has used talks for short-term tactical concessions. That can’t be allowed anymore. Instead, a constant, evolving phase-by-phase engagement needs to include measures to buttress sanctions and other pressure tools in order to probe, test, and assess intent.

Before coming to the negotiating table, both sides will need to agree to the ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a dismantlement of North Korea’s ballistic missile program. Achieving this goal will be constructed in a phase-by-phase approach. When Pyongyang agrees to freeze its weapons programs, the introduction of new sanctions should also freeze, beginning engagement. Washington will need to identify goals for each phase and to determine how to ensure the implementation of the agreed phases as they go forward. Both sides will need to recognize that each subsequent phase may evolve, with some making more progress than others.

These phases might include freezes, verification of sites, dismantlement, reductions, and more verifications. Given the threat from North Korea’s ballistic missile launches to the region, ballistic missiles need to be part of any arrangement made on the nuclear program. Washington will need to anticipate Pyongyang’s “asks” and identify redlines. Pyongyang will no doubt cheat, but that does not mean Washington should withdraw from talks. Cheating should be built into the equation as a beginning and not an end.

In the meantime, any sanctions relief should start with vertically integrated industries, such as the commodities trade, because horizontally integrated service-oriented industries such as the foreign workers program and textiles require foreign supply chains or partners. Sanctions on weapons-related programs and illicit cyber activities must remain in effect.

When Pyongyang began its nuclear program in the early 1950s, the country’s survival seemed much less certain. Steps toward meaningful dialogue will require resources, commitment, and patience over years—if not decades. This process may very well outlast any U.S. administration. If nothing is done, not only will there be renewed danger, but the North Korean people, particularly those outside of Pyongyang, will suffer the most as Kim reallocates scarce resources to prioritize his weapons programs. And that makes it all the more important for the next administration to have an effective, calibrated strategy to pressure the regime, even if it only contains Pyongyang’s weapons programs until that opportune time for dialogue comes again.

Andrea R. Mihailescu helped design and lead the North Korea sanctions program at the State Department under the Obama Administration. She is currently teaching at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government. Twitter: @MihailescuAR

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