North Korea has a pursued a militaristic nuclear program for decades and since 2006, the U.N. Security Council has passed a number of resolutions condemning North Korea's activities and calling on the country to cease its nuclear and missile programs. Starting in July 2017 North Korea renewed an aggressive campaign when it conducted two tests of its Hwasong-14 missile. In August, they fired a ballistic missile directly over Japan into the Pacific. The following September, North Korea detonated what it claims was a thermonuclear bomb and launched another missile over Japan. In November, they test-fired its new Hwasong-15, a missile which analysts believe could have reached the entirety of the U.S. mainland, depending on the weight of the warhead. These actions are not only reckless, they run contrary to international law.
As North Korea's capabilities have grown, relations between the U.S. and North have been tumultuous. Soon after taking office, President Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” and warned that the U.S. would “totally destroy” the country, while characterizing the pursuit of a diplomatic solution as a “waste of time.” However, a year later, Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un at a summit in Singapore where he touted that they “fell in love”. Trump’s sudden change in rhetoric is somewhat indicative of U.S. policy toward the North, which has been characterized as one of “maximum pressure and engagement,” in which sanctions and diplomacy are used to reduce the regime’s nuclear activity.
Trump and Kim’s June summit was a reversal of long-standing U.S. policy which designates denuclearization as a precondition for any meeting between the two heads of state. It concluded with a vague joint statement in which North Korea agreed to return the remains of American POWs and work toward "complete denuclearization". However, experts worry that the agreement’s lack of detail will lead to unrealistic expectations from one or both sides, ultimately causing talks to fall through entirely as they have in the past.
Despite concerns, the Trump administration’s diplomatic attempts are a step in the right direction in light of earlier reports that indicated the White House had given serious consideration to an extraordinarily reckless “bloody nose” attack on the country. Experts agree that the U.S. lacks a viable military option against North Korea. Aside from massive casualties on the Korean Peninsula, including the deaths of thousands of American citizens, a conflict with North Korea could trigger a nuclear exchange, raising the death toll to millions and ushering in a years-long nuclear winter. While administration officials deny such a strategy exists, the fact that it was even considered is alarming.
Since the June summit between President Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, very little progress has been made toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. A month after the summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang to continue the dialogue, intending to "fill in the details" of North Korean commitments to denuclearize, but he neither extracted new commitments nor met face-to-face with Chairman Kim. Additional meetings have taken place with similar results.
Meanwhile, North and South Korea have begun implementing measures outlined in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, which was signed by the two sides in September. The agreement aims to ease tensions on the peninsula and includes commitments for the two Koreas to establish no-fly zones along the border, halt military drills close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries, and dismantle several guard posts inside the DMZ. They have also begun conducting a joint field study on connecting their railways, which would provide a significant economic benefit for the North if it denuclearized.
Following a series of rotating bilateral talks between the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea, President Trump will likely have his second meeting with Kim Jong Un early next year to continue discussions on denuclearization. Vice President Mike Pence has said that the United States will not require a complete list of nuclear weapons and missile sites from North Korea prior to the summit, despite recent satellite images of at least 13 undeclared and active missile testing sites. However, Pence also suggested that any new agreement will be more comprehensive than the last, saying that it is “absolutely imperative” for the U.S. to come out of the summit with a specific plan to identify and inspect weapons and development sites.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Call your senators at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to support the Preventing Preemptive War in North Korea Act (S. 2047), which states that, "No funds may be used for kinetic military operations in North Korea absent an imminent threat to the United States without express congressional authorization." Under the Constitution, Congress alone can authorize the use of military force. This important legislation, spearheaded by Senator Chris Murphy, reinforces that point.
You can also ask your congressional representatives to cosponsor the No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act (H.R. 4837/S. 2016), which assert that only Congress can authorize U.S.-initiated military action against North Korea. We need lawmakers to express public support for a more effective U.S. diplomatic approach toward North Korea. These two bills offer a great way for them to do that.
Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea – Arms Control Association
Factsheets on North Korea – The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
The Six-Party Talks at a Glance – Arms Control Association, July 2017
The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance – Arms Control Association, August 2017
Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy – Arms Control Association, November 2018
North Korea Nuclear Overview – Nuclear Threat Initiative, October 2018
The U.S.-North Korean Summit and Beyond – Arms Control Association, June 2018
North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs – Federation of American Scientists, August 2018
Understanding North Korea’s Missile Tests – Nuclear Threat Initiative, April 2017
Why Insisting on a North Korean Nuclear Declaration Up Front is a Big Mistake – Sigfried Hecker, 38 North
Letter from members of the Council of Korean Americans in California to Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Kamala Harris, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, February 2018
Giving North Korea a ‘Bloody Nose’ Carries a Huge Risk to Americans – By Victor Cha, The Washington Post, January 2018
The Myth of the Limited Strike on North Korea – By Abraham M. Denmark, Foreign Affairs, January 2018
Another Opportunity for Diplomacy on North Korea – By Bonnie Jenkins, The Brookings Institution, January 2018
How to Avoid Stumbling into a North Korea Catastrophe – By Tim Kaine, CNN, January 2018
The United States Should Resolve to Avoid War With North Korea in 2018 – By Colin Kahl, Foreign Policy, December 2017
A Responsible Approach to North Korea – By Kelly Magsamen, Melanie Hart, Michael Fuchs, and Vikram Singh, Center for American Progress, November 2017
25 Years of Negotiations and Provocations: North Korea and the United States – By Lisa Collins, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2017
What Would War with North Korea Look Like? – By Robin Wright, The New Yorker, September 2017
Trump’s Nuclear Crisis Was of His Own Making – By Ned Price, Foreign Policy, August 2017
Cold War Lessons in Coercive Diplomacy for Dealing with North Korea Today – By Michael McFaul, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, August 2017
Why Deterring and Containing North Korea Is Our Least Bad Option – By Jeffrey A. Bader, The Brookings Institution, August 2017
How to Take Down Kim Jong Un – By Tom Malinowski, Politico, July 2017