North Korea's nuclear weapons program represents one of the gravest threats to the security of the U.S. and our allies. The despotic Kim Jong Un regime has used money laundering, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, and assassinations to prop itself up and pay for its nuclear weapons program. Beginning in 2006, the U.N. Security Council has passed a series of resolutions condemning the country’s actions and calling on it to cease its nuclear and missile programs.
In recent years, the situation has grown even more dangerous. In the summer and fall of 2017, North Korea conducted two tests of its Hwasong-14 missile, fired ballistic missiles directly over Japan into the Pacific, and detonated what it claims was a thermonuclear bomb. That November, they test-fired its new Hwasong-15, a missile that analysts believe could have reached the entirety of the U.S. mainland. 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.” Reports indicated the White House gave serious consideration to reckless military strikes against the country – a so-called “bloody nose” approach. 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. The administration has characterized it’s approach as one of “maximum pressure and engagement,” pairing sanctions and diplomacy. But some experts have raised questions about its effectiveness.
Less than one year later, President Trump reversed himself by embracing a diplomatic effort. On June 12, 2018, President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un met for a historic summit in Singapore. By agreeing to the summit before the regime demonstrated any tangible signs of denuclearization, Trump dramatically reversed past U.S. precedent and skirted normal diplomatic procedure by lending to legitimacy to the Kim regime before receiving any assurances that North Korea was willing to give up its nuclear program. Trump went so far as to tell press that the two leaders “fell in love.” The Singapore summit concluded with a vaguely worded joint statement.
Meanwhile, North and South Korea have begun implementing measures outlined in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, which was signed by the two sides in September 2018. 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.
In February 2019, President Trump held a second summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam. The summit ended abruptly without any agreement on next steps to advance the goals of denuclearization or peacebuilding on the Korean peninsula. Some reporting indicated that President Trump proposed, at the behest of National Security Advisor John Bolton, that North Korea transfer its nuclear weapons and fuel to the United States in exchange for sanctions relief – the so-called “Libya model” agreed by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before he was overthrown and killed. However, the summit broke up later that day with no agreement in place.
In June 2019, following the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, President Trump made a trip to South Korea that included a brief meeting at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with Kim Jong Un. During this engagement, President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to step foot in North Korea. While these engagements have not made tangible progress on an agreement to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it does signal a continued commitment to diplomacy instead of military action.
However, since July 2019, North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests in response to the United States-South Korea joint military exercises. These missile tests have been dismissed by President Trump as not violating his agreement with Kim Jong Un.
Working level talks between the Trump Administration and North Korea resumed in early October 2019. However, those talks ended in mere hours after North Korea alleged that the United States had not backed down from previous negotiating positions. North Korea characterized the talks as “sickening,” while U.S. negotiators cast the talks in a more positive light. As the end-of-year deadline that Kim Jong Un set to reach an agreement approaches, the situation on the Korean peninsula is as uncertain as ever.
A number of experts have called for the Trump Administration to pursue smaller, incremental deals involving reciprocal actions to advance denuclearization and peacebuilding. Those could include opening liaison offices in both PyongYang and Washington, an end of the Korean war, verified dismantling of some of North Korea's nuclear facilities and missile programs, and some sanctions relief.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Trump Administration is right to pursue diplomacy. A military conflict with North Korea could quickly result in the deaths of several hundred thousand people, including thousands of U.S. service members and civilians stationed in South Korea. That’s why we’re asking Members of Congress to support good faith diplomatic efforts to freeze and eventually roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. Here are two things you can do:
Call your congressional representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to prevent the President from going to war with North Korea. Under the Constitution, Congress alone can authorize the use of military force. A new war on the Korean peninsula would be catastrophic. After 17 years of war, and $6 trillion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s the last thing our country needs.
You can also ask your congressional representatives to support diplomacy and to oppose new sanctions that could undermine diplomatic efforts.
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