When the Biden administration, following a months-long review, announced its North Korea policy this past April—“diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence”—the news barely registered. The question of how to deal with the nuclear-armed pariah state, a matter never resolved but never fully escalating into an existential threat, has dogged a long succession of U.S. administrations. The prevailing sense today, amid a pandemic and heightened great-power tension, seems to be that Washington has bigger fish to fry and more urgent crises to focus on.

That impression is dangerously misguided. Years of inconsistent, and at times counterproductive, U.S. efforts to contain the North Korean nuclear threat have only let it fester, such that U.S. President Joe Biden now faces a far more capable adversary in Pyongyang than his predecessors ever did. In the 15 years since North Korea’s first-ever nuclear test, the country has amassed up to 60 nuclear warheads and enough fissile material to build at least six additional bombs every year. More alarming still, these weapons can now most likely reach the continental United States. North Korea already fields long-range missiles capable of hitting the East Coast. It is impossible to know for certain whether it has figured out how to place a nuclear warhead on top of those missiles, but the available evidence suggests that it has. North Korea is likely moving on to the next step: placing multiple warheads on a single missile, which would allow it to frustrate U.S. missile defenses. What was once a pure hypothetical—a North Korean nuclear strike on the American mainland—is fast becoming a real possibility.

North Korea is still unlikely to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, knowing it would suffer devastating retaliation. But an emboldened North Korean regime with growing nuclear capabilities could resort to increasingly reckless behavior, such as conventional strikes, terrorist plots, or cyberattacks. Japan and South Korea, in turn, could lose confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and feel compelled to field their own nuclear weapons, setting off a destabilizing nuclear arms race across the region. Moreover, if North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, believes that his nuclear and missile programs provide some degree of protection for his misbehavior, his cash-strapped regime could be tempted to sell nuclear weapons, materials, or expertise to other states and nonstate actors. (In the past, North Korea helped build a nuclear reactor in Syria and sold missiles to Iran, Myanmar, and other countries.) In short, a nuclear-armed North Korea is a security nightmare for Washington even if the regime never uses its arsenal, and the years ahead could prove a turning point for the region.

North Korea’s nuclear program has been a thorn in the side of five American presidents, sometimes approaching crisis levels, sometimes receding to secondary importance. But over the past few years, as Pyongyang’s warheads have come into striking distance of the American heartland, the threat has become a qualitatively different one. If the United States ever had an opportunity to turn back the clock on North Korea’s nuclear program—and it is far from clear that it ever did—that moment has passed. That this change was so long in the making has inured analysts and policymakers to its gravity. But before long, a crisis is all but certain to drive home how much more difficult and dangerous the North Korean nuclear challenge has become. This realization requires a new approach: one that considers the lessons of Pyongyang’s successful quest, in defiance of broad international opposition and consistent U.S. efforts, to become a nuclear power—and one that recognizes how much more constrained U.S. options in North Korea have become.

how the north won out

Although poor and isolated, North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons relentlessly in the face of growing international condemnation. The state’s nuclear aspirations date back to the 1950s, when North Korean scientists first gained basic nuclear expertise with Soviet assistance. Over the course of the following decades, the regime continued accumulating sensitive nuclear technologies, and in the 1980s, it built its first nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but it did so under Soviet pressure, not out of genuine conviction. Soon thereafter, it began covertly reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Years of further research and enrichment culminated in the country’s first nuclear test in October 2006. Five more tests have followed.

Only a handful of states have ever ended their nuclear programs or given up their nuclear weapons voluntarily, and it often took some form of regime change for them to do so. North Korea is no different: Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are a military asset, an insurance policy, and a vast source of prestige all in one. The Kim family, which has ruled the country without interruption since 1948, does not want to go the way of Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya—tyrants who gave up their weapons of mass destruction programs only to be overthrown and killed. Leaders in Pyongyang are convinced that nobody, not even a superpower such as the United States, would dare to attack or even seriously undermine a state armed with the ultimate weapon. At home, the nuclear weapons confer a degree of legitimacy on the regime: a point of national pride, they justify the deprivations that ordinary citizens suffer to support the state and its military. Abroad, they raise the country’s diplomatic profile, making up for its deficits in political, economic, and soft power. The bomb also raises the potential cost to the United States of defending its ally South Korea in a war and thus serves Pyongyang’s goal of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. The regime is, and has always been, unlikely to give up that trump card, no matter what political or economic concessions it is offered in return. To truly steer Pyongyang off its current course would have required stepping in before it ever produced its first warhead—and even then, success would have come at too high of a cost.

Consider the events of 1994, perhaps the best opportunity the United States ever had to permanently undo the North’s nuclear progress. At the time, Pyongyang’s enrichment efforts were well underway, and the regime was preparing to remove several nuclear fuel rods from its research reactor in Yongbyon. Inside the rods, experts suspected, was enough weapons-grade plutonium to build half a dozen nuclear bombs. Despite intense pressure, Pyongyang refused to grant international inspectors access to the site.

Years of inconsistent U.S. efforts to contain the North Korean nuclear threat have only let it fester.

Washington saw the danger—a hostile state might be on the verge of crossing “the nuclear finish line,” as Ashton Carter, then U.S. assistant secretary of defense, put it—and seriously contemplated military action. In one plan that reached U.S. President Bill Clinton’s desk, American cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters would carry out a precision strike on Yongbyon, burying the fuel rods in a mountain of rubble and thus preventing North Korea from weaponizing its fissile material. But as Clinton was weighing his options, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang and, on his own initiative, negotiated a deal: North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil and assistance for its civilian nuclear sector. Clinton assented, and later that year, he signed an agreement with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Under the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the North pledged to halt its plutonium-producing reactors in Yongbyon. In return, an American-led consortium would deliver about ten years’ worth of heavy oil to North Korea and build two civilian light-water nuclear reactors in the country, among other concessions. A potential war had been averted.

Knowing how history unfolded (spoiler alert: North Korea did not stop its nuclear program), one wonders if Clinton was right not to strike when he had the chance. But the picture is muddled and full of questionable counterfactuals. A single airstrike, or even a series of strikes, would have only slowed down Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, not reversed it. A full-scale war, on the other hand, would almost certainly have meant North Korea’s defeat at the hands of the United States and South Korea, likely followed by regime change and a guaranteed end to the North’s nuclear program. But the cost would have been prohibitive. Pyongyang’s artillery, although inferior to U.S. and South Korean firepower, was still formidable. North Korean shelling could have led to 250,000 casualties in Seoul alone, and some estimates put the total number of possible deaths at one million—a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.

Clinton’s and Carter’s diplomacy, however, could not rein in the North Koreans. Although Pyongyang froze its plutonium capabilities after the 1994 deal, it secretly continued working with A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, to enrich uranium instead. When a U.S. envoy confronted North Korean officials about their cheating in October 2002, they were unrepentant. Within a few months, North Korea expelled international inspectors and withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, triggering renewed tensions.

Standing guard near Pyongyang, North Korea, April 2012
Standing guard near Pyongyang, North Korea, April 2012
Bobby Yip / Reuters

For defenders of the Agreed Framework, the blame for its breakdown lay partly with U.S. President George W. Bush. Earlier in 2002, Bush had lumped North Korea together with Iran and Iraq as part of what he called “an axis of evil”—bellicose rhetoric that, coming on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was said to have spooked Pyongyang and contributed to its decision to withdraw from the agreement. Meanwhile, the construction of the promised light-water reactors was behind schedule, and the United States had never fully normalized relations with North Korea, as laid out in the Agreed Framework. But what was the Bush administration supposed to do once it had evidence of North Korean cheating? Offering more concessions to coax the regime back into compliance, as some critics later suggested, would have simply rewarded Pyongyang for its transgressions and incentivized more cheating down the line. In truth, the failure of the agreement was of North Korea’s own making.

To imagine what paltry results more engagement in 2002 would have brought, consider South Korea’s separate efforts to sway its neighbor. Under the so-called Sunshine Policy, the South Korean government sent the North approximately $8 billion in economic assistance from 1998 to 2008 in the hope of improving bilateral relations. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Peace Prize for a historic meeting with Kim Jong Il—a summit, it was later divulged, made possible through the payment of $500 million in cash to the reclusive dictator. Yet all these inducements did little to shift the North’s course. On the contrary, after North Korea withdrew from the Agreed Framework in 2002, it accelerated its nuclear program.

The United States, for its part, seemed stuck in an exasperating cycle of sanctions and pressure campaigns followed by overtures and agreements that invariably fell apart. Among other steps, the Bush administration worked to cut off North Korea’s access to hard currency—obtained mostly through drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and money laundering—and thus target the money flows that funded the extravagant lifestyles of North Korean elites. As the centerpiece of this new initiative, Washington imposed sanctions in 2005 on the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea kept $25 million in various accounts, triggering heightened scrutiny by other banks around the world. The squeeze worked as intended: North Korean officials called the sanctions “intolerable.” According to The Wall Street Journal, one official, after one too many drinks, told his American counterparts that they had “finally found a way to hurt us.”

Despite the encouraging feedback, the sanctions remained short lived. When Pyongyang tested its first nuclear weapon the following year, Bush decided to unfreeze the accounts at Banco Delta Asia in an effort to jump-start talks. Protracted negotiations eventually produced a joint statement in which North Korea pledged to disable all its nuclear facilities and stop the export of nuclear material and technology; in return, Washington promised to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and resume oil shipments and food aid. But Pyongyang refused to agree to robust verification meas-ures, dooming the accord just as Bush left office. Despite this failure, Washington did not reimpose sanctions on Banco Delta Asia or put North Korea back on the terrorism list until almost a decade later, thus in effect rewarding Pyongyang for its saber rattling.

Falling in love with rocket man

The same hopeless dynamic characterized the Obama years, which North Korea rang in with a second nuclear test in May 2009. After several years of impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama briefly reached an agreement with North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, in 2012. (Kim had taken power after his father’s death a year earlier.) This time, the United States would provide food aid in exchange for a moratorium on ballistic missile tests and any nuclear activities. Shortly after the agreement was rolled out, however, North Korea launched a satellite into orbit using the same technology that would be used to fire a long-range missile. Another deal thus fell apart. To top things off, Pyongyang declared that its nuclear weapons were not a bargaining chip and would not be relinquished even for “billions of dollars.”

The episode put an end to the Obama administration’s hopes for a deal. Washington reverted to a policy of “strategic patience,” which was designed, as Jeffrey Bader, a National Security Council staffer, put it, to “break the cycle of provocation, extortion, and reward.” This meant maintaining sanctions without launching any major diplomatic initiatives. In kicking the can down the road, Obama managed to peeve both liberal and conservative Korea watchers: liberal “engagers” saw the policy as forgoing diplomacy in the face of a worsening nuclear threat, whereas hard-liners complained that Washington was failing to ratchet up the pressure.

The waiting game came to a sudden stop when U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Casting aside “strategic patience” in favor of “maximum pressure,” Trump doubled down on sanctions and authorized the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist any foreign business or individual that facilitated trade with North Korea. His administration also convinced the UN Security Council to adopt a new set of tough sanctions aimed at cutting off nearly all of Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency. Meanwhile, a series of leaks suggested that the administration was considering launching a preemptive, “bloody nose” military strike on North Korean nuclear sites. All of this was accompanied by Trump’s threats to rain “fire and fury” down on “Rocket Man”—his belittling nickname for the North Korean leader.

Kim responded with bluster of his own, but he also extended an unexpected olive branch. In his 2018 New Year’s Day address, he declared that his country’s nuclear program was “complete” and offered to hold conditional talks with South Korea. Through South Korean envoys, he also proposed a summit with the U.S. president. Trump, sensing an opportunity to play dealmaker, accepted the offer the moment he heard of it. In an instant, maximum pressure was transformed into maximum engagement.

An emboldened North Korean regime with growing nuclear capabilities could resort to increasingly reckless behavior.

Trump reveled in the three meetings he had with Kim over the course of 2018 and 2019, at one point declaring that he and Kim had “fallen in love.” But the lovefest failed to produce any tangible results. At their first summit, Trump brought Kim a bizarre, make-believe movie trailer showcasing the prosperity that North Korea could enjoy if it gave up its nuclear weapons. It eluded Trump entirely that Kim himself already had all the luxury goods he could ever hope for and that he was not going to give up the security that nuclear weapons afforded his regime. Trump walked away with a vague commitment for both sides to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Subsequent attempts to put meat on this bare-bones agreement went nowhere.

That Trump managed to leave office without inviting some sort of catastrophe on the North Korean front may count as a success in and of itself. But it is worth noting just how well his initial strategy of pressuring and isolating the rogue regime seemed to be working. By late 2017, about 90 percent of North Korean exports were illegal under international law. On top of far-reaching U.S. sanctions, nine major Security Council resolutions had banned the country’s most lucrative exports—coal, iron ore, seafood, and textiles, among others—which had been netting the regime $3 billion a year. UN resolutions are effective only if enforced, and China, to everyone’s surprise, was finally doing its part after years of dragging its feet. Meanwhile, over 20 countries had restricted North Korea’s foreign diplomatic presence, which Pyongyang was known to use to evade sanctions.

It is unlikely that maximum pressure would have forced North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons had it been sustained for longer. Still, it stood a better chance than Trump’s summitry of securing meaningful limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. Recall that Iran agreed to roll back—but not eliminate—its nuclear program in 2015 only after three years of maximum pressure from Washington. North Korea, too, would have had a greater incentive to negotiate in good faith and move away from maximalist demands if it had suffered longer-lasting economic pressure. Unfortunately, following Trump’s premature pivot to dealmaking, the air started to leak out of the sanctions campaign. China and Russia both eased up on their sanctions enforcement. Today, even South Korea is unlikely to support a return to the no-holds-barred approach of 2017; South Korean President Moon Jae-in, currently in his last six months in office, is eager to jump-start dialogue with the North and move ahead with inter-Korean projects that have stalled in recent years.

false hopes

What emerges, in retrospect, is a dispiriting picture. Washington appears to have exhausted its peaceful options to no avail. The one policy that could have achieved denuclearization—invading North Korea and toppling its regime—was fraught with uncertainty and would have exacted an unacceptable human toll. What little leeway Washington did have to slow the North Koreans’ progress and thus buy more time for a permanent solution it squandered through its endless zigzagging—from diplomacy to “strategic patience” to “fire and fury” and back to diplomacy, without ever giving any one approach a fair chance to succeed.

Some might argue that it was U.S. hostility that compelled North Korea to seek the bomb in the first place—that things would have turned out differently had the United States normalized relations, lifted sanctions, concluded a peace treaty, and pulled its troops out of South Korea. This confuses cause and effect. American soldiers were sent to South Korea following the North Korean invasion of 1950, and they stayed because the North Korean threat never went away. (As recently as 2010, North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 seamen.) And it’s not as if a U.S. withdrawal would dispel North Korea’s pervasive sense of insecurity. The Kim dynasty, a Stalinist dictatorship built on deception and oppression, is ultimately threatened by its own lack of legitimacy. It can never feel safe as long as a freer, more prosperous rival Korean state exists next door. The nukes are as much about the regime’s own desperation as they are about deterring U.S. military action.

Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, June 2021
Kim in Pyongyang, June 2021
Korean Central News Agency / Reuters

It is true, however, that U.S. policymakers have often failed to understand the North Korean regime. Those in the engagement camp—including Trump, once he was meeting with Kim—have falsely convinced themselves that North Korean leaders share their hopes for peace and could be enticed away from nuclear weapons with offers of increased aid and economic incentives. Some hard-liners, for their part, have been led astray in thinking that there was a military option, either in 1994 or more recently, that could have surgically neutralized the North Korean nuclear program without triggering a catastrophic war. Unfortunately, there has never been an easy way out.

If there is a government that could have made a real difference, it is not Washington but Beijing. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far and a major source of energy supplies. It can bring North Korea to its knees simply by stopping the flow of oil—as it did for a few months in 2013 and again in 2014, when it was infuriated by yet another nuclear test and by the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle and Beijing’s main interlocutor in Pyongyang. But the pressure was not sustained. China, albeit no fan of the North Korean nuclear program, is far more afraid that too much pressure might cause the regime in Pyongyang to collapse, sending refugees flooding into China and possibly bringing U.S. troops and their South Korean allies right up to its doorstep. And with U.S.-Chinese relations at a low point, Beijing has little reason to give Washington a helping hand.

a new threat

In dealing with Pyongyang, Biden is the latest American leader to confront a set of unappealing options, but the potential consequences of failure, already severe to begin with, have worsened dramatically. Unlike past presidents, Biden now faces a determined adversary with a robust nuclear deterrent that includes the ability to hit the continental United States with nuclear missiles. He has not had to acknowledge as much, as Kim—likely distracted by the fallout of the pandemic—has so far forgone the missile and nuclear tests that have usually greeted new U.S. presidents. But the odds are that Kim will eventually resume his tried-and-true strategy of provocations followed by insincere peace overtures. Before long, things will inevitably come to a head.

How will Biden respond to the next crisis? Come what may, a preemptive military strike should remain off-limits. If that option was deemed too risky and costly to pursue in 1994, it is all the more so today. Many of the North’s nuclear warheads and missiles are believed to be hidden in covert facilities and buried in impenetrable bunkers; some can be moved around with ease. Airstrikes are unlikely to eliminate these capabilities in one fell swoop, meaning that Kim could retaliate with a nuclear strike.

Diplomacy is a better option, but it is no more likely to bring about denuclearization. At most, Pyongyang might agree to an interim nuclear freeze deal that limits its nuclear weapons capabilities for a given period. But history suggests that negotiations will ultimately fail over the issue of verification. Instead of making concessions and getting nothing in return, Biden must come to terms with two fundamental facts. First, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons as long as its totalitarian regime remains in charge. Second, U.S.-led regime change, at least in the short term, is not an option. Biden’s best bet is to contain the threat and then work to gradually weaken the regime’s hold on power from the bottom up.

Start with sanctions. It will be hard, perhaps impossible, to return to the maximum-pressure policy of 2017 as long as China does not prioritize sanctions enforcement. But renewed North Korean provocations, such as a nuclear or a long-range missile test, could bring Beijing back onboard. In the meantime, Washington can still revive its efforts to target the North’s illicit revenue streams and foreign bank accounts. It could also impose secondary sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea, provided that this doesn’t disrupt its wider China strategy.

In dealing with Pyongyang, Biden is the latest American leader to confront a set of unappealing options.

At the same time, the United States should continue its efforts to deter North Korea from acts of aggression against its neighbors. Doing so will require increasing cooperation with its allies Japan and South Korea, which in turn need to be encouraged to work more closely with each other. Together, the three allies could integrate their missile defenses, streamline their intelligence sharing, and enhance their antisubmarine warfare, among other steps.

Counterproliferation measures will be essential, too. North Korea has been known to share ballistic missile technology with Iran and Syria, in addition to other countries. The more nuclear weapons and missiles the regime produces, the greater the risk that it will share its knowledge with more states, or even nonstate actors, in return for what it needs the most—hard currency. Washington will need to build a coalition of states to conduct extensive surveillance on the ground, at sea, and in the air to detect any such proliferation activities, and Biden must make clear that any infractions will carry severe consequences.

With these containment measures in place, Washington should focus on small steps to loosen the regime’s grip on the North Korean people. News from the outside world already seeps into the North across its porous border with China. Black and gray markets inside the country have made it easier to distribute banned technologies and media. As a result, more North Koreans than ever can see the gap between the state’s myths and the cruel reality. To a regime built on lies, that burgeoning awareness poses a threat—one that Washington can work to amplify with its own clandestine information operations.

The Biden administration should also maintain a global focus on the North’s appalling record of abusing its own population. The regime has devoted its scarce resources to building nuclear weapons rather than feeding its own people or providing them with basic services. Washington should highlight this link and push for renewed UN human rights investigations and resolutions on the matter.

This strategy—combining information operations and a human rights campaign—would echo the Western policies that once contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kim is entering his second decade in power, but with swirling rumors about his health and a persistently dire economic outlook, no one knows how stable his rule really is. Whatever the regime’s immediate future, its long-term prospects are bleak unless it carries out genuine economic reforms, but reforms might engender political instability of their own. Against that background, an information and human rights campaign would not yield any quick results on the nuclear front, but it might plant the seeds of a more enduring shift. Only when North Korea becomes more accountable and responsive to its own people will there be any chance for meaningful progress toward denuclearization. A transformed regime under a future leader might perceive less of a need to develop nuclear deterrent capabilities and pose less of a threat to its own people or its neighbors.

Absent such a regime change or transformation—highly unlikely but not impossible—the only other durable solution to the nuclear crisis is the country’s reunification under the democratically elected, pro-Western government in Seoul. Even if a unified, democratic Korea decided to keep a nuclear arsenal, it would still not pose the kind of threat that the world currently faces from the tyrannical regime in Pyongyang. Ultimately, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a reflection of North Korea’s government. Until that regime either dramatically reforms itself or collapses, the nuclear threat will remain.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SUE MI TERRY is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A former CIA analyst, she served on the National Security Council in 2008–9 and the National Intelligence Council in 2009–10.
  • More By Sue Mi Terry