June 25, 2015
U.S.-North Korea Relations
North Korea has presented the United States with some of
the most vexing and persistent foreign policy challenges of
the post-Cold War period. Efforts to halt North Korea’s
nuclear weapons program have occupied the past three U.S.
administrations. Since 2009, North Korea has rebuffed U.S.
and South Korean offers to negotiate on denuclearization,
despite previous commitments to do so. Particularly under
its young leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea has continued
to develop its nuclear and missile programs. Although the
primary focus of U.S. policy toward North Korea has been
the nuclear weapons program, many other issues populate
the U.S. policy agenda, including Pyongyang’s missile
programs, illicit activities, provocations against South
Korea, and human rights violations.
take divergent approaches. Furthermore, the collapse of the
nuclear talks has intensified concerns about proliferation, as
cash-strapped North Korea might sell its nuclear technology
or fissile material to another country or a non-state actor.
Evidence of North Korea’s past nuclear cooperation with
Syria and Libya has alarmed some national security experts.
The Obama Administration reached an agreement with
North Korea on February 29, 2012 (the so-called “Leap
Day Agreement”) that proved to be short-lived. The deal
committed North Korea to a moratorium on nuclear tests,
long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment at the
Yongbyon nuclear facility, as well as the readmission of
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.
The Obama administration pledged 240,000 metric tons of
“nutritional assistance” and greater engagement with
Pyongyang. North Korea scuttled the deal only two months
later by launching a long-range rocket. A third nuclear test
in February 2013 further hindered efforts to restart talks.
Nuclear, Missile, and Cyber Capabilities
Source: Graphic created by CRS. Map generated by Hannah
Fischer using Department of State Boundaries (2011); Esri
(2014); DeLorme (2014).
U.S. Policy Toward North Korea
The Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea,
often referred to as “strategic patience,” is to put pressure
on the regime in Pyongyang while insisting that North
Korea return to the six-nation denuclearization negotiations,
called the Six-Party Talks. (The talks, which began in 2003
but have not been held since 2008, include the United
States, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and
Russia.) The U.S. government has closely coordinated this
approach with allies Japan and South Korea and attempted
to convince China to be tougher on North Korea. At the
same time, the United States has sought to pressure
Pyongyang through international and unilateral sanctions
and arms interdictions. U.S. officials have stated that, under
the right conditions, they seek a comprehensive package
deal for North Korea’s complete denuclearization that
might include the normalization of relations and significant
Critics claim that the Administration’s policy has not
prevented Pyongyang from improving its missile and
nuclear capabilities. The policy also depends on U.S. allies
maintaining unity, which could crumble if those capitals
North Korea has tested three nuclear devices, in 2006,
2009, and 2013, and has declared itself a nuclear-armed
state. North Korea appears to be expanding its capacity to
produce both plutonium and highly enriched uranium for
nuclear weapons. Experts estimate that North Korea has
produced between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated
plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear
weapons. Since nuclear talks broke down, North Korea has
restarted its plutonium-production reactor and has openly
built a uranium enrichment plant (other clandestine
enrichment facilities likely exist). North Korea has
repeatedly emphasized the role of its nuclear weapons as a
North Korea has launched five long-range ballistic missiles
(sometimes in the guise of a satellite launch) in the past 20
years, and only one (in December 2012) was ostensibly
successful. Open source assessments of North Korea’s
warhead and ballistic missile development have differed,
particularly on the question of whether the North has the
capability to miniaturize a warhead to fit it on an
intercontinental ballistic missile. In October 2014, the
Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea remarked that North
Korea may have the ability to do so. However, other experts
argue that North Korea has not tested its long-range
missiles enough to constitute a credible threat.
Security experts and U.S. officials have also voiced
concerns about Pyongyang’s apparently growing cyber
capabilities. South Korea has accused North Korea of
launching cyberattacks on media outlets, banks, and a
nuclear reactor operator. The FBI has blamed North Korean
hackers for a November 2014 attack against Sony Pictures.
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U.S.-North Korea Relations
Although some cybersecurity experts remain skeptical of
North Korea’s capabilities, its apparent willingness to use
such tactics aggressively is a concern for U.S. officials.
U.S. policy to pressure North Korea depends heavily on
China’s influence. In addition to being North Korea’s
largest trading partner by far—accounting for about 70% of
North Korea’s total trade—China also provides food and
energy aid that is an essential lifeline for the regime in
Pyongyang. The effectiveness of multilateral sanctions
relies heavily on Chinese enforcement. Beijing cannot (or
has chosen not to) completely control Pyongyang’s
behavior, as suggested by North Korea’s destabilizing
nuclear tests and missile launches. Many analysts agree,
however, that even a temporary cessation of Chinese trade
and/or aid would have a significant impact on North Korea.
China’s overriding priority appears to be to prevent the
collapse of North Korea. Beijing states that it fears the
destabilizing effects of a humanitarian crisis, significant
refugee flows over its borders, and the uncertainty of how
other nations, particularly the United States, would assert
themselves on the peninsula in the event of a power
vacuum. Beijing is supporting joint industrial projects
between China’s northeastern provinces and North Korea’s
northern border region. Some Chinese leaders also may see
strategic value in having North Korea as a “buffer” between
China and the democratic, U.S.-allied South Korea.
However, since 2010 an increasing number of Chinese
academics have called for a reappraisal of China’s friendly
ties with North Korea, citing the material and reputational
costs to China of maintaining such ties. The rhetorical
emphasis Chinese leaders now place on denuclearization of
the Korean Peninsula—reportedly even in meetings with
North Korean officials—may suggest that Beijing’s
patience could be waning. In what is viewed by many
observers as a diplomatic snub, Chinese President Xi
Jinping has had several summits with South Korean
President Park Geun-hye but has yet to meet with the North
Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Despite this apparent cooling
in relations, Beijing remains an obstacle to punishing North
Korea in international fora, such as the United Nations.
International Focus on Human Rights Record
Although the nuclear issue has dominated U.S.-North
Korea relations, U.S. officials regularly voice concerns
about North Korea’s “abysmal” human rights record. The
plight of many North Koreans is dire. The State
Department’s annual human rights reports and reports from
private organizations have portrayed a little-changing
pattern of extreme human rights abuses by the North
Korean regime over many years. Multiple reports have
described a system of prison camps that house
approximately 100,000 political prisoners.
In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council established a
commission to investigate “the systematic, widespread and
grave violations of human rights” in North Korea,
concluding in February 2014 that North Korea had
committed “crimes against humanity” that are “essential
components” of the Kim regime’s system of rule.
Moreover, the Commission argued that the individuals
responsible should face charges at the International
Criminal Court (ICC). In November 2014, U.N. member
states voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the UNSC
refer the human rights situation in North Korea to the ICC.
Although many analysts speculate that either Russia or
China (or both) will use its veto at the UNSC to prevent this
referral, the United Nations has become a central forum for
pressuring the North Korean government to respect the
human rights of its citizens.
Since assuming power in December 2011, supreme leader
Kim Jong-un appears to have consolidated his hold on
power, though much uncertainty remains, given the opaque
nature of the North Korean regime. Kim has been
promoting a two-track policy (the so-called byungjin line)
of economic development and nuclear weapons
development. The range of luxury amenities available to the
privileged in Pyongyang has expanded, while many if not
most North Koreans still live in meager circumstances.
Although many non-elite North Koreans’ economic
fortunes have improved under Kim Jong-un, speculation
that his regime might pursue systematic economic reforms
to harness market forces has proven incorrect so far.
Kim has engaged in several spasms of executions and
purges of high-level North Korean officials. Notably, he
executed his uncle-in-law and then-number two leader, Jang
Song-taek, in December 2013, demonstrating a brutal
leadership style. Jang’s departure also eliminated one of
Beijing’s main contacts within the regime; Jang had been
seen as relatively friendly to Chinese-style economic
reforms. Kim also purged Ri Yong-ho, then-North Korea’s
army chief, in 2012 and reportedly executed Hyon Yongchul, the Minister of Defense, and 15 other high-level
officials in 2015. Almost 70 top officials reportedly have
been executed in North Korea since Kim came to power.
Pyongyang appears to be slowly losing its ability to control
information flows from the outside world into North Korea.
Surveys of North Korean defectors reveal that some within
North Korea are growing increasingly wary of government
propaganda and are turning to outside sources of news,
especially foreign radio broadcasts, which are officially
illegal. North Korea in 2009 also restarted a mobile phone
network that now has over 2.4 million subscribers.
Although phone conversations in the country are monitored,
the spread of cell phones could enable faster and wider
dissemination of information.
Emma Chanlett-Avery, firstname.lastname@example.org,
Ian E. Rinehart, email@example.com, 7-0345
Sungtae Park, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-5050
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