Updated April 29, 2020
U.S.-North Korea Relations
North Korea has posed one of the most persistent U.S.
Although most North Koreans still live in meager
foreign policy challenges of the post-Cold War period.
circumstances, particularly outside of Pyongyang, the
Having made advances in its nuclear and missile
DPRK economy as a whole appears to have expanded for
capabilities under its leader, Kim Jong-un, North Korea has
much of Kim’s tenure. Previously prohibited markets
evolved into a grave security threat to the United States.
containing many consumer goods and a range of services
The United States and North Korea (officially known as the
have proliferated. Overall growth appears to have fallen
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) began
since 2016, perhaps due to a tightening of sanctions, which
denuclearization talks in 2018, but those negotiations
have led to the virtual collapse of DPRK exports.
essentially have been frozen since February 2019, with little
Nevertheless, there have been few signs of severe economic
apparent prospect for a breakthrough. Meanwhile, North
distress that could trigger a systemic collapse.
Korea simultaneously has continued to develop its nuclear
and missile capabilities. Other U.S. concerns include North
North Korea says it has avoided any cases of COVID-19.
Korea’s cyberspace activities, conventional military
Although experts doubt this sweeping claim, the country’s
capabilities, egregious human rights violations,
under-resourced health system does not appear to have
international terrorism, and illicit activities such as money
become overwhelmed, perhaps due to the closure of all
laundering and smuggling.
borders in January 2020 and other strict measures. Both
South Korea and the United States have offered assistance
to help the North deal with the health crisis.
The U.S. Approach to North Korea
Under the Trump Administration, North Korea policy has
shifted from a “maximum pressure” campaign in 2017 that
sought to punish North Korea through international
sanctions for its repeated nuclear and missile tests to an
approach that emphasizes leader-to-leader dialogue. Trump
and Kim have held three meetings: in Singapore (June
2018); Hanoi (February 2019); and Panmunjom (June
2019). Over the course of this engagement, Kim has
pledged in writing to “work toward complete
Map generated by CRS using Department of State
Boundaries (2011); Esri (2014); DeLorme (2014).
denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” and to allow the
“permanent dismantlement” of nuclear facilities in the
Yongbyon nuclear complex, “as the United States takes
corresponding measures.” In addition, since November
Kim Jong-un became DPRK leader in 2011, succeeding his
2017 North Korea has refrained from testing nuclear
father and becoming the third generation of the Kim
devices and long-range and medium-range ballistic
dynasty to rule. After assuming power, Kim consolidated
missiles. Since May 2019, however, the DPRK has
his grip, engaging in several purges of high-level officials.
conducted over a dozen short-range missile tests, in
In April 2020, his extended disappearance from public view
violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions.
prompted unconfirmed media reports that he was gravely ill
or had died following heart surgery. The 36-year-old Kim,
U.S.-DPRK denuclearization diplomacy essentially has
obese and a heavy smoker, is believed to have suffered
been frozen since February 2019, when Trump and Kim’s
from various health problems over the years. Kim is
Hanoi summit ended without an agreement. The two sides
believed to have three children under 10, but has no
disagreed over the scope and sequencing of concessions,
obvious heir. If he dies or becomes incapacitated, it is
specifically North Korean denuclearization measures in
uncertain who would succeed him. His younger sister and
exchange for relief from international and U.S. sanctions.
confidante, Kim Yo Jong, is among the most likely. She
U.S. officials say their North Korean counterparts have
played a prominent role in summit diplomacy, but analysts
refused to engage in additional negotiations since fall 2019.
wonder whether a woman could become the leader,
In December 2019, Kim announced that due to the
particularly if not designated as successor by her brother. If
continuation of sanctions, “there is no ground” for North
a power struggle emerges, implications abound for U.S.
Korea to continue its nuclear and missile testing moratoria.
interests, including questions about control of the DPRK’s
Kim criticized the United States’ joint military exercises
nuclear arsenal, the potential for a humanitarian crisis, and
with and transfers of advanced military equipment to South
the possibility of a confrontation with China that could alter
the fundamental security structure of the region.
U.S.-North Korea Relations
Korea. He warned he would reveal “a new strategic
claimed that it had successfully tested a hydrogen
weapon” if the United States did not change approach.
(thermonuclear) bomb that can be mounted on an
intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017. Since the Six-
Inter-Korean relations also have been paralyzed, despite
Party nuclear talks (among China, Japan, North Korea,
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to engage
Russia, South Korea, and the United States) broke down in
North Korea. Moon helped broker U.S.-DPRK negotiations
2009, North Korea is believed to have restarted its nuclear
and in 2018 met with Kim three times. Tensions on the
facilities that produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
Korean Peninsula have fallen markedly since 2017, and the
two Koreas have concluded some preliminary pacts,
North Korea conducted four ballistic missile tests between
including a military confidence-building agreement.
July and November 2017 that are widely believed to have
However, since the Hanoi Summit, North Korea generally
intercontinental range. The Defense Intelligence Agency
has shunned engaging with South Korea.
reportedly found that North Korea has successfully
developed a nuclear warhead that is “miniaturized” or
U.S. and International Sanctions on
sufficiently small enough to be mounted on long-range
ballistic missiles. The DPRK’s recent short-range ballistic
In 2016 and 2017, the Obama and Trump Administrations
missile tests were likely aimed at advancing reliability of its
responded to North Korean nuclear and missile tests by
solid fuel and guidance systems, and its ability to thwart
expanding multilateral sanctions. Collectively, U.N.
regional missile defenses. Security experts and U.S.
Security Council sanctions prohibit North Korea from
officials have also voiced concerns about Pyongyang’s
exporting over 80% of the items it sold abroad in 2016, as
improving cyber capabilities, which the regime may use for
well as most types of financial interactions with DPRK
retaliation, coercion, espionage, and/or financial gain.
individuals and entities. Important North Korean imports,
such as oil, are prohibited or capped. Additionally, in 2016,
2017, and 2019 Congress passed, and Presidents Obama
The post-2017 flurry of diplomatic activity has rekindled
and Trump signed, legislation expanding U.S. sanctions
DPRK-China relations, which were deeply strained after
(P.L. 114-122, P.L. 115-44, and P.L. 116-92). Both
Kim took power in 2011. As North Korea’s dominant
Administrations issued executive orders and designations
trading partner, China provides food, crude oil, and
authorizing and applying sanctions against North Korean
investment that are essential lifelines for the regime in
entities. In September 2017, for instance, the Trump
Pyongyang. China voted for all 10 sanctions resolutions at
Administration issued an executive order that authorizes
the U.N. Security Council, albeit after watering them down.
secondary sanctions, including on individuals or entities
Trump Administration officials say Beijing generally is
that trade with North Korea and on foreign financial
enforcing these sanctions in the main, though it tolerates
institutions that conduct transactions related to DPRK trade. significant evasion, and with Russia has proposed relaxing
sanctions. China’s overriding priority appears to be
Despite the emphasis on diplomacy since early 2018, these
preventing what it calls “chaos and war,” fearing the
sanctions remain in place. Several countries, however,
destabilizing effects of a humanitarian crisis and the
appear to be less robustly enforcing international sanctions
uncertainty of how other nations, particularly the United
against the DPRK than before the rapprochement began.
States, would assert themselves on the Korean peninsula if
The U.N. has documented North Korea’s efforts to evade
the regime collapses.
sanctions, including ship-to-ship transfers of massive
amounts of oil and coal in the waters off China and
North Korea’s Human Rights Record
Russia’s coasts. Although the Trump Administration
Reports by the U.S. government, the United Nations and
periodically has issued North Korea sanctions designations,
private organizations portray extreme human rights abuses
it has refrained from applying them as aggressively as it
by the North Korean government over many decades.
could, particularly in the area of secondary sanctions.
Multiple reports describe a system of prison camps that
house approximately 100,000 political prisoners. In 2016,
Nuclear, Missile, and Cyber Capabilities
the State Department—acting in accordance with the North
North Korea has said its nuclear weapons are a deterrent to
Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (P.L.
prevent an attack by the United States. Some analysts worry
114-122)—identified Kim and other DPRK officials as
that the DPRK may become emboldened to launch attacks
responsible for human rights violations and created
if it believes it has developed a sufficiently robust deterrent,
requirements for the President to certify human rights
or to use nuclear blackmail to achieve other policy
improvements in order to suspend or terminate sanctions. In
objectives. In its 2019 worldwide threat assessment for
2014, a U.N. Human Rights Council commission concluded
Congress, the U.S. intelligence community said that North
that North Korea had committed “crimes against humanity”
Korea “… is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons
and argued that the individuals responsible should face
and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate
charges at the International Criminal Court.
partial denuclearization steps to obtain key U.S. and
, Specialist in Asian Affairs Mark E. Manyin
, Specialist in Asian Affairs
North Korea has tested six nuclear devices: in 2006, 2009,
2013, twice in 2016, and in 2017. The DPRK government
U.S.-North Korea Relations
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