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Thursday, April 11, 2013

North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation

Emma Chanlett-Avery
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Ian E. Rinehart
Analyst in Asian Affairs

North Korea has been among the most vexing and persistent problems in U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. The United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official name for North Korea). Negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have consumed the past three U.S. administrations, even as some analysts anticipated a collapse of the isolated authoritarian regime. North Korea has been the recipient of well over $1 billion in U.S. aid and the target of dozens of U.S. sanctions.

This report provides background information on the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program that began in the early 1990s under the Clinton Administration. As U.S. policy toward Pyongyang evolved through the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, the negotiations moved from mostly bilateral to the multilateral Six-Party Talks (made up of China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States). Although the negotiations have reached some key agreements that lay out deals for aid and recognition to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization, major problems with implementation have persisted. With Six- Party Talks suspended since 2009, concern about proliferation to other actors has grown.

After Kim Jong-il’s sudden death in December 2011, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has steadily consolidated his authority as supreme leader. Bilateral agreements with the United States in February 2012 involving the provision of aid and freezing some nuclear activities fell apart after Pyongyang launched a rocket in April 2012. Prospects for further negotiations dimmed further after another, more successful, launch in December 2012 and a third nuclear test in February 2013. In response to new U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang sharply escalated its rhetoric and took a number of provocative steps. The U.S. reaction included muscular displays of its military commitments to defend South Korea and moves to bolster its missile defense capabilities.

North Korea’s actions present renewed questions for the Obama Administration. Does the nuclear test, along with a successful missile launch last year, fundamentally change the strategic calculus? Has North Korea’s capacity to hurt U.S. interests, up to and including a strike on the United States itself, increased to the point that military options will be considered more carefully? Is returning to the Six-Party Talks, dormant since 2008, still a goal? Relatedly, does the United States need a strategy that relies less on Beijing’s willingness to punish Pyongyang? Do North Korea’s advances mean that the policy of “strategic patience” is too risky to continue? More broadly, to what degree should the United States attempt to isolate the regime diplomatically and financially? Should those efforts be balanced with engagement initiatives that continue to push for steps toward denuclearization? Have the North’s nuclear and missile tests and attacks on South Korea demonstrated that regime change is the only way to peaceful resolution?

Although the primary focus of U.S. policy toward North Korea is the nuclear weapons program, there are a host of other issues, including Pyongyang’s missile programs, illicit activities, and abysmal human rights record. Modest attempts at engaging North Korea remain suspended along with the nuclear negotiations.

This report will be updated periodically. (This report covers the overall U.S.-North Korea relationship, with an emphasis on the diplomacy of the Six-Party Talks. For information on the technical issues involved in North Korea’s weapons programs and delivery systems, as well as the steps involved in denuclearization, please see the companion piece to this report, CRS Report RL34256, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues, by Mary Beth Nikitin. Please refer to the list at the end of this report for CRS reports focusing on other North Korean issues.) 

Date of Report: April 5, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: R41259
Price: $29.95

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