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 occupied 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 death in December 2011, his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has
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 nuclear
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, violent provocations inflicted upon
South Korea, 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 nuclear diplomacy. 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 D. Nikitin. Please refer to the list at the end of this report for
CRS reports focusing on other North Korean issues.)
Date of Report: September 13, 2013
Number of Pages: 26 Order Number: R41259
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