Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts US and North Korea: Testing the Water on Arms Control and Reduction
US and North Korea: Testing the Water on Arms Control and Reduction

US and North Korea: Testing the Water on Arms Control and Reduction

Bottom Line

  • Denuclearization has been Washington’s North Korea policy goal since the 1990s, yet successive US administrations have failed to deter Pyongyang from developing, testing, and exporting nuclear weapons and missile technologies.

  • The United States must shift its policy focus from denuclearization to arms control and reduction.

  • Even though North Korea has proved to be an unfaithful negotiating partner in the past, an inspection regime that accompanies multilateral or bilateral talks with Pyongyang will cap parts of its strategic weapons program, as well as reduce stockpiles and proliferation risks.

Ask US policymakers what America’s North Korea policy goal is and they will probably tell you it is denuclearization. After six nuclear tests from 2006 to 2017, the likelihood Pyongyang will denuclearize is unrealistic. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is growing and the country’s strategic weapons capability is improving. In 2017, eleven years after its first nuclear test, North Korea declared to the world that it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. Considering the advances in weapons technology the United States made from its first nuclear test in 1945 to 1956, it is not too far-fetched to think that North Korea has made similar advances. On one hand, Pyongyang proved that it perfected nuclear weapons and liquid-fueled missile technologies the United States mastered in the 1950s; on the other, a 1950s-era atomic bomb delivered on a primitive missile can still ruin your day in 2023.

North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test in seven years but regularly tests missiles that could deliver them. In 2022, North Korea conducted sixty-eight missile tests, a record number far exceeding its previous record of twenty-five tests in 2019. North Korea fired at least a dozen missiles so far in 2023, including six short-range missiles fired with Kim Jong Un in attendance with his daughter. Repeated tests advance research and development, help North Korean missile crews improve proficiency, and these two factors combined reduce warning time and improve accuracy.

However, each time North Korea conducts a nuclear test or launches a missile, the reaction from the United States and the international community is always the same: A formal statement condemning the test from the US, South Korea, Japan, and Western governments; additional sanctions designations against North Korea and regime officials; a White House statement that “all options are on the table,” alluding to the possible use of force; and a “show of force” military exercise, such as a B-2 bomber fly over or a US Navy ship visit. 

Unfortunately, these measures will not prevent North Korea from conducting additional missile or nuclear tests. The United States and its partners are doing the same things again and again, hoping for different results—even though Pyongyang knows exactly what to expect. And one needs to be clear: the use of force is not on the table. The United States has little deterrence credibility because North Korea can safely bet that Washington does not want to risk war on the Korean Peninsula. For decades, the conversations in the White House Situation Room following a North Korean provocation were always the same: What if the US government response leads to further escalation and conflict with the North? Even former President Donald Trump, as brash as he acted by publicly belittling Kim as “little Rocket Man,” could not bring himself to act militarily against Pyongyang, instead deciding to meet with Kim in person.

 America is not alone in shying away from military escalation or actions that could threaten North Korea. South Korea is reluctant as well. The administration in Seoul does not want to take a course of action that could jeopardize its economic prosperity or endanger a large number of citizens, most of whom live within North Korean artillery range in the capital city of Seoul. It is a prudent and understandable concern. 

What about China or Russia? Can Beijing or Moscow reign in their neighbor and former client state? At this point, considering the current status of US relations with China and Russia, why should Xi or Putin do any favors for Washington? For Beijing and Moscow, Pyongyang frustrates Washington’s Asia designs and provides a useful strategic distraction, wasting valuable time and resources that could otherwise be used against China or Russia.

The United States was constantly engaged in some kind of talks with North Korea for most of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century: the Four-Party Talks, the Three-Party Talks, and the Six-Party Talks. Even after three US-North Korea presidential summits from 2018 to 2019, the North Korean expansion of its strategic arsenal continues unabated. The Obama administration used the phrase “strategic patience” to describe its North Korea policy, which best describes the Biden administration’s approach as well. It speaks about North Korea with others, but not to the North Koreans themselves.

A diplomatic resolution is seemingly at a dead end—yet there is a pathway. The United States and its allies must shift their policy focus from denuclearization to arms control and reduction. The first step in this process is to politically accept North Korea’s de facto status as a nuclear weapons state. Convincing North Korea to dismantle some of its nuclear program will be extremely difficult, but it is more realistic than complete, irreversible, verifiable disarmament which the United States insisted on during the Six-Party Talks.

North Korea is a desperately poor country and its nuclear weapons— and strategic ambiguity of whether it will use them against its neighbors or not— is what makes Pyongyang and the ruling Kim family relevant on the global stage. Asking North Korea to give up nuclear weapons is tantamount to asking the Kim Family to give up the basis of its legitimacy and commit regicide. Strategic weapons are the leadership’s only tangible achievement in the last 70 years, and if nuclear weapons are not necessary to defend against the U.S., it questions the martial wisdom of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un, and undermines the sacrifice of the North Korean people through war and famine.

India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea?

Unsurprisingly, how the United States dealt with nations who developed and assembled nuclear weapons outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) depended on the country’s relations with Washington. America never publicly pressed Israel, a close ally, to come clean or denuclearize, despite troublesome allegations of possible nuclear cooperation with South Africa’s apartheid government. Pakistan received billions of dollars in US military aid and assistance while continuing to grow its nuclear arsenal. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama signed landmark civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India, a de facto recognition of New Delhi’s nuclear status. Washington demonstrated through these actions or non-actions that it is willing to look the other way or shelve denuclearization as an issue, as long as it serves Washington’s geopolitical interests. South Africa is the only country in the world to have developed and then dismantled its nuclear program; it gave up its six weapons in 1989 and joined the nonproliferation treaty in 1991 as part of the step-by-step process from 1990 to 1994 to end apartheid and rejoin the global community.

India is what North Korea wants to be; South Africa is what the United States wants North Korea to be. Washington can either achieve this goal through the use of force, continue what it has been doing and hope for the best, or take a bold step to cap some parts of North Korea’s strategic weapons program and reduce proliferation risks.

Six-Party Talks: Part II

As a multilateral framework, the Six-Party Talks between the United States., China, North and South Korea, Russia, and Japan were a remarkable achievement. This framework can be resurrected to serve as a first step toward testing the waters on arms control and reduction with the North, eventually leading to a bilateral inspection regime between the United States and North Korea. This would be hard for Seoul to swallow but, in the end, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is primarily used to deter the United States and not South Korea. Arms reduction talks are also between nuclear powers by nature; conventional force reduction talks or steps to improve inter-Korean ties can be a pre-condition or a corollary.

Before re-engaging in any negotiations, North Korea watchers and US policymakers need to first acknowledge that Pyongyang is an unfaithful dialogue partner. The Four-Party Talks between the United States., China, and North and South Korea capped the North’s plutonium weapons program by shutting down the reactor in Yongbyon. Yet, we now know North Korea cheated on the agreement, playing a key role in rogue Pakistani scientist AQ Khan’s illicit nuclear proliferation network and the development of a highly enriched uranium weapons program. Pyongyang also showed that it is willing to proliferate nuclear technology while it was engaged in the Six-Party Talks when it built a nuclear reactor in the middle of the desert in Syria (Israel subsequently destroyed in an air strike in 2007). 

If the North proved to be an unreliable negotiating partner during past denuclearization talks, why should America bother with more talks? As stated before, military options are off the table. They were on the table for Israel against Syria in 2007 because Israel attacked before its neighbor acquired nuclear weapons. Four-Party Talks did not stop North Korea from developing a highly enriched uranium program, but it capped the production of fissile material for several years when the Yongbyon nuclear power plant was shut down and placed under International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring.

North Korea’s past behavior suggests it will probably obfuscate the truth, but the United States getting its foot in the door will provide an opportunity to take a peek, even briefly, into the room. Pyongyang may throw outlandish demands on the table during the talks, such as inspecting US bases. Even if North Korea demands reciprocity, the United States has more it can share at a lower risk of disclosure due to the size and maturity of its deterrence programs, and due to the open nature of American society in policymaking and scientific development. The North’s program is still new, smaller in scope, and ruled by a xenophobic regime that fears foreign influences. While talks are underway, the North will stop testing its weapons, preventing the regime from improving its arsenal, and parts of its program will be capped and monitored.

The Doomsday Clock and Nightmare Scenarios

The sense of urgency among the US policymakers negotiating with North Korea in the 1990s came from trying to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, but that ship has sailed. The urgency now is to cap parts of the strategic weapons program that the international community knows about and reduce stockpile and proliferation risks. 

History is not on the side of North Korea. Pyongyang has an outsized influence in the world compared to its gross domestic product, estimated to be around $18 billion, according to the last estimate from the World Bank. Seoul’s last estimated economic output, in comparison, was around $1.8 trillion. Unless social science tools commonly used to measure North Korea’s economy are wrong, the arrow points to one direction for North Korea: a hereditary dictatorship that relies on international handouts to survive. The most valuable thing it has to export is nuclear weapons and missiles and there are plenty of countries who would be interested. For example, what if Iran successfully tests an atomic bomb and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates decide to purchase nuclear weapons and missiles from North Korea? Will America go to war against the Gulf states? Will the United States and European Union sanction these countries by refusing to buy their gas and oil? What leverage will the United States have against North Korea or against the Gulf states, and how will Israel react?

This is a far-fetched nightmare scenario thus far. The policy and statecraft challenge is not to try to stuff the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle; it is to prevent the genie from breeding other genies, and the international community cannot afford to fail.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the US government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying US government authentication of information or endorsement of the author’s views.

Image: Defense Department