North Korea: Dilemmas and US Strategy in the New Decade

di Manfredi Pozzoli - 1 Marzo 2020

  from London, United Kingdom

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00081

The start of the new decade has been a period of instability for the Trump administration. The President‘s final year in office started with a series of crises of serious proportions. In early January, a US airstrike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in response to a Hezbollah attack against the US embassy in Baghdad. The event sparked a confrontation that brought Tehran and Washington to the brink of war. At home, the President survived another potential catastrophe. On February 5, the Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump of all charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. By clearing the President, the vote brought an end to the 4-month long impeachment process.

Yet, as of today, there remains one challenge that the Trump administration has been incapable of settling: North Korea. For the past three years the US have tried to resolve the problem posed by Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal, and to reach an agreement with the DPRK’s dictator. As of today, any resolution seems unlikely: since the collapse of the latest round of negotiations – which took place in late June 2019 – dialogue between the two countries has essentially stopped.  

In late 2019, the DPRK’s test of a ‘new’ submarine – potentially capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles – opened a new phase in US-North Korean relations (McCurry 2019). This move was followed, on January 1st, by Kim’s decision to lift the test ban on missile tests (CNA 2020). Both of these events make it clear that, months after the final US-DPRK summit, Kim is taking an increasingly confrontational stance towards the Americans. 

Now that tensions between Pyongyang and Washington are rising again, the viability of the US’s current foreign policy – with denuclearization as its main goal – could be put in question. 


Security Challenges 

Relations between the US and North Korea have been historically tense. Long considered a ‘rogue state’, in 2002 the DPRK was included in George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’, alongside Iraq and Iran. The nuclear problem is at the centre of these hostilities, as the US considers North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a threat to American security and foreign policy. During the Trump presidency, the regime’s technological developments have strained relations further. 

Since its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test in 2017, North Korea has developed rockets which would be theoretically capable of striking the US mainland. With a range of up to 13,000 km, the Hwasong-15 KN-22 ICBM has the potential to reach most of the US (Van Diepen 2019).

In this context, Kim Jong Un’s decision to lift the self-imposed test ban could give the DPRK an opportunity to improve their missiles. As Van Diepenn points out, renewed ICBM testing could be used to improve missile accuracy and reliability. At the same time, it could also give the North Koreans an opportunity to experiment with new types of solid-fuel missiles and payloads (Van Diepen 2019). It is evident that, if it were to happen, a renewal of North Korean ICBM tests would seriously endanger the stability of the region, and especially threaten Japan and South Korea.


North Korea and its Neighbours 

A nuclear North Korea also poses broader challenges, which concern the security and stability of the region. In particular, observers have speculated about the potential influence of North Korea’s WMDs on the nuclear programs of its neighbouring countries: Japan and South Korea. Historically, both countries have been against obtaining independent arsenals, instead choosing to rely on the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’. However, in the past years, fears of US ‘inaction’ and indecisiveness have caused dissenting voices to appear. As of late 2019, the South Korean press saw a number of calls – some from former government officials – for the country to develop its own nuclear warheads (Johnson 2019). 

While, currently, chances of this scenario happening appear slim, the threats it would pose make its prevention critical for US policymakers.  A direct move by Japan or South Korea towards developing WMDs would be disastrous for the US’s position in the region. China – a historic adversary of both states – would feel directly threatened by the presence of any nuclear power on its borders. This could, in turn, lead to increased tensions in Sino-American relations. Furthermore, the presence of nuclear weapons could make any future Sino-Japanese crises – over issues such as the contested status of the Senkaku Islands – extremely dangerous.

If viewed in this context, the development of a North Korean nuclear submarine appears particularly problematic. While not directly threatening for the US, a similar asset could pose a regional security challenge. In fact, the DPRK’s submarine could wander, undetected, into Japanese and South Korean territorial waters, and thus threaten the vital assets of both countries (Herskovitz & Leung 2020). Furthermore, in case of conflict, the sub could remain hidden and assure North Korea’s second-strike capabilities (the ability to respond to a pre-emptive attack with one’s nuclear arsenal) (Roblin 2019).


Summit Diplomacy: Trump’s Push for Disarmament

The Trump presidency saw the Unites States take a new approach to diplomatic relations with Kim’s regime, which combined a more ‘open’ diplomatic stance with – often over-the-top – threats. This method led to some symbolic achievements: in June 2018 Trump and Kim met is Singapore, during a summit that marked the first meeting between a North Korean leader and an American president. One year later, on June 30, 2019, during a trilateral summit which also involved South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump became the first US President to cross the Korean demilitarized zone and enter North Korea.

While his methods are different, Trump’s main objective – the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula – is not new. Obtaining the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula has been the long-standing objective of American foreign policy (The Economist 2019). In fact, the Americans have been clear that, as a prerequisite for the removal of sanctions and US troops in South Korea, North Korea would need to begin its process of disarmament. Kim, for his part, has not completely ruled out the possibility of working to create a nuclear-free Korea at some unspecified point in the future. However, the dictator has made it clear that Trump’s terms are unacceptable (NCNK 2020). Considering these factors, it can be assumed that Pyongyang plans to remain a nuclear state – notwithstanding American sanctions and threats – for the foreseeable future.


Kim, Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Why Denuclearization Is Impossible 

The main problem with the current American strategy is that its objective is unrealistic. As of today, chances to achieve the full denuclearization of North Korea are almost nonexistent. Despite Trump’s claims that ‘the big deal’ on denuclearization is achievable, Kim is openly committed to maintaining his country’s nuclear capabilities (Landler 2019). In his New Year’s speech he declared that, because of the US’s ‘gangster-like acts’, North Korea should ‘push ahead with the development of strategic weapons more vigorously’ (NCNK 2020). 

These words are not surprising: in a sense, North Korea’s foreign policy gravitates around its nuclear arsenal – a factor that Kim Jong Un is well aware of. Primarily, the DPRK sees its nuclear weapons within a defensive – Cold War-style – framework.  By deploying weapons of mass destruction, Pyongyang hopes to deter any potential attack from its neighbours, South Korea and Japan, and from the US. Because of the massive disparity in conventional forces between North Korea and its adversaries, Kim sees nuclear WMDs as the only available tool to tip the balance of power to a state of equilibrium. In the near future, it is unlikely that this outlook will change as – while the recent summits might have reduced the short-term tensions with South Korea – Kim still feels threatened by his adversaries (Revere 2020).

Furthermore, by maintaining an independent nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang can avoid becoming over-reliant on the protection of China – its only real ally in the region. This, consequently, allows Kim more ‘freedom of action’ in building a foreign policy framework. Indeed, for the past decades, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has been vital in allowing the regime to pursue independent foreign policy initiatives – often ignoring Beijing’s protests (Pollack 2011). 


Building an Alternative Strategy

If Trump’s ‘big deal’ is impossible, then, what options does the US have? One valid possibility could be ‘moderating’ its objectives. If complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is unrealistic, then the US should focus on reducing tensions, reassuring allies, and increasing stability in the region. Last year’s summits were a good step in this direction, as they proved that Kim is willing to establish stronger diplomatic relations with Washington, and a dialogue with Seoul. However, even if talks resume, the Americans should not expect to see an end to North Korea’s provocations. Kim Jong Un deliberately uses threats to increase tensions and to bolster his country’s ‘great power’ status; this will likely continue (Thakur 2020). Nevertheless, it is possible that a less intransigent stance on the part of the US could entice the regime to take a less belligerent stance.

At the same time, favouring a multilateral international approach might also be convenient. For this purpose, China might be particularly useful. Indeed, despite being allied with Kim, Beijing would prefer to avoid any increase in tensions in the region, as they could jeopardize its current strategy in the region. Furthermore, North Korea’s economy is essentially dependent on China; this gives the PRC a strong leverage over Kim’s regime (Albert 2019). Because of this, reaching an understanding with China could improve the chances of success of any attempt at restraining Kim Jong Un.

Naturally, it is unlikely that China and the US will ever form a coherent, regional strategic partnership; however, this is not necessary. Instead, it is possible that the two powers could establish a framework for limited cooperation over their mutual commitment to reducing tensions in the region.


A Look at 2020: Live and Let Live?

In the long term, Washington’s most ‘reasonable’ objective should be to stop North Korea from advancing its nuclear weapons program even further. In particular, Levite and Dalton suggest that the US should seek to institute a quantitative and qualitative ‘cap’ on the regime’s nuclear arsenal (Levite & Dalton 2020). To achieve this, the US should diminish its commitment towards finding a ‘big deal’, and rather concentrate on instituting another test ban. Of course, adopting this strategy would mean that the US will have to ‘learn to coexist’ with a nuclear North Korea. While this realization might be uncomfortable for US policymakers, it would not be unprecedented. In fact, Washington has already learned to tolerate a nuclear China, despite the fact that, at the time of its first test in 1964, Mao’s regime was considered to be an unpredictable, fanatical ‘rogue state’. 

Finally, adopting a clearer stance on the nuclear issue would not only benefit relations with the Kim regime, but also improve regional stability. Since Kim sees requests of complete denuclearization as direct threats to North Korea’s security, a less demanding line of diplomacy could achieve better results. For example, by lowering tensions, the US may seek to restart talks between the two Koreas (Fuchs & Lee 2020). In any case, as the new decade begins, the Trump administration will need to reconsider its strategy, if it wishes to make any progress towards stabilizing the Korean peninsula. 



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Autore dell’articolo*: Manfredi Pozzoli, Student in History and International Relations at King’s College.


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