U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

In the 21st century, the United States and North Korea are in difficult diplomatic relations. The main problem is that Kim Jong-un’s highly unpredictable and dangerous totalitarian regime has nuclear weapons. Foreign policymakers of different US administrations have implemented different approaches to relations with North Korea. One side says that the United States should impose tough sanctions against the Jong-un regime. The other side calls for building a constructive dialogue with the Korean government. This essay will prove the position that the United States needs to stabilize relations with the DPRK to create the possibility of negotiations on denuclearization.

North Korea Nuclear Power

The United States should focus extensively on North Korea because of the destructive weapon in its hands. North Korea’s influence in the international arena has grown significantly since the first nuclear weapon tests were carried out in 2006. To understand the scale of the outgoing danger, one should study the last largest nuclear test in the DPRK, which took place in 2017. According to NORSAR, the Norwegian research foundation that tracks nuclear tests, the test explosion had an explosive yield of 120 kilotons (Rosenfeld, 2017). By comparison, the 1945 Hiroshima explosion, which killed about 80,000 people, had an explosive power of 15 kilotons (Berlinger & Lee, 2017). This suggests that the totalitarian regime, which is not controlled by any international norms, has weapons of mass destruction.

Many would argue that nuclear weapons lead to more peaceful relations between countries. Due to the danger of mutual destruction, countries with nuclear weapons do not use atomic missiles and traditional military means. Despite this, the North Korean case is different because of the regime type. As Düben (2018) indicates, “how North Korea will act as a nuclear power is difficult to predict” (p. 7). This country is at the bottom of the Freedom House list for the level of democracy and freedom, which testifies to the totalitarian nature of Kim Jong-un’s regime (Freedom House, 2021). Therefore, the demands of North Korea’s denuclearisation were put as one of the primary goals of US foreign policy.

History of Negotiations between the US and North Korea

Diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea have always been complex, so almost all negotiations have failed. It is worth starting from 2006 when North Korea declared its nuclear potential. In 2007, both sides agreed on a procedure for a non-aggression declaration agreement, but North Korea, although it took steps towards reconciliation (demolition of Yongbyon reactor tower), withdrew from the agreement in 2009 (Korea Peace Now, 2019). After that, the Obama administration did not want to negotiate with North Korea, mostly preferring a policy of “strategic patience” (Korea Peace Now, 2019). Policy outcomes were tougher sanctions and the isolation of North Korea. As a consequence, this approach has contributed to the creation of an increasingly isolated regime with nuclear power.

Trump’s approach to negotiations with North Korea significantly differed from Bush’s neoconservatism and Obama’s liberalism. During his presidency, Trump tried to mend relations between countries through organizing summits and personal meetings with Jong-un. The 2018 North Korea-US summit was the first time the US president and supreme leader of the DPRK. Two leaders signed an agreement of mutual work toward “a lasting and stable peace” (Williams, 2018). Further relations were complicated by the US demands for the denuclearization of North Korea and North Korea’s demands to lift most of the sanctions. As a result, no radical changes have occurred in the complicated relations between North Korea and the United States.

Three consecutive US presidential administrations from Bush to Trump have failed to agree on the denuclearization of North Korea. The sanctions aimed at the economic pressure of the Jong-un regime and the constant talk of denuclearization did not move the situation off the ground. The United States should reconsider its foreign policy towards North Korea and understand that Kim Jong-un will not negotiate under any circumstances that threaten the preservation of his regime. Therefore, one of the most effective options would be to take a neo-realist position in the approach to North Korea.

Neorealist Approach in International Relations

Neorealism is an approach to view world politics based on pragmatism. Neorealism has its roots in Morgenthau’s realism and is subsequently conceptualized by Waltz and Mearsheimer. This paradigm is dominant in academic discourse on international politics, competing with the neoliberal view on politics. The view on US-North Korea relations through the neoliberal paradigm lens will help elaborate a new version of the policy for US policymakers.

Realists see international politics as they are and not what they ought to be. The central premise is the integral role of states in the international system (Walt, 2018). In the neorealist paradigm, each state has its national interests, which researchers could analyze without focussing on ideologies and cultural peculiarities. The structure of international order is composed of units, principles of order between them, and the capabilities of each unit (Lazea, 2016). Therefore, the researcher can abstract from whether the regime is democratic or totalitarian, revolutionary or tyrannical. The main concern for policymakers is the security of their state, so they analyze the distribution of power between states in constructing their foreign policy (Lundborg, 2018). If the state is powerful and nobody can prevent it, rational statesmen will certainly start a war to gain new territories and resources. If a state is weak, it will seek opportunities to find powerful allies to protect itself from destruction. However, nuclear weapons seem to reduce the possibility of conventional war. Indeed, as Mearsheimer (2018) states, “inflicting— or threatening to inflict—immediate and massive punishment on the other side’s civilian population is of central importance in the world of nuclear deterrence” (p. 5). One of the possible lines of criticism can be the fact that neorealists do not consider the relation between the type of regime and possession of nuclear weapons. In fact, the neorealist paradigm changes through time and uses some assumptions about the state’s regime. It is also true that this problem will not prevent from using theory to form policy.

Interpretation of Possible Solutions for US-North Korea Relations

Neorealist theory helps to understand and interpret North Korean behavior toward the United States. North Korea is a small state with no reliable allies who can help against the more powerful opponent. Nuclear power is a fundamental security provider for Jong-un’s regime, which he cannot lose. This aspect explains why all negotiations on denuclearization failed. The US imposed economic sanctions on North Korea to force Jong-un to compromise, but doing so only made the issue of denuclearization a matter of life and death for Jong-un. The haste and persistence with which the United States approaches the negotiations on denuclearization make North Korea think about the security of the regime’s existence.

The US foreign policymakers should create a secure environment for the North Korean government to push the agenda of denuclearization into practice. First of all, the agenda of denuclearization should be moved from short- and middle-term goals to long-term goals. Obviously, North Korea’s costs outweigh the benefits of such an agreement. Instead, the US must prioritize building constructive relationships. Only when Kim Jong-un realizes that the benefits of denuclearization will be higher than the costs, North Korean government will make concessions. Thus, the US needs to promote mutual trust and suggest guarantees to North Korean officials that will suit both sides. Firstly, North Korea’s economic environment needs to be improved, and sanctions should be reduced. Secondly, the two sides should develop a constructive dialogue through the opening of embassies and the formation of opportunities for dialogue on the issues of mutual interests. Finally, the denuclearization agenda should be postponed for a while because it breeds mistrust and suspicion.

Possible Criticism

​​ Opponents of the proposed approach focus on the neorealists ‘ inattention to ideology and the level of freedom. Building relationships with a tyrannical regime that violates human rights is impermissible for the democratic United States. The neorealist approach does not take into account that the government of North Korea consists of immoral and cruel people. However, there are counterarguments against this. Past attempts by various administrations concerned with differing ideological preferences have failed. North Korea has improved its nuclear program every year, despite sanctions and isolation. The advent of cryptocurrencies has allowed North Korea to avoid isolation problems and engage in hidden economic crimes to fund its nuclear program (Ioanes, 2021). It becomes clear that the Realpolitik approach can help solve tensions. An analysis of past relations shows that the approaches of past presidents to North Korea were ineffective, so a new neorealist approach can contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the long term.


Crisis relations between the US and North Korea could lead to disaster. Kim Jong-un’s uncontrollable and unpredictable regime has weapons of mass destruction, and one of the US goals is to avoid a tragic outcome. The policy of sanctions and pressure has shown itself to be ineffective, so there should be mutual understanding and compromise between states. US diplomats need to recognize that denuclearization is impossible in the current environment, so more realistic short- and middle-term goals of finding understanding and common grounds are more crucial.


Berlinger, J., & Lee, T. (2017). Nuclear test conducted by North Korea, country claims; South Korea responds with drills. CNN. Web.

Düben, B. A. (2017). Atomic outcast: Will North Korea behave like a ‘normal’ nuclear power? The RUSI Journal, 162(6), 6-14.

Freedom House. (2021). Countries and territories. Web.

Ioanes, E. (2021). North Korea is the most isolated country on the planet, but it still finds ways to steal billions of dollars. Business Insider. Web.

Korea Peace Now. (2019). A history of relations between the United States and North Korea. Web.

Lazea, D. (2016). Neorealism in international relations. From explaining to influencing world politics. Transylvanian Review, 25(Suppl 2), 95-107.

Lundborg, T. (2019). The ethics of neorealism: Waltz and the time of international life. European Journal of International Relations, 25(1), 229-249.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2018). Conventional deterrence: An interview with John J. Mearsheimer. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 12(4), 3-8.

Rosenfeld, E. (2017). How North Korea’s latest test compares to past atomic blasts. CNBC. Web.

Walt, S. (2018). The world wants you to think like a realist. Foreign Policy. Web.

Williams, J. (2018). Breaking: Trump and Kim sign agreement pledging to work toward “a lasting and stable peace”. Vox. Web.

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