Why Is the North Korea Problem So Hard to Solve?

Kim Photo

The North Korea problem is set to get worse before it gets better. North Korea continues to perfect the reentry technology, targeting capability, and solid-fuel missiles that will dramatically increase the potency and reach of its nuclear weapons, overwhelm missile defenses on the Korean Peninsula, and threaten America’s homeland and allies in Asia. There are even renewed expectations of a seventh nuclear test or some other provocationtimed to make a splash before the U.S. presidential election.

In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un publicly designated South Korea as his country’s “primary enemy” and renounced peaceful unification, essentially rolling back a decades-long unification policy supported by his forefathers. These moves take on extra significance when viewed against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s geopolitical shift toward embracing autocracies and the Kim regime’s consistent calls for “war preparations” since early 2023. Meanwhile, Pyongyang is bear-hugging Moscow, sending it artillery and missiles in return for much-needed supplies like food and oil and possibly even military technology.

The result is an approaching crisis that calls for a recalibrated approach. As in years past, the North Korea policy debate has hardened into competing camps. One side wants to double down on deterrence and complete denuclearization, and the other wants engagement and arms control. If nothing else, the two camps agree that the status quo is unsustainable. And neither side is advocating for a modern incarnation of the “strategic patience” policy practiced during the Obama administration. And yet, without another plan, Washington will be stuck with a policy of not-so-strategic patience.

Today’s challenges stem from North Korea’s complex history, U.S.-North Korean system incompatibility, path dependency, decades of mistrust, and North Korea’s evolving strategic priorities. To overcome these challenges, we recommend forgoing a grand bargain in favor of a more incremental approach. This should combine deterrence, assurance, and engagement to build incentives for progress that can succeed whether or not Kim Jong Un comes to the table.



Histor of Complexity

The origins of the North Korea problem stem from Japanese colonialism, America’s broken promise to come to Korea’s aid in 1882, and a post–World War II trusteeship that set the stage for the peninsula’s ongoing ideological rivalry. The North Korean invasion that followed, green-lit by the Soviet Union and rescued from the jaws of defeat by Communist China, triggered a civil war that evolved into a regional war and a satellite war. The conflict threatened to escalate into a nuclear superpower showdown. While that thankfully never happened, the Korean War nonetheless initiated the pattern of Cold War proxy confrontation that continues to this day. At the end of the war, two years of difficult talks culminated in an uneasy armistice that remains in force, so the belligerents are stuck in a technical state of war until a political solution is reached.

North Korea’s decision making has always been affected by the wider geopolitical context. Kim Il Sung boldly ignored Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s direct guidance to dial down his cult of personality and embrace pluralistic governance. Over the years, Moscow and Beijing have both struggled to control their junior partner. As former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong told a Soviet diplomat in 1956, North Korea ignores China’s advice “100 percent” of the time, while it “listens to you” 70 percent of the time. During the Sino-Soviet split, the animosity between Beijing and Moscow was the crucial factor Kim needed to secure defense pacts from both countries, working each against the other.

The mistrust cuts both ways. Although the Soviets helped North Korea establish a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in the 1950s, Pyongyang’s leaders didn’t fully commit to developing nuclear weapons until the 1970s, as they grew concerned about the credibility of their patrons and warily witnessed South Korea’s economic ascendance. The lesson for North Korea? Perhaps that when it courts multiple patrons, it can minimize their influence while maximizing benefits. We may be seeing echoes of this approach today as Kim courts Russian President Vladimir Putin while keeping China at arm’s length.

The same context has informed North Korea’s guns-versus-butter thinking. From the early postwar years, the Kim regime engaged in an economic policy debate over accumulation (investment) versus consumption, sometimes leading to dueling narratives on national defense and the civilian economy. This debate began as early as the mid-1950s and continues to this day.

After the armistice, different factions within the North Korean leadership waged a tug-of-war over whether to give priority to heavy industry (accumulation) or light industry and agriculture (consumption). Though Kim was pressured by the Soviets to find a balanced approach — giving priority to heavy industry while developing light industry and agriculture at the same time — his preference was always to improve the economy by prioritizing heavy industry. The turning point came in 1961 and 1962, when the Soviet Union instilled a “fear of abandonment” in North Korea. Moscow parted ways with the Chinese and Albanian communist parties, and during the Cuban missile crisis, it reached a deal with the United States, which Kim Il Sung viewed as a betrayal of its Cuban ally. These events prompted North Korea to adopt a policy of simultaneous economic and defense development (the country’s original byungjin policy) in December 1962, in effect giving priority to national defense.

Contemporary North Korea is the consequence of those unsolved legacy problems compounded over time. The Kim family regime continually chooses guns over butter, so while the domestic economy languishes, the military has made major strides in developing advanced weapons systems. Today, North Korea presents a conventional, nuclear, chemical, and biological threat, which is also a global proliferation problem and a dangerous precedent eroding the sustainability of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. North Korea’s example is now a veritable roadmap for rogue states seeking nuclear weapons: Just grit your teeth and suffer sanctions for a while, and you too can own your own nukes and threaten your neighbors.

Policy Shift Meets Policy Inertia

There is a political cost in both Washington and Pyongyang for the compromises needed to move the ball forward. Both the United States and North Korea have thus become loss-averse, prioritizing the avoidance of setbacks over the prospect of making gains. Stubbornness has further become part and parcel of the strategic approach.

For the United States, it’s about path dependency, the process whereby policymaking becomes hardened and resistant to change, even as it no longer serves America’s interests. Although most U.S. analysts will concede that complete denuclearization is not feasible (or never was), no U.S. president wants to go down in history as having given up on that goal. Washington is unwilling to abandon denuclearization and also unwilling to confront the possibility that America may not be able to convince North Korea to denuclearize no matter what incentives are offered. That’s because North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not simply for defensive purposes: They are also intended to achieve a coercive effect, mobilize regime support, and hedge against overreliance on China and Russia.

North Korea also has its own calculus and unique and difficult to interpret ways of communicating its bargaining position. Some analysts forget that, amid the pageantry and fanfare of a sit-down summit, Kim Jong Un lost face when the prospects for a deal disintegrated during his second summit with Donald Trump in Hanoi. Although Kim is the undisputed leader of a unitary autocratic system, he nonetheless has a constituency of elites to answer to. Pyongyang complains of America’s “hostile policy” and has previously made denuclearization contingent on its removal. But when pushed by American diplomats to define what this means, the North Korean interlocutors won’t (or can’t). Although North Korea does not have a formal definition of “hostile policy,” a review of the country’s official statements and media commentary shows that it covers a broad range of issues that Pyongyang views as tarnishing its image or posing a threat to its regime security — from discussions of North Korea’s human rights conditions to sanctions and U.S.-South Korean combined military drills. A maximum and ambiguous definition is useful for creating negotiating space, and the trumped-up existential security threat is a handy pretext for the regime’s totalitarian control.

Further complicating the North Korea conundrum for U.S. policymakers are the apparent strategic policy shiftsthat Pyongyang has undertaken in recent years. The root of these shifts can be traced back to the collapse of the Hanoi summit and the lack of a diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries by the end of 2019. Kim Jong Un’s warning at the end of 2019 of a “long confrontation” with the United States accurately predicted where the North would be headed. Over the next five years, it would take a number of provocative steps. First, Pyongyang announced a five-year defense development plan centered on advancing nuclear capabilities. It also resumed intercontinental ballistic missile testing that it had suspended in April 2018 and declared that “there will be no longer any bargaining over” the North’s nuclear weapons. This essentially scrapped a three-decade policy of normalizing relations with the United States through denuclearization, started by Kim Il Sung and upheld by Kim Jong Il. Finally, Kim Jong Un designated South Korea as the “primary enemy” and shut the door to peaceful unification, which again was a reversal of his predecessors’ national unification policy. As North Korea shifted away from the United States and South Korea, it pivoted back to China and Russia, which marked a reversal of another three-decade policy: nonalignment with these two great power neighbors. Kim Jong Un’s understanding of the changing global order, which he described as being “multipolar” and in a “neo–Cold War,” coupled with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, appears to have spurred Pyongyang’s pivot away from Washington.


The historical enmity between the United States and North Korea is multigenerational and baked into the culture. North Koreans are taught that the United States and South Korea started the Korean War (called “the Great Fatherland Liberation War”) and remain an urgent threat to this day. Given the paucity of rival narratives, most of the country’s 25 million people accept this fact. In America as well, most people view North Korea as backward, pesky, irrational, and even evil. The country is a problem to deal with or an obstacle to surmount rather than a place filled mostly with ordinary people who are merely trying to get through the day. The vast majority of Americans (87 percent) view North Korea as mostly or very unfavorable, and the only foreign policy item that American Democrats and Republicans can seem to agree upon is the importance of limiting the power and influence of North Korea.

Both sides have justifiable reasons to think the other has done them wrong in prior agreements. One needs look no further than the 1994 Agreed Framework, the first major nuclear deal. North Korea complains that the United States failed to deliver on promised fuel oil and dragged its feet on the construction of light water reactors. The United States claims that North Korea broke the spirit if not the letter of the agreement by secretly pursuing a uranium path to the bomb. Several stalled attempts later, both sides have accumulated a laundry list of complaints about the infidelities of the other. Neither is in the mood to leap first to break the impasse, although precedent suggests this may be necessary.

Historically, diplomatic progress has been undercut by system incompatibility, multilateral misalignment, and geopolitics. American domestic politics have complicated the ability of the U.S. president to follow up on commitments. For example, Republicans in Congress opposed the transfer of heavy fuel oil to North Korea during the Agreed Framework. North Korea’s top-down system has made it difficult for diplomats at the working level to make serious headway in the nuclear issue. American negotiators came prepared for detailed talks in the run-up to the Hanoi summit, but their North Korean interlocutors simply did not have permission to discuss nuclear weapons.

The sheer number and variety of attempts to make a deal work have led to a state of learned helplessness. At this point, we’ve tried bilateral and multilateral negotiations. We’ve tried talks that start with working group–level negotiations and talks that are catalyzed by early leader-level summits. We’ve tried economic incentives and negative security assurances. We’ve tried having South Korea and China serve core roles in the process and otherwise. Both sides have given up trying to improve the very bad situation because we’ve become conditioned that it’s not within their power. This is of course understandable but wrong.

Looking Forward

Long-time North Korea watchers tend to believe that North Korea may make tactical adjustments along the way, but its strategic goals remain unchanged. An offshoot of this thinking is that the North Korean leadership continues to view the United States as indispensable for regime security. That is certainly what prompted Kim Il Sung to improve relations with Washington in the 1990s and Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un to continue this policy. But are we confident that this remains Kim Jong Un’s priority? As explained above, the signaling from North Korea indicates otherwise. There is a real threat of failing to recognize that North Korea is changing and thus failing to recalibrate U.S. policy accordingly.

Additionally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the offer at the core of former strategies — the lifting of sanctions or provision of economic aid packages in return for North Korea’s steps toward denuclearization — do not have the same allure for Pyongyang as they once did. For one, the strides North Korea has made in its weapons programs since the collapse of the Hanoi summit mean the terms of negotiations will not be the same as they were in 2018 or 2019. Let’s not forget that Kim has effectively drawn the line: no denuclearization. Next, North Korea’s calculus vis-á-vis the United States, China, and Russia has changed. Additionally, the growing rift between the United States and both China and Russia, combined with North Korea’s improved relations with Beijing and Moscow, have facilitated Pyongyang’s illicit economy. Notably, Russia recently vetoed a U.N. group tasked with monitoring North Korea’s sanctions evasions. The horse has truly left the barn.

The current state of the policy debate pits deterrence against engagement and assurance, ignoring the fact that all three will be needed to solve the problem. One dilemma is that it’s counter-productive to reward or incentivize bad behavior, but it’s also necessary to provide an off-ramp from this negative cycle the United States and North Korea are stuck in. The challenge is to pursue a policy that moves the ball in the right direction whether or not Pyongyang is in the mood to work on the relationship. The current debate also fails to address the reality that North Korea’s intransigence stems from regional division and global competition between rival blocs. So long as China and Russia continue to be at odds with the United States and even benefit from North Korea’s confrontation with Washington, it’s foolhardy to expect them to abandon their ally of convenience.

A great deal of intellectual and political capital has been expended on showy summits and grand bargains that simply don’t pan out. Victor Cha has written that “all the past denuclearization policies have arguably left the United States worse off than before.” To surmount the dilemmas inherent to North Korea policy, Washington should first break through the limitations in its own thinking. Policymakers should follow William Perry’s adviceto “deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be.”

Given the nature of the problem — one so firmly rooted in wider regional rivalries — it is necessary to take the long view. That means preparing for sudden change while also girding for stasis or deterioration and proactively working to create conditions for favorable improvement. Sudden change could come in the form of an unanticipated two-front war in Asia involving the United States, both Koreas, China, Japan, and Taiwan. It could begin with a North Korean provocation or miscalculation that spirals out of control. It could be triggered by famine, regime instability, a coup, or a nuclear accident. Preventing and preparing for these eventualities involve painstaking planning, cooperation with our allies, and crisis management with our adversaries.

All too often, in stalemates, only a crisis can convince policymakers to invest the political capital needed for change. To that end, deterrence, assurance, and engagement will all be needed — as well as a healthy dose of pragmatism. When it comes to tough cases like North Korea, incremental progress doesn’t get the fanfare it deserves.

Modest Measures

Given the paucity of progress and the fait accompli that denuclearization is virtually impossible, some are calling for the United States and South Korea to make concessions to kick-start a peace process with an arms control deal or an end-of-war declaration. But without the proper verification measures and mutual trust-building, an arms control deal that stops short of full denuclearization could actually make the peninsula a more dangerous and unstable place. While an end-of-war declaration would be politically symbolic, it could lead to increased calls by Pyongyang to halt U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises or pull out U.S. military personnel and assets from South Korea, which could be more destabilizing for the region. Both objectives are worth pursuing in the long term, but only as part of a holistic and parallel process with reciprocity and snapbacks.

Both the United States and North Korea will need to demonstrate good faith. That’s worth working toward but shouldn’t be expected overnight, especially so long as China and Russia continue to bankroll the Kim regime’s intransigence. On the diplomatic front, rather than the unrealistic fantasy of a sweeping solution through a grand bargain, efforts should be focused on building out overlapping and supporting layers of initiatives that stave off disaster and precipitate positive outcomes.

First, Washington should invest serious political capital in crisis communications and confidence-building measures in Northeast Asia. It’s ideal if Pyongyang participates but nonetheless meaningful if similar dialogues can take place with the other regional players, especially China, the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The door will remain open for North Korea’s subsequent participation.

Next, the United States and South Korea have nothing to lose by trying to rekindle trust through humanitarian assistance, academic exchange, and people-to-people ties.

Simultaneously, the U.S.-Korean alliance should improve its deterrence posture by enhancing ballistic missile defenses, increasing trilateral cooperation with Japan, and developing and deploying assets and doctrines to meet the advancing threat. However, instead of emphasizing deterrence by punishment, which tends to be louder than it is effective, the alliance can focus on deterrence by denial “to undermine North Korea’s confidence in escalatory options without further threatening the regime.”

Over time, North Korea will come to understand that Washington and Seoul’s strategy is a reflection of its own. When Pyongyang turns down the temperature, stops provocations, and engages in reciprocal trust-building, it will find ready and willing partners. When it insists on proliferation, weapons testing, and provocations, the United States and South Korea will improve their deterrence posture and lead an international pressure coalition. Washington can hold out hope that North Korea comes around, but if it relies on this, it passes up the opportunity for more modest and pragmatic achievements. At the very least, Washington can take proactive measures to prevent the worst possible outcome, no matter what path the Kim regime decides to take.



Jonathan Corrado is director of policy for The Korea Society, where he produces programming and conducts research on the U.S.-Korea alliance and the Korean Peninsula. He teaches a class on North Korea at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University and the State University of New York Stony Brook University. He was previously a Korean-English translator for Daily NK, a South Korean news service collecting information from North Korean sources.

Rachel Minyoung Lee is a senior fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. She was a North Korea collection expert and analyst with the Open Source Enterprise of the U.S. government from 2000 to 2019.

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