After a series of missile and nuclear tests in 2017 that showed progress toward a capability to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, North Korea dramatically changed its policy posture and embarked on a diplomatic initiative in 2018. It announced a self-imposed halt on missile and nuclear tests in April and held summit meetings with the United States, China and South Korea.
Policymakers and observers have offered competing explanations for this change in North Korean behavior. On the one hand is the claim that U.S. military threats and U.S.-led sanctions prompted the shift by escalating pain on North Korea. On the other is the assertion that the policy change was driven by North Korea’s internal policy priorities. In other words, North Korea wanted to achieve its security goals first before turning to economic development and followed this plan.
This presentation will examine the actions and statements by the United States and North Korea to assess those claims. The speaker will argue that North Korea had a plan to obtain what it considered an adequate level of nuclear deterrent against the United States before turning to economic development, and that military threats and economic pain did not dissuade the country from pursuing this path. Rather, the U.S. policy of pressure may have encouraged North Korea to speed up its efforts to obtain the capacity to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. It may, however, have stopped North Korea from increasing the sophistication of its nuclear arsenal by forcing the country to prematurely declare that it has obtained this goal.
If this is the case, the policy of increasing pressure on North Korea did not achieve its intended outcome. While it may have prevented North Korea from improving its arsenal, questions remain as to whether that was worth the risks it raised. This also indicates that if any pressure campaign against North Korea is to achieve its intended impact, the United States would have to more carefully consider how pressure may interact with North Korea’s policy goals.