North Korea’s Nuclear Programs and American Policy Formation — Alexander von Rosenbach


North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have been a thorn in the side of four successive American presidents. From the 1980s onward, the United States government has devised an array of tactics to constrain North Korea, notably: bilateral dialogue, multilateral negotiation, and various sanctions, embargos and military threats under the umbrella of coercive diplomacy. However, these policy variations are less a product of political or security evolutions on the Korean Peninsula and more a reflection of a disorganized and erratic American national security strategy toward North Korea. The decision-making process was handicapped by a foreign policy establishment that was heavily skeptical of a diplomatic solution, and hampered by rifts between key agencies and senior administration officials. The net result was a strategy which, at best, lacked cohesiveness and continuity, and all too often, simply stagnated. Throughout, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear capabilities. Today, the world must cope with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang while the United States is left to salvage the lessons of a comprehensive foreign policy failure.

Disagreement and disarray in the bureaucracies of three Presidents (President Obama’s administration is not included in this study) provided few options for resolving the crisis. Lacking coherent guiding principles, decision-makers were forced into reactive roles, and tactical efforts were not deployed as part of an overarching national security strategy. As a result, at all crucial moments in the crises over Pyongyang’s nuclear program—in 1994, 2002 and 2006—North Korean actions have shaped American behavior. This ad hoc approach to foreign policy has done little to advance American objectives on the Korean Peninsula.

Agencies and departments did not collaborate to formulate a strategy after the threat of North Korean non-proliferation became evident. Though some interagency cooperation was achieved during the first Bush administration, the executive branch could not coalesce during tense moments of the 1993-1994 crisis, and remained divided in its aftermath. Thus, interagency conflict emerged as a core problem from 2002 onward.

Competing organizational interests, poor lead agency coordination, entrenched ideological assumptions, partisan pressure from Congress, and hawkish press coverage factored into the policy stalemate. Regarding the first variable, the State Department was focused on diplomacy and preserving the non-proliferation regime, while the Defense Department was intent on pressuring Pyongyang to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear bomb. These conflicting strategies set the foundations for a serious interagency rivalry that persisted throughout the crises.

The United States has lost significant bargaining leverage with the North Korean regime. Although the geo-political status quo in East Asian security has not changed, Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has undermined global non-proliferation efforts and damaged perceptions of American hegemony.

The North Korean nuclear crisis provides a reflection on missed opportunities for interagency cooperation, and highlights the importance of abandoning long-standing prejudices and assumptions in search of “unconventional” solutions to the threat of nuclear proliferation. Continued political and military jousting between the United States and North Korea make this case study a valuable midstream review. Moreover, there are other proliferation threats on the horizon which must be met with a coherent and cohesive foreign policy.