Primer|National Security   6 Minute Read

Country Brief: North Korea

Published May 24, 2016

Updated On May 17, 2017

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North Korea’s illicit nuclear and missile arsenal presents a serious threat, but the country’s isolation and erratic behavior pose two major challenges: (1) no one knows the true intentions of the ruling regime and (2) no one has the leverage necessary to change its behavior. With so few options, the U.S. must:

  1. Maintain a robust military presence on the Korean peninsula and develop missile defense systems;
  2. Block transfers of advanced military and nuclear weapons technology to North Korea while trying to dismantle its current capabilities; and
  3. Prepare for a possible collapse of the North Korean regime. 

North Korea is a totalitarian military state, ruled by a despotic regime that exercises near-total control over the daily lives of its often-starving citizens. The United States currently stations over 62,000 troops23,468 in South Korea and 39,345 in Japan—to defend those countries against attack from North Korea, something it promised to do after the Korean War.1 While permanent bases in Northeast Asia were originally meant to deter an attack on South Korea and stabilize the region more broadly, they now help to protect the United States; North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have transformed its government into a serious threat to the U.S. homeland.


Legacy of the Korean War

At the end of World War II, Soviet and American troops divided Korea into North Korea and South Korea. The Soviet Union installed the Kim regime as the Communist rulers of North Korea. In 1950, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea, starting a three-year war that killed nearly 2.5 million people—including 36,000 Americans. Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, is the grandson of Kim Il Sung.2

In 1953, North and South Korea signed an armistice, but not a peace treaty, and the two countries technically remain at war. The border between North and South Korea at the 38th Parallel, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is the most heavily fortified region in the world, dotted with millions of land mines.3 Around 23,500 U.S. military personnel live on dozens of bases across South Korea.4 The United States has signed two bilateral treaties that commit Washington to defending South Korea and Japan from any North Korean attack.

Nuclear Weapons Program

North Korea developed nuclear weapons to deter South Korea from a conventional conflict.5 Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, most recently in September, with mixed success; none have rivaled the power of the relatively primitive Hiroshima bomb.6 North Korea's fifth nuclear test on September 9th, however, produced the largest explosive yield of the five, indicating North Korea's increasing capabilities. It has somewhere between 10-20 nuclear weapons, a figure that could double by 2020.7

It has also conducted a series of illegal ballistic missile tests to threaten the U.S. and its allies, with the latest in May 2017 exhibiting the North's potential ability to hit the U.S. territory of Guam.8 In February 2016, North Korea launched its second satellite into orbit, showing it might be able to fire a missile across the Pacific Ocean.9 Although many experts doubt North Korea can build a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a land-based missile, the regime is working hard to change that.10 It is also testing submarine-launched missiles, which, if deployed, would make it much harder to detect a North Korean attack prior to launch.11

Exhaustive diplomacy to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program has proved disappointing for the past three administrations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids signatory states from pursuing nuclear weapons. North Korea signed the NPT in 1985, but international inspectors uncovered a secret nuclear weapons program in 1992.12 This led to the landmark 1994 Framework agreement, which lasted until tensions between Pyongyang and the Bush Administration, in addition to revelations about the North's secret uranium enrichment program, led to its demise in 2002 and 2003.13 North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and accelerated its weapons development.14

Since then, North Korea has engaged in cycles of (1) demonstrating progress on its illegal programs and committing military provocations, (2) negotiating international agreements to roll back that progress in exchange for aid, (3) suspending talks and ejecting U.N. inspectors, and (4) withdrawing until the next round of threats.15 Until 2009, negotiations were conducted through the Six Party Talks between North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.

Donald Trump has suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons to defend themselves against North Korea. Such a proposal directly contradicts 70 years of U.S. nuclear policy, which has tried to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to cover vital allies—such as Japan and South Korea. Donald Trump also believes that China can reign in North Korea, but history has clearly demonstrated that the Chinese themselves are frustrated by their inability to control the Kim regime.

Concerns of Collapse

As North Korea’s main trading partner, as well as a main source of food, arms, and energy, China has the most leverage over the Kim regime, minimal as it is.16 But although China is fed up with North Korea’s behavior, it tolerates it in the name of stability on the Korean peninsula. Beijing fears that placing too much pressure on North Korea with sanctions might trigger a regime collapse, a refugee crisis in northern China, and a regional influx of U.S. troops.17

A Tough, Smart Approach to North Korea

We have to be wary when it comes to North Korea. A tough and smart approach means (1) maintaining a robust U.S. capability to defend regional allies and the U.S. homeland, (2) preventing the North from advancing its weapons programs any further, and (3) working with China to prepare for a potential regime collapse.

We Must Defend Our Allies and the Homeland

North Korea Missile Ranges
Source: The Guardian18

The current U.S. presence of 23,468 troops in South Korea and 39,345 in Japan will deter a land attack by North Korea, shaving the cost of defending both countries. The United States also carries out regular training exercises with forces from both countries.19 The more dangerous threat comes from North Korean missiles. The United States, South Korea, and Japan all deploy short-range Patriot missile batteries to defend bases in the region from missile attack. In July, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to counter North Korean missile threats.20 The system became operational in May 2017.21

To defend itself, the United States is developing layered missile defenses to intercept a possible launch of the most advanced North Korean missiles. The first layer is a sea-based capability based on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers, which can take the first shot at a long-range North Korean missile before it gets close to the U.S. mainland.22 The second line of defense is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, based in Alaska and California, which was specifically designed to defend against missiles from North Korea. The GMD has had a troubled development, and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency is working to improve its reliability.23

We Must Slow North Korea’s Progress on its Weapons Programs

The United States restricts the export of technology to North Korea,24 but U.S. law cannot prevent other states from helping the regime develop its nuclear and missile programs. The Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR)25 is an international agreement to prevent just that, but it has only 34 participating states.26 The United States must bring more nations into the fold.

Two UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, passed in 2006 and 2009 respectively, created an arms embargo prohibiting any country from shipping weapons or missile technology to North Korea.27 In March 2016, the UNSC passed another resolution in response to North Korea's tests, imposing new financial and shipping sanctions, which include inspections of cargo to and from North Korea.28 On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, the U.S. and China agreed to cooperate in responding to North Korea's fifth nuclear test.

We Must Prepare for North Korea’s Implosion

Aside from North Korea’s nuclear program, the greatest concern held by regional powers and the United States is that a collapse of the North Korean regime could create a humanitarian crisis that sends millions of refugees into South Korea and China. A regime implosion would also open its nuclear program to plundering by arms dealers who could sell the technology to the highest bidder. Thus, the United States must begin high level talks with China to plan for such a crisis. Because securing loose nuclear technology would require foreign intervention, Washington and Beijing must be able to coordinate and avoid any military confrontation.

  1. United States Forces, Japan, About USFJ. Accessed December 22, 2015. Available at:; Franz-Stefan Gady, “Are U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harming the United States?”, The Diplomat, August 26, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2015. Available at:  

    See also Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States of America, January 19, 1960. Available at:; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea, October 1, 1953. Available at:

  2. "Profile: Kim Jong-un, North Korea's Supreme Commander," BBC News, January 6, 2016. Accessed May 16, 2017. Available at:

  3. United States, Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, “Background Note: South Korea,” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, February 5, 2015. Accessed July 23, 2015. Available at:

  4. Greg Price, "U.S. Military Presence in Asia: Troops Stationed in Japan, South Korea and Beyond," Newsweek, April 26, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2017. Available at:

  5. James Clapper, Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 16, 2011.

  6. CRS Report RL33590, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy, by Larry A. Niksch. “North Korea: How we got to this point,” CNN, March 1, 2012. Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:; Josh Keller, Ford Fessenden & Time Wallace, “Why Experts Doubt That North Korea Tested a Hydrogen Bomb,” The New York Times, January 6, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  7. See, e.g., Joel S. Wit & Sun Young Ahn, “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures: Technology and Strategy,” US-Korea Institute at SAIS, 2015. Available at:

  8. Jack Kim and Ju-min Park, "North Korea's Latest Missile Launch Suggests Progress Toward ICBM: Experts," Reuters, May 15, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2017. Available at:

  9. Tiffany Ap,“North Korea satellite ‘tumbling in orbit,’ U.S. official says,” CNN, February 9, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  10. James Clapper, “DNI Statement on North Korea’s Nuclear Capability,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Press Release, April 11, 2013. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  11. Luiz Martinez, Justin Fishel & Joohee Cho, “North Korea Test Fires Submarine-Launched Missile, U.S. Says,” ABC News, April 23, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:  

  12. United States, Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, “North Korea: Potential for Nuclear Weapon Development,” Declassified Report, September 1986.  Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:

  13. Kelsey Davenport, "The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance," Arms Control Association, August 2004. Accessed May 16, 2017. Available at:

  14. “North Korea withdraws from nuclear pact,” BBC News, January 10, 2003. Accessed May 2, 2016. Available at:

  15. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Agreed Framework of 21 October 1994 Between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Information Circular. Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:;

    See also “KCNA Detailed Report Explains NPT Withdrawal,” Korean Central News Agency, Report, January 22, 2003. Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:;

    See also United States, Congressional Research Service, Larry Niksch, “North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” February  25, 2006, Issue Brief 91141, Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:;

    See also David E. Sanger, “North Koreans Say They Tested a Nuclear Device,” The New York Times, October 9, 2006. Accessed July 24, 2015. Available at:;

    See also International Atomic Energy Agency, “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” Report by the Director General, Board of Governors General Conference, August 17, 2007. Accessed June 24, 2015. Available at:

  16. Beina Xu, and Jayshree Bajoria, “The China-North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 22, 2014. Accessed August 1, 2015. Available at:

  17. Ibid.

  18. Justin McCurry and Ewen MacAskill, "North Korea moves missile with 'considerable range' to coast, says Seoul," The Guardian, April 4, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2016. Available at:

  19. See, e.g., “S. Korea, US Begin Military Drill Despite N. Korea Threats,” Defense News, Accessed May 4, 2016. Available at:

  20. John Ruwitch, Ben Blanchard and Jack Kim, “Xi Tells South Korea that China Opposes THAAD Anti-Missile DefenseL Xinhua” Reuters, September 4, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2016. Available at:

  21. Bill Chappell, "THAAD Missile System in South Korea Is Now Operational, U.S. Says," NPR, May 2, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2017. Available at:

  22. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2016. Accessed May 4, 2016. Available at:

  23. Jen Judson, “Omnibus ’16: Land-Based Missile Procurement Gets Plus Up,” Defense News, December 16, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2016. Available at:;

    Amy Butler, “Missile Defense Agency to Maximize Efficiency of Interceptors,” Aviation Week, August 13, 2015. Accessed May 4, 2016. Available at:

  24. See generally 15 C.F.R. §§ 742 (2015).

  25. For more information on the MCTR, see Kelsey Davenport, “The Missile Technology Control Regime at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, November 2015. Accessed January 1, 2015. Available at:

  26. The members are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Available at:

  27. UNSC Res. 1874 (2009).

  28. [1] Elizabeth Philipp, “States Adopt New North Korea Sanctions,” Arms Control Association, April 2016. Accessed May 18, 2016. Available at:


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