In January 2009, North Korean leaders announced that they were renouncing existing political and military agreements between the two Koreas, and several months later, in May, they declared that the provisions of the 1953 armistice agreement were no longer binding upon them. Since then, the North Korean regime has engaged in several actions which have jeopardized peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the Asian Pacific region, including the launching of a long-range missile, a second nuclear test, the sinking of a South Korean warship, and the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island.  What emerges from the last two years is a picture of a North Korea that is becoming increasingly aggressive in its efforts to compel a redrawing of the Northern Limit Line, the maritime border between the two Koreas, and increasingly confident of its ability to stand its ground as a nuclear weapons state against the U.S. and its allies. U.S. officials have warned that North Korea may develop the capability to strike the continental United States with an Inter Continental Ballistic Missile loaded with nuclear weapons within five years.  At a press conference in Beijing last summer, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were becoming a direct threat to U.S. national security. Several senior defense and intelligence officials in the U.S. provided congressional committees with similar assessments in recent months.  Leon Panetta, Gates’ successor, has recently confirmed a similar assessment.  There has been an intense debate over why North Korea is acting this way and what the U.S. should do about it.

This paper addresses two aspects of North Korea-U.S. interactions in recent years.  First, it analyzes the meanings and motivations behind selected actions undertaken by North Korea in the last few years, as well as the Obama administration’s responses to these actions.  Second, it enumerates and discusses various policy options which the U.S. might consider adopting with regard to North Korea, with an eye to assessing the viability and risks associated with these options and their overall implications for U.S. interests.

In April 2009, the new Obama administration was still assembling its team of senior officials responsible for Asia policy when North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 missile, followed by a second nuclear test in May.  There are several possible explanations for North Korea’s actions:

1. In anticipation of an important set of diplomatic negotiations, North Korea often resorts to brinkmanship with a view to extracting concessions from the other party. North Korea’s actions here may have been designed to achieve such a purpose vis-à-vis the new Obama administration.

2. A second explanation foregrounds North Korea’s domestic political imperatives, specifically that the ill-health of Chairman Kim Jong Il following his stroke the prior August has rendered urgent the problem of political succession. North Korea’s actions may have been meant to satisfy the military, whose cooperation will be required for political succession to go smoothly.

3.  A third explanation also highlights domestic political considerations. The North Korean leadership promised its people that 2012 would be the year that North Korea “will enter the gate leading to the status of a powerful and prosperous nation.”  In this context, its military actions may have been intended to demonstrate Kim Jong Il’s success in developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles—his realization of the philosophy of “Songun Jongchi” or military first politics, thereby shoring up the legitimacy of his regime.

4.  A fourth explanation views the actions in question as bona fide military maneuvers meant to strengthen North Korea’s military capabilities and deter potential U.S. attacks.

5.  A fifth and final explanation suggests that North Korea was demonstrating its technical capabilities in order to promote the sale of North Korean weapons systems.

The prevailing view among specialists in the United States, Japan and South Korea–a view shared by U.S. government officials–is that while multiple factors may have been at play, the domestic political imperative associated with the challenge of political succession was probably the most important factor shaping North Korea’s actions. The linking of North Korea’s nuclear weapons activity and its domestic political dynamics of course raises the question of whether the current policies which the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are pursuing to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea are adequately addressing  the domestic political dynamics or not.

The U.S. government organized responses to North Korea’s two actions at the international level.  The UN Security council’s presidential statement addressed the missile launching in April, and UN Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted on June 12, addressed the nuclear test in May.  This resolution, designed to constrain North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development programs, complemented UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted shortly after North Korea’s first nuclear test in July 2006.  It is evident that the earlier resolution of 2006 failed to deter the North Korean actions in question.

During the following year, 2010, tensions between the two Koreas reached a historically unprecedented level, leading to two dramatic events: the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo in March, and the North Korean artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeongpyeongdo in November. These are unprecedented incidents, the worst violence on the peninsula since the Korean War.   Again, there are several possible explanations for the Cheonan incident:

1. The attack on the Cheonan was an act of revenge for the defeat suffered by the North Korean navy in the clash with the South Korean navy in November of the previous year.

2. The attack was intended to compel the U.S. to come to the negotiating table to discuss terms for a peace agreement to replace the existing armistice and to demarcate a new maritime border line (Northern Limit Line) between the two Koreas.

3. The attack was a punitive action against South Korea for the latter’s “policy of hostility,” as well as a move to compel South Korea to restart its economic assistance to North Korea.

4. The attack was meant to facilitate the process of Kim Jong Un’s political succession and power consolidation by magnifying the role he has played in the construction of a “powerful and prosperous North Korea.” Even though North Korea officially denies culpability, attacking the Cheonan may accomplish this in view of the presumption in North Korea that he was involved in the decision.   Manufacturing a sense of external threat also helped the state to justify its efforts to tighten control over North Korean citizens who have spoken out against measures associated with the so-called currency reform

Once again, the prevailing view among analysts, as well as U.S. government officials, is that while some or all of these explanations may be true, the North Korean leadership’s intense concern about the problem of succession was at the heart of its decision to attack the Cheonan. The attack could be portrayed to its people as a bold and confident decision made by Kim Jong Un.

Interestingly, relations between the U.S. and North Korea had warmed slightly prior to the Cheonan incident.  Former President Bill Clinton had visited North Korea in August 2009 to secure the release of two American journalists, providing for an indirect dialogue of sorts between the two nations.  North Korea clearly viewed Clinton’s visit as a significant step toward the resumption of bilateral talks with the U.S., and Ambassador Stephen Bosworth’s visit to Pyongyang several months later occurred in that context.  In addition, the U.S. government had decided to allow Kim Kye Kwan, a vice foreign minister and chief North Korean delegate to the 6 party talks, to visit the U.S. for talks with U.S. officials, but the Cheonan incident occurred just a few days before the approval of the visit was to be announced and prevented it from happening.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. government viewed the sinking of the Cheonan as an act of aggression against one of its allies.  From the perspective of U.S. officials, the attack constituted a violation of the armistice agreement, international law and the UN charter and had to be punished to deter future acts of aggression.  The Obama administration, consistently emphasizing the U.S.’s commitment to defending South Korea, has taken the position that the U.S. will provide full support for the policy decisions and countermeasures undertaken by the South Korean government vis-à-vis North Korea.  In fulfillment of this promise, U.S. officials engaged in extraordinary diplomatic efforts in support of South Korea at numerous international meetings such as the G-8, G-20, U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue, ASEAN Regional Forum and the UN Security Council.

Many commentators have accurately pointed out that the July 9th 2010 presidential statement of the UN Security Council addressing the attack on the Cheonan did not explicitly identify North Korea as the culpable party and in fact took note of North Korea’s protestations of innocence.  But official statements issued by the White House and the U.S. Dept of State on that same day point out that the UN Security Council, by a unanimous vote, took note of the conclusion of the joint international investigation group that the North Koreans had sunk the Cheonan, and expressed its deep concern about and condemnation of the attack. Indeed, China’s affirmative vote for the presidential statement may be construed as its concurrence that the North Koreans were culpable for the attack.

There is no doubt that the Cheonan incident significantly impacted U.S. policy toward North Korea in various ways. A series of statements by senior U.S. government officials about North Korea’s intentions and capabilities in the wake of the Cheonan incident showed the seriousness with which the Obama administration viewed the event.  Concretely, North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan prompted the U.S. and South Korea to conduct joint military exercises in the international waters of both sides of the peninsula in an effort to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and deter North Korea from further provocations.  Following the Cheonan incident, the U.S. and South Korea also agreed to postpone by three years the turning over of wartime operational control to South Korea and to postpone as well the dissolution of the U.S.-Korea combined forces command.  In addition, the U.S. enacted more stringent financial sanctions against North Korea than those that had been in place, producing a deleterious impact on the North Korean economy.  Overall, the incident strengthened the alliance relationship among the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, enabling closer cooperation among all three countries.  For its part, South Korea took a number of countermeasures of its own including the so-called May 24, 2010 measures which severed most trade and economic relations and other exchanges with the North.