35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The United States and the North Korea Nuclear Threat

The first Trump-Kim summt in Singapore, June 12, 2018

Published: Feb 26, 2019
Briefing Book #664

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

U.S. Attempts to Blunt North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Have a Complex History

Republican and Democratic Presidents Shared Concerns over Nukes and Regional Instability

Declassified Records Reflect Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Challenges

Washington D.C., February 26, 2019 – Prior U.S. administrations from both political parties wrestled intensively with complex security, economic, and diplomatic challenges in trying to rein in successive North Korean dictators’ nuclear ambitions, a review of declassified documentation makes clear. Today, the National Security Archive at The George Washington University presents an array of records from the Nixon, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations that describe the many concerns and tests that have confronted U.S. policymakers and negotiators alike.

These records provide essential historical context for the upcoming February 27-28 meeting in Hanoi between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. They underscore the recognition that war with North Korea would mean immense casualties; the concern of officials such as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that diplomatic strategy not be jeopardized by discussions of military action; the realization that bilateral diplomacy had to go hand-in-hand with multilateral negotiations; the recognition that China’s critical role cannot be overlooked; and the awareness that the larger question of stability on the Korean peninsula and the wider region would inevitably encompass non-nuclear concerns as well, notably the economic viability of the North.

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The United States and the North Korea Nuclear Threat

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold their second summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27-28, 2019. Their first summit, held in Singapore on June 12, 2018, produced a joint statement expressing agreement to work on new relations between the two countries and “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, but with little in the way of specifics as to how these aspirations would be attained. Since the first summit, Trump’s own intelligence community has continued to warn that North Korea has not halted work on its nuclear weapons or missile technology programs, despite Tweets from the President claiming success for his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, and expressing disdain for the findings of the intelligence community. On the eve of the summit, both administration officials and North Korea experts have been reported to express concern that Trump, in his eagerness to make the summit a success, may make concessions such as agreeing to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Efforts to implement the Singapore agreement have also proven difficult to achieve, whether in terms of what each side means by “denuclearization,” or the linkages between steps each side needs to take, be it normalization of relations and the easing of sanctions by Washington, or verifiable steps by Pyongyang to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Similar obstacles will likely face any agreement coming from the Hanoi summit.

In order to provide some essential historical context for the Trump-Kim summit and a better understanding of how previous administrations have sought to tackle the complex diplomacy surrounding efforts to reduce the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, the National Security Archive’s Korea Project is posting today a selection of declassified documents taken from previous Electronic Briefing Books dating back to 2003. These eleven postings cover U.S. efforts to meet North Korea’s military threat from the Nixon through the Clinton administrations. Links to these earlier postings, which also provide more detailed discussion of the historical context of the documents, can be found in the sidebar on this webpage.  Among the key points in these materials:

  • The high probability that any military action against North Korea would be difficult to contain and would result in casualties on an immense scale, with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at one point arguing that discussion of possible military action should not be allowed to endanger diplomatic efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program [Documents 1, 2, 6-C-2, 10, and 23]
  • The critical role China must play in diplomatic negotiations to move North Korea away from its nuclear ambitions [Documents 4, 9, and 26]
  • The challenging interplay of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China as they have sought to orchestrate their engagement with North Korea with the proper mix of carrots and sticks [Documents 5, 6, 14, 16, and 21]
  • The emergence of concerns in the late 1990s that North Korea might be on the brink of economic collapse, and what this could mean for stability and security on the peninsula, as well as possibly providing leverage in negotiations with North Korea [Documents 15, 18 and 19]
  • The attention to detail combined with sensitivity to nuance and unknowns that have marked intelligence assessments of the situation inside North Korea. [Documents 11 and 12]

As these documents make clear, diplomacy aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats is a complex and challenging undertaking. The old saying that the devil is in the details will certainly apply here: any substantial agreement with Pyongyang will have to master the finer points of aligning strategic interests and goals not just between the United States and North Korea, but also involving South Korea, Japan, and China.


The documents