The Bush Administration and the Range of Policy Options toward North Korea

Dennis Florig
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
I. Bush Administration Policies toward North Korea

For several years now the Bush administration has been sending conflicting signals about what it is trying to achieve in its policy toward North Korea.  Is it deliberately trying to engineer a collapse of the regime in the Pyongyang or is it simply holding out for a better deal, with more progress on rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and greater reform of the Stalinist state?   So far there has been no clear answer to this question—President Bush’s policy toward North Korea has shown two faces.

This paper has two parts.  First, the history of Bush administration policy is examined, then different policy approaches to the DPRK are evaluated.  The twists and turns of the Bush administration stance toward the DPRK are explained by two conflicting demands—demands from neoconservatives in the U.S. for regime change and calls for negotiations from countries in the region, particularly the ROK and China.  I argue that rapid regime change is neither desirable nor feasible, and that therefore, despite the obvious difficulties, the best approach is to patiently pursue negotiations rather than stepping up economic and military pressure on the DPRK.

The Bush administration’s rhetoric about North Korea has varied considerably over time, from the president’s inclusion of the DPRK in his axis of evil to reassurances that the U.S will not invade the North.  Some policymakers and institutions have been more inclined toward negotiation, most notably the State Department and former Secretary of State Powell. (Cha, Hiebert, Feffer 2003)  Others, most notably Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and neoconservatives at the Pentagon, have been more willing to take chances for regime change. (Rennie)  

In recent years the official position has been that the U.S. wants to negotiate a settlement of the nuclear weapons issue.  Publicly the U.S. repeatedly professes its desire to deal with the existing regime and pledges that it has no intention of aggressive action against the Kim Jong Il government.  However, the official position contrasts with ferment at the fringes—hard-line Republicans in Congress, conservative journals and think tanks, and “vulcans” in the administration. (Kaplan, Lobe)

The term “regime change” appeared early in the Bush presidency.  Republicans hard-liners had never supported the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration that had suspended the North Korean nuclear program in return for movement toward normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations, a deal between a government they despised and a president they distrusted.   Even before Bush took office, a memo circulated among his transition team introducing the concept of regime change into the lexicon of U.S. strategy.  The early Bush administration effectively suspended talks mandated by the Agreed Framework.  An early summit between Presidents Bush and Kim Dae Jung was remarkable strained, as the new administration’s distaste with Kim’s sunshine policies became apparent, foreshadowing rising friction between the two allies.

After 9/11 President Bush named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address and thus identified it as a possible target for the new doctrine of preemption of terrorism and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.  Visceral revulsion could be seen in Bush’s own characterization of Kim Jong Il as “an untrustworthy madman,” a “pygmy,” and an “evildoer.” (Cumings)  Traditional conservative anti-communists saw the continued existence of the Stalinist regime in North Korea as an affront to rationality and modernity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and major reform in China.  After 9/11 the neoconservative desire to strike back at hostile regimes that might pass weapons of mass destruction on to terrorists only hardened the Bush administration’s attitude.

Key Events in Bush Administration Policy toward North Korea

           Armitage Memo on regime change

           Meeting with Kim Dae Jung

           September 11th

           Axis of Evil speech

           Ambassador Kelly’s trip to North Korea

           Breakdown of the Agreed Framework

           Opening of Six Party Talks

           Proliferation Security Initiative

           Bush’s reelection

In the fall of 2002 hopes for new negotiations were raised and then dashed when Ambassador Kelly traveled to Pyongyang, the highest level Bush administration official to do so. (McCormack)  Kelly returned stating that North Korea had admitted to a secret uranium enrichment program banned under the Agreed Framework. The already rickety Agreed Framework collapsed completely and tensions mounted dramatically.  

Every nation in the Northeast Asian neighborhood was unnerved to one degree or another by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the suspension of negotiations between the U.S. and the DPRK, and the emergence of a second Korean nuclear crisis. (Arms Control Today, Japan Echo)  The U.S.-ROK alliance was particularly stressed, with large-scale anti-American demonstrations sweeping South Korea and open policy squabbles surfacing between Washington and Seoul.  

In 2003 the conservative reluctance to deal with Kim Jong Il was trumped by the second nuclear crisis and intensified demand of countries in the region for renewed negotiations.  Six party talks began, allowing the Bush administration to respond to regional concerns while at the same time saving face and bringing other nations into the process in an effort to bring greater concerted pressure on the DPRK. (Kerr 2003) The Bush administration has come to recognize a leading role for China in particular, which because of its ideological and economic ties is the only state with any real influence on the DPRK.

The six party talks so far have made little concrete progress, with the U.S. and the DPRK far apart on the sequence of threat reduction and the other four parties as yet unable to move either of the antagonists toward agreement.  The original U.S. position was that complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program must come before progress on other issues would be possible.  Not surprisingly, the DPRK continues to demand simultaneous concessions from the U.S. before it abandons its crucial bargaining chip. (Kerr 2004)

The U.S. showed a bit more flexibility in the third round of talks in June 2004 when it put forward a two stage proposal in which South Korea, China, Russia, and possibly Japan would give economic and energy aid immediately upon a North Korean commitment to terminate all its nuclear programs and allow international inspections.  U.S. concessions would still be contingent upon the closing of North Korean nuclear programs, surrender of nuclear materials, and permanent monitoring of North Korean facilities, although bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S. would begin in the first stage.  However, Pyongyang gave little response to the new proposal, apparently choosing to wait out the U.S. elections hoping for a Kerry victory.  

While lobbying from nations in the neighborhood brought renewed negotiations as a response to the second Korean nuclear crisis, neoconservatives have continued to push for a regime change strategy. (Morris, Barone, Niksch) In 2003 a memo attributed to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld calling for the U.S. to enlist China to back a coup to replace Kim Jong Il leaked to the press.  

Hard-liners also won the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003.  PSI is a proactive interdiction program designed to interrupt trade in WMD, for example, through boarding of ships suspected of carrying WMD materials.  PSI gives the appearance of forceful action against nuclear proliferators without great cost or risk, although it is unlikely to reassure skeptics that WMD trade is under effective control, and if invoked frequently, PSI could rekindle fears of U.S. preemptive strikes.

Overall, the predominance of hard-liners in the Bush inner circle seeking greater confrontation and eventual regime change has been balanced by exhortations from South Korea and China to avoid confrontation and pursue negotiation.  The outcome of these countervailing pressures of conservative hostility toward the DPRK and the unwillingness of key allies to support a regime change strategy has been a kind of “malign neglect” of North Korea.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not only consumed most of the attention of the national security apparatus, they have left the U.S. stretched too thin to contemplate any serious action against the deteriorating but still dangerous DPRK.  The early days of the second Bush term have brought more temporizing and malign neglect because the contradictory policy pressures apparent in the first term endure. (Pomper, Feffer 2005)

Conflicting Demands on U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

Neoconservative Demands to Confront the DPRK


ROK, Chinese, and other International Demands
to Negotiate with the DPRK

Malign Neglect

The long term viability of the six party talks is in question.   The DPRK has announced publicly that it has built nuclear weapons and is uninterested in returning to the negotiating table until the Bush administration is willing to make more concessions.  Rumors of an imminent North Korean nuclear test persist.  

On the other side, Bush’s election victory and the consolidation of the position of conservatives in the revamped Bush Cabinet has strengthened the hand of those who advocate stepping up the pressure on North Korea.  The sobering situation in Iraq has quieted open talk about regime change. The Bush administration still sticks to its official line of seeking negotiations.  However, those who never wanted to negotiate with the DPRK in the first place have begun to brand the stalled six party talks a failure and push for new initiatives to try to either bring about a collapse of the DPRK or force North Korea to capitulate. (Sanger) Recent comments by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice labeling Kim Jong Il a “tyrant” and the DPRK an “outpost of tyranny” raise renewed questions about the depth of U.S. commitment to serious negotiations.

II. Possible Long-term Outcomes on the Korean Peninsula

Any regime change strategy needs to be evaluated in light of its impact on the Korean future.  There are four general potential outcomes to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula:  1) continued impasse, with the DPRK retaining and further developing its nuclear weapons programs, 2) collapse of the North Korean regime, producing a new government that might abandon or bargain away the North’s WMD, 3) armed conflict that would destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability, or 4) a negotiated agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs in return for more normal relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Before policy toward North Korea can be carefully analyzed, thought needs to be given to which of these outcome is most feasible and desirable.  No one outside Kim Jong Il’s inner circle is satisfied with the status quo.  Almost everyone seeks fundamental change in both the regime in the North and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.  The North Korean people suffer greatly under a government that can neither feed its own people nor truly open up and reform its economic and political systems.  

But even more important, the status quo is not stable.  At any time armed conflict and/or the chaotic collapse of the North is possible.  Even if the DPRK were to continue to muddle through, with the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the status quo now includes a growing North Korean nuclear capability.  The Bush administration concerns that North Korea might proliferate nuclear technology as a source of hard currency are not unfounded.  Furthermore, a nuclear North Korea poses a considerable threat to both the ROK and Japan.  The longer North Korea holds nuclear weapons, the greater the probability of more states in the region going nuclear, sparking a mushrooming arms race.
So change is clearly desirable.  However, there is broad disagreement about how to achieve change.  Some methods are so costly and risky that few advocate them.  For example, only the most militant would seek armed conflict as a solution to the Korean problem, and few are openly in favor of deliberately starving the North Korean people as a tactic for change.  Despite early post-9/11 “axis of evil” and regime change rhetoric, even the most hard-line neoconservatives in the Bush administration have been sobered by the costs of the war in Iraq.  However, armed conflict could be the unintended consequence of escalation of tensions and/or the badly managed collapse of the DPRK.

Collapse of the regime in the North and absorption by the South, as West Germany absorbed East Germany, is another possible long-term outcome.  While few would shed any tears for the end of the DPRK, the consequences and desirability of rapid regime change in the North are seen very differently in different circles.  Rapid regime change is appealing to ideological conservatives in the U.S. and the ROK, but ultimately much too dangerous and painful.  At a minimum collapse of the DPRK would result in millions of economic refugees fleeing not only south, but also north into China and Russia.  The North’s already antiquated economic infrastructure would be further degraded.  A succession struggle between different factions in the North could be bloody and protracted, and could well draw the South and possibly other regional powers into a quagmire.  The terrible suffering of the North Korean people would only be intensified.  And the possibility cannot be discounted that in the face of imminent collapse, either the regime itself, or hard-line factions, might launch a military conflict with the U.S. and/or the ROK.  The belief that the end of the DPRK would solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula is ultimately magical thinking.

III. Three Policy Approaches to the DPRK and Their Possible Outcomes

The range of options in dealing with the stalled six party talks can be broken into three basic approaches.  The first is simply waiting until the North Koreans come to the conclusion that it is in their interest to negotiate seriously, to maintain the stance of malign neglect.  The second option is to step up the pressure on North Korea to either force a return to the table or bring about a collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime.  The third is patient pursuit of negotiations, with greater emphasis on the benefits that will follow from resumption of the six party talks, and greater willingness to put U.S. concessions earlier in the sequence of mutual accommodations, what might be called an incentives approach or sweetening the pot.

None of these options is a panacea.  A great deal of effort has been spent in the past decade trying to defuse North Korean nuclear programs, with little success.  Each of these approaches has been tried to one degree or another over the years since the first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s.  The DPRK has proven hard to move by either blandishments or threats, by either carrots or sticks.  Sober analysis leads to the conclusion that the most likely outcome of any of these approaches is little change from the status quo.  

There are good reasons to be dissatisfied with the status quo and impatient with the lack of progress in the six party talks.  Since the Agreed Framework broke down there has been a steady increase in North Korea’s nuclear capability.  If a nuclear North Korea becomes perceived as an irreversible fait accompli there is real danger of an escalating arms race in the Asia Pacific.  It was no accident that the last major North Korean missile test was fired over the Japanese islands, and the significance was not lost on Tokyo.  While old fashioned militarists remain weak and isolated in Japan, recent events have left Japan feeling more and more estranged from its Asian neighbors.  If Japan were to feel threatened enough by North Korean nuclear weapons to go nuclear itself, South Korea and even Taiwan might not be far behind.  Furthermore, the Bush administration’s warning that the cash strapped DPRK might be tempted to sell nuclear weapons technology to other states or even terrorists groups cannot be completely discounted.

Yet while the status quo is not desirable, it is important to realize that the current situation is preferable to many of the plausible scenarios for change.  If no policy is highly likely to achieve success, evaluation of changes in policy should focus on the risks they entail.  The risks of the status quo are considerable, but are they greater than the risks that would be born by stepping up the pressure on the DPRK?

There are different degrees of pressure that could still be brought on the DPRK.  They range from simply heating up rhetoric all the way to some military action against DPRK nuclear facilities.  In between lie options like tightening up economic sanctions, taking the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons before the UN Security Council, intensification of Proliferation Security Initiative operations like the interdiction of DPRK shipping, or delaying or reducing international and South Korean food aid.  A variation of this option is leaning on China to step up its economic and ideological pressure on the DPRK.  These options are not mutually exclusive.  They could be pursued in combination or applied sequentially over time.

Three Policy Approaches to the DPRK and Their Possible Outcomes

Desired Outcome
Probable Outcome    
Greatest Risks

Malign Neglect

DPRK will “wake up”

DPRK will collapse

Status Quo    
Regional arms race

Chaotic collapse

Step up the Pressure

DPRK will “wake up”

DPRK will collapse

Status Quo    
Cycle of Escalation

Counterproductive Strengthening of DPRK

Sweeten the Pot

DPRK will negotiate
Status Quo    
DPRK will escalate its demands

The hopes of those who advocate various versions of stepping up the pressure are that they would either force the DPRK to “wake up” to the unacceptability of its current behavior or hasten the end of a dangerous regime.  As argued above, too rapid a change in the North is not desirable.  However, those, mostly in the U.S. but also in the ROK, who are convinced rapid regime change is desirable should also consider that outside pressure, particularly unilateral U.S. action, could be counterproductive—that it could actually strengthen the existing regime.  The DPRK legitimates the sacrifices and repression the North Korean people bear on the supposedly grave threat they face from the aggressive Americans and Japanese.  Hard-line actions by the U.S. and its allies only reinforce the “siege mentality” on which the Kim Jong Il government depends. (Harrison)

Given the opaque nature of the DPRK, whether outside pressure weakens or strengthens the current government is ultimately speculation.  However, the greatest risk of a policy of stepping up the pressure is readily apparent—the danger that it will ultimately provoke armed conflict.  Few policymakers, even few neoconservatives in the Bush administration, openly seek a military solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.  But any policy of stepping up the pressure bears considerable risk of starting a cycle of escalation.  Tit for tat response and counter-response could generate the spark that ignites the powder keg that is the Cold War legacy on the Korean Peninsula.  Given that recent years have shown that no policy has great probability of success in moving the recalcitrant DPRK off its current path, are the risks of provoking an armed conflict really worth it?

The third set of options is some kind of sweetening of the international offer to North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs.  The experience with a similar approach in the 1990s with the Agreed Framework is certainly mixed at best.  The fact that the North Koreans did sign on to the Agreed Framework shows that it is at least possible that the DPRK is serious when it proclaims that it would be willing to trade it nuclear weapons for security guarantees, economic aid, and normalization of relations with the U.S. (Sigal 1998) However, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework also raises profound questions about whether the DPRK is truly ready and willing to give up its most prized strategic asset.

The DPRK’s behavior, particularly its apparent uranium enrichment program, contributed to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework.  However, the U.S. was not without fault either.  Conservative Republicans in Congress delayed implementation of the deal during the Clinton years, in part by refusing to appropriate funds.  The early Bush administration’s suspension of talks with the North, its statements about an axis of evil, its threats to use military force to pre-empt rogue regimes, and conservative speculation about collapse scenarios only confirmed fears in Pyongyang that the U.S. was more intent on eliminating the North Korean regime than on negotiating with it.  From the North Korean point of view, the U.S. ultimately never followed through on its commitments under the Agreed Framework and thus the DPRK’s fundamental security position has not improve. (Sigal 2002) The North still remains vulnerable to superior U.S. forces, and it has not even been able to extract a non-aggression pact from the U.S., much less normalization of relations.  

Certainly the risks entailed by continued negotiation are not as great as the risks of stepping up the pressure on the DPRK or even of malign neglect.  Those who resist softening the negotiating stance toward the DPRK usually cite two risks—that sweetening the pot will only encourage the DPRK to demand greater concessions or that if more aid were to flow, it would only prop up the Kim Jong Il regime.  If as argued above, the rapid collapse the DPRK is not desirable, then it is not a problem if aid forestalls such a catastrophic collapse.  The prime danger of sweetening the pot is that it would only encourage North Korean intransigence.  However, since the six party talks are stalled anyway, this seems like a relatively small risk to bear, certainly much less that the dangers of escalation of tensions and possible conflict or even the risks inherent in the status quo.

IV. Lessons of History for the Korean Peninsula

Policymakers are influenced by images they carry of “historical lessons” from past international conflicts.  In the early Cold War the belief that appeasement had actually encouraged Hitler to further aggression haunted U.S. strategists, who repeatedly proclaimed that they would not be responsible for another “Munich,” the site where concessions to the Nazis were made.  Similarly, in the later Cold War, U.S. policymakers were preoccupied with the “Vietnam syndrome,” in which every potential U.S. intervention could be seen as another hopeless quagmire.

Today, policy toward the DPRK is largely driven by analogies drawn from the end of the Cold War.  South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, following his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, has proposed that for the DPRK a Chinese or Vietnamese model of gradual opening up to the external world and internally driven reform would be most suitable.

The neoconservatives in the Bush administration have a different historical analogy—the rapid and relatively painless (at least for the West) collapse of the Soviet Union.  A similar collapse of the DPRK seemed quite plausible in the early 1990s.  Selig Harrison argues that many in the Clinton administration accepted the more controversial provisions of the Agreed Framework because they believed the DPRK would be gone before they would have to be implemented.  However, a generation later the DPRK is still standing, and however much the North Korean people are suffering, there are few outward signs that the regime itself is in its death throes.

But perhaps an even greater flaw in the hard-liners’ Soviet analogy is their misinterpretation of the causes for the fall of the Soviet Union.  It is a mistaken reading of Cold War history that the Soviets were brought down only by the military superiority of the West and the steadfast will of the United States in grimly confronting the communist menace.  A more plausible interpretation of the conclusion of the Cold War is that it was the engagement of the Soviet Union and China, what at the time was called détente, which made reform of the communist systems possible.  It was gradually reducing the military pressure, conducting protracted negotiations over specific military and political details, and patiently crafting arms control regimes and political structures to mitigate sources of tension which gave the Soviet Union a way out of a seemingly never-ending conflict, a way where everyone could be winners in peace rather than losers in war.  Demonization of the adversary, belief that negotiations with the demon adversary are fruitless, and permanent military confrontation were the not way out of the global Cold War, and they are not the way to deal with the DPRK today.

Certainly one lesson that can be drawn from contemporary history can be found in the current Iraq War—regime change imposed from the outside can have massive unintended consequences, that it is unlikely to be a magical solution to long festering animosities and conflicts.

Arms Control Today. “North Korea Special Issue.” May 2003. and
“North Korea: Documents, News and Analysis.”

Barone, Michael. “Stopping Rogue Nukes.” U.S. News & World Report. Washington: Nov 3, 2003.Vol.135, Iss. 15;  pg. 27.

Bush, George W., National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002.

Bush, George W., The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.

Bush, George W., “2002 State of the Union Address.”

Cha, Victor. “A Nuclear Fission.” Harvard International Review. Cambridge: Winter 2004.Vol.25, Iss. 4;  pg. 76.

Cumings, Bruce. “Wrong Again: U.S. Policy on North Korea.” ZNET. December 18, 2003.

Feffer, John. “Caught in the Muddle—Round Two of Bush vs. North Korea.” Foreign Policy in Focus. February 2005-05-03.

Feffer, John. “Regime Change in North Korea.” ZNET. December 25, 2003.

Harrison, Selig. Korean Endgame. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Hiebert, Murray. “In Two Minds.”  Far Eastern Economic Review. Hong Kong: Jun 27, 2002.Vol.165, Iss. 25;  pg. 22

Japan Echo. “Dealing with Pyongyang.” vol 30, no 1, Feb 2003.

Kaplan, Fred. “Regime Change in North Korea?” Slate.

Kerr, Paul. “Countries Meet to Discuss N Korean Nuclear Stand-off” and “Other Participants’ Views on the North Korea Talks.”  Arms Control Today, Sep 2003, and

Kerr, Paul. “Bush Administration Talks with North Korea.” Arms Control Today. June 2004.

Lobe, Jim. “Now Neo-Con Hawks Push Regime Change in North Korea.” Global Information Network. New York: Nov 23, 2004. pg. 1.

Morris, Stephen. The National Interest. Washington: Winter 2003/2004., Iss. 74;  pg. 99.

McCormack, Gavan. “Making Sense of the Korean Crisis.” ZNET. February 15, 2004.

Niksch, Larry. “Bush ponders a military option.” Far Eastern Economic Review. Hong Kong: Jul 17, 2003.Vol.166, Iss. 28;  pg. 24.

Pomper, Miles. “Bush Second Term: More Diplomacy But Same Policies.” Arms Control Today. March 2005.

Rennie, David. “Rumsfeld Calls for Regime Change in North Korea.” Daily Telegraph (UK). April 22, 2003.

Sanger, David. “U.S. Is Shaping Plan to Pressure North Koreans.” New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Feb 14, 2005. pg. A. 1.

Sigal, Leon. “North Korea is no Iraq: Pyongyang’s Negotiating Strategy,” Arms Control Today. vol 32, no 10, Dec 2002.

Sigal, Leon. Disarming Strangers. Princeton University Press, 1998.