from Candidates Answer CFR's Questions

The Democratic Candidates on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

July 30, 2019

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

CFR invited the Democratic candidates to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues before the second set of presidential debates. The questionnaire was sent to all candidates on July 8, 2019. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they were received. View all questions here.


Would you sign an agreement with North Korea that entailed partial sanctions relief in exchange for some dismantling of its nuclear weapons program but not full denuclearization?

Joe Biden

Joe Biden Former Vice President of the United States

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The next president will almost certainly inherit a North Korea nuclear challenge that is worse than when President Trump took office. After three made-for-TV summits, we still don't have a single concrete commitment from North Korea. Not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground. If anything, the situation has gotten worse. North Korea has more capability today than when Trump began his “love affair” with Kim Jong-un, a murderous tyrant who, thanks to Trump, is no longer an isolated pariah on the world stage.

Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process, and competent leadership to deliver. That is why, as President, I would renew a commitment to arms control for a new era — including on North Korea. The historic Iran nuclear deal the Obama-Biden administration negotiated blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and it provides a blueprint for an effective negotiation. As president, I will empower our negotiators and jumpstart a sustained, coordinated campaign with our allies and others – including China – to advance our shared objective of a denuclearized North Korea.

Read all of Joe Biden’s responses.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker Senator, New Jersey

Our goal has to be the full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. A nuclear North Korea is among our greatest national security threats and we must use every tool available to pursue peaceful denuclearization. I would work closely with our allies to develop and execute a thoughtful strategy to denuclearize the peninsula and address international concerns with the DPRK’s missile program and proliferation activities.

Read all of Cory Booker’s responses.

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Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock Governor of Montana

Any agreement with North Korea must include credible commitments – and verifiable progress - toward significant reductions in its nuclear weapons arsenal. North Korea is an irresponsible
 regime whose nuclear capabilities pose a threat to not only the security of the United States and our allies, but to every nation around the globe. A nuclear North Korea would pose an immediate and existential threat to our security if left unchecked, and that’s why we must work with our regional allies to ensure that this situation is properly monitored and managed. While President Trump has legitimized the Kim regime in North Korea and on the international stage without anything in return, I would work to ensure that North Korea provides more than hollow promises but demonstrates real progress towards denuclearization.

Read all of Steve Bullock’s responses.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

We have to accept that denuclearization will not happen overnight and will require a sustained, step-by-step approach spanning a significant number of years. It is unrealistic to think that the North Koreans will get rid of their entire nuclear weapons stockpile at the outset. I believe the most realistic way to get there is a framework for complete, verifiable denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula that is comprehensive in scope, with steps on both fronts implemented step-by-step and in tandem. 

I would support an initial freeze agreement that would have North Korea cease production of fissile material and end nuclear and missile testing, all verified by international inspectors, in exchange for targeted sanctions relief, which could be reversed if the North Koreans did not uphold their end of the bargain. After this initial deal, we would need to proceed toward dismantling facilities and then the weapons themselves.  This could be accompanied with corresponding measures on sanctions relief, as well as substantive progress on building a lasting peace regime and normalizing relations. It has to be a two-way street. The only way to achieve complete denuclearization is to recognize that we have to address the core issues of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula in tandem, and that will require concrete steps on both sides. 

Read all of Pete Buttigieg’s responses.

John Delaney

John Delaney Former Representative, Maryland

It is impossible to predict what agreements could be in the best interests of our national security, and that of our allies, short of a full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As president, I will always consider options that best serve our national security interest. Negotiations with North Korea seeking to achieve nuclear disarmament have been one of the most challenging issues facing successive U.S. administrations for decades. Progress will be incremental, and we need to be patient yet firm in our approach to this relationship. Direct negotiations with North Korea are essential to achieving agreement on the important issues surrounding nuclear disarmament and normalizing relations. While we must be clear that our ultimate objective will be full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we should be willing to accept a meaningful and verifiable agreement that takes steps towards denuclearization. We must make clear the path towards our ultimate goal and be steadfast in demanding verified progress before we roll back sanctions. I fear the Trump Administration may agree to removing sanctions against empty measures on the part of North Korea.

Read all of John Delaney’s responses.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, New York

When it comes to North Korea, we must base our actions on a clear understanding of what has and has not worked in the past, and make a commitment to peace on the Korean Peninsula. I would come to an arms control summit prepared with facts based on seasoned policy and intelligence advice. I would strategically leverage diplomatic steps to curb aggression. And I would carefully articulate our national security goals, rather than send mixed signals. I would work together with our allies, including through incremental measurable steps designed to limit the North Korean threat, with the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free and peaceful Korean Peninsula.

Read all of Kirsten Gillibrand’s responses.

Seth Moulton

Seth Moulton Representative, Massachusetts

We need to move away from a situation where we are solely focused on achieving an overall, all-encompassing agreement—an incredibly difficult task to achieve—while North Korea uses the time we’re negotiating to continue advancing its program. Given that North Korea has an estimated 20 to 30 nuclear warheads, fissile material for 30 to 60 more, and a progressing nuclear program, we must work toward an interim agreement that halts North Korea’s program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. We don’t yet know whether the North Koreans would agree to any deal that dismantles their nuclear program in exchange for significant economic incentives. We need to test that proposition while halting Pyongyang’s progress, and an interim agreement would do just that.

Read all of Seth Moulton’s responses.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke Former Representative, Texas

Any nuclear negotiations process with North Korea should be judged by its ability to deliver verifiable progress toward eliminating the regime’s nuclear weapons program. By that metric, President Trump’s policy has been a complete failure. In return for providing Kim Jong Un with the propaganda and legitimacy that comes with multiple presidential summits, President Trump has gotten nothing for the United States. North Korea’s nuclear stockpile continues to grow. It continues to fire missiles into the Sea of Japan. Even the delivery of American Korean War veteran remains has come to a stop.

As President, I would be open to a deal that provided partial sanctions relief for a partial rollback of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But for such an agreement to be in America’s interest, North Korea would have to commit to a mutually agreeable definition of denuclearization, vigorous international inspections, and provide a full accounting of its nuclear program. Any sanctions relief would have to have strong “snap back” provisions. In all these efforts, I will place a high value on working with our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, each of which shares our interest in a peaceful and denuclearized peninsula.

Read all of Beto O'Rourke responses.

Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan Representative, Ohio

Absolutely not. Without preconditions for meeting, Trump has given Kim Jung Un’s dictatorship unprecedented, international legitimacy. The international and humanitarian crimes committed by the North Korean government are well documented and cannot be ignored. I believe meeting with and negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, is an inevitable and essential prerequisite for peace in the region, but such meetings must be taken in a calculated, methodical way.

Read all of Tim Ryan’s responses.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Senator, Vermont

Yes, and then continue negotiations. Every step we take to reduce North Korea’s nuclear force, to open it up to inspections, to end the 70-year-old Korean War and to encourage peaceful relations between the Koreas and the United States increases the chances of complete denuclearization of the peninsula. Peace and nuclear disarmament must proceed in parallel, in close consultations with our South Korean ally. I will work to negotiate a step-by-step process to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program, build a new peace and security regime on the peninsula and work towards the eventual elimination of all North Korean nuclear weapons.

Read all of Bernie Sanders’s responses.

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak Former Representative, Pennsylvania

With respect to North Korea, I believe we must maintain the goal of complete denuclearization until it has been achieved. But that does not mean I think we will be able to quickly reach an agreement that achieves that goal. Our first step should be re-initiate six-party talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), because each of the other countries in the region will play critical roles in any negotiations — Russia and China, in particular, have leverage over North Korea as their main economic partners — and the IAEA will need to be involved in any inspections regime ultimately agreed upon. Negotiations will likely lead to some sort of preliminary agreement involving partial sanctions relief in exchange for some dismantling of the North’s nuclear weapons program. The eventual success of that initial deal should lay the groundwork for total denuclearization, along with some improvements to North Korea’s human rights standards. As with Iran, we need to build trust between North Korea and the rest of the world – and we know that will take time. We also need to live by President Reagan’s adage: “Trust, but verify” (as we did with the Iranian accord). Diplomacy like this is a slow process, but the peace and stability it leads too will be well worth the wait. 

Read all of Joe Sestak’s responses.

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson Author

Nuclear weapons are a symptom of conflict, fear, insecurity, and a drive to dominate. Denuclearization will follow more naturally and easily with decreased tensions and improved relationships.

Sanctions are a form of economic warfare with a high rate of failure. Punitive, coercive policies do not always achieve the best outcomes. Sanctions harm innocent people, escalate conflicts and can put us on a path to war. They can provoke targeted populations to rally round the flag, support hardliners and inflame resentment against America. 

We can achieve superior outcomes with clear-eyed respect and steps towards thawing the ice. This could help improve our relationship with Kim Jong Un and de-escalate threats from North Korea. 

Actions that can be taken to reduce tension and build a stable and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula including the following:

  • Principled progress on diplomacy, including citizen diplomacy

  • A political statement declaring an end to the Korean War, replacing the armistice agreement with a peace regime

  • Support South Korean efforts to improve inter-Korean relations through confidence-building and tension reduction measures

    • Family reunions

    • Inter-Korean economic, cultural and civic projects

  • Humanitarian relief efforts

  • Inclusion of women, youth, and civil society in negotiations

  • Joint US-DPRK trust-building programs

    • continuing POW/MIA remains repatriation

    • reunions between long-divided North Korean and Korean American families.

Action might also include partial sanctions relief in exchange for some serious dismantling of their nuclear weapons program, as steps towards de-escalation and improved relations. 

Negotiating a peace agreement would end the Korean War and ease denuclearization. It could shift resources away from endless wars to human needs, improving life for millions of North Koreans and reducing a global threat.

Read all of Marianne Williamson’s responses.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang Entrepreneur

Yes. You can’t find solutions to problems if you’re not willing to talk. I would engage with North Korea without preconditions in order to find a path towards complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. We can’t leave any options off the table, and we need to accept incremental gains in order to reach our eventual goal.

Read all of Andrew Yang’s responses.

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