North Korea
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea has become one of the United States’ thorniest foreign policy challenges as the Kim Jong-un regime has defied international sanctions to escalate its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile technology in recent years. Many fear the country is closing in on military capabilities that could allow it to hold East Asia hostage and even strike the continental United States.

With the loss of Soviet and Chinese aid at the end of the Cold War, and especially after its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has been increasingly isolated on the international stage. The UN Security Council, the United States, and a suite of other countries have all imposed sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear program, as well as for its human rights abuses, cyberattacks, and support for terrorism. But despite multiple negotiated agreements, North Korea has persisted in flouting international efforts to limit and reverse its nuclear and missile weapons testing and development.

As the threat has grown more acute, the United States and its treaty allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, have struggled to develop a common approach. Some analysts say this diplomacy has been undermined by rising tensions between Japan and South Korea, as well as by President Donald J. Trump’s questioning of the value of these Pacific alliances

For his part, Trump has tried unconventional methods, first threatening to bring “fire and fury” against North Korea and then pursuing direct talks with Kim, becoming the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader and the first to set foot in the country. Meanwhile, he has attempted to leverage his trade war with China to convince Beijing to pressure its North Korean ally, but experts say trade tensions have likely had the opposite effect. The next U.S. president will be under pressure to halt North Korea’s military advances, weighing options that could include more intense diplomacy, tougher sanctions, cyber sabotage, or even military strikes.

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North Korea has embarked on an accelerated buildup of weapons of mass destruction and the modernization of its already large conventional force.

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China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and arguably has the most leverage on Kim Jong-un’s regime. But while Beijing appears willing to condemn its neighbor’s nuclear developments, analysts say its policies remain focused on stability.

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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