The Bush Administration's Cautious Approach to North Korea

Report Asia

The Bush Administration's Cautious Approach to North Korea

July 6, 2001 12 min read
Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Balbina is a former Senior Policy Analyst

When President George W. Bush entered office, he inherited an uncertain situation on the Korean Peninsula. The euphoria following the historic June 2000 summit between South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had already begun to fade. Despite symbolic efforts to reconcile the Koreas, there has been no substantive progress in resolving the tougher issues that remain at the heart of the conflict and its resultant instability. Although the North appeared to exhibit a measure of goodwill through such gestures as agreeing to family reunions of relatives separated for over a half century, it also carefully orchestrated these emotionally intense and widely publicized moments.

The North has yet to provide concrete evidence to back up its professed willingness to reconcile with the South and reduce tensions on the Peninsula. North Korea remains a totalitarian regime that poses significant conventional military and possible nuclear threats to the United States as well as its allies, South Korea and Japan.

In March, President Bush decided to suspend negotiations with North Korea until his Administration had conducted a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea.1 This cautious step was criticized as delaying progress on the Peninsula, but the results of the review, which was completed on June 6, confirm that a careful assessment of North Korea policy was needed. The review mapped out for Administration officials the difficulties that lie ahead for the United States, such as ensuring North Korea's commitment to reconciliation on the Peninsula.

Based on this review, the Administration's new policy toward North Korea-pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence-will prove to be the best approach given the current situation on the Peninsula and the strictures on options negotiated by the previous Administration. Nevertheless, significant issues, among them the overwhelming conventional force threat that still exists, uncertainty about the North's nuclear programs, and the lack of a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War, remain to be addressed.


The Bush Administration's review of U.S. policy toward North Korea reaffirmed the importance of supporting South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement, the basic principles of the 1994 Agreed Framework,2 and the carrot-and-stick approach of the Perry initiative.3 This initiative called for "verifiable assurances" and "verifiable cessation" of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs as assured in the Agreed Framework.

The Clinton Administration, however, never devised a policy mechanism for wielding a stick should the North fail to meet its commitments. Instead, it continually fed the North carrots that effectively rewarded it for threatening behaviors. Consequently, the Clinton Administration's approach frequently deteriorated to one of crisis management. The North Koreans were given access to U.S. leaders at the highest levels, including face-to-face meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton.

Therefore, the policy recommended by the Bush review calls for supporting the basic principles of the 1994 Agreed Framework as necessary but insufficient for lessening North Korean threats, and calls for its improved implementation. Under the new policy, the pattern of rewarding the North's negative or threatening behavior can be reversed. For example, the Clinton Administration often employed food aid as a diplomatic tool to secure North Korean agreements to meet with U.S. officials, such as North Korean participation in the so-called Four-Party Talks4 over a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War. Under Bush, while the United States will strongly pursue efforts to engage North Korean officials on a broad agenda, the level of contact should be reduced whenever Pyongyang attempts to extort more concessions from the U.S. Also, humanitarian aid will not be used by Bush as a political inducement

The review recommends an important change of direction for U.S. policy: It places the emphasis of engagement on reducing North Korea's threatening conventional military posture. This threat actually has continued to increase, not decrease, despite perceptions of improved relations with the South. Kim Jong-Il has continued to adhere to his "military first" policy, designating tremendous budget resources for the military at the expense of the civil sector, which continues on its downward spiral into disaster.

Indeed, as General Thomas Schwartz, Commander in Chief of both the U.N. Command and U.S. Forces Korea, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, North Korea's military forces are "bigger, better, closer and deadlier" than they were one year ago. The North Korea People's Army numbers over 1.2 million, making it the world's fifth largest active duty force. Approximately 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems, and 2,000 tanks remain in place within 90 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).5

Thus, President Bush has identified the reduction of this conventional threat as an important objective in relations with North Korea. If Pyongyang responds favorably to this policy change by continuing to dialogue with the United States and Seoul, credibly reducing its conventional military threat, and providing verification of its moratorium on missile and nuclear development, Washington will respond by expanding humanitarian aid to the North and easing sanctions.


South Korea has been impatient for the completion of the Bush policy review. Critics have argued that the slowness of the review almost ruptured the reconciliation process between the two Koreas.

This assessment, however, is incorrect. At the Washington summit between Presidents Bush and Kim Dae Jung in March, the South Koreans expressed disappointment at the Administration's decision to suspend negotiations with the North while it conducted a review of past policies; but the Bush approach, mistakenly interpreted as "hard-line," has turned out to be both pragmatic and prudent.

It is reasonable for a new President to assess and evaluate his predecessor's policies before moving ahead with future policy. Indeed, it would have been foolhardy for President Bush to rush forward without a thorough and systematic review of America's objectives and goals in Korea and the region. It may be easy for some to blame the United States for stalled inter-Korean relations, but the reality is that the North itself has prevented further talks with the South, perhaps because it has been unable or unwilling to fulfill its end of the bargain.

Countering Critics.
Critics of the Bush review argue that the new policy is reminiscent of Clinton's policy of appeasement. They are wrong. Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement of difficult states combined with a tough strategy of containment was a strategy pursued by every U.S. Administration during the Cold War. Containment without engagement will not work, not only because there are no other viable alternatives, but also because limited engagement is the only way to test and assess North Korea's true intentions. Engagement, however, will be successful only if the United States and its allies continue to provide a credible deterrent against the North's recalcitrance or its attempts to take advantage of the process.


The Bush review was an important step in crafting a comprehensive policy toward North Korea, but some issues remain unresolved. To continue to play an effective role in this important region, the United States should implement the following actions, in this order:

  1. Take steps to strengthen trilateral relations with the allies, South Korea and Japan, and to ensure their security. The Administration should reinforce regular Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG)6 meetings with close consultations at the presidential, ministerial, and bureaucratic levels to ensure that North Korea does not exploit any divisions in the alliance.

  2. Pursue the signing of a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War. A peace treaty between the two Koreas under the auspices of the United Nations, and agreeable to the United States and China, is key to future negotiations. This will entail reviving the Four Party Talks, which began the process in 1997 but ended without resolution in 1999. The United Nations should be a signatory of a formal treaty because the opposing parties in the Korean War were the United Nations and North Korea. An exclusive treaty with the United States would be a disservice to U.N. forces that fought in that war; it also would encourage North Korea's political ambitions as a diplomatic bargaining power. The U.N. ought to be a party to any permanent peace treaty. Signing a formal treaty should be seen as a significant confidence-building measure among the major interested parties, in addition to serving as a precondition for any future agreements.

  3. Work to reduce the risk of war on the Peninsula by reducing the threat posed by North Korea's conventional forces. The U.S. has no territorial ambitions on the Korean Peninsula. The American military presence serves as a deterrent to North Korean aggression and should not be considered threatening to a peaceful North Korean regime. Therefore, North Korea can redeploy its troops away from the border. Such a drawdown would increase confidence in Pyongyang's desire to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

  4. Continue efforts to prevent the North from testing, producing, deploying, and exporting weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. This includes extended-range ballistic missiles, ballistic missile technology, nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons production capability. Such efforts should be achieved through strict implementation of the Agreed Framework and closely coordinated with South Korea, Japan, and the European Union. Each party should endeavor not to abrogate commitments agreed to under the Framework Accord, which would demonstrate credibility and trustworthiness. This means that the U.S. Congress must play its part in supporting the U.S. role in the agreement. The United States and its allies should ensure equal compliance by North Korea with its responsibilities as outlined in the accord.

  5. Establish, in close consultation with South Korea and Japan, a clear set of markers for North Korea's compliance. Some early tests of North Korea's commitment to the reconciliation process should include progress in (1) reconnecting the Shinuiju railroad; (2) work on the Kaesong Development Zone; (3) formal renunciation of terrorist activities; and (4) halting missile sales to such countries as Iraq and Libya.

  6. Retain North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism until its full compliance is assured. Any consideration of changing North Korea's status as a terrorist state must be closely aligned with consideration of Japanese and South Korean interests. Currently, South Korea and Japan are at odds because of the North's recalcitrance over kidnapped Japanese citizens and the sheltering of Japanese Red Army terrorists. South Korea would like Japan to overlook these incidents so that it can proceed with other negotiations. To avoid appearing as though it places a higher priority on Japanese interests than on South Korea's, the United States should work closely with both allies to reach a position that is acceptable to both. The United States should not consider granting diplomatic recognition to North Korea until the terrorism issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

  7. Prohibit additional economic aid to the North beyond the requirements of the Agreed Framework as long as the military continues to dominate its economy. The United States also should not support North Korea's membership in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank until its regime can credibly show that development aid will not be diverted to support its military and transparently meets all the regulations and requirements of these international financial institutions.

  8. Pursue consultations with Pyongyang at all levels. While there is disagreement about the usefulness of engaging the North Korean regime at any level other than the highest, engagement should be pursued at all levels of power, from the highest echelon to lower bureaucracies. The Bush Administration should consider formulating a confidence-building regime along the lines of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) implemented under the Helsinki Accords, which marked a turning point in the relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. by beginning a process of dialogue and communication between them.7


For over 50 years, the United States has played a critical role as peacekeeper on the Korean Peninsula and in the Northeast Asian region. In the future, the United States will continue to play a key role as peace-builder, through its continued commitment to its allies in the region, by promoting the principles of liberal economics, democratic values, and mutual security.

The North's recent overtures to the South are indeed a welcome development, but promises unfulfilled can quickly turn hope into practical reservation and distrust. The Bush Administration's review of past U.S. policies toward North Korea properly has led it to base its own policies on pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence.

Balbina Y. Hwang is a Policy Analyst on Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.



1. For more on policies of the previous Administration, see Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D., "Rushing to North Korea Is a Mistake for President Clinton," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 702, October 19, 2000.

2. The Agreed Framework, sometimes referred to as the Geneva Framework, was concluded between the United States and North Korea in 1994. It addressed the threat posed by the North's nuclear program, and was meant to diffuse tensions on the Peninsula. The United States agreed to help North Korea acquire two light-water nuclear power reactors and interim supplies of heavy fuel oil in exchange for the North's freeze on its existing nuclear weapons facilities, and promise to eventually dismantle the facilities and comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The Framework specifies that over time the United States and North Korea will work towards full normalization of their political and economic relations and peace and security on the Peninsula.

3. The Perry initiative was officially unveiled in October 1999 by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, but it had been in operation since early 1999.

4. The Four-Party Talks include the United States, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

5. Testimony of General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander in Chief, United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command, and Commander, U.S. Forces Korea, before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, March 27, 2001.

6. The Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group emerged from meetings in April 1999 among top officials from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. These countries recognized the security threats posed by North Korea's military programs, as well its humanitarian crisis. Their concerns resulted in a "concerted and integrated approach building on the Agreed Framework and each country's bilateral efforts." See

7. This accord, reached in 1975 between the United States and the U.S.S.R., was an effort to reduce tension between the Soviet and Western blocs by securing their common acceptance of the post-World War II status quo in Europe.


Balbina Hwang
Balbina Hwang

Former Senior Policy Analyst