A North Korea Primer for 2017 Policy Makers

September 15, 2016

NCNK has published a Q&A-style primer on North Korea policy issues, intended for policy makers in the Legislative and Executive branches who will take office in 2017 (PDF version here).

Are North Korean missiles able to reach the United States homeland?

We don’t know. North Korea has been developing a road-mobile long-range missile with the potential to reach the West Coast of the U.S., but has not yet tested this system – it may be several years before this missile is fully operational, but it could still be launched at the U.S. in a crisis. It is not known with certainty whether North Korea currently has the capability to produce miniaturized warheads to fit atop its missiles, but circumstantial evidence strongly points in this direction. North Korea already has the capability to potentially smuggle its weapons of mass destructions internationally – including to the U.S.

Have U.S. and international sanctions ended North Korea’s nuclear weapons development?

No. A plethora of Congressional, Executive Branch, and United Nations sanctions have not succeeded in convincing the North Koreans to terminate their nuclear program. In fact, the North Koreans have become increasingly adept at circumventing the extensive sanctions web imposed on them. China, which has different priorities than the United States regarding North Korea, does not implement sanctions in a systematic way.

Has North Korea’s economy and society changed under Kim Jong-un?

Yes. Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un has not made a major effort to suppress market activities in North Korea. Under Kim Jong Un, residents of Pyongyang have become better off, and are increasingly able to afford consumer goods such as televisions and cell phones.

Conditions remain bleak in the countryside and in smaller cities, but food production has generally improved in recent years, and malnutrition has declined. North Koreans’ ability to access information and foreign media has also increased since Kim Jong Un took power, but punishment for dissent has remained extremely harsh.

What is the likelihood of the collapse of the DPRK regime?

Unlikely. For over two decades, experts and analysts have predicted the imminent collapse of the North Korean regime. After Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, his youth and inexperience were pointed to as indicators of the imminent failure of the North Korean state.

However, evidence suggests that Kim has largely consolidated his authority, and the North Korean economy has reportedly experienced modest growth under his tenure.

Are human rights issues within North Korea of concern to the U.S. government?

Yes. Although the U.S. has often prioritized the nuclear issue over human rights concerns, Congress and the executive branch have increasingly made human rights issues a component of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, and the recent North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act contains provisions mandating that North Korean human rights abusers be sanctioned. The U.S. government has also supported the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights.

How much humanitarian aid is North Korea receiving from the United Statesgovernment?

None. Since 2009, the United States has not provided any substantial humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

However, numerous UN agencies as well as U.S. and international NGOs have remained active in the country, providing humanitarian and development aid in fields including food security, health, and nutrition. These NGOs have also provided humanitarian relief after emergencies, such as the recent flooding in the country. The growing prevalence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in North Korea has been a great concern to many of the NGOs working there.

Did all U.S. military personnel come home at the end of the Korean War?

No. About 8,000 Americans were “unaccounted for” at the end of the Korean War -- a term used to describe those who remained captive or missing at the conclusion of hostilities, or those killed in action whose remains have not been located, recovered, and identified.

For decades, U.S. Presidents did not place emphasis on the return of American prisoners of war from North Korea. In recent years, U.S. attention has intermittently focused on the retrieval and identification of U.S. military personnel remains from the War. The U.S. conducted remains recovery operations in North Korea from 1996-2005, but these have been suspended indefinitely.

This document represents the personal perspectives of NCNK's staff.