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Dismantling North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Programs

Authored by COL David J. Bishop. | April 2005

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This paper examines the choices available to the United States for dismantling North Korea?s nuclear weapons programs. The options range from doing nothing to executing policies of engagement, containment, or preemption. Each option has advantages and disadvantages, and there are numerous factors influencing the problem. The major factors include U.S. national interests, the role of China, the Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. alliance, the difficult nature of North Korea, and the U.S. war on terror. Engagement is less risky in the short term because it reduces the risks of miscalculation and escalation by preventing the conditions which support North Korea seeing war as a rational act. However, it is risky in the long term because it allows North Korean nuclear weapons development to proceed unchecked. This could lead to proliferation to terrorists and rogue states. Containment?s main advantage is that it takes a direct path to solving the problem. Its major disadvantage is that it could cause North Korea, a failing state, to view war as a rational act. Containment is also not supported by friends and allies in the region. Preemption is the most direct method to ensure elimination of North Korea?s nuclear weapons. However, the risks associated with this option could lead to catastrophic loss of life and devastation and ultimately to loss of U.S. influence in the region.

The optimal course of action is not one policy in particular, but a combination of engagement and containment. Furthermore, preemptive action will invite foreign policy disaster for the United States and should only be used as a last resort. Specific policy recommendations to improve implementation of a hybrid policy of engagement and containment include strengthening the ROK-U.S. alliance, supplementing multilateral talks with bilateral talks, offering a formal security guarantee to North Korea, broadening the Proliferation Security Initiative to include China, and improving national intelligence capabilities. If preemption must be used, national leaders must know what conditions would trigger that decision, and they must prepare in advance the necessary protocol for warning and informing friends, allies, and other concerned parties.


The North Korean nuclear weapons stand-off is one of the most dangerous challenges facing the United States today. In order to accomplish its objective of dismantling North Korea?s nuclear weapons programs, the United States must pursue a combined policy of engagement and containment. Preemption, because it invites foreign policy disaster for the United States, must be reserved as a last resort.