North Korea has been among the most troublesome and persistent problems in U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War. The United States has never had formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, and negotiations over its nuclear weapons program have been at the forefront of the national security agendas of the past three administrations.
U.S. interests in North Korea involve critical security, political, and human rights concerns. American troops occupying U.S. military bases in the Pacific are stationed within known striking distance of North Korean missiles. A conflict on the Korean peninsula or the collapse of the government would have severe implications for both the regional and global economy. Negotiations and diplomacy surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons program necessarily dictate U.S. relations with all the major powers in the region.
The United States and its allies in the east are now faced with an isolated, authoritarian regime, currently under pressure from transferring power following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. Multilateral Six-Party negotiations (made up of China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States) have previously reached some key agreements on aid to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization; however, problems with implementation have persisted and talks have been suspended since 2008.
After launching a long-range rocket in December of 2012, North Korea conducted a nuclear test in February 2013, and increased its rhetoric against South Korea and the United States to include the threat of pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
Leadership in North Korea under Kim Jong-un is unpredictable because so little is known about him. The United States now faces the challenge of navigating a course toward a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue with a potentially rogue actor.