North Korea–United States relations. Relations between North Korea and the United States have been historically tense and hostile. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations. Instead, they have adopted an indirect diplomatic arrangement using neutral intermediaries. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang is the US protecting power and provides limited consular services to U.S. citizens. North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), does not have an embassy in Washington, DC, but is represented in the United States through its mission to the United Nations in New York City which serves as North Korea’s de facto embassy.
The source of contention dates back to the Korean War in which both countries fought on opposite sides. Since the armistice was signed, areas of contention have since revolved around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile tests, North Korea’s human rights record, U.S. sanctions against North Korea, and military exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea. Despite no formal diplomatic relations, both sides have maintained contact to deescalate tensions. According to the policy objectives of the U.S. State Department, “Peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is the ultimate goal for the United States in its relationship with the DPRK”.
Defining issues of contention
In recent years relations have been largely defined by heavy U.S. military presence in South Korea, joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises in the South China Sea, US economic sanctions against North Korea for North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea’s demand that the United States eliminate its nuclear arsenal that could reach the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has conducted six tests of nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2017. It has developed long-range missiles capable of striking targets thousands of miles away, possibly as far away as the continental United States, and threatened to strike the United States (as recently as 2013) and South Korea with nuclear weapons and conventional forces.
The United States’ nuclear weapons program in nearby Guam consists of B1-B bombers and B2 Spirit bombers capable of launching nuclear weapons “60 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.” From Guam, the U.S. conducts precision strike exercises to simulate a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea.
Neither the United States nor North Korea has adopted a No First Use nuclear weapons policy.
Polling on U.S.–North Korea relations
In a 2020 YouGov poll conducted in the run-up to the US presidential election, the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute (KEI) of America, which commissioned the poll, reported only 31% of respondents approved of President Donald Trump‘s diplomatic overtures to North Korea, though a senior director at KEI conjectured support for diplomatic relations was weakened by Trump’s calling Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, a “friend” and saying “they fell in love with each other.”
Support among the American public for US forces to defend South Korea has increased steadily. While it was at a mere 26% in 1990, it nearly tripled to 62% in 2017, and in 2020, more than six in 10 Americans viewed the U.S. military alliance with South Korea as advantageous, with over half wanting to maintain the US troop level at nearly 30,000 soldiers. In 2017, a majority of the American public also had a positive view of Moon Jae-in, the South Korean President, who in 2018 supported a formal declaration to end the U.S.–North Korean war.
As relations with Korea waxed hot and cold under President Trump, American public opinion regarding North Korea likewise fluctuated sharply, and no clear picture emerges. In a 2020 Gallup Poll, only 12% of the Americans surveyed gave North Korea a positive rating.
A Harris poll published in 2023 found that 68% of United States respondents believed that Joe Biden should offer direct talks with Kim Jong-Un. 58% agreed that the United States should offer North Korea with economic or diplomatic incentives in exchange for steps towards de-nuclearization.