North Korean Nuclear Threat (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Fictional, set in the present day. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has for decades pursued its nuclear ambitions to the dismay of both Western countries and its neighbors in East Asia. It recently announced the successful launch of a satellite from a three-stage rocket, and U.S. and allied intelligence services conclude that North Korea now possesses the reentry technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the North American west coast. The director of national intelligence informs the president that the missile launch, combined with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests and its mastery of warhead miniaturization technology, means the country is capable of following through on past threats to fire a nuclear-armed missile against the United States. The president has called an NSC meeting to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s enhanced capabilities.

Decision Point

U.S. military officials have just told the president that, based on debris recovered from a recent North Korean satellite launch, they now believe North Korea has the technology needed to reach the west coast of North America. The launch came days after Kim walked away from nuclear negotiations with the United States, citing concerns over proposed inspections of its nuclear sites. The director of national intelligence informed the president that the launch, combined with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests, means that the country is now capable of following through on past threats to fire a nuclear-armed missile at the United States. The president has called a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s enhanced capabilities. 

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the history behind U.S-North Korean tensions since 1945 as well as North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
  • Students will consider the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear weapons program to the national security of the United States.
  • Students will evaluate the options that the United States has to address the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

Concepts and Issues



  • Security and diplomacy in Northeast Asia
  • U.S. alliance commitments in Asia
  • Legacy of the Cold War and the Korean War  
  • Chinese support of North Korea
  • Nuclear-related agreements and institutions

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

North Korea regards the U.S. military presence in South Korea (which hosts nearly 28,000 U.S. troops as of September 2023) as an obstacle to a North Korea–led unification of the peninsula. It also sees the United States as the most dangerous military threat it faces. One objective in its pursuit of nuclear weapons has been to develop a deterrent against the United States. Meanwhile, the United States views North Korea as a source of tension and instability, and as a threat to its ally South Korea. 

The most important U.S. interest on the Korean Peninsula is eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea already has the capability to hit South Korea and Japan, two critical U.S. allies in Asia, with nuclear missiles. Advancements in its nuclear technology and missile capabilities could pose a serious security threat to the United States. A nuclear attack from North Korea could destroy U.S. cities and kill millions of people. 

The United States is also concerned that a nuclear North Korea could spread, or proliferate, nuclear weapons to countries that do not currently have them. Preventing nuclear proliferation has long been a U.S. foreign policy goal. North Korea could sell nuclear weapons or related technologies to other U.S.-opposed governments or nonstate groups. Worse, its actions could also encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Japan and South Korea could become concerned that the United States would hesitate to honor its alliances and defend them against an attack out of concern that the North Koreans could launch a nuclear strike at the United States. This could create political pressure within Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons of their own to deter North Korea. Such pressure would be a defeat for global nonproliferation efforts and would make any conflict in Northeast Asia far more destructive. 

Last but not least, a North Korea with nuclear weapons could come to believe that it can engage in provocations without consequences. This could include an attack on South Korea aimed at unifying the peninsula.  North Korea, with a fully-fledged nuclear arsenal, could become a far more destabilizing force than before.

With those concerns in mind, the United States has few viable policy options toward North Korea. They include the following:

Attempt to negotiate with North Korea 

The United States could try to revive past negotiations with North Korea to convince it to give up nuclear weapons. The United States could offer several things in return. First, it could broker a peace deal to officially end the Korean War. Washington could also lower or remove sanctions against Pyongyang. The United States could also provide humanitarian aid to North Korea.

If successful, negotiations with North Korea could peacefully remove the threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. This would avoid the risk to U.S. military personnel and the costs of military action. It could also avoid any damage to the U.S. position in East Asia that a military strike could cause. Successful negotiations could also build a foundation of trust for further diplomacy. This could include starting a process toward the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. 

This option, however, comes with many risks. The United States has attempted to negotiate many times before without success. There is little guarantee that negotiations will work this time around. Even when past negotiations did produce results, agreements have proven difficult to enforce and have not led to lasting changes. Furthermore, the United States is limited in the incentives it can offer in exchange for denuclearization. North Korea continues to survive under current sanctions. Kim could ultimately decide that a nuclear program is not worth giving up in exchange for relief. If negotiations do produce an agreement and North Korea violates it, the United States risks having given North Korea aid or sanctions relief but received nothing in return. At best, failed negotiations would result in a return to the status quo. At worst, they could prolong the Kim Jong-un regime and the North Korean nuclear program, damage U.S. credibility in the region, and potentially result in nuclear conflict. 

The NSC could choose to pursue negotiations first; should they prove unsuccessful, it could then resort to either of the following options: 

Launch preventive military strikes 

The United States could launch air strikes to destroy as many missile and nuclear-related sites and as much equipment as possible. Even if these strikes could not completely eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program, they could set it back for the foreseeable future. Given the current phase of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, this option would likely require a large-scale military operation to succeed. 

This option offers a crucial benefit: it could reduce the threat of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons for years to come. Successful preventive strikes would increase the security of the United States and its allies. It would also demonstrate the strength of the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation. Lastly, it would show the commitment to combating North Korean provocations. This could send an effective warning to North Korea and others against developing nuclear weapons. 

However, this option comes with significant risks. The United States cannot be confident that a preventive strike will guarantee the destruction of all North Korean nuclear capabilities. Moreover, a military strike risks prompting a North Korean retaliation against the United States or against Japan or South Korea, both allies that the United States is treaty-bound to defend. South Korea’s densely populated capital, Seoul, is particularly vulnerable to North Korea’s military because of how close it is to the North. Even limited retaliation by North Korea could lead to many deaths and a high level of destruction in Seoul. The tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in South Korea and any U.S. personnel deployed into or over North Korea as part of the airstrike campaign could also be at risk. Moreover, if North Korea fears losing its nuclear weapons, it could also decide to use them first. 

Accept North Korean nuclearization and attempt to manage the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities 

The United States could accept North Korean nuclear weapons as an unavoidable reality. Instead of trying to roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, it could focus on slowing it down as much as possible through a combination of nonproliferation measures, deterrence, and defense. This approach would include expanding sanctions and cracking down on North Korea’s illegal activities abroad to restrict its access to funds and nuclear materials. Deterrence would entail signaling that any North Korean nuclear use would prompt a U.S. response that could destroy North Korea. The U.S. military would also maintain strong deterrence through greater cooperation with Japan and South Korea. Finally, the United States would expand its defense capabilities in the region. This could entail increasing troop levels in South Korea The United States could also place additional advanced weapons systems on the peninsula, or move U.S. naval units into the region.

These efforts would be driven by the assumption that North Korea is highly unlikely to negotiate and that the best path forward is to isolate North Korea until the regime collapses or changes. This would essentially constitute a continuation of existing U.S. policy. For the United States, this option is the least demanding but also the least rewarding. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs would likely remain in place, posing a continued threat to the United States and its allies. The management option could be attractive, however, should NSC members find the other two options to be too risky.