WASHINGTON – For decades, U.S. policy makers tried to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons or becoming a nuclear power. Experts told Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee members on Wednesday that those goals may be outdated. 

“This is the million dollar question, right? Is denuclearization possible?” senior fellow and program director at the Stimson Center Jenny Town asked committee members. “And if we believe it’s not, then what are we doing?”

Ranking member of the subcommittee Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, highlighted that without its own nuclear capacity, South Korea is threatened and “North Korea has become more belligerent and more malevolent in the past year or two.”

North Korea launched 10 times more missiles in 2022 than 2021, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ North Korea Missile Test Database. Missile testing places pressure on the U.S. and South Korea to respond to such threats, which is becoming increasingly difficult due to a lack of policy consistency, according to Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Our perspective on trying to counter their action has inhibited us from trying to reach into North Korea and generate the level of debate and even dissent that would be necessary for North Korea to change direction,” Snyder said.

Chairman of the subcommittee Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., acknowledged that denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is “a worthy goal, but in practice, clearly, we’ve not been able to achieve it. I do agree that we need to be thinking of other long-term approaches.” Lawmakers also agreed with experts that consistency in U.S. policy concerning North Korea is lacking.

“As I think about the last couple of decades with our relationship with [North Korea], it seems to be that we’ve gone from pillar to post, guardrail to guardrail,” Romney said. “From being aggressive and oppositional on one hand, and to writing love letters on the other. We’ve been all over the map. It strikes me as no consistent strategy or policy with regards to [North Korea.]”

U.S. diplomacy failed in the past because the goal was to get North Korea to end its nuclear programs in exchange for economic assistance, food and political recognition from the U.S.

“We have to come to the realization that that’s not the deal they want anymore,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The problem right now is that the deal that makes the most sense from a U.S. and allied perspective is not the one that North Korea wants.”

Town testified that current U.S. approaches to North Korea are too centered around denuclearization, which North Korea is not willing to do.

“The fundamental approach with our problem today is that we still continue to hold onto this notion that we have time, that we can keep North Korea at the train station,” Town said. “Instead, they’re already racing down the track, and what we’re trying to do is stop a moving train.”