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North Korean Nuclear Threat

North Korea has reportedly acquired the technological capability to hit the west coast of North America with a nuclear weapon.


Following a North Korean satellite launch and other developments, the director of national intelligence has informed the president that North Korea is now capable of firing 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.

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Nuclear launch

The Situation

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.





  • 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
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

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National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

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Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Kim Jong Un
Nuclear launch

“North Korea is a big worry for all of us.  They’re not at the point right now where they can effectively hit U.S. targets, but each time that they test—even if those tests fail—they learn something.”

— Barack Obama, president of the United States, May 26, 2016

2.1 The Issue

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades, to the dismay of Western countries and its neighbors in East Asia. Some U.S. military officials now believe that North Korea has the capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, although tests have not proved such capability yet. In September 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test and declared that the country had perfected its nuclear warhead design, hinting at the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on a missile. Whether North Korea has that ability is unconfirmed, but most analysts agree that North Korea has a reliable nuclear weapons capability to strike Japan and South Korea.

The United States, alongside other countries and the United Nations, has used sanctions and diplomacy to convince North Korea’s leadership to change direction and denuclearize. Despite these efforts, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, believes his country should be a nuclear weapons state and continues to pursue the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. He is also determined to deter any initial conventional or nuclear attack by the United States by building a nuclear arsenal that could survive such a strike. Analysts believe that if Kim gains these capabilities, dealing with the North Korean threat will become much more difficult for other nations.

Nuclear launch
38th Parallel

“It pains all of us to think about how the regime has been developing weapons while people were starving, how the human potential has been wasted away in North Korea.”

— Oh Joon, South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, March 2, 2016

2.2 Background

After Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945 at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to divide the Korean Peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel into two zones of occupation; the zones would later become North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union and China) and South Korea (backed by the United States). North and South Korean leaders each wanted to reunify the peninsula under their own leadership and thought that they could do so with the support of their backers. This led to the Korean War, a three-year conflict that started when North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to take control of the entire peninsula. The military conflict ended with an armistice in July 1953. To date, there has been no peace treaty to officially end the war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula has endured. Throughout much of the Cold War, the two Koreas, each backed by a superpower, competed politically, economically, and militarily for legitimate ownership of the entire peninsula. This struggle has continued to the present day.

The North Koreans have tried to develop nuclear weapons since at least the mid-1950s. North Korean leaders were impressed by the power of the atomic bomb used by the United States on Japan and had been on the receiving end of nuclear threats during the Korean War. Because of this, they came to see nuclear weapons as a way to ensure survival and enhance their status. This desire for nuclear weapons became even more pressing with the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Without the support of its former ally, North Korea found itself in a more vulnerable position. By the early 1990s, South Korea had a much larger economy, a better international reputation, and an increasingly powerful military. It was also a young democracy that remained allied to the United States. North Korea, by contrast, was in economic ruin, militarily weak—at least in terms of conventional, nonnuclear, military power—and largely isolated from the rest of the world (other than China).

North Korea’s continuing nuclear development became a growing concern for the United States in the 1990s, as North Korea threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology. Initially, efforts to negotiate with North Korea over nuclear weapons produced some success, with the country promising in 1994 to dismantle its nuclear program. By 2003, however, these efforts had collapsed. That year, North Korea pulled out of the NPT, kicked out international inspectors from a nuclear facility, and prepared to conduct nuclear tests and declare itself a nuclear weapons state. Attempts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table through an initiative known as the Six Party Talks failed over the following years, and on October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

Following the 2011 death of North Korea’s longtime dictator Kim Jong-il and the assumption of leadership by his son Kim Jong-un, some analysts and politicians hoped that North Korea would return to the negotiating table. But despite policymakers on both sides calling for cooperation and diplomacy, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program, conducting nuclear tests in February 2013, January 2016, September 2016, and September 2017.

So far, economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries have not deterred North Korea’s commitment to developing nuclear weapons, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated. Although Kim held summits with the leaders of both the United States and South Korea in 2018, North Korea has not yet started denuclearization. The North Koreans have been calling for a peace agreement with the United States but have refused U.S., South Korean, and Chinese appeals to return to nuclear talks. In June 2019, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to North Korea, where he met Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The leaders agreed to restart denuclearization talks but thus far no progress has been made in organizing these negotiations. North Korea test-fired multiple short-range missiles less than one month later. The result has been a tense standoff as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities grow.

Nuclear launch
Trump and Kim

“The United States, the very one that divided our nation into two and has imposed the suffering of national division upon it for 70 years, should desist from pursuing the anachronistic policy hostile towards the DPRK and reckless acts of aggression and boldly make a policy switch.”

— Kim Jong-un, President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, January 5, 2015

2.3 Role of the United States

North Korea regards the U.S. military presence in South Korea (which currently hosts 28,500 U.S. troops) as an obstacle to a North Korea–led unification of the peninsula. It also sees the United States as posing the most dangerous military threat to it. One objective in its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program has been to develop a deterrent against the United States (in other words, a tool that discourages the country from attacking or acting aggressively toward North Korea.) The United States, on the other hand, views North Korea as a source of tension and instability and as a threat to its ally South Korea. This divide continues to shape the U.S.-North Korea relationship.

The most important U.S. interest on the Korean Peninsula is the denuclearization of North Korea. North Korea already has the capability to hit South Korea and Japan, two critical U.S. allies in Asia, with nuclear missiles and nonnuclear, or conventional, munitions. Advancements in its nuclear technology and weapons delivery 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 might proliferate nuclear weapons technology, and even the weapons themselves, to other governments or nonstate groups in uncontrolled, dangerous ways. The emergence of a nuclear North Korea with full-fledged delivery capabilities would also be a blow to global nonproliferation efforts and could encourage other countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

A nuclear North Korea that could hit the United States could also lead U.S. allies to question its security guarantees in Asia. A security guarantee is a commitment from the United States to retaliate against a country that attacks not only the United States but also U.S. allies—in this case, Japan and South Korea. Japan and South Korea could fear that the United States would be reluctant to militarily defend them out of concern that the North Koreans could then aim their arsenal at the continental United States. Doubts about the U.S. security guarantee could generate domestic political pressure in South Korea and Japan to acquire their own nuclear arsenals expressly to deter North Korea. Such pressure would be detrimental to the global nonproliferation regime and would make any conflict in Northeast Asia far more destructive. Last but not least, a North Korea with nuclear weapons might come to believe that it can engage in provocations without consequences and thus 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:

1. Attempt to negotiate with North Korea.

The United States could try to revive past negotiations with North Korea in an effort to convince the country to give up nuclear weapons. In return, the United States could offer a peace deal to officially end the Korean War, lower or remove sanctions against North Korea, and provide humanitarian aid to the country. The United States has attempted to negotiate many times before, and there is little guarantee that negotiations would work this time around.

If successful, negotiations with North Korea could bring about a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This would avoid the risks and costs of military action, including those to U.S. military personnel, and could avoid any damage to the U.S. position in East Asia that a military strike might cause. Successful negotiations could also build a foundation of trust for further negotiations. The United States and South Korea could eventually negotiate a peace deal with North Korea or even initiate a process toward the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

But this option comes with many risks. Past negotiation efforts, even when they did produce results, have proved 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 has not crumbled and continues to survive under current sanctions and, despite much hardship, could decide that its 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 regime and its nuclear program, damage U.S. credibility in the region, and potentially result in nuclear conflict.

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


2. 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 to set North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery program for the foreseeable future. Given the current phase of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program, military strikes of a significant scale would be required to prevent North Korean use of its nuclear capabilities.

This option offers a crucial benefit: the long-term reduction in the threat posed by North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons. Successful preventive strikes would increase the security of the United States and its allies and demonstrate the strength of the United States’ commitment to nonproliferation and to combating North Korean provocations. This could send an effective warning to North Korea and others against developing nuclear weapons.

However, with these potential benefits come significant risks. The United States cannot be confident that a preventive strike will guarantee the successful 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. Seoul, South Korea’s densely populated capital, is particularly vulnerable to North Korea’s military and special forces because of how close it is to the border with the North. The tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers in South Korea are also at risk, as would be the U.S. personnel deployed in the air-strike campaign. Even limited retaliation by the North Koreans could cause a large number of deaths and a high level of destruction in Seoul. If the North Koreans fear losing their nuclear weapons, they could also decide to use them first.


3. 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 and focus on slowing down North Korean nuclear and missile efforts 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 build on existing efforts to discourage any North Korean use of nuclear weapons, for instance, by signaling that such 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.

All these efforts would be driven by the assumption that the best path forward is to isolate North Korea until its government collapses or changes. These efforts would be driven by the assumption that North Korea is highly unlikely to negotiate its own denuclearization 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.

Case Notes Glossary


38th parallel:a line of latitude established as the boundary between the northern and southern parts of Korea after World War II. Following the defeat of Japan, which had occupied Korea, territories north of the line were to be administered temporarily by the Soviet Union while southern territories were to be administered temporarily by the United States.


Agreed Framework:a bilateral agreement between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States signed on October 21, 1994. The framework sought to normalize U.S.-DPRK relations through an exchange of U.S. aid for North Korean denuclearization. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea consented to remain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and promised full access for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to all its nuclear facilities. The United States, South Korea, and Japan established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization to provide North Korea with heavy fuel oil and light-water nuclear reactors, whose product is not easily weaponized. The agreement broke down in 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the NPT.
armistice:a formal agreement by warring parties to stop fighting for an agreed upon period, or sometimes indefinitely. An armistice is not a peace-treaty, but it can stop hostilities while warring parties attempt to negotiate a full peace agreement. In some instances, such as at the end of the Korean War in 1953, an armistice can be signed without leading to a formal peace treaty, leaving those who signed it technically still at war.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.


Cold War:the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, by extension, capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship—that characterized international politics between the post–World War II years and the early 1990s. Deemed a “cold” war because the rivalry never resulted in direct warfare between the two, the contest nevertheless sparked proxy wars in other countries and many close calls, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
communism:a political ideology that advocates for public ownership of essential resources such as factories, farms, and mines in a society where wealth is divided equally among citizens. Envisioned by German philosopher Karl Marx in the nineteenth century, communism is seen as an ideological rival to Western capitalism; the contest between these ideologies was a central dynamic of the Cold War and the Korean War. The political ideology also contributed to the division of the Korean peninsula, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) established in the North with the Soviet Union’s support and the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South.
conventional:any form of military power that does not involve the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, which are referred to as weapons of mass destruction. Conventional weapons include small arms, armored vehicles, combat aircraft, artillery, and missiles.


deterrence:a strategy used to discourage an enemy from attacking by instilling a fear of retaliation. Scholars generally consider an effective deterrent to rely on capability and will, that is the means to retaliate and the intention to do so. Deterrence was the foundation of U.S. and NATO strategy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One variant is extended deterrence, in which a state threatens retaliation to prevent attacks not on itself but on its allies. The United States has long used extended deterrence to protect NATO members and other allies. In this way, the United States is also offering to these allies what is called a security guarantee.


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):an international organization seeking to promote peaceful use of nuclear technology. Created in 1957, the IAEA assists its 168 member states in developing such technology, delineates nuclear safety standards, and monitors and inspects countries’ nuclear facilities. IAEA inspections of North Korean facilities in the summer of 1992 revealed discrepancies between the country’s declaration of its nuclear activities and the evidence collected by inspectors. The discrepancies resulted in a standoff between the IAEA, the United States, and other powers on one hand, and North Korea on the other.


Korean Armistice Agreement:the armistice signed in 1953 that ended the Korean War. Signed by China and North Korea on one side, and the United States and South Korea on the other, the agreement formally ended the fighting while establishing no official claim to victory. Although the armistice was meant to be a temporary agreement until a permanent peace treaty was reached, no such document was ever signed and the parties remain technically at war.
Korean War:a 1950–1953 war fought between North Korea (supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China) and South Korea (supported by the United Nations, the United States, and the British Commonwealth). The war began when communist North Korean forces invaded South Korea with the approval of the Soviet Union in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula after its 1945 division at the end of World War II. After three years of fighting, the Korean Armistice Agreement, signed on July 27, 1953, enforced a total cease-fire between military forces while establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone as a geographical buffer and de facto border between North and South Korea. The Korean War was the first proxy war that highlighted the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era.


missile defense system:a type of defense system meant to shield a territory from incoming missile attacks. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a missile defense system developed by the United States, uses radar technology to detect an incoming missile before destroying it with an interceptor, usually another missile.
multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT):a binding international agreement that seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technologies, further the goal of nuclear disarmament, and promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Entered into force in 1970, the NPT prohibits countries that did not have nuclear weapons at the time from ever developing them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is tasked with verifying compliance by the treaty’s 190 state signatories. Although North Korea ratified the NPT in 1985, it withdrew from the treaty in 2003 after the IAEA accused the country of illicit nuclear activities.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
Six Party Talks:a series of multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, chaired by China and attended by Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. The talks began in 2003 as a result of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Six rounds of negotiations occurred, spanning more than five years and aimed at nuclear disarmament, trade normalization, and improved diplomatic relations. The talks came to a halt in 2009 when North Korea violated previous agreements by engaging in multiple nuclear and missile tests. After a deluge of international condemnation and UN Security Council sanctions, North Korea announced that it would “never again take part in [Six Party Talks] and will not be bound by any agreements reached at the talks.”


U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty:an agreement between the United States and South Korea aligning the two nations as allies. Signed two months after the Korean War ended in 1953, the treaty aims to deter North Korea from attacking the South by guaranteeing that the United States will defend South Korea in the event of an attack (and vice versa). Today, South Korea hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, who remain a source of protection from North Korea and a central component of the alliance.
United Nations Security Council:the principal UN body charged with maintaining international peace and security. The UN Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to pass resolutions that are binding on the 193 UN member states. It includes five permanent member states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and ten rotating members elected to two-year terms. The five permanent members have veto power over resolutions, making their agreement necessary for a resolution’s approval. This structure provides strong international legitimacy to Security Council resolutions but also stymies action when the major powers disagree.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations" tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4). Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

BBC, “North Korea’s Missile Programme,” August 10, 2017, http://bbc.com/news/world-asia-17399847.  

Yarno Ritzen, “North Korea: All You Need to Know Explained in Graphics,” Al Jazeera, September 17, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/08/north-korea-explained-graphics-170810121538674.html.

BBC, “North Korea Crisis in 300 Words,” 12 June, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40871848.


2.2 Background

Alex Ward, “9 Questions about North Korea you were too Embarrassed to Ask,” Vox, Last Updated Jun 11, 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2017/5/2/15518284/north-korea-trump-explained-kim-jong-un.  

Michael Fry, “National Geographic, Korea, and the 38th Parallel,” National Geographic, August 4, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130805-korean-war-dmz-armistice-38-parallel-geography.   

Hyung-Jin Kim, “10 Historic Moments in Relations between US, North Korea,” Associated Press, June 11, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/703b80eaf6be4f8192f6750bf3fe1fe3.   


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​2.3 Role of the United States

Pew Research Center, “5 Facts about how the U.S. and its Allies see North Korea,” June 11, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/11/5-facts-about-how-the-u-s-and-its-allies-see-north-korea/.  

David E. Sanger, Choe Sang-hun, Chris Buckley, and Michael R. Gordon, “North Korea Tensions Pose Early, and Perilous, Test for Trump,” The New York Times, March 07, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/world/asia/korea-missile-defense-china-trump.html?_r=0

Scott Snyder, “Confronting the North Korean Threat: Reassessing Policy Options,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/report/confronting-north-korean-threat-reassessing-policy-options


Further Reading

Reuters, “Explainer: What will it Cost to Denuclearize North Korea?” June 29, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-cost-explainer/explainer-what-will-it-cost-to-denuclearize-north-korea-idUSKBN1JP1LD.

Zack Beauchamp, “Juche, the State Ideology that makes North Koreans Revere Kim Jong Un, Explained,” Vox, June 18 2018, https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/18/17441296/north-korea-propaganda-ideology-juche.

Nuclear Threat Initiative, North Korea, http://nti.org/learn/countries/north-korea.  

Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu, “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated September 30, 2013, http://cfr.org/proliferation/six-party-talks-north-koreas-nuclear-program/p13593.

Max Fisher, “North Korea, Far From Crazy, Is All Too Rational,” New York Times, September 10, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-missile-programs-rational.html

Max Fisher, “What Happened in the Trump-Kim Meeting and why it Matters,” New York Times, June 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/world/asia/trump-kim-meeting-interpreter.html.

David Blair, “North Korea v South Korea: How the Countries’ Armed Forces Compare,” Telegraph, September 15, 2015, http://telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/11603665/North-Korea-v-South-Korea-How-the-countries-armed-forces-compare.html.

William J. Broad et al., “This Missile Could Reach California. But Can North Korea Use It With a Nuclear Weapon?,” New York Times, September 3, 2017, http://nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/22/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-weapons.html.

Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci, “Stopping North Korea’s Nuclear Threat,” New York Times, January 8, 2016, http://nytimes.com/2016/01/08/opinion/stopping-north-koreas-nuclear-threat.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=4.  

BBC, “North Korea Nuclear Tests: What Did They Achieve?” April 22, 2016, http://bbc.com/news/world-asia-17823706.

Zack Beauchamp, “’The textbook definition of unstable’: Why North Korea’s newest nuclear test is scary,” Vox, September 9, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2016/9/9/12863700/north-korea-nuclear-test-five-bad

Bruce Cumings, “This is What’s Really Behind North Korea’s Nuclear Provocations,” The Nation, March 23, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-whats-really-behind-north-koreas-nuclear-provocations/

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea website, “Juche Ideology,” http://korea-dpr.com/juche_ideology.html.

Anna Fifield, “In latest test, North Korea detonates its most powerful nuclear device yet,” Washington Post, September 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korea-apparently-conducts-another-nuclear-test-south-korea-says/2017/09/03/7bce3ff6-905b-11e7-8df5-c2e5cf46c1e2_story.html?utm_term=.a0ac69041228

Anna Fifield, “Photos From North Korea’s East Coast Show How Tough Life Is Away From the Capital,” Washington Post, December 4, 2017, http://washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/12/04/photos-from-north-koreas-east-coast-show-how-tough-life-is-away-from-the-capital.

History.com, “Korean War,” http://history.com/topics/korean-war.

John Kerry, “Statement on the 45th Anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” U.S. Department of State, March 5, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2015/03/238174.htm

Grace Lee, “The Political Philosophy of Juche,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 3, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 105–112, https://s3.amazonaws.com/berkley-center/030101LeePoliticalPhilosophyJuche.pdf .

National Archives, “Teaching With Documents: The United States Enters the Korean Conflict,” http://archives.gov/education/lessons/korean-conflict.  

National Nuclear Security Administration, “NPT Compliance,” http://nnsa.energy.gov/ourmission/managingthestockpile/nptcompliance.

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, “Toward a Grand Bargain With North Korea,” Brookings Institution, September 1, 2003, http://brookings.edu/articles/toward-a-grand-bargain-with-north-korea.

Madison Park, “North Korea Declares 1953 Armistice Invalid,” CNN, last updated March 11, 2013, http://cnn.com/2013/03/11/world/asia/north-korea-armistice

Jane Perlez and David E. Sanger, “John Kerry Urges China to Curb North Korea’s Nuclear Pursuits,” New York Times, January 27, 2016, http://nytimes.com/2016/01/28/world/asia/us-china-north-korea.html?_r=0.

Motoko Rich and David E. Sanger, “Motives of North Korea’s Leader Baffle Americans and Allies,” New York Times, September 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/03/world/asia/north-korea-kim-jong-un.html?mcubz=0&_r=0

Will Ripley, “Unprecedented: CNN Goes Inside North Korea’s Secretive Congress,” CNN, May 10, 2016, http://cnn.com/2016/05/10/asia/north-korea-ripley-workers-party-congress.  

Wall Street Journal, “The Rogue-State Nuclear Missile Threat,” February 11, 2016, http://wsj.com/articles/the-rogue-state-icbm-1455237938.

Choe Sang-Hun and David E. Sanger, “Kim Jong-il, North Korean Dictator, Dies,” New York Times, December 19, 2011, http://nytimes.com/2011/12/19/world/asia/kim-jong-il-is-dead.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

S.C., “Why Is the Border Between the Koreas Sometimes Called the ‘38th Parallel’?” Economist, November 5, 2013, http://economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/11/economist-explains-1.

Mark Thompson, “Is It Time to Attack North Korea?” Time, March 9, 2016, http://time.com/4252372/north-korea-nuclear-missile-attack.  

Georgy Toloraya, “Russia’s North Korea Conundrum,” Diplomat, March 17, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/russias-north-korea-conundrum.  

U.S. Department of State, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, http://state.gov/t/isn/npt.

World Post, “The Stark Difference Between North and South Korea in 10 Stunning Photos,” May 29, 2014, http://huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/29/dieter-leistner-korea-photos_n_5405585.html.  


Quotation Sources

Associated Press, “Obama on Hiroshima and North Korea,” New York Times video, 1:51, May 26, 2016, http://nytimes.com/video/world/asia/100000004437792/obama-on-hiroshima-and-north-korea.html.   

Associated Press, “UN Approves Toughest Sanctions on North Korea in 20 Years,” Daily Mail, last updated March 2, 2016, http://dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3472859/UN-votes-Wednesday-tough-new-North-Korea-sanctions.html.

Suki Kim, “This Is What It’s Like to Go Undercover in North Korea,” June 2015, transcript, TED, http://ted.com/talks/suki_kim_this_is_what_it_s_like_to_go_undercover_in_north_korea/transcript?language=en.

Lisa Ling, “Inside Under Cover in North Korea|Nat Geo Documentary,” YouTube video, 47:26, from a show televised by National Geographic Channel on February 27, 2007, posted by Utkarsh Singh, December 14, 2013, http://youtube.com/watch?v=AlJUGZPanB8.

Reuters, “Chinese President Hu Lauds North Korea Ties Despite Tension,” April 23, 2012, http://reuters.com/article/us-china-korea-north-idUSBRE83M0R720120423.

Kevin Stahler, “The New Years Speech: Full Text,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, January 5, 2015, http://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation/new-years-speech-full-text.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.