Cover: Engaging with North Korea

Engaging with North Korea

Lessons from Game Theory

Published Aug 12, 2021

by Troy D. Smith, Marco Hafner, Bruce W. Bennett

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Research Questions

  1. How can a game theory perspective improve insights on dealing with Kim Jong-un and North Korea?
  2. What are the uncertainties inherent in interactions with North Korea?
  3. Using game theory, can either side credibly commit to an agreement on denuclearization?

It can be useful to rethink a difficult problem by applying a new lens and seeing whether that lens provides new strategies and either reinforces or calls into question existing ones. A change of leadership in Washington provides an opportunity to once again reevaluate the relationship between the United States and North Korea, and to figure out ways to productively move forward. In this report, the authors draw on intuition from game theory to better understand the situation in North Korea. These insights and recommendations are based on game theoretic analysis of how to deal with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and the situation on the Korean peninsula; specifically, how to carry out negotiations on denuclearization.

The authors argue that U.S. policy should make better use of concrete actions that are designed to elucidate Kim's ultimate goals and motivations. Much more emphasis at the beginning of negotiations should be placed on designing effective monitoring and verification mechanisms, figuring out a way to ensure credible commitment on both sides, and determining the long-term effects of any action on future negotiations and other countries.

Strong multilateral cooperation, especially with China, is the best way to deal with North Korea; the incentives of North Korean elites have not been discussed enough in the existing literature. Deadlines to spur progress—and consequences if those deadlines are not met—are vitally important because, with each passing year, North Korea's technological prowess and stockpile of nuclear weapons are likely increasing.

Key Findings

The stakes of negotiations for nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula are very high

  • The authors hypothesize two potential scenarios: one in which Kim Jong-un's highest goal is to preserve his position and prevent regime change, and another in which his highest goal is to rule over both North and South Korea.

Even if neither side cheats, one or more players could decide to walk away from a future agreement

  • North Korea has made three previous agreements on nuclear weapons and has not abided by any of the agreements.
  • North Korea, China, and other players might also have a hard time believing that the United States will abide by its agreements.

The best courses of action might be very different if North Korea and the United States are the only two players negotiating nuclear disarmament or if there are other countries involved

  • Either the United States or North Korea might try to strategically alter the number of effective players in the game to tilt the situation toward their preferred outcomes.

The existing negotiations between the United States and North Korea just might be the latest stage in a complex repeated game between the two countries

  • Strategies and tactics that are used could set precedents for future interactions, and negotiators must keep this in mind.

The payoffs for the current game with North Korea might extend beyond economic gain and loss and even beyond the potential loss of life

  • If winning in this context means that the other party must be seen to lose, then both parties might view any potential negotiations as zero-sum—if North Korea obtains what is perceived as a favorable outcome, then the United States loses, and vice versa.


  • The United States and the international community should quickly try to force Kim to reveal his motivations by requiring an action that would be costly for him to undertake if his ultimate goal is reunification of the Korean peninsula under North Korea, but less costly if his goal is regime survival.
  • The United States and the international community should consider robust mechanisms to enforce any potential agreement.
  • Mechanisms to ensure that all sides can credibly commit to any agreement in the long run—with meaningful penalties should they renege—should be explored.
  • The United States must be wary of Kim's efforts to undermine its position with the other players in the game and to weaken the alliance with South Korea.
  • The United States should ensure Chinese buy-in for any strategy pursued regarding North Korea and should work to align U.S. and Chinese interests on the peninsula.
  • The United States must balance any accommodation of North Korea with dynamic realities, including the possibility of future negotiations with North Korea and incentive effects that could lead other countries to pursue nuclear weapons.
  • The United States should set a deadline for complete denuclearization and consequences if that deadline is not met.
  • The United States should use win-win rhetoric and try to push Kim and U.S. negotiating officials toward an objective of valuing all human life above nationalistic or personal ambitions.
  • Policymakers and people in positions of power should try everything possible to minimize impulsivity and rash actions in future negotiations.

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers. This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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