February 23, 2018
North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and thermonuclear warheads that can target U.S. cities presents real problems for U.S. policy, but it should not provoke a panicked reaction by the American public or – more importantly – the country’s leaders. The risks of war – including nuclear war -- in Asia are higher than they have been in decades, but these risks are largely caused by the psychological blind spots of the U.S. and North Korean leaderships rather than the physical realities of the situation. It is unlikely that any policy short of a catastrophically expensive war or a regime change can lead to the U.S.’ stated goal of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, but there are still paths available to stabilize the situation and to manage the problem of a nuclear armed North Korea to the advantage of the U.S. and its allies.
Ambassador (retired) Joseph M. DeThomas is a Professor of Practice at the School of International Affairs of the Pennsylvania State University. He was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service for 29 years and worked at the U.S. Department of State for 32 years. His service abroad included tours in Iran, Germany, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Austria. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia from 2001-2004. He also held numerous positions in Washington over the course of three decades. This included two years of service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Non-proliferation from 1999-2001 as well as a number of other positions that dealt primarily with proliferation sensitive countries including Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Ambassador DeThomas served on the faculty of the National War College from 2004-6.
Ambassador DeThomas received a number of awards from the Department of State during his service. This included Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards for non-proliferation innovations, humanitarian contributions and management, as well as a group award for valor for service in Tehran, Iran.
After retiring from government service in 2006, he directed international science engagement and threat reduction programs in more than 20 countries at CRDF Global. He returned to service in the U.S. Department of State from 2010 until February of 2013 as an advisor. There he worked primarily on North Korea and Iran, implementing sanctions and attempting to impede weapons of mass destruction efforts of those two countries.
He received his B.A. and M.A. from the Pennsylvania State University, and he holds an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is also a distinguished graduate of the National War College.