North Korea’s Nukes

By | Updated Sep 29, 2016 5:19 AM UTC

North Korea isn’t your regular totalitarian dictatorship. Yes, it has an appalling human rights record, corruption and poverty are rife, and there is no political or economic freedom to speak of. Yet a couple of chilling characteristics set it apart: a nuclear weapons program and an unpredictable young leader. Whether Kim Jong Un’s military is capable of an effective nuclear strike is open to question. But the Asian country’s aggressive rhetoric and regular missile and nuclear tests, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, are vexing the international community and pressuring China, North Korea’s only major ally, to rein in its errant neighbor.

The Situation

North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in a decade — and second this year — on Sept. 9, claiming it now had the ability to mount warheads onto rockets. South Korean President Park Geun Hye called the test an action of “maniacal recklessness.” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had already defied the international community by staging a fourth test and launching a long-range rocket in early 2016. Defense analysts then were skeptical about the Pyongyang government’s claim to have detonated a full-fledged hydrogen bomb. But they agreed that the tests had advanced the country’s ambition of making a warhead compact enough to ride a missile capable of reaching North America. In March, the UN extended sanctions against North Korea, as did the the U.S., which called off nascent peace talks. South Korea agreed with the Americans in July to deploy a ballistic missile defense system, drawing protests from China. The border between the two Koreas is lined with hundreds of thousands of troops. Also this year, North Korea threatened to take  “all necessary countermeasures” if the U.S. didn't retract new sanctions imposed on its leader. It also fired missiles that fell into Japan's exclusive economic zone and launched another rocket from a submarine that flew 500 miles, suggesting an improvement in technology from previous tests. 

What's Going On With North Korea's Nukes?


The Background

North Korea has a track record of escalating and then lowering tensions to win diplomatic and economic benefits. In the 1990s, it removed spent fuel rods from its nuclear reactor, a possible prelude for use in weapons, before former U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered negotiations that led to aid and security assurances. After North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks produced further concessions in return for closing nuclear facilities. Its government has since exited the talks and restarted those operations. The country has been on a war footing since Kim Il Sung founded North Korea in 1948 after decades of Japanese occupation. He then invaded South Korea to start the 1950-53 Korean War. Kim Jong Il took over from his father in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un, in 2011. One million of North Korea’s 25 million people are in the active military, with reservists numbering 7.7 million. Believed to be just over 30 years old, the Western-educated Kim Jong Un has carried out three of his country’s five nuclear tests while railing about America’s “reckless moves” toward a war. North Korea, which is thought to have six to 20 warheads, describes its weapons as a “precious sword of justice” against invaders and points out the demise of Iraqi and Libyan regimes after they gave up on nuclear arms. Weapons aren’t the only concern: A 2014 UN inquiry accused the regime of human rights abuses on a scale unparalleled in the contemporary world.


The Argument

Neither the carrot approach (aid and energy in return for concessions) nor stick (international sanctions and military exercises) has halted North Korea’s nuclear program. China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and supplier of most of its food and energy, could do more to make sanctions effective, according to the U.S. For its part, China fears a collapse of the government might prompt an influx of millions of refugees and — in the event of South Korea absorbing its neighbor — create a well-armed U.S. ally straddling its border. With South Korea and its U.S. ally unprepared to militarily confront the potentially nuclear-armed north, the most realistic option may be to tighten economic sanctions or hope for the downfall of the Kim dynasty, whether through Kim Jong Un’s ill health or political infighting. Kim has executed senior advisers including his uncle and one-time guardian, raising concerns about his temperament and the absence of considered counsel. Some analysts question the push for tighter sanctions that might help topple the regime, arguing that a collapsing North Korea with nuclear weapons would be more dangerous than a stable North Korea developing a nuclear arsenal.

Sources: Arms Control Association, Bloomberg


The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg News showed how money funneled through China makes it harder to apply sanctions to North Korea than it did to Iran. Bloomberg also explained why joining the nuclear club is an obsession of North Korea’s leaders.
  • A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
  • Siegfried S. Hecker’s Stanford University paper details his 2010 visit to nuclear facilities and concludes: “The only hope appears to be engagement.”
  • The Guardian’s interactive map of incidents between North and South Korea since the end of the Korean war, and a 2014 article on how North Korean defectors think the world should respond.
  • “North Korea has a serious image problem in South Korea,” says a 2015 survey on South Korean attitudes toward reunification by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies.
  • QuickTakes on sanctions and chemical weapons.

First published Feb. 8, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Sam Kim in Seoul at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at