North Korea’s Nukes

By | Updated July 19, 2016 9:32 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 defied the international community by staging its fourth nuclear test in a decade and launching a long-range rocket in early 2016. Defense analysts are skeptical about the government’s claim to have detonated a full-fledged hydrogen bomb. But they agree that the tests advanced the country’s ambition of making a warhead compact enough to ride a missile capable of reaching North America. The UN responded in March by extending its sanctions against North Korea to target banks, mineral exports and arms sales. The U.S. had already bolstered its own sanctions and called off nascent peace talks. South Korea has vowed “powerful” measures to force North Korea to drop its nuclear ambitions and agreed with the U.S. 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. China supported the UN measures but said they shouldn’t be interpreted as a “marching order” for further confrontation. After the sanctions were tightened, North Korea fired some shorter-range ballistic missiles, vowed to conduct another nuclear test, sentenced a U.S. student to 15 years’ hard labor and threatened South Korea with “special” military steps. Kim also said he would only use nuclear weapons if his country came under a nuclear attack. And North Korea threatened to take  “all necessary countermeasures” if the U.S. didn't retract new sanctions imposed on its leader. 

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 half his country’s four 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.

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