North Korea’s Nukes

By | Updated July 4, 2017 11:01 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 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. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to deal with Kim's regime “very strongly.”

The Situation

North Korea has defied global condemnation by stepping up the pace of nuclear and missile tests. On July 4, the country said it successfully test-fired a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, a claim that would bring it closer to its aim of building a device capable of striking the continental U.S. In the weeks after South Korea elected a new president in May, Kim's military successfully test-fired medium-range missiles twice, saying they were capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead. Trump has warned that all options, including military ones, are on the table, and that the U.S. was prepared to act without China. But after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, Trump agreed to work with Beijing to find diplomatic solutions. He later warned of a “major, major conflict” should those solutions fail. In February, China suspended critical coal purchases from its neighbor while also pushing for talks to resume. The UN deepened sanctions against the country in 2016 after its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in a decade. Over objections from China, the U.S. has deployed a defense system in South Korea designed to take out North Korean missiles aimed at South Korea. The border between the two Koreas is lined with hundreds of thousands of troops. 

North Korea Isn't Backing Down

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 a deal freezing its program in exchange for help in building a civilian nuclear-energy program. After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, multinational disarmament talks produced another agreement to close nuclear facilities, this time in exchange for food and energy assistance. North Korea has since exited the talks and restarted its nuclear program. The country has been on a war footing since its creation in 1948, following decades of Japanese occupation. Its founder, Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader, invaded South Korea to start the 1950-53 Korean War. Believed to be in his early 30s, the Western-educated Kim Jong Un has carried out the majority of his country’s nuclear tests while railing about America’s “reckless moves” toward a war. North Korea, which is thought to have six to 20 nuclear 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. Some 1.3 million of North Korea’s 25 million people are in the active military, with reservists numbering 7.6 million. 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.

Source: Bloomberg


The Argument


Neither the carrot approach (aid and energy in return for concessions) nor stick (international sanctions and military exercises) has produced more than a temporary halt to 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 critics. For its part, China fears a collapse of the Pyongyang 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. A pre-emptive military strike might succeed in taking out North Korea’s known nuclear and missile sites, but the country has too many facilities spread out over too much terrain to destroy simultaneously. Even if North Korea reacted only with conventional weapons, its response, and South Korea’s counterattack, could produce enormous casualties. Other options include tightening economic sanctions or awaiting 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. His half-brother was murdered in Malaysia in February. Some analysts warn that a collapsing North Korea with nuclear weapons would be more dangerous than a stable North Korea with nuclear arms. 

Sources: Arms Control Association, Bloomberg


The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea's military buildup and a list of North Korea's 10 biggest provocations.
  • A Q&A on Trump's options for North Korea and another on why the U.S. missile system, known as Thaad, is angering China.
  • 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 writers of this QuickTake:
Sam Kim in Seoul at
Kanga Kong in Seoul at

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