North Korea’s Nukes

By | Updated March 22, 2017 4:16 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

Kim Jong Un defied the international community in 2016 with North Korea's fourth and fifth nuclear tests in a decade then began 2017 by claiming his nation was in the “last stage” of preparations to test-fire an inter-continental ballistic missile. U.S. President Donald Trump, who once said he was open to inviting Kim to the U.S. for negotiations, disputed Kim's assertion in a tweet and criticized China for not doing enough to control its ally. In February, Kim's military fired a missile that flew 500 kilometers (310 miles), drawing rebukes from the UN and Trump, who vowed to deal with North Korea “very strongly.”  The missile test prompted China to ban coal imports from its neighbor until the end of the year while saying it was time to restart talks. Further missile tests followed in March, along with an assertion by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. would not rule out a preemptive strike on North Korea to counter the nuclear threat. North Korea has long entertained the ambition of producing a warhead compact enough to ride a missile capable of reaching North America. Defense analysts say its tests have probably advanced that aim. The UN extended sanctions against North Korea last year, as did the U.S., which agreed with South Korea to deploy a ballistic missile defense system, against China's wishes. The border between the two Koreas is lined with hundreds of thousands of troops. Kim received a possible boost at the end of 2016: the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has favored strong action against his regime. 


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 in his early 30s, 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.

Source: Bloomberg


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 critics in the U.S. including Trump. 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 the U.S. 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. 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 developing a nuclear arsenal. Meantime, a senior North Korean defector said in December that as long as Kim was in power, the country would never give up its nuclear weapons, “even if it’s offered $1 trillion or $10 trillion in rewards.”

Sources: Arms Control Association, Bloomberg


The Reference Shelf

  • 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 writer of this QuickTake:
Sam Kim in Seoul at

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