The Significance of the North Korean Nuclear Threat

            North Korea is weak; its GDP per capita is only $1,800 and is ranked 197th in the world, it is a pariah state cut off from international markets, and in the preceding decade lost millions of its population in a famine.North Korea is strong; it has the fifth largest army in the world, weapons of mass destruction, and is able to openly provoke powerful states like Japan, South Korea, and the United States.  This disparity between quality of life and military resources is not a paradox, but rather a result of a unique set of priorities.  The military has always played an important role in the DPRK, but there has been a shift from Kim Il-Sung’s promises of tile roofs, white rice and meat soup to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un’s military first society.  Having a nuclear weapon, the ultimate military tool, in a military society is a source of legitimacy and power and needs to be understood in that context.

There are some who misunderstand the significance of the nuclear issue in North Korea and believe that North Korea’s nuclear program is a response to U.S. hostility.  Proponents of this view point to incidents like President George W. Bush’s bellicosity in labeling North Korea a part of the axis of evil.  Another major talking point for this belief is the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and the U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea.  North Korean officials also seek to encourage this view by stating that the root cause of the nuclear issue is American hostility and that for it to be resolved the U.S. is the party that will need to change their actions.2  To portray the DPRK as a victim of imperialist aggression is to ignore North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, the capture of the USS Pueblo and its sailors, the abduction of South Korean and Japanese civilians, The bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, the recent imprisonment of an 85 year old American tourist, and the many other North Korean provocations.  It is not credible to say that North Korea obtained a nuclear weapon out of fear of American hostility when America has shown incredible restraint in the face of many North Korean actions that could be considered acts of war.  North Korea’s nuclear program is a proactive strategy that has allowed them to control their relations with outside powers rather than a reactive strategy based on fears of American or South Korean hostility.

When Kim Jong-Il, and then Kim Jong-Un claim to be a military first society, and when the leaders all give themselves the title of general and devote such a large proportion of resources towards military aims, what reasons exist to believe that North Korea is secretly a peace loving society that truly wants better relations and is just acting in self defense.  Claims that the DPRK actions are merely defensive requires ignoring North Korean propaganda which portrays scenes like North Korean fighter planes attacking the U.S. Capitol or a giant North Korean fist crushing American soldiers.3  This reliance on military power and legitimacy is not randomly chosen. North Korea has a nuclear weapon and South Korea doesn’t.  North Korea is uniquely Korean and independent, South Korea hosts American troops and in wartime its own troops would be under the command of an American officer.  In almost every other measurement, such as health, standard of living, GDP, South Korea has far outpaced North Korea.  To believe that North Korea will give up its major source of strength and legitimacy for humanitarian aid or removal of sanctions is a projection of other states goals and ideas rather than a true reflection of the North Korean nuclear issue.  It also ignores that if North Korea is unable to differentiate itself from North Korea through military strength and nationalism it will lose its claim to being the legitimate Korean state.

One of the DPRK’s favorite threats is that it will turn its enemy’s cities into a sea of fire.  This threat is alarming because North Korea has the capability to act on it.  North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non Proliferation treaty in 2003 and has since conducted three nuclear tests.  Experts agree that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons that have the potential to kill tens of thousands of civilians if they were used against a city.  Aside from the initial deaths, any nuclear attack will cause terror, which would make evacuation and crisis management following an attack extremely difficult.  Also, it would be difficult to meet medical needs for the injured quickly and efficiently due to the chaos and enormity of the problem.  It is not clear what the full scale of the environmental fall out would be from a nuclear attack, but it is likely that dealing with the environmental consequences of such an act would be a long term problem. 4

In order to present an even greater threat, North Korea is in the process of developing better quality and longer range missiles.  It is not clear if North Korea has the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, but they are continuing to build and test new longer range missiles like the KN-08, an intercontinental ballistic missile that was first shown in a military parade in 2012.  If these new missiles are functional, they would have the capacity to threaten the western part of the United States.5  The KN-08 has not been tested, and some analyst believe that the ones shown in the parade are not real, but in 2012 North Korea successfully launched a satellite into space using the same sorts of technology that would be used in a missile launch.  As North Korea’s missile technology improves, the level of threat, and the range of countries under threat, will increase.

The North Korean nuclear threat is a serious issue, but it is important to realize that the Kim regime is not suicidal.  While there have been many instances where the Kim family has been portrayed as crazy, their actions in obtaining a nuclear weapon are rational.  While the North Korean military forces have long been larger than the South Korean ones, starting in the 1980’s South Korea’s military has been better equipped and better trained.6  Only through the possession of weapons of mass destruction like chemical, biological and nuclear weapons is North Korea able to claim military superiority.  It is no mystery that South Korea and Japan are under the U.S. nuclear security umbrella, and that any nuclear attack on these two most likely targets would result in swift massive retaliation.  So far the nuclear weapons have been used as a deterrent and a bargaining tool.

Throughout the six party talks on North Korean nuclear issues it has used its nuclear capabilities to get favorable outcomes from other countries.  During the negotiations, the United States made many concessions, such as lifting the freeze on $25 million that was seized from North Korean bank accounts from the Banco Delta Asia for suspicion of money laundering and the George W. Bush administration removing North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 2008.  Despite these concessions, North Korea has violated the terms of various agreements, and has continued to test nuclear weapons and missiles.  North Korea has continued to push Washington for a pact of non-aggression, bilateral talks, and normalized relations, and is using its nuclear program and threats against the United States and South Korea as a way to meet its objectives.7

                The North Korean nuclear threat is likely to be a long term security concern for its neighbors and for the United States.  It is very unlikely that the Kim regime will give up its nuclear weapons, especially for things such as food aid or a security guarantee.  For North Korea its nuclear weapons provide it with a source of legitimacy that South Korea doesn’t have, and it allows the regime to engage in a policy of nuclear blackmail.  As long as there is a possibility of a nuclear strike, North Korea will be able to deter America and South Korea from any actual hostile actions, or even retribution for illegal and provocative acts committed by Pyongyang.   It will also be a useful bargaining tool to obtain aid or other concessions from the U.S. and South Korea through offering deals that suggest it might give up its nuclear program, or stop testing missiles.  As long as the regime is secure it is unlikely that North Korea would actually engage in a nuclear attack, but if the regime feels like its existence is threatened it would be an especially dangerous time. In North Korean propaganda there are derisive mentions of how the USSR collapsed without firing a shot.8  Any attempt to manage the North Korean nuclear issue will have to deal with it as it actually is instead of believing any popular myths about the possibility of North Korea giving it up, or it being a defensive reaction to other states hostility.


            1. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Fact Book, Korea, North (accessed December 6, 2013); available from

2. Center for National Policy, Requisites for Resolving the Nuclear Issue, May 2006 (accessed December 7, 2013); available from

3. B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2010).

4. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., NAPSNet Special Reports,  Planning for the Unthinkable: Countering a North Korean Nuclear Attack and Management of Post-Attack Scenario, October 06, 2011 (accessed December 7, 2013); available from

5. Bill Gertz, “Inside the Ring: North Korean missiles deemed a serious threat to U.S.,” The Washington Times, November 6, 2013. (accessed December 7, 2013); available from

6. Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), 438.

7. Council on Foreign Relations, The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program, September, 2013 (accessed December 7, 2013); available from

8. B. R. Myers.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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