Nuclear Capable North Korea – Are the Risks Becoming Uncontrollable?

Most experts have converged on the belief that North Korea (DPRK) now has (a) the ability to produce nuclear warheads, (b) the ability to produce carrier systems (medium and long-range rockets), and, (c) the willingness – under certain circumstances, to use these weapons. No one is delighted by this, not even also China, which always carefully weighs the options of a DPRK collapsing- due to serious sanctions or a military strike against having the nukes available. In Asia, there are conflicting assessments, as there are in Western capitals.

The options include:

— accepting the DPRK as a member of the nuclear club, even without the safeguards of formal restraint;

— sending a clear signal, such as crippling sanctions and/or a nuclear strike;

— muddling through, in the manner of the last 15 years of policy, with the result we described above.

What’s your take?

-Klaus Segbers

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  1. Alexei Voskressenski 1 week ago

    At first there is no 100% proofs that DPRK has a long range and not a medium range ballistic missile and the quality of the warhead that enables it to be delivered intercontinentally. Even if this is so, we must admit that DPRK is progressing at quick pace and can have these capabilities in the near future. That makes viable a Russian and Chinese proposal to discuss the situation on a 6-party round-table. The next question if DPRK will agree to discuss, what may be an exchange of concessions to make a Korean peninsula a nuclear-free zone at the same time giving DPRK a guarantee against an American preemptive strike or an external attempt to change the regime.

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  2. Stefan Engert 1 week ago

    North Korea`s (NK) desire for nuclear weapons is the most dangerous (traditional) security challenge in the Asian region. The situation has escalated in a way that a military intervention – even a preemptive nuclear strike – seems to have become the most likely option and something that is increasingly presented as a policy “without any alternative”. It is not that the US has not used other conflict management tools to solve the conflict. Yet, as long as China does not fully commit itself to the sanctions regime, this option remains ineffective – at least until now. What is also clear is that Pyongyang will not give up on its nukes as it views the program as the ultimate safeguard against a possible US intervention (regime security) – the Iraqi example of 2003 is telling in that respect. And this is where we go round in circles. India, Pakistan and Israel also developed nuclear capabilities “illegally”; so what’s the problem with NK? Compared to the other cases mentioned above, it is only a problem if one assumes that NK is a predatory state and that Pyongyang will meet its aggressive words with deeds e.g. by attacking the US, South Korea and / or Japan. As long as this is not de facto the case, I suggest increasing the effectiveness of the sanctions regime by bringing China to return to the negotiating table. Any other policy is likely to end in war too quickly. Politics is the art of the feasible and war is not the continuation of politics by other means.

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  3. Dmitri Mitin 1 week ago

    Ritualistic posturing and protestations aside, the policy of muddling amounts to a de facto acceptance of nuclear and missile-ready DPRK. It is also the least risky and most obvious logic for responding to the maturing warhead and delivery capabilities of North Korea. Frustratingly, “more of the same” approach is reactive, incapable of reversing Pyongyang’s capabilities, and, arguably, not sufficient for curtailing further improvements in weapons design. But it is the best of the bleak options that we have in dealing with the North. It is reasonable to assume that DPRK would not disarm under diplomatic and economic duress, while forced disarmament is not a serious proposition. Threats of crippling sanctions or unleashing “fire and fury” for continuing provocations lack credibility. We are thus stuck with containment, the oscillating sanctions regime, attempts at triangular diplomacy via China, but, above all, deterrence. A threat of retaliation will not rule out North Korea’s brinkmanship, but should be enough for keeping it at bay.

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  4. Shen Dingli 6 days ago

    There have been three assumptions in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. First, we are able to contain it, one way or another. Second, along this line, proper sanctions could reverse North Korea’s nuclear development. Third, as North Korean leader could be irresponsible, we could not accept a nuclear DPRK.

    What about all of them false? First, so far we have surely all overestimated our will and capacity to contain DPRK’s nuclear ambition. Second, we have all underestimated DPRK’s will and capacity to endure all possible international sanctions. I am pretty sure that even if the world, primarily China, cuts all links to Pyongyang, the DPRK would, rather than reverse its nuclear path, only add more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to its strategic arsenal.

    Therefore, all are left with no choice but live with a nuclear North Korea. Since there is no realistic option of military preemption against the DPRK without generating an even more unacceptable harm on any first attacker, such choice is automatically closed. Then, as sanctions would never work, whatever formality they may take, how could one not to try to live with a nuclear DPRK?

    The third assumption, that a nuclear DORK may be irresponsible, is neither necessary right nor wrong. Understanding the DPRK is kind of surrealist in the world, the ultimate purpose of its nuclear development is logically to defend its regime survival. If this is true, the DPRK would not necessarily be irresponsible in initiating a nuclear first strike, which commits itself a suicide through delivering a nuclear damage against others.

    As a conclusion, living with a nuclear DPRK, while politically pretending not to accept it. Meantime, engaging the regime to shape it with proper sense of responsibility, especially through nuclear self-restrain.

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  5. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 3 days ago

    Since the end of the Cold War red lines became more and more blurred up to non-existent as the recent example of Syria has shown. It are however not only red lines, but also clear-cut rules, that are instrumental for a stable international system and which fell prey to international political adventures of recent years such as Western involvement in Libya and Iraq. Neither American threats, nor its promises will be taken seriously by the DPRK’s government. As military strike is not an option, the most acceptable way appears to be “muddling through” as hard as possible. This would include insisting on implementation of anti-DPRK sanctions including sanctioning China for non-compliance, limiting DPRK’s elites’ access to Western luxury goods and scaling back development and humanitarian cooperation This would include taking into account fatalities in North Korea like it was the case in 1994, but it might be the only way of avoiding uncontrolled damage North Korea might cause if it becomes a full-fledged nuclear power.

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4 Comments

  1. Hossein 1 week ago

    I have studied the North Korean regime and its nuclear program in the last 3 years carefully. what is now clear for me is that they wont stop their nuclear and missile program until their security is assured and North Korea is accepted as a military power. The main problem is that Korean peninsula is still in war condition. still no peace agreement after more than 7 decades. The sanctions never work as they did not for Islamic Republic of Iran. The US and other powers have to come to the conclusion that, they should respect other nations and their conditions. You cant put nuclear warheads targeting a nation, refuse to sign a peace agreement and expect them to do nothing. Every body knows that the very first need of a country is security and for North Korea, their military program (sungun) has become their security assurance. The only solution for the Korean crisis is mutual respect and negotiation. If the US wants to do the same to North Korea as they did to Libya or try to collapse the regime, it would be a mere dream. A second Korean War would result in World War 3. Even the successful regime collapse theory would be a great disaster and the whole region would be affected. I conclude :
    1. The old cease fire should become a permanent and actual peace agreement.
    2.North Korea should be accepted as a normal member of international society.
    3. The US should prove its reliability. it has proven the reverse in previous negotiation with North Korea and now in JCPOA.
    4. The six party talks should be resumed as soon as possible.

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  2. majid torkaman 1 week ago

    there are so much to talk about when it comes to NK. the history of this outrages conflict shows that under different administration in US we experienced policies that couldn’t leash Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un. yet there is less than few hope that US under Trump could lead a mature policy in order to decrease tensions and then start to deal with the fact that the Kim Jong-un doesn’t tweet and nor read his tweets in a way that he think.
    Kim is probably aware of US ultimate goal in korean peninsula and they’re not willing to get along with US, given the fact that he describe his regime’s identity with being anti-us nuclear power.

    At this complicated situation we have to think out of box and put aside the obsolete options. as Putin correctly mentioned that North Korea would rather ‘eat grass’ than give up nukes, so sending signals, such as crippling sanctions and or a nuclear strike have not been useful signals.

    The option is to give proper options to NK which require US to stop the deployment of a missile shield in South Korea and end military exercises with the country and move the way for multilateral talks with NK.

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  3. Stefan Engert 4 days ago

    Trump’s speech at the UN yesterday

    I am still baffled: Did he really say that? Total destruction?! During my time as a political scientist, I never heard a speech in the UN like this. Not to speak of the discourtesy to the Secretary General and the General Assembly only to arrive for HIS speech and afterwords leave again as if only HIS words mattered. A demonstration for a non-interest in any kind of dialogue. He also issued the UN a kind of non-confidence vote in passing by stating that the sovereign nation state only (implicitly meaning: rather than international organizations such as the forum he spoke in front of) are in charge in international relations and thereby disregarded the achievements of international cooperation and norms development of the UN and others over the last 70 years. And then, of course, his use of language that makes me as a German citizen in particular shiver anytime a political decision maker uses ‘Sportpalast’-terminology including words such as “total” or ‘all-out’ based on seemingly no-alternative-assumptions: The US would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”? Firstly, there are always other choices – we have not yet entered the stage in which the sanctions-alternative is already discredited or verified as ineffective (China!) and therefore only a pre-emptive strike could hinder a direct attack on South Korea, Japan or the US. The latter is “not true”, just to use a typical wording of Trump. Secondly, Trump is talking about North Korea as if nobody lived there but Kim-Jong un – we are discussing the possible annihilation of 25 million people or what else is meant with “total” destruction of a country?! In my view, an irresponsible careless choice of words and therefore a dangerous linguistic limitation of the political options to come. Trump unnecessarily securitized and escalated the North Korean conflict to the next stage. Finally remarkable: the tower man’s unnecessary rebuffing of the Iran (and any other state that worked so hard for the nuclear deal): If you don’t accept diplomatic alternatives to a military strike, how do you get other states to disarm their nuclear capabilities if not by negotiation, deliberation and forging of common interests, absolute gains and multilateral trust? Trump’s view of the world clearly is dangerously ‘realist’ – meaning the IR school: security, survival, relative gains and military means.

    Dear Mr. President, rationality and reason first, self-righteousness second. By the way, that also concerns you, of course, Mr. Kim-Jong un.

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  4. Joshua Lorenzo Newett 18 hours ago

    Sanctions have largely been ineffective at reining in the rouge state and it appears as if they’ll remain so, which leaves two options; a military confrontation or a reexamination of US foreign policy toward the DPRK.

    If the United States and its allies were to mount a military response to the DPRK’s program it would be met with little success and have all the ingredients needed for a large scale catastrophe; weapons of mass destruction(chemical, biological and nuclear), opposing ideologies, super-powers, a history of violence between the parties and densely populated cities on a small peninsula. During the first Korean War “American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea — that is, essentially on North Korea –including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of World War II”.(http://apjjf.org/-Charles-K.-Armstrong/3460/article.html) This indiscriminate bombing failed to obliterate the DPRK or bring about a clear cut victory. As Bruce Cumings points out in The Korean War, the DPRK was reduced to little more than a smoking pile of rubble after the first Korean war yet the country survived. Any preemptive military strike on the peninsula would almost certainly flare up into a much larger conflict which could result in a catastrophic loss of life. In addition to nuclear weapons it is known that the DPRK has a large stockpile of chemical weapons and a massive conventional army. They would prove even stronger with China’s backing, which they would most certainly have if a preemptive strike were to be carried out on the DPRK.

    The only sane and rational choice is to accept the DPRK as a nuclear state and hope they treat weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent and not a way to cleanse the peninsula of ‘Yankees’ and their sympathizers. As B.R. Meyers points out in The Cleanest Race the DPRK is based upon a pure blood, race based nationalism, or minjok(민족). People of the DPRK see the ROK as an abomination, a perverse place were foreign influence, and blood, is ruining not just a culture but a race and a sacred land. The people of the DPRK view the world through a Hobbesian lens; all different, all are enemies. Koreans,(both in the DPRK and ROK) call all non-Koreans wegoogen( 외국인). There are only two groups pf people, ‘us’ and ‘them’. The only hope for a peaceful resolution on the peninsula is to accept a nuclear DPRK and hope their view of the outside world changes over time.

    The situation on the Korean peninsula begs the larger question; what happens after nuclear proliferation? Are we to believe that states are to exist in a perpetual state of assured mutual destruction until the end of time, the Sword of Damocles dangling over the globe? States will either have to explore new ways to exert dominance over one another(an ongoing process), destroy each other (and possibly civilization in the process) or reassess the nature of their relationships to one another; states cannot be forever locked in a Hobbesian existence. As Alexander Wendt said “anarchy is what states make of it”.

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