Nuclear North Korea, Trump Empty Threats, and Ukraine

By Tymofiy Mylovanov, Kyiv School of Economics

On September 3, 2017 North Korea has allegedly carried out a large nuclear test. This is their largest to date. According to some Western media, the US response options are very limited. The Trump’s earlier threat to meet actions of North Korea with “fire and fury” is not considered serious. Indeed, what is Trump to do if North Korea has already acquired a capability to use nuclear weapons regionally?

Any military action by the United States will not be welcome by China. Alternatively, the US can tighten economic sanctions on North Korea. But since China is the main trading partner of North Korea, these sanctions to be effective would have to be put on Chinese companies. This would threaten a response by China. But the US economy is dependent on trade with China. So, in my opinion, the US administration essentially does not have any good options and the real decision maker will be China.

What does it have to do with Ukraine? The long-run independence of Ukraine depends on its ability to deter Russian and other countries’ aggression. In 1994, Ukraine has abandoned its 3rd largest arsenal of nuclear warheads in exchange for the Budapest memorandum and financial aid. In 2014, Ukraine did not have effective nuclear capabilities. Perhaps, if it had, the Russia would have been deterred from annexing Crimea and from invading the East of Ukraine.

Does it mean that Ukraine should try to restore its military nuclear capabilities? I very much doubt so.

Russia, the West, China and possibly every other country in the world does not want to see Ukraine go nuclear.

Restoring nuclear capabilities would be a long (and costly) process. The rest of the world would have plenty of time to unite with Russia in stopping Ukraine, to cut off financial and political support, and to strong arm our political leaders.

Nonetheless, the obvious lesson from the North Korea development stands. There are no friends in the international politics, just allies and enemies. Ukraine has to make itself valuable to its allies so that they have more incentives to defend it from its enemies. Opening markets for foreign investment is one important strategy to achieve it. Once the North American and EU corporations have sizeable interests on the territory of Ukraine, they will put pressure on their government to protect these interests and, by proxy, Ukraine’s sovereignty and stability.


(VoxUkraine has written previously on the issues of nuclear deterrence for Ukraine. Please see “Can Ukraine play MAD with Russia?”, “So, should Ukraine go MAD? Andrew Kydd vs VoxUkraine”, and “Ukraine and the limits of deterrence”.)