Assessing the North Korean Nuclear Threat

Are we truly in danger?

Pyongyang’s incessant incrementation of its nuclear arsenal proves to be quite concerning (from The Economist ®).

North Korea’s recent undertakings in the realm of Nuclear Proliferation have earned its labeling as the “world’s most worrisome nuclear threat”[1] in the eyes of the Obama administration. Personally, I believe that Pyongyang’s increasingly rash and bellicose rhetoric concerning its nuclear ambitions — coupled with North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear technology developments — make the regime worthy of such an incriminating categorization. Nonetheless, whilst North Korea may be a more pressing nuclear threat than other foes in said arena, the Pyongyang menace is not as acute in the grander scheme of the United States’ security concerns.

North Korea continues to increase its nuclear capabilities, in blatant dismissal of the heavy-handed United Nations sanctions being waged against the regime. North Korea allegedly tested a Hydrogen-Bomb on January 6 of the present year;[2] whilst the regime’s claim is being disputed — as initial intelligence gathered by the United States does not point to the undertaking of a full Hydrogen-Bomb test — American officials now believe that North Korea may have attempted to “test components of a Hydrogen-Bomb,”[3] which is quite worthy of attention. North Korea has also “expanded its uranium enrichment facility” at Yongbon and has recently “restarted a plutonium reactor;”[4] with said revitalized capacities, Dr. Siegfried Hecker asserted that North Korea would be in possession of 20 nuclear warheads by the year’s end.[5] The former endeavor may be quite revelatory: North Koreans switched to a prioritized production of Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) — over that of Plutonium — in 2010; whilst the reasons for such a decision remain unclear, Scott Sagan notes that using HEU would indeed “make miniaturization of new warheads for long-range missiles significantly easier,”[6] which brings us to the next point: this past week, North Korea claimed that it has successfully “miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit on ballistic missiles;”[7] albeit dubious, if North Korea’s allegation were genuine, the regime’s strike-range capacity would be significantly extended. Finally, in a sign that it will continue to dismiss the evermore stringent United Nations sanctions, Kim Jong-un recently announced that “a nuclear warhead explosion test… will be conducted in a short time” by the regime;[8] thus — even in the face of increased backlash — North Korea clearly maintains its ambition to continue to develop and modernize its nuclear arsenal. Alarmingly, the regime’s expanding nuclear pursuits have been coupled with greater strides in the realm of missile technology, thereby exacerbating the regime’s threat to American interests.

In a concomitant fashion to its enhanced nuclear endeavors, Pyongyang has recently sponsored multiple developments in regards to its missile capacities. On February 7 of the present year, Pyongyang launched what appeared to be a “very large missile”[9] closely resembling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM); according to intelligence officials, the missile launched by North Korea had a payload of around 500 kilograms — “closer to what might be required for a nuclear weapon” — and a range of as much as 13,000 kilometers, thereby granting the regime the ability to strike “any location in the continental US.”[10] Since then, North Korea has continued work on a “true ICBM, the KN08”[11] — to be supposedly equipped with the regime’s newly-miniaturized nuclear warheads — which should be regarded as a perturbing development by American officials. Furthermore — according to North Korean media outlets — Kim Jong-un recently witnessed a “successful test of heat-resistant materials that would enable a nuclear warhead to reenter the earth’s atmosphere;”[12] although its veracity is disputed by experts, said development would enhance North Korea’s ICBM capacities, allowing the regime to “execute a nuclear strike on US mainland.”[13] Moreover, according to American intelligence, North Korea is attempting to develop a “submarine-launched missile.”[14] Overall, it is quite worrisome indeed that North Korea’s recent nuclear ambitions have been matched by further developments of the regime’s missile capabilities. Both phenomena, coupled with the persistence of Pyongyang’s reckless maneuvers and boisterous remarks, definitely magnify the North Korean nuclear threat.

Not only has North Korea increased its nuclear and missile capacities, but the regime has maintained a threatening posture during the process, even in the face of increased international sanctions against it. Following the alleged Hydrogen-Bomb testing — and subsequent ICBM developments — Pyongyang threatened that “it could wipe out Manhattan by sending a hydrogen bomb on a ballistic missile to the heart of New York City.”[15] Similarly — in response to the heightened US-Republic of Korea military exercises in the Korean Peninsula — North Korea has launched multiple “short-range ballistic missiles into the sea”[16] and even threatened to make a “pre-emptive and offensive nuclear strike”[17] against its enemies. Moreover, North Korea recently seized the Kaesong industrial zone and the Mount Kumgang tourist area, which were formerly shared amongst North Korea and South Korea.[18] Whilst we should not take all of Pyongyang’s remarks as full certainties, the increasingly rash behavior of the regime invalidates the Waltzian notion that a state acquiring nuclear weapons would henceforth temper its behavior and “become more cautious.”[19] Pyongyang’s aggressive conduct is indeed quite alarming, in view of the regime’s sanctioning of increased nuclear and missile technology developments.

The United States should definitely consider North Korea as the world’s most worrisome nuclear threat, given that Iran and Russia — previously ranked in a similar light as Pyongyang — have not recently embarked on such vigorous (and anti-American) endeavors as North Korea. Concerning Iran, there has been “no evidence… that Iran had breached the terms”[20] of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA), which restricted its nuclear weapon capacities. Although Iran still has “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East,”[21] and is capable of launching a “three-stage rocket with a satellite on top ‘at any minute’,”[22] Tehran has displayed a newfound willingness for cooperation with the United States. One only need consider the recent case of the strayed American sailors — promptly returned by Iranian officials — to notice the current inclination towards a positive rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.[23] Similarly, not only are Russia and the United States tied to the New START Agreement,[24] but Moscow has also recently engaged in diplomatic talks with Washington concerning the situation in Syria.[25] Thus, Russia and Iran have avoided invigorated nuclear pursuits, and both Tehran and Moscow have also exhibited an inclination to cooperate with the United States, thereby reducing the threat said nations pose to American interests. Clearly, due to the reasons highlighted above, North Korea should be delineated as the most pressing nuclear threat for the United States.

Now, even though North Korea should be labeled as the most worrisome nuclear threat, Pyongyang’s nuclear capacities should not be categorized as the United States’ top security concern overall. For starters — in a seemingly unprecedented occurrence — China signed on to the “new U.N. sanctions” on North Korea, thereby increasing the pressure on Pyongyang to decelerate its nuclear ambitions.[26] Moreover, even Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz agree that the “tight command and control system” of the regime undermines the possibility of a rash nuclear strike by Pyongyang, as the North Korean leadership can “back down when confronted with strong reactions”, behavior which it has usually exhibited.[27] Finally, even if North Korea were to launch a nuclear strike, the United States has “built a missile shield in Alaska and California” capable of downing incoming North Korean rockets, according to Pentagon officials.[28] Overall, it is quite clear that the United States should prioritize other concerns above the North Korean nuclear threat; particularly, American intelligence officials seem to be more alarmed by the growing instability in the Middle East — propagated by the Islamic States’ prowess — and have even categorized cyber attacks as “the greatest threat to the US.”[29] Thus, although North Korea should be labeled as the most daunting nuclear threat for the United States, American officials should prioritize other more pressing issues, as Pyongyang’s probability of launching a successful nuclear strike is not quite elevated.


[1] Landler, Mark. 2016. “North Korea Nuclear Threat Cited by James Clapper, Intelligence Chief.” The New York Times, February 9. _r=0&mtrref=undefined&gwh=25C7F73563260F7D0333458BB58FBAFE&gwt=pay.

[2] Starr, Barbara. 2016. “North Korea may have tested components of a hydrogen bomb.” CNN, January 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Landler, “North Korea Nuclear Threat Cited by James Clapper, Intelligence Chief.” (See Footnote 1).

[5] Dr. Siegfried Hecker made said comments during a Special Guest Lecture for the class.

[6] Sagan, Scott and Kenneth Waltz. 2013. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company.

[7] Almasy, Steve and Euan McKirdy. 2016. “North Korea claims miniature nuclear warheads.” CNN, March 10.

[8] Mundy, Simon. 2016. “Kim Jong Un reveals plan for fifth North Korea nuclear bomb test.” Financial Times, March 15.

[9] Bennett, Bruce. 2016. “North Korea rocket launch: Why did Kim fire missile now?” BBC, February 7.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mundy, “Kim Jong Un reveals plan for fifth North Korea nuclear bomb test.” (See Footnote 8).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Landler, “North Korea Nuclear Threat Cited by James Clapper, Intelligence Chief.” (See Footnote 1).

[15] Fifield, Anna. 2016. “North Korea claims it could wipe out Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb.” The Washington Post, March 13.

[16] Kim, Jack and Ju-Min Park. 2016. “North Korea fires missiles, to ‘liquidate’ South Korean assets.” Reuters, March 10.

[17] Almasy and McKirdy, “North Korea claims miniature nuclear warheads.” (See Footnote 7).

[18] Kim and Park, “North Korea fires missiles, to ‘liquidate’ South Korean assets.” (See Footnote 16).

[19] Sagan and Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. (See Footnote 6).

[20] Landler, “North Korea Nuclear Threat Cited by James Clapper, Intelligence Chief.” (See Footnote 1).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Starr, Barbara. 2016. “U.S. official raises Iran rocket fears; Tehran denies tests are illegal.” CNN, March 15.

[23] Sharafedin, Bozorghmer and Phil Stewart. 2016. “Iran frees U.S. sailors swiftly as diplomacy smoothes waters.” Reuters, January 13.

[24] 2015. “Treat between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on measures for the further reduction and limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (NEW START).” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 2.

[25] Sanger, David E. 2016. “U.S. and Russia Announce Plan for Humanitarian Aid and a Cease-Fire in Syria.” The New York Times, February 11.

[26] Schmectman, Joel and Yeganeh Torbati. “Update — Obama slaps new sanctions on North Korea after tests.” Reuters, March 16.

[27] Sagan and Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. (See Footnote 6).

[28] Thompson, Mark. 2016. “Is It Time to Attack North Korea?” TIME, March 9.

[29] Landler, “North Korea Nuclear Threat Cited by James Clapper, Intelligence Chief.” (See Footnote 1).