What Does a Nuclear North Korea Really Mean for the International System?

By Michael Dimino, Global Governance Analyst

Photo credit: KCNA


In the last four months, North Korea has transformed the strategic landscape of East Asia, achieving both its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and first thermonuclear weapon. This new reality for the United States, Japan, South Korea – and the wider liberal international order – must be confronted. For decades, like-minded free democracies have invested heavily in collective defense, extended deterrence, and non-proliferation; but now those fundamental pillars of the global system are at risk. If they buckle, it may trigger events that would effectively end the post-Cold War status quo – all without North Korea firing a shot.



In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear device at Punggye-ri with an estimated yield of just 0.5 to 2.0 kilotons. Comparatively, the 15-kiloton atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was several times more powerful. However, over the following 11 years, and spanning a succession of power from Kim Jong-Il to Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs matured into a credible threat. Despite an economy with a GDP of roughly $40 billion (USD) in purchasing power parity, Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship spends between 15.8% and 24% on military expenditures – the largest share of a country’s GDP spent on defense in the world.

As a result, the sophistication of these programs has outpaced responses by three consecutive U.S. presidential administrations. North Korea organized 44 known ballistic missile flight-tests from 1997 to 2011 under the reign of former ruler Kim Jong-Il, but utilized mostly older short and medium range liquid-fueled variants. None of the missile designs during this period could reach the United States. He also managed two nuclear tests during his leadership, but both were ultra-low yield detonations from devices unsuitable for actual deployment.

In only six years of Kim Jong-Un’s rulership, however, North Korea has already tested 94 missiles and four nuclear weapons. Kim oversaw the creation of modern indigenous missile projects with solid fuel, compact warheads, boosters, submarine-launch capabilities, and North Korea’s first genuine ICBM, the Hwasong-14/KN-20. His most recent nuclear test, with an estimated 140 kiloton yield, was North Korea’s largest to date, and was consistent with a thermonuclear device.

North Korea now has 30 to 60 nuclear weapons, and, for the first time, credible delivery systems to use those weapons against both the continental U.S. and its allies. Aside from further progress on warhead miniaturization, reentry vehicles, and multi-stage rockets – North Korea’s nuclear toolkit is complete.


Kim Jong-Un is rational, and views the acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, as well as the end of American escalation dominance in East Asia, as existential interests. Despite bellicose rhetoric, North Korea has continued to signal that Kim’s nuclear intentions are aimed at maintaining his government, separating America from South Korea, and deterrence rather than offensive first-use. As recently as October, Kim stated in public remarks that his nuclear arsenal is a “powerful deterrent… reliably guaranteeing [North Korea’s] sovereignty.”

The historical record also helped to shape this outlook. Ever since the armistice that halted the Korean War, which cost North Korea nearly twenty percent of its population, the Kim family has sought to guarantee regime survival against both Western foreign intervention and internal dissent at any cost. More recently, the Kim family closely studied the U.S.-led interventions in Libya (2011) and Iraq (2003). Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi gave up his nuclear weapons in 2003 and allowed IAEA inspectors into his country, hoping for closer ties with the U.S. and the removal of sanctions. President George W. Bush promised Libya that, “leaders who abandon [nuclear] weapons…will find an open path to better relations with the United States.” Seven years later, however, the United States led a military intervention against Qadhafi’s government, and witnessed his death at the hands of coalition-backed rebels. In Iraq, the U.S. decided to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear program in its infancy, which served as a casus belli for preemptive invasion. To North Korea, the lesson of both cases was clear: to prevent American-led regime change, acquire a robust nuclear program and never relinquish it.


North Korea’s Strategic Calculus

Kim’s strategic thinking is unlikely to change for at least two reasons. First, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have already survived decades of harsh but ineffectual economic sanctions, disarmament talks, international isolation, famine, cyberwarfare attacks, and “strategic patience,” so there is little reason to believe that Kim will voluntarily denuclearize – let alone at the height of his program’s accomplishments. Last summer, Pyongyang also experienced something of an economic boom – with food production returning to self-sufficiency levels, record-setting Chinese trade, evidence of lower dependency on foreign reserves, and increased public infrastructure spending. Utilizing close ties with China, emergent private enterprise, and effective illicit markets, the North Korean economy is much more resilient than conventional metrics suggest. Kim’s “byungjin” policy of simultaneous and coequal nuclear and economic development appears to remain a viable one.

Second, China’s economic and diplomatic support shows no signs of dissipating. Beijing is Pyongyang’s only significant ally, and is the most important reason Kim is able to stay the course. China alone accounts for more than 84% of North Korea’s total trade volume, and much of the Kim regime’s food, energy, and construction materials. By comparison, North Korea’s next largest trading partner, India, accounts for a mere 3.3% of its total trade. If the U.S., EU, South Korea and Japan pressure China into truly cutting off that support, North Korea would likely run out of resources to continue expanding its nuclear and missile programs. Because North Korea is isolated from most global finance and trade, Western countries have no serious economic leverage over North Korea. A unified crackdown on China – though risky and improbable – would carry significant leverage, as China’s economy relies heavily on European and American central banks, investment, and financial services. However, the very country providing for North Korea’s stability is also the country that America is most apprehensive to seriously confront.

North Korea is also watching the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the Iran Deal), which could impact Kim Jong-Un’s strategic thought. Should the United States fully renege on the deal – in the absence of any proof that Iran has failed to comply – Kim will have more reason to distrust American diplomacy. If American foreign policy in the region continues to be impulsive, he may find that such volatility makes negotiating with the West untenable; especially when deferring to China on critical matters like trade and security promises more durability.

Ballistic Missile Defense

The deployment of American ballistic missile defenses (BMD) to the Korean Peninsula, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor platform, are unlikely to alter North Korea’s posture. For one, both Pentagon assessments and defense experts are unclear as to the actual battlefield efficacy of both ground-based midcourse interceptors and theatre-level missile defense systems. Only a handful of live-fire BMD tests have been conducted, and in highly choreographed settings. Additionally, the deployment of these systems to South Korea has prompted China to place intense political pressure on President Moon Jae-in, which has strained relations with the United States. Though THAAD’s missiles cannot be used offensively, China claims that the powerful AN/TPY-2 radar accompanying the system threatens its security, and is determined to see the missiles removed from the peninsula. BMD is an unproven single-domain solution to a multifaceted geopolitical problem, and is not presently an effective counter to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Implications for the Liberal International Order

The major implications of a fully-realized nuclear North Korea for the liberal international order are the collapse of extended deterrence, the risk of widespread nuclear proliferation that would follow, and the erosion of America’s agenda-setting power in East Asia.

De-coupling and Nuclear Proliferation

By testing ballistic missiles, North Korea signals to Japan and South Korea the credible capacity to decimate either country. As neither state possesses nuclear weapons, Japan and South Korea rely upon America’s nuclear arsenal – the extended deterrence “umbrella” – for protection. For years, American nuclear superiority in East Asia has prevented a North Korean first-strike against South Korea or Japan; and North Korea only had the capacity to strike regionally. But if North Korea gains sufficient capability to strike the United States itself, the deterrence calculus changes. If the U.S. knows North Korea can hit its mainland, America becomes less likely to aid South Korea or Japan in the event of crisis, war, or nuclear use because its own cities will be imperiled. In this scenario, America is effectively “de-coupled” from its Japanese and South Korean allies, as it can no longer credibly ensure their security.

South Korea and Japan would remain U.S. allies, but would almost certainly be forced to acquire their own nuclear weapons to regain a credible deterrent against North Korea. This would activate a new wave of nuclear proliferation, and ipso facto, the potential for a nuclear arms race and unchecked security competition across the region. America resisted de-coupling by the Soviet Union during the Cold War via effective assurance messaging, a valuable regional alliance structure, and robust political cohesion with its Western European allies. In East Asia, the U.S. has none of those benefits.

The broader implication of North Korea proving it can deliver a payload to the United States – and Japan or South Korea then nuclearizing in turn – is that other governments “fence-sitting” on the question of nuclear weapons (e.g. Iran, and possibly Turkey) could also seek programs. The friction this would cause between indispensable U.S. allies would result in the first major rebalancing of world politics since the end of the Cold War. America would have to decide how far it would go to prevent adversaries – and allies – from going nuclear. This alone means the development of North Korean ICBMs could undo a half-century of work establishing international norms against nuclear proliferation, and building trust in America’s nuclear umbrella. Experts in Germany and France have indicated that “a serious loss of trust in the U.S. umbrella” would likely trigger indigenous European nuclear weapons programs. Once the international consensus on nuclear weapons collapses, it will be nearly impossible to rebuild.