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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.

Erosion of a Liberal Order: A Nuclear North Korea Bolsters China’s International Legitimacy

While de-coupling and nuclear proliferation would increase the risk of security competition and conflict – threatening an “open and loosely rule-based” liberal international order directly – it would also eliminate the foundational incentives for America’s allies to adhere to that order. If North Korea’s nuclear program succeeds in upending the norms of a U.S.-led system, China’s push to advance its own global leadership and grand strategy will be bolstered at the expense of American structural power. China’s emerging (and less liberal) approach to consensus-building and agenda-setting is reliant upon rapidly expanding geopolitical and economic clout. The features of this approach are defined by initiatives such as President Xi’s “One Belt One Road” project, the creation of “counter-institutions” like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which weaken American hegemony, and territorial claims in the South China Sea which are illegal under international law. In the absence of traditional norms and U.S. defense guarantees, Japan and South Korea would face especially intense pressure to open themselves not only to nuclear proliferation – but to a Chinese-led international system. As economic ties to China deepen and defense capabilities undergo further relative decline, middle powers and U.S. allies across the Asia-Pacific will face shifting incentives and disincentives associated with these two competing “orders.” As a result, many countries in East Asia could undertake highly unilateral or China-centric foreign policies in the decades to come.


Any action taken to address the threat North Korea presents should aim to stabilize the region, prevent the de-coupling of America from its allies, and restore confidence in the international consensus against nuclear proliferation. Every viable coercive policy tool has been used against Kim’s dictatorship, and each has failed.

A military solution with acceptable outcomes does not exist, and should not be pursued. Any such scenario would effectively end the international status quo, and likely involve a global war with millions of casualties, the decapitation of major U.S. allies, and potential nuclear attacks on the American mainland. Surgical strikes also cannot be considered against North Korea because there are major gaps in U.S. targeting intelligence of Kim’s nuclear sites and submarines. Any attack that allows North Korea to retain a second-strike capability is simply not viable. Likewise, covert action to eliminate Kim would only end in dozens of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of disorganized and competing military and political factions. Given the existing level of North Korean nuclear capabilities, no strike option would be a “preventive” one. Short of nuclear war, North Korea is unlikely to be coerced into giving up its arsenal.

Now is the right time for the United States to consider new strategies and solutions. If North Korea’s nuclear weapons cannot be taken away, the international community must start developing plans to keep them monitored, and from growing in number. One such option is the “Ramo Plan,” in which the U.S. and its allies would – for a specified period of time – agree to freeze all nuclear arsenals, end development testing, and open all weapons to inspection, then invite North Korea to join the agreement as a nuclear state. Proponents of the plan argue that this would satisfy China’s core security concerns, and form a much wider economic coalition to contain North Korea.

United States, Japan, and South Korea

The U.S., Japan, and South Korea should spearhead incentive mechanisms to integrate North Korea into the global community. If America is to deal with North Korea in a way that preserves the international order, then it must attempt to enmesh the Kim regime in that order. North Korea has been successful precisely because it is removed from much of the global economy, and most international organizations. Therefore, the usual mechanisms for punishing “bad” actors cannot be applied effectively to a country like North Korea. A nuclear regime beholden to a Western global system is much easier to contain and discipline than one outside of it. For this reason, the United States should explore North Korea’s next offer to negotiate, as conditionalizing diplomacy upon Kim’s immediate denuclearization only makes the Korean Peninsula more unstable.

The United States should also pursue strategies of containment, deterrence, and diplomacy. During the Cold War, NATO provided an effective regional collective defense framework that helped America manage its adversaries and prevent nuclear use, and the same can be true in East Asia. The U.S. should consider partnering with likeminded allies in the region to join or create such a body, looking to existing democratic institutions in Asia – like ASEAN – for a blueprint. While imperfect, ASEAN has managed decades of regional integration, continues to promote collective security, pursues pro-growth economic policies, and routinely resists Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Today, America’s national interests are as “Pacific” as they are “Atlantic,” but the U.S. has not approached alliance-building in Asia the way it has in Europe. Given the mounting geopolitical significance of Asia, constructing such an organization now would be the most substantial investment the United States has made to ensure the continuity of the post-World War II liberal international order in several decades.

Japan and South Korea should continue to harden their defenses, and rely on better proven missile defense platforms such as the Aegis-equipped Kongo-class destroyer and the PAC-3 upgrade to the MIM-104F Patriot system. South Korea, specifically, has just two active air defense artillery brigades, and should consider adding a third. Both countries must expand the size and readiness of their air and naval forces, and pursue conventional regional strike capabilities as a deterrent against North Korea. Japan and South Korea are limited in how much they can affect America’s strategy in East Asia, but both states should drive U.S. policymakers away from military solutions.

European Union

The EU can play a complementary role by expanding its regional cooperation and trust-building initiatives in Asia. The EU’s policy of “critical engagement” with North Korea should continue, as it facilitates direct dialogue between Pyongyang and the West. Germany, the UK, and France all played critical roles in the Iran Deal, and should undertake similar ones pursuing a political settlement with North Korea. The EU should also work to conclude Framework Participation Agreements (FPAs) with Japan and other East Asian states. In 2014, South Korea became the first Asian country to join an FPA, enabling South Korean military participation in EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) crisis management operations. Improving security relationships with smaller but important powers in the Asia-Pacific, like Singapore and Indonesia, further stacks the regional balance of power against North Korea, and limits the reach of Kim’s illicit markets.


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