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What Do We Know About North Korea's Nukes?

Updated: Mar 25

Seventy-six years ago, humanity witnessed the debut of the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Boy” together striking their first, and only, victim to date: Japan. Despite seeing the calamitous effects — or perhaps because of the devastating impacts — numerous countries started following the United States and developing their own nuclear capabilities. 


Given the disastrous implications of nuclear weapons, treaties such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) have been created to limit its spread. However, as we’ve come to see in recent years, the incentive to obtain nuclear weapons can far outweigh approval from the international community. North Korea is one such case.


In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT and started to develop nuclear capabilities. As of now, North Korea is armed with missiles capable of reaching the United States and is estimated to have assembled 20-30 nuclear warheads according to a 2018 Arms Control Association fact sheet.


A 2022 Arms Control Association fact sheet relays — condemning North Korea’s nuclear activities — that the United Nations Security Council has passed nine major resolutions that impose sanctions on the country, and the United States has implemented unilateral sanctions. Yet, despite consistent economic and political pressure, Kim Jong Un has continued testing nuclear weapons and building up North Korea’s arsenal. 


To understand why sanctions haven’t led to — and won’t lead to — denuclearization, we must examine the motivations to nuclearize in the first place. According to Klingner, a senior research fellow on Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation, though there are several interconnected incentives, the most significant motive for Pyongyang is regime survival. Nuclear weapons, after all, deter foreign attacks and aggression. 


Since North Korea’s conventional capabilities are deficient compared to neighboring countries, Pyongyang sees itself as a “shrimp amongst whales.” Nukes are considered necessary for North Korea to survive on the global stage.  


Klingner also states the regime views nuclear weapons as a way to gain equal status with the United States and formal recognition as a nuclear-weapon state. In fact, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho once declared to the UN General Assembly that Pyongyang’s goal is to “establish the balance of power with the U.S.” 


When a nuclear arsenal is directly connected to North Korea's survival, denuclearization could be seen as an existential threat to Pyongyang. It is no wonder that sanctions have utterly failed to convince Pyongyang to backtrack. 


And sanctions have not come without consequences, hindering humanitarian aid and putting thousands of children at risk of starvation, according to Nebehay from the American Friends Service Committee. It is imperative that sanctions, which serve only to destroy the lives of civilians, are lifted. At a minimum, sanctions should be modified to allow for the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.  


The complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is unattainable and idealistic. Instead, we should begin nuanced diplomacy to reach an agreement that can control and monitor Pyongyang’s nuclear developments.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Fact Sheets & Briefs. "Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea." Arms Control Association, 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/northkoreaprofile


Fact Sheets & Briefs. "UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea." Arms Control Association, 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/UN-Security-Council-Resolutions-on-North-Korea


Klingner, Bruce. “Why Does North Korea Want Nukes?” The Heritage Foundation, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/insider/summer-2018-insider/why-does-north-korea-want-nukes


Nebehay, Stephanie. “60,000 North Korean Children May Starve, Sanctions Slow Aid: UNICEF.” Reuters, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-un-children/60000-north-korean-children-may-starve-sanctions-slow-aid-unicef-idUSKBN1FJ1FL

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