January 18, 2019
January 18, 2019
How South Korea can respond to a nuclear-armed Pyongyang
How South Korea can respond to a nuclear-armed Pyongyang
Seoul may need to take its self-defense into its own hands
January 2nd, 2018

North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test in January 2016, with what it claimed was an “experimental hydrogen bomb.” In September 2017, Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test, announcing that it had successfully detonated a “hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).”

The device was also said to have an explosive power approximately ten times greater than that of the U.S. atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima during the Pacific War.

According to Pyongyang, the newly developed hydrogen bomb was “a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke with great destructive power that can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP [Electro Magnetic Pulse] attack according to strategic goals.”

It claimed to have the ability to execute an EMP attack that could disrupt (obliterate) enemy command and control (C2) functions, air defense networks, and computer networks within the range of a few kilometers to a few hundred kilometers. If Pyongyang’s claims are proven to be true, it would mean that the Kim Jong Un regime is now in possession of a new type of weapon that could be equally menacing.

North Korea test-launched two ICBMs in July 2017, as Kim Jong Un had announced that it would in his speech six months earlier. Furthermore, in November of the same year, Pyongyang successfully test-fired an ICBM capable of reaching the White House. Following the test, Kim Jong Un declared publicly that his regime “had realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force and becoming a rocket power.”

Immediately after its third ICBM test-launch, Pyongyang released a statement claiming that the Hwasong-15 was a “missile capable of carrying a super-large heavy nuclear warhead that could strike anywhere in the U.S. mainland.”  

Based on the photos of Hwasong-15 released by the North Korean media, many analysts have concluded that North Korea’s ICBMs have the same level of sophistication as those of the U.S., China, and the former Soviet Union, and that they were large enough to deliver nuclear warheads.

In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong Un said Pyongyang “finally” has a “strong and reliable deterrent against a war which cannot be reversed by any force or anything” | Photo: KCTV

Although there are still doubts about whether North Korea has secured the technology that would allow its ICBMs to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, it is generally agreed that the country has made major strides in its ICBM technology.

Although North Korea has flaunted its ICBM capabilities by test-firing missiles such as the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, it has not been able to show conclusively that its missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. As such, there is a possibility that Pyongyang may launch a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean in order to push Washington into recognizing its status as a nuclear state.

However, if the device explodes mid-air (at an altitude of 100km) above the Pacific, the blast could cause severe damage to the islands in the area. Thus, it is likely that Pyongyang may launch its hydrogen bomb into space to an estimated altitude of 500 to 1000km above the Earth in order to test its EMP capabilities.

In this case, there is a chance that the pulse may take out satellites as well as cause commercial airplanes to crash. Therefore, in the event that it decides to carry out a nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean, the regime may face the most severe isolation it has ever seen since its establishment.


Unlike the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, which demanded denuclearization as a precondition for dialogue, President Moon Jae-in has advocated a phased and comprehensive approach in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue.

He proposed a two-step solution at a press conference with Blue House correspondents on June 28, 2017, saying “a nuclear freeze is the way into dialogue, and the exit of that dialogue will be the complete shutdown of nuclear programs as well as the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”

Along similar lines, he delivered a speech on July 6 at Berlin’s Old City Hall upon the invitation of the Körber Foundation, in which he claimed that he will “in cooperation with the international community, work towards a comprehensive solution of the current issues on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, including the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program and establishing a peace regime, easing North Korea’s security and economic concerns, and improving North Korea-U.S. and North Korea-Japan relations.”

However, North Korea has been unwavering in its position that it will never participate in talks negotiating nuclear freezes, nuclear dismantlement, or establishment of a peace system on the Korean peninsula.

The Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the Workers’ Party of Korea, ran a political commentary in its July 15 edition that said, “as a responsible nuclear power, we [the DPRK] do not intend to use a nuclear weapon unless our sovereignty is infringed upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes.”

It also added that the regime “will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for global denuclearization.” It also reaffirmed Pyongyang‘s uncompromising stance, saying “The current South Korean chief executive has engaged in absurd sophistry, claiming that ‘South Korea and the U.S. have agreed on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that guarantees the security of the regime in North Korea‘ or that if we [the DPRK] give up our program, it will, in cooperation with the international community, strive to “establish a peace regime,“ but it is already too late.“

Since his inauguration speech on May 10, 2017, President Moon has continuously stressed his determination to revive inter-Korean dialogue.

At an event held on June 15 to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the North-South Joint Declaration, President Moon reaffirmed his willingness to engage in dialogue with Kim Jong Un, saying: “I clearly state that we are willing to engage in unconditional dialogue if North Korea ceases further provocations with its nuclear weapons and missiles. I urge North Korea to respond. I am willing to sit face to face and put our heads together to discuss how to implement the existing agreement between the two Koreas.”

Moon has shown more flexibility on the North Korean nuclear issue than his predecessors | Photo: Blue House

Moreover, in a speech delivered in Berlin on July 6 of the same year, he said, “I am ready to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea at any time at any place, if the conditions are met and if it will provide an opportunity to transform the tension and confrontation on the Korean peninsula. We can place on the dialogue table all issues of interest between the South and the North, including the nuclear issue and the peace treaty, and discuss peace on the Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean cooperation.”

Kim Jong Un has been more aggressive than his predecessors in conducting military activities

In response to President Moon’s proposal to hold a North-South summit, an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun made it clear that Pyongyang will not discuss the nuclear issue at an inter-Korean summit, saying “though he [President Moon] trumpets dialogue and cooperation as if he would do something big… The ‘right condition’ he speaks of means that the North should clarify its intention to abandon nukes, and the ‘appropriate condition’ denotes the approval of the U.S., ‘which has adhered to a tough line on the DPRK, for inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.'”


The most important aspects to consider in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue are Pyongyang’s position and policy, as well as the potential leverage the international community could have over the regime. However, to date, the South Korean government and the international community have in general failed to address North Korea’s concerns and demands.

Pyongyang issued two statements in April and June 2009 respectively through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, vowing “never again to participate in” the Six-Party Talks and “to never give up its nuclear program under any circumstances.” The isolated regime has continued its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles since.

In particular, Kim Jong Un has been more aggressive than his predecessors in conducting military activities and has accelerated the nation’s rush toward nuclear weapons and missiles.

While the DPRK carried out two nuclear tests during Kim Jong Il’s seventeen-year reign, Kim Jong Un undertook four nuclear tests in the six years that he has been in power, and test-fired three ICBMs in 2017 alone.

Consequently, it is predicted that North Korea will be able to complete its ICBM development within the next few months and go on to deploy miniaturized nuclear warheads and hydrogen bombs within the next few years.

South Korea spends nearly ten times North Korea’s military expenditure in order to compensate for its inferiority in nuclear and missile capabilities

Many U.S. nuclear specialists estimate that North Korea will be in possession of an inventory of 50 to 100 nuclear devices by 2020. As such, the reality is that we are moving farther away from reaching the goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.


Many experts maintain that there is still a chance of convincing North Korea to reverse course on its nuclear program. This would be possible, they argue, if South Korea and the international community could guarantee North Korea’s national security by promising a formal peace treaty as well as full normalization of Pyongyang’s diplomatic relations with the U.S. and with Japan.

However, the regime has said on numerous accounts that it will never accept denuclearization unless it is proceeded by a “worldwide denuclearization.” This shows that the negotiation strategy that was used to deal with Kim Jong Il may not be effective in dealing with his successor.

There are several reasons why Kim Jong Un cannot abandon his nuclear program.

First of all, Pyongyang has no reason to give up its nukes, as it would be no match for its Southern neighbor in a conventional arms race. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea can no longer import conventional arms from other countries.

Consequently, it began to pursue a nuclear program and has since gained superiority over the South through the strengthening of its nuclear forces. However, if North Korea decides to give up its nukes, it will be at a disadvantage in terms of not only economic power but also military power.

As neither a peace treaty nor a full normalization of relations with the U.S. and Japan would make up for North Korea’s inferiority in the realm of conventional arms, it comes as no surprise that Pyongyang has consistently refused to drop its nuclear program.

Kim Jong Un sees nukes as his only guarantee of security | Photo: KCNA

Second, North Korea will never let go of the nuclear option because it is the much less expensive alternative to purchasing or developing conventional weapons. According to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, North Korea’s total nuclear spending over the past few decades leading up to 2013 has been estimated at USD$1.1 billion-1.5 billion.

Although this is no small amount, it is a relatively small price to pay for the security and the power it can provide, especially considering the fact that the cost of deploying a single battery of the THAAD anti-missile system is said to be USD$1.2 billion.

Although South Korea spends nearly ten times North Korea’s military expenditure in order to compensate for its inferiority in nuclear and missile capabilities, the reality is that it has failed to provide sufficient guarantees of protection from the North Korean threat.

Future prospects for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remain bleak


Given the rapid advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities on the one hand and the diminishing prospect for convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program on the other, public opinion polls have consistently indicated that a majority of the South Koreans support the idea of an indigenous nuclear program.

For instance, Gallup Korea surveyed 1004 South Korean adults from September 5 to 7 this year, which, coincidentally, was immediately after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. According to the poll, 60 percent of South Koreans gave a positive answer when asked, “Do you agree with the statement that South Korea should possess its own nuclear weapons?” while 35 percent gave a negative answer.

Although the government has been skeptical about the nuclear option, if North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missiles capabilities, it will become increasingly difficult to disregard public sentiment.

Those who advocate South Korea’s nuclear armament to counter the North Korean threat generally make the following arguments:

First, as the prospects for curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions diminish, South Korea and the international community should replace the idealistic and unattainable goal of denuclearization with a more realistic goal of managing the North Korean threat through nuclear balancing.

North Korea has made it clear that it has no interest in the denuclearization of the peninsula, the establishment of a peace regime, or guarantee of regime security. It has been stepping up efforts to attain the title of a ‘nuclear power’ or ‘leading rocket power’ and has even engaged in ‘nuclear balancing acts’ against the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington has been reluctant to restart the Six-Party Talks as a way to resolve the North Korea issue due to the deep mistrust it has for the Pyongyang. As such, future prospects for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remain bleak.

Second, if Seoul abandons the nuclearization option and continues to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and deterrence, its dependency on the U.S. in security matters will further increase, and Seoul will have to spend an enormous amount of its expenditure to purchase conventional weapons from the U.S.

Seoul has so far opposed nuclear armament – but that could change | Photo: Ministry of National Defense

Moreover, it will continue to be taunted and dismissed by the North as ‘American puppet forces’, ‘colonial stooges’, ‘’loyal dog’, or ‘puppy.’ Reintroducing tactical U.S. nukes to the peninsula would not bring much change to the situation. South Korea spent 9 trillion won in 2014 alone purchasing conventional arms, when the cost of developing a nuclear weapon is estimated at 1 trillion won – one-ninth the amount.

If South Korea were to develop its own nuclear weapons, it would be able to reduce its arms imports and defense spending, which means more can be spent on social welfare, education, and other areas where additional expenditure is needed. Thus, South Korea has a reason to revisit the nuclear option not only from the perspective of national security interests but also from the economic perspective.

Third, although the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council have had some success in putting a strain on the North Korean economy, the effect is largely temporary and does not change the regime’s determination to continue its nuclear program.

The nuclearization of South Korea would eliminate the advantage and the leverage the North has had in the realm of nuclear weapons

The nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. does not provide South Korea with full protection from North Korea’s weapons, nor can it stop North Korea from further developing its nuclear capabilities. On the other hand, South Korea, as the world’s fifth largest consumer of nuclear energy, has the ability to manufacture more than 4000 nuclear weapons.

The nuclearization of South Korea would eliminate the advantage and the leverage the North has had in the realm of nuclear weapons as well as leading the elites and citizens in the country to question the regime’s authority. As the nuclear program has served as one of its primary sources of legitimacy, Pyongyang would have good reason to fear South Korea’s nuclear armament.

Fourth, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will not be able to stop South Korea from developing nuclear weapons for purposes of self-defense.

Article X.1 of the NPT states that “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance.”

This means that the South Korean government can argue it has a ‘legally valid’ reason for requesting to withdraw from the NPT. Once three months have passed, it can make the actual decision on whether to pursue the nuclear option, after carefully assessing the advances made in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the domestic public opinion, and the concerns of the surrounding countries.

Some experts assert that withdrawing from the NPT would make South Korea a target for international sanctions. However, such an argument is not based on facts, as the NPT clearly specifies the right of withdrawal. Although North Korea had withdrawn from the treaty, it was not for this reason that the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the regime.

Besides, given that the U.S. considers South Korea an ally and that its largest overseas military base is located on the peninsula, as well as the fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons constitute significant challenges to both countries, it is difficult to imagine Washington imposing strong sanctions on South Korea.

Fifth, a nuclear-armed South Korea could help reduce tensions between North Korea and the U.S. by serving as a buffer zone, and this would also give South Korea freedom to pursue an autonomous foreign policy. If it comes to possess its own nuclear weapons, South Korea, not the U.S., would become the primary threat to Pyongyang.

This reduces the need for North Korea to threaten the U.S. with ICBMs, making the U.S. mainland potentially safer than it is today. South Korea would also benefit from this, as it will be able to pursue a more independent and balanced foreign policy toward Washington and Beijing.

Sixth, if South Korea were to arm itself with nukes, it would keep the two Koreas locked in a comparable balance of power, which could bring stability to the peninsula and improve inter-Korean relations. If a military balance is established, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles will no longer pose a grave threat to South Korea, the U.S., and Japan.

This would leave the Moon Jae-in administration with considerable room for implementing the ‘Berlin Initiative’ as well as his vision for a ‘new economic map on the Korean peninsula (North-South economic integration),’ thereby opening a new chapter of reconciliation and peace in the history of the peninsula.

Furthermore, such developments would make it easier to establish inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation, and the government would be able to implement measures such as reopening the Kaesong industrial complex, which was closed due to fears of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, and resuming tours at Mount Kumgang.

A more balanced relationship between the two Koreas could see a restoration of economic cooperation | Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Until recently, it was generally believed that the U.S. would strongly oppose any attempt on the part of South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons. However, since North Korea test-fired three ICBMs and conducted its sixth nuclear test in 2017, there have been signs that the U.S. position is shifting in favor of South Korea’s nuclearization.

NBC reported on September 8 that the Trump administration was reviewing policy options that include nuclearizing Japan and South Korea to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.

According to the report, U.S. officials have recently informed their counterparts in Beijing that unless China exerts more pressure on North Korea by, for instance, putting a cap on its oil exports to the country, South Korea and Japan could embark on their own nuclear program, and Washington would not try to stop them from doing so.

Walter Russell Mead, a U.S. expert in international politics who is a professor at Bard College and a scholar at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a column for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on September 4 that the Trump administration appears divided on the North Korea issue.

Some analysts, including senior White House advisors, assert that America’s interests are best served by maintaining the status quo, in which Japan and others are protected under the U.S. nuclear and conventional umbrella without becoming nuclear powers themselves.

On the other hand, others seem to believe that the nuclearization of East Asia should be regarded not as a defeat but as a victory for U.S. foreign policy. They also claim that a nuclear Japan and South Korea could help contain China’s geopolitical ambitions. 

At a seminar organized by the Arms Control Association (ACA) on December 5, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry stated that he did not believe it was “necessary or desirable to deploy [American] nuclear weapons again in South Korea and Japan.”

Nevertheless, he added, “But I do think it’s preferable for those countries to get an independent nuclear force.”

Given the growing voices within the U.S. supporting the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan to counter North Korea‘s nuclear and ICBM threats, there is a high probability that the two countries may pursue their own nuclear weapons program within the next decade.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Blue House

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