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Curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

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Ryoo Yong-gyu, Earthquake and Volcano Monitoring Division Director, points at where seismic waves observed in South Korea came from, during a media briefing at Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul, South Korea, 9 September 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

In Brief

As an aspirant nuclear state, North Korea is atypical in nearly every way. It is smaller, poorer, less technologically developed, more isolated, more highly militarised and more authoritarian.


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North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on Friday 9 September, ten years after it first demonstrated such a capacity. Its pace of development — an average of one test every two years — is quite slow compared to the experience of other aspiring nuclear states. This slow development rate is due in part to the limited stocks of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium available to Pyongyang. More generally, it indicates that acquiring a nuclear weapons capability has stressed North Korea’s economic, organisational, scientific and engineering capacities even more than was the case in other states that have travelled this road.

At an estimated 10 kilotons, this fifth test was the largest in terms of yield, but also quite typical of a basic fission device — the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 had an estimated yield of 12–15 kilotons.

Pyongyang has claimed major technological advances with each test. The fourth test, for example, was presented as confirmation that the DPRK had mastered the challenge of making a hydrogen bomb. This claim was downplayed as technically improbable and not supported by the modest yield of the test. The announcement accompanying the fifth test carefully specified that the device tested was a recently designed ‘nuclear warhead’. That term is intended to suggest that the device had the dimensions and weight needed to be delivered over long distances by a ballistic missile.

The DPRK’s efforts to develop the skills embodied in long-range ballistic missiles have intensified conspicuously in recent years. And, as with nuclear explosive devices, there can be no doubt that they have made important gains. In other words, although it has been an uneven and drawn-out process, North Korea is inching toward nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missiles.

This capability may, for some indeterminate time, be ragged and unreliable. And, together with concerns about the integrity of North Korea’s command and control arrangements, this could exacerbate political anxieties on all sides, making future crises even more dangerous and difficult to defuse.

It is tempting to see a great deal of theatrics in North Korea’s behaviour. Still, the fact is that Pyongyang has maintained its enmity of South Korea, Japan, and in particular, the United States with an intensity that almost defies comprehension.

Part of the tragedy of the Korean peninsula is that the foundation stone of this almost manic enmity is a fallacy. The use of military force in order to attempt to unify the peninsula as a socialist state was a considered decision taken by Kim Il-sung and Joseph Stalin in 1949. Mao Zedong ultimately made it three from the beginning of 1950. Despite the passage of 70 years, Moscow and Beijing still prefer not to contest the narrative emerging from Pyongyang that it all began with American aggression.

The enmities spawned by the Korean War were intensified and complicated because they fed into the still fresh memories of Japan’s invasions and occupations earlier in the century and, more vaguely, of regional animosities embedded over millennia. This logjam has defied decades of political initiatives, threats, confrontations and major shifts in the military and political balance of power within and around the Korean peninsula.

One might argue that this record suggests a stable status quo, supporting a North Korean strategy of patiently outlasting those with competing aspirations for the region. But the wiser course would focus on shaking this logjam loose.

The Korean peninsula has veered toward crisis and war on many occasions with a wide variety of actions providing the spark. It may be difficult to anticipate how the nuclear weapon factor will affect perceptions, anxieties and other parameters that determine how states behave in a crisis. But it would be folly to presume that nuclear weapons will consolidate stability. This could be especially true of a marginal and immature nuclear capability under less than robust command and control arrangements.

Shaking the logjam will require multiple shocks. Challenging Pyongyang’s narrative along the lines suggested above will be necessary. China must be persuaded to more directly and transparently put nuclear non-proliferation at least on par with its other strategic aspirations for the Korean peninsula. States should draw on the provisional agreement that emerged from the Six-Party Talks in September 2005 to give more prominence to the package that could lead away from the present stalemate.

China holds the key to transformative change in the Korean equation. But shaking the Korean logjam is tantamount to reaching a broad and enduring understanding with the United States on how the Asian order is going to work over the foreseeable future. How close Beijing and Washington might be to such an understanding is another question.

Ron Huisken is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

5 responses to “Curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions”

  1. Dr Huisken makes commendable observations, as are summarised in his concluding remarks. Sub-systemic tensions (intra-Korean, DPRK-Japan, RoK-Japan, RoK-China, DPRK-China, Chna-Japan) colouring perceptions and postures in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Pyongyang are now overlain with systemic transitional fluidity triggered by strategic uncertainty precipitated by US-PRC competitive-cooperative tendencies.

    That complexity is relatively clear to most observers; what is less clear, is, as Dr Huisken mentions, how to break this logjam.

    Historically, since Deng Xiaoping, Beijing has given itself much less credit with its DPRK-leverage than others, and has, with oft-ignored consistency, urged Washington to engage directly with Pyongyang. The USA has sporadically done so, with mixed results.

    However, frequent (and often apparently well-deserved) US demonization of the Kim dynasty notwithstanding, at least some US negotiators directly engaged in talks privately concede their interlocutors were ‘normal’, ‘rational’ and ‘human’. Just as they themselves were. This view is not widely shared among the Beltway cognoscenti. Given enough time, some people do come to believe their own propaganda. That applies to both sides of the DMZ, and on both shores of the Pacific.

    DPRK rhetoric also suggests that regime- survivalist instincts, a quest for respect and an outraged righteousness in the face of almost insuperable challenges combine in a volatile mix with the recent experiences of Iraq and Libya to ensure Pyongyang will repeat Pakistan’s ‘grass-eating’ endeavours to fashion an unassailable second-strike deterrent before the defence rests.

    Until Washington shows the imagination of a second ‘Cuba initiative’, misplaced displacement of responsibility on to Beijing, despite clear limits to what China feels able and willing to do to bring the DPRK to its knees, will ensure Pyongyang has both the time and incentives to forge a more effective and survivable deterrent than the subliminal one it appears to have already erected.

    • China seems disinclined, for its own security reasons, and/or unable to bring enough pressure to bear on the DPRK to get it to alter its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. Thus, it is not helpful for the USA or any other country to expect that the Chinese will rein in Kim.

      Something along the lines of a second Cuba initiative is worthwhile considering. But that required some initial intervention by the Pope, I believe. Who can act as a well meaning yet clearly objective mediator between the DPRK and the USA?

      I think a more apt analogy would be what was accomplished with Iran in the last year or so. A small group of interested and concerned nations might be able to find a way to reassure the DPRK sufficiently for it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Ie, a renewal of the Six Party Talks? This would have to await the outcome of the US elections in November and the ones in the ROK in 2017. Then it will takes months if not years of hard work. Can/will circumstances allow this kind of snail’s pace?

  2. Korean culture is more Chinese (Confucianist) than China is Chinese. “The Koreans in the early Yin dynasty adopted Confucianism with such enthusiasm that their value system and social practices were reconstructed along Chinese lines more fully than ever before…It may have become more uniformly and fully permeated by Confucian ideas than China was itself. In fact, Korea became in many ways an almost ideal Confucian society (Edwin O. Reischaur, East Asia, co-authored by J. K. Fairbank and A. M. Craig).”

    “By this standard, however, the best colonial master of all time has been Japan…The world belongs to those with a clear conscience, something Japan has had in near-unanimous abundance (David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations).”

    Sonfa Oh, Getting Over It! : Why Korea Needs to Stop Bashing Japan, is a very brief and handy introduction to the Korean hatred and lies about Japan.
    (In passing, North Korea was the best industrialised part and the South was a very poor agrarian part in 1945. It was a big reason why Kim Il Son hit upon an idea of militarily unifying the peninsula. South Korea was not industrialised until its treaty with Japan of 1965.)

  3. I am indebted to the three commentators, not least because they so effectively amplify the multiple tangles that make up the logjam on the Korean peninsula. Where I might take issue is the ease with which S.Mahmud Ali and Richard accept that China cannot take a leading role and that this is something the other parties have to work around. If China is an irreducibly important part of the explanation for contemporary North Korea, its posture and its capabilities then China’s role in creating a different future for the Korean peninsula is not a part that can be played by anyone else.

  4. Its defiantly looking like North Korea has the ability to strike anywhere in the U.S. according to some outlets they had a “Dummy War Head” on top of that missile they recently launched. Seen Here Its becoming more clear that the north Korean Leader needs to be removed from power. The question is how could he be removed without millions of deaths in the process?

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