Korean Nuclear Proliferation
On March 16th, 2023, North Korea reported having launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and, shortly after, testing new nuclear-capable underwater drones. The tests come after North Korea protested against provocative joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which it sees as a threat to its security. Having already ceased communication with the two countries in 2020, productive relations between Pyongyang and Seoul are essentially non-existent. Rather, the nations have expanded military measures and continue to drive up the possibility of greater conflict.
- Tensions arise despite already fraught relations within the Indo-Pacific
- Escalations risk the possibility of nuclear proliferation, which increases the danger of nuclear conflict within the region and beyond
Military hostilities from both countries have been key in destabilizing the peninsula; however, unlike South Korea, North Korea has its own nuclear capabilities. While the U.S. has promised to aid South Korea if North Korea is to attack, South Korea is still concerned about its lack of ability to deter nuclear threats on its own. This sentiment only grows as the threat of nuclear retaliation from the north becomes more apparent.
As such, South Korea, and nations who share similar concerns, have expressed a desire to maintain their own nuclear programs. However, doing so may risk the emergence of an Indo-Pacific arms race, which could ultimately lead to greater conflict and possibly irreversible damage. Once a nation develops nuclear capabilities, it is reluctant to give them away, just as when North Korea originally developed its program.
After World War II, a Korean security interest in nuclear technology began after the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed their own nuclear programs, which would be followed by Japan and China. However, the official beginning of a North Korean nuclear program (albeit civilian) was in 1952 with the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Institute, which conducted research on radioactive isotopes with technological assistance from the USSR and China.
Since North Korea lacked the infrastructure to develop nuclear technology, it turned to the Soviet Union, and, by February 1956, North Korea signed the agreement and charter of the USSR's "United Institute for Nuclear Research." This led the North to peacefully develop programs in tandem with the Soviet Union to establish nuclear infrastructure, such as a reactor at Yongbyon. This would become the center of American concerns about nuclear developments on the peninsula, especially since it was largely funded and led by the USSR.
During the Cold War, Washington would deploy nuclear weapons to South Korea for the first time in 1958 and continued to do so for the next 33 years, protecting the country and Japan under a “nuclear umbrella.” The ongoing war created a split between Sino-Soviet relations and encouraged North Korea to increase domestic nuclear production for its security.
As such, in 1963, North Korea asked the Soviet Union for help (later rejected) while South Korea stockpiled 600 warheads in total within the first 5 years of deployment. Consequently, North Korea conceded to practical uses of nuclear technology with the Soviets for the time being. North Korea then joined the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) in 1974 and between 1975 and 1979 had a nuclear scientist stationed at the IAEA's head office in Geneva, who was assigned to siphon information from the agency for designing a nuclear reactor. By the 1980s, North Korea was able to build a reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Under Soviet pressure, North Korea acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, which barred any nation from producing nuclear weapons, but allowed the shared cooperative use of nuclear technology. However, North Korea did not allow IAEA monitors into the country until 1992 with concerns about the maintenance of strategic autonomy.
After failing to allow inspection and finding many mismatches in initial reports to the Safeguards agreement, North Korea almost withdrew from the agreement, until the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, in which the U.S. agreed to facilitate the supply of two light water reactors to North Korea in exchange for North Korea disarmament.
However, in the early 1990s, North Korea began to produce plutonium plants, which required large reactors that were banned under the 1994 agreement. As such, the agreement collapsed in 2002 and North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003. In the same year, the United States confirms North Korea has reactivated a five-megawatt nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon facility, capable of producing plutonium for weapons upon the original speculation of Ambassador Thomas Hubbard.
Following its withdrawal from the NPT, North Korea engaged in the “Six-Party Talks,” with the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. The point of these talks (hosted by China) was to end the North Korean nuclear program. However, in 2006, North Korea participated in seven missile launch tests. In response, the UN passed Resolution 1718, with the goal being to dissuade the expansion of the nuclear program. International pressure led to the February 13th Agreement, where North Korea agreed to shut down the Yongbyon Reactor, the country’s largest Nuclear reactor, in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel aid. By July, Mohamed El Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the reactor had been shut down.
This action was solidified by the destruction of a cooling tower at the reactor. But soon after, North Korea refused international inspection, and in 2009, North Korea announced it had completed its second nuclear test. In response, the UN again leveled sanctions against the state, tightening embargos and providing the legal grounds that a country can utilize to impede the actions of North Korean ships suspected of carrying compounds that are a part of the nuclear program. The second test led to negotiations, and in 2012 North Korea agreed on a pause in nuclear work in exchange for 265,000 tons of food aid from the United States. But this agreement didn’t last long, as in 2013 North Korea participated in another nuclear test.
This test was detected by Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), who observed a 4.9 magnitude explosion caused by the test. In 2011, Kim Jong Un ascended to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il. To legitimize his reign in the eyes of the military, Kim looked to increase tensions with South Korea, so he could demonstrate his “military-first” approach. In the following years, North Korea continued tests, and carried out its biggest test to date in 2016, creating a 5.3 magnitude explosion. North Korea expanded on this testing in 2017, creating an explosion “16 times the size of the bomb the United States detonated over Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.”
In the same year, North Korea tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the ability to reach the United States. In response to this increase in testing, the United States installed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, to defend the country against potential missile threats. Following these tests, three resolutions were passed by the UN Security Council. Resolution 2371 allowed for the tightening of sanctions via the banning of exports like coal, iron, and seafood. Resolution 2375 expanded general sanctions. Resolution 2397 added more oil sanctions, and sanctioned metal and labor exports.
The goal of these sanctions is to limit North Korean financial ability, so the state has fewer funds to develop the nuclear program. In response to the sanctions, North Korea fired missiles over Japan, and executed cyber attacks against the United States. Tensions dissipated a bit by 2018 when Kim Jong-un and Former President Donald J. Trump met at a summit in Singapore and agreed on Korean denuclearization. However, the 2019 Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un ended quickly without a resolution, leaving both countries in a state of uncertainty.
Since the 2019 Hanoi Summit, dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea has deteriorated significantly, a stark contrast to the progress made at the beginning of 2018. During the 2019 summit, Trump and Kim disagreed over sanctions relief and denuclearization, with the U.S. wanting more substantial steps on denuclearization and verification, while Kim demanded greater sanction relief.
Attempts were made to reconcile and revive talks in October 2019, but Kim ended negotiations abruptly after Washington refused to, according to Kim, end “hostile policies such as strict sanctions and military exercises with South Korea.” By 2020, North Korea had ceased all communication with the U.S. and, shortly after, South Korea.
Since then, North Korea has continued to evolve its nuclear program, overtly testing newly developed missiles and ICBMs, causing even greater concern for Washington and allies alike. In 2022 alone, North Korea fired a record number of at least 95 missiles — more than in any previous year — and is reportedly on its way to launching its seventh nuclear test. As a result of recent advancements made by North Korea and growing hostility, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has “asked for a greater role in managing nuclear weapons.”
Since Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022, South Korea and the US have pursued a more proactive strategy in dealing with the North, pursuing “joint military exercises, which the North sees as provocative”. Despite a 2018 resolution prohibiting military hostilities between the two nations, both sides have engaged in increasingly “dramatic shows of force” over the past several months. Kim argues that the expansion of these U.S-South Korean military exercises has fueled tension on the peninsula and risks aggravating the possibility of war. Specifically, in early March this year, the U.S. and South Korean military conducted the largest joint military exercises in five years, with the U.S. sending a long-range B-1B bomber to the peninsula as a show of force against North Korea.
North Korea is especially cautious of U.S. strategic bombers, as they hold the capability of nuclear payloads, and views them as foreshadowing a U.S.-South Korean invasion of the North. Shortly after the exercises, Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles. However, the real show came on March 16th, when Pyongyang reported that it had launched its largest Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to demonstrate a "tough response posture" to ongoing U.S.-South Korea military drills, despite the UN Security Council previously prohibiting Pyongyang from using ICBMS. Washington, Seoul, and Toyko have condemned the launch and state that they are working closely together in an “ironclad” allyship.
However, tension has only risen since the March 16 launch, with Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo promising serious repercussions and more joint exercises, and, Pyongyang in response, tested a new nuclear-capable underwater drone, which promises, as Kim states, a “radioactive tsunami” against its adversaries.
As a result of these provocations, South Korea has publicly asked for the U.S. to hold joint nuclear weapons exercises. However, President Biden has rejected the request. Shortly after the reply, both presidential offices later denied any contradiction between Biden's and Yoon's statements, noting that, since South Korea is not a nuclear weapons state, it technically can not participate in "joint nuclear exercises." Nevertheless, nuclear proliferation seems to be within public favor, as a survey of South Korean public opinion shows that around 75% of Koreans would favor South Korea holding nuclear weapons to further deter North Korean hostilities.
Although South Korea has shown an interest in holding nuclear weapons, Japan has been the opposite. Japan was the target of the first atomic bombs, and, since then, has been against the use and production of nuclear weapons. However, Japan is aware of the threat that North Korea, as well as China and Russia, poses to all of East Asia. In fact, former President Abe implied that nuclear disarmament left nations like Ukraine vulnerable to larger forces like Russia. As such, he suggested the possibility of Japan hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, an arrangement that U.S. allied nations like Germany, Belgium, and Italy also have.
However, the current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida disagrees with the hold on American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. The issue continues to be debated. Nevertheless, unlike South Korea, the majority Japanese public is against the hold of nuclear weapons, with only 25% in agreement. Nevertheless, if North Korea is to pursue greater military aggression, positions may change, as the leaders of both nations have indicated an urgent need to handle the North Korean threat.
North Korea has worked closely with China and Russia to increase nuclear capabilities ever since the launch of its nuclear program. Especially given the West’s disapproval of and sustained pressure on North Korea’s government, North Korea’s autocratic alliance with China and Russia has stabilized and strengthened. North Korea has vocally supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggression against Taiwan.
U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea will sell rockets and artillery shells to Russia to aid their aggression in Ukraine. Furthermore, since the outbreak of war in Ukraine last February, North Korea has been emboldened to toughen its nuclear doctrine and to reject denuclearization negotiations with the US. Given increasingly close relations between the three countries and that Russia and China have been officially opposed to a North Korean nuclear weapons program, the US and South Korea have urged Russia and China to use their leverage to pressure North Korea to halt nuclear bomb testing.
Although China might see North Korea’s belligerence as a secondary threat that would destabilize the peninsula, China’s current initiative to counter the US’s Indo-Pacific influence means that it is unlikely to accede to South Korea and the US’s calls for cooperation. Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and former CIA analyst, claims that China would even gain greater benefits from hindering efforts to limit North Korea's nuclear capabilities to exercise leverage over the US.
Indeed, while Russia and China supported sanctions after North Korea's last nuclear test, they both vetoed increased U.N. sanctions over North Korea's ballistic missile launches last May. Ultimately, the divide between the autocratic governments and the US will continue to exacerbate tensions and curb negotiations
If North Korea were to continue its aggressive military shows, countries in East Asia might be incentivized to arm themselves as a defense. Specifically, South Korea has revived nuclear weapons debates amid North Korea’s escalations. Being the most proximal to North Korea attacks, South Korea has already armed itself with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and conducted several successful missile tests.
Recently, South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol mentioned his country’s growing concerns about the protection of the United States nuclear umbrella, which is a guarantee by the nuclear-armed US to defend them. Though the US has reiterated its commitment to protecting South Korea, President Yoon has urged Washington to allow South Korea to play a more “active role in nuclear weapons management”.
Neighboring Japan has a greater challenge when it comes to nuclear weapons armament, as Japan has experienced the trauma of nuclear destruction firsthand during WWII and Japan’s public has been opposed to nuclear weapons. In fact, at the end of 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hosted the first meeting of the International Group of Eminent Persons whose purpose is to build discussions on the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.
Given public pressure and Japan’s participation in several non-proliferation treaties already, Japan likely won’t proliferate and seeks to rely on the US’s nuclear umbrella for the time being. However, with the invasion of Ukraine, growing aggression from China against Taiwan, and continuing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, the stability of Southeast Asia is in a precarious state. And, while most states in the region appear to still be against nuclear weapons, the possibility of proliferation increases day by day. Holding minimal deterrent effects, in a hotly contested region like South Asia, nuclear proliferation would further destabilize and increase the chance of war and miscalculation.
Leverage North Korea’s relationship with Russia and China
The DPRK has long sought a stable and reliable partnership with both Russia and China, hoping to leverage the two nations as a counterbalance to U.S. efforts to undermine the regime and as diplomatic cover to justify North Korea’s self-assertion of a global power demanding of respect. But both Moscow and Beijing have been hesitant to fully support the often reckless power.
For China, it is largely because Xi is not willing to seek greater instability throughout the East Asian region when the pandemic has already created internal strife. For Russia, Putin is entirely occupied with his ongoing open conflict in Ukraine and veiled struggle against NATO. Given this instance of weakness in partnership, the U.S. should look to a.) work with China and Russia to dissuade North Korea from resuming nuclear testing in the short term; and b.) undermine the Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang trilateral relationship by exploiting fundamental points of misalignment in the long run.
The U.S. has begun pursuing the first of these strategies, with a top official indicating that China might have been the reason North Korea has delayed the resumption of testing. Russia and China, from the American perspective, share a favorable perception of North Korea’s testing: a long record of opposition.
As long as the U.S does not attempt to over-assert itself, thus risking the type of backlash that caused Russia and China to veto and the U.S. attempt to impose more U.N. sanctions, a reliance from Pyongyang on Moscow and Beijing — insofar as the partnership remains tenuous — would be a net good for U.S. anti-testing interests.
As China has grown increasingly frustrated with the DPRK’s regionally destabilizing actions, and in accordance with requests from President Trump, Beijing and Pyongyang have experienced a cooling of ties. Moscow now seeks to fill this gap, increasing military sales to North Korea and working to enhance military collaboration.
But with Moscow increasingly dependent on Beijing for monetary and financial support as it attempts to weather the imposition of international sanctions in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it would seem Beijing is the lynchpin in whether North Korea will be able to find external support. To that end, the U.S. should keep up constant but cautious diplomatic pressure on Beijing to lobby against missile testing in Pyongyang, inducing the self-interest China has in regional stability.
Demonstrate commitment to Japan and South Korea
A core concern of full weaponization of North Korean nuclear capabilities is that allies threatened in the region, namely Japan and South Korea, would be forced to lash out in aggression, either through attempts at proliferation or increasing military action in the region — both of which risk escalation through miscalculation.
Shoring up support has both ally-side and adversary-side benefits. Ally-side: in the case of North Korea’s effective weaponization, would limit the impetus for independent proliferation on the part of Seoul and Tokyo. Adversary-side: a calculated deterrent posture limits Pyongyang’s willingness to engage in reckless aggressive action across the region, reducing risks of miscalculation.
Even when demonstrating resolve through force-posturing and diplomatic channels, the U.S. must be careful to not pose existential threats to the regime that would induce backlash — or at least be very intentional and purposeful in any decision to do so.
The U.S. should then work to enhance integrated defense strategies in the Indo-Pacific. In particular, ensuring the continuance of joint military exercises that demonstrate concrete readiness and relative interoperability to the DPRK. This also means investing in the capabilities to credibly defend both the homeland and regional partners through enhanced missile defense systems. Investments were stifled under Trump, but are now increasing under Biden, indicating a favorable reshifting of priorities.
Nevertheless, while increased investments are positive for shoring up ally support, these endeavors require a delicate balance as Russia and China are highly averse to US investments in missile defense technology. That being said, investments now could be used as a point of leverage in US attempts to dissuade Moscow and Beijing from assisting Pyongyang, allowing the U.S. to both enhance ally ties and create gaps in its adversaries' partnerships.
On the diplomatic side, the U.S. should continue conducting high-level diplomatic talks that both shore up Japanese and South Korean representatives privately and demonstrate to Pyongyang the U.S. resolve publicly. Aside from being public demonstrations, these talks must include serious work to align priorities between the U.S. and its regional allies in order to ensure North Korea is unable to drive rifts between America and its partners. If Pyongyang is successful in destabilizing those relationships, the U.S. will quickly find itself without the desired leverage to shape the course of events in the region.
The North Korean nuclearization problem has remained an enduring headache for policymakers and will likely remain unresolved for the foreseeable future. There are a series of not ideal decisions Washington can make as it attempts to reduce the threat posed by the DPRK, but only one is truly wrong: inaction. Government officials and private sector partners must continue to seek innovative solutions to the issue of Pyongyang; complacency will not net favorable outcomes.
The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Brady Zeng, Ahad Khan, Harry Tong, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.
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