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Is North Korea actually a serious threat to peace?

Line of Defence Magazine, Spring 2017

When it comes down to it, what exactly do we have to fear?When it comes down to it, what exactly do we have to fear?


Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp cuts through the emotive rhetoric surrounding recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests, arguing that despite the bluster, North Korea and the United States are hardly on the brink of war.


For over 20 years the world, and the United States in particular, has worried about a nuclear armed North Korea. Over that time North Korea has gone from developing a crude bomb that was not deliverable, to testing a weaponised hydrogen bomb deliverable by an ICBM. That latter capability may still be in its infancy, but the level of progress that North Korea has made in the past indicates that it will not be long before North Korea has a small number of ICBM’s tipped with hydrogen bombs.

At no time has North Korea seriously stepped back from its ambitions to be a nuclear armed state. Probably the closest was the deal negotiated by President Clinton in 1994.

The Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States was intended to suspend North Korean research into nuclear weapons, ultimately leading to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea was to get two PWR power reactors. It also was intended to lead to a Peace settlement of the Korean War to replace the armistice agreement of 1953.

The election of President George W Bush in 2000, coupled with continuing North Korean research into nuclear weapons, led to the cancellation of the deal in 2004.

Since then, despite toughening sanctions, North Korea has been relentless in pursuing its goal. The Six Power talks never deterred North Korean ambitions. The first nuclear test was in October 2006, and the second in May 2009. The last eighteen months have seen three tests, with the most recent being a hydrogen bomb in September 2017.

President Trump is a new element in this standoff. We have long become used to North Korea’s dire threats. The fact that the United States President has chosen to match North Korean rhetoric is new. But despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, has anything really changed in the basic dynamic between the North Korea and the United States?

It can be argued that the likelihood that North Korea will soon have ICBMs capable of reaching mainland United States has changed everything. That the United States now faces an imminent threat that must be responded to.

However, such an argument represents a basic misunderstanding of the role of nuclear weapons. They are not weapons intended for actual use. Rather their role is defensive. The simple fact of their possession by a state renders that state invulnerable to an existential attack.

The North Koreans certainly have enough examples of fallen dictators who may have desired nuclear weapons, but being unable to get them, were then vulnerable to invasion. Iraq and Libya provide the most obvious recent examples. 

Thus once a state has nuclear weapons, no other state will dare attack it, for fear of the most drastic consequences. The prospect of the obliteration of Seoul or Tokyo would surely focus the minds of American policy makers almost to the same extent as the image of Los Angeles disappearing in a nuclear fireball. North Korea probably had the capacity to target North Asian cities some considerable time ago.


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So despite all the current rhetoric, it does not appear that the situation is significantly different to what it was some years ago when North Korea first tested the bomb.

North Korea is not about to terminate itself by launching a nuclear weapon at anyone. Similarly, the United States is not about to attack North Korea. That would either precipitate such an attack, or at the very minimum, result in a massive conventional response aimed directly at Seoul.

So what is the current situation about? Are United States’ actions really more aimed at China, rather than North Korea?

The United States and China are engaged in strategic competition in Asia. The United States still expects China to recognise its primacy. Conversely China expects to be treated as an equal, at least in Asian affairs.

China also has deep memories of the Korean war. The PLA was able to push US forces back from the Yalu River to the 38th parallel in 1951. For China, that was a huge military success against the most technologically advanced military in the world.

The Korean war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. That outcome was driven as much by China as by North Korea. Since then, China has made few efforts to convert the armistice into a comprehensive peace settlement. They will only do so if they get what they want.

This background limits the ability of the United States to pressure China. There is simply no circumstance where China will meekly do the bidding of the United States.

So, for China, the survival of North Korea is an imperative. There is a limit to the level of sanctions that China will agree to. They cannot be so severe as to endanger the North Korean regime. Neither can they cause undue hardship to the North Korean people.

Instead China is focused on dialogue. This is not because they are idealists. It is because China wants such talks to resolve certain things on the Korean peninsula.

A peace treaty that led to the removal of US forces from the Korean peninsula would be seen by China as a net gain. Such an outcome would also guarantee the survival of North Korea as an independent state.

In that case, North Korea may be willing to negotiate on the issue of nuclear weapons. While it may not result in the complete abolition of North Korea’s nuclear capability, it certainly would be expected to include abandoning the ICBM programme, and otherwise freezing, or even reducing the programme from its current level.

Even if the current stalemate does not result in such an outcome, it hardly seems likely to lead to war. There would have to be a culmination of several truly disastrous miscalculations for that to occur.

Much more likely is a continuing sense of latent crisis, which never actually eventuates into much more than words and symbolic actions. At some point we can expect the main players to get tired of the posturing. Perhaps then real dialogue may occur.


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