Will North Korea Use its Nuclear Arsenal?

The South Korean defense minister said last week that North Korea may have developed a nuclear warhead small enough to be loaded onto a ballistic missile. This joined news that the U.S. Navy was prohibited from boarding a North Korean merchant vessel that was suspected to be carrying illicit weapon technology in the South China Sea. These issues make it clear that valid concerns remain with North Korea and its nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, the North Koreans view nuclear weapons as leverage in disputes, especially as they bargain for food aid.

It has been six years since North Korea officially declared it had a nuclear weapon. A year later in 2006, it tried to fire a missile in the direction of Hawaii, but failed. They were reported to be setting up the missile again in 2009, but nothing was confirmed. Trying to hit Hawaii with a missile shows North Korea is not concerned with building relations with anyone; tensions have always been high between North Korea and most of the international community.

Just last November, South Korea angered North Korea when it began military drills near its sea border. When South Korea refused to stop the drills, North Korea retaliated by firing on Yeonpyeong. Two South Korean marines were killed, while 15 troops and three civilians were injured. This unabashed anger is an example of how unstable North Korea is and how quickly it could turn to nuclear weapons if tensions were to rise high enough.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il recently said that “his country is still committed to eliminating its nuclear weapons through negotiations.” This is a statement Kim has made numerous times. Each time he promises to work towards a solution, but then stops negotiations to demand food aid for his country. There are only so many times that the international community will play this game; Kim is certainly undependable enough that one of those times could be when he shows the world what he is capable of and uses a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. sent a team to assess the situation in North Korea on May 24. Pyongyang told the inspectors that they are now willing to accept strict monitoring requirements to prevent further diversion of food aid to its military. But, how long would they allow this monitoring? As the Heritage Foundation points out, Pyongyang’s refusal to implement economic reform and its belligerence against the very countries from which it seeks aid should preclude it from receiving large-scale aid.

Pyongyang’s 2009 missile and nuclear tests and the 2010 disclosure of a uranium enrichment facility were all violations of UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874. A UN working group recently concluded that North Korea has repeatedly defied the UN by continuing to export conventional arms. North Korea agrees to treaties, resolutions, and monitoring requirements, but tends to ignore most of them. This makes it hard to believe that North Korea has any reason to stop itself from taking these violations a step further and using a nuclear weapon to try getting what it wants. 

North Korea sees nuclear weapons as a piece in its game, an option for a rainy day. It pretends to be prepared to eliminate the nuclear arsenal for its own gain. This might be believable if they stopped their nuclear program where it is, but instead, they continue to strengthen it. So, while it is not likely anyone has to worry about an imminent nuclear attack, the possibility is always on the table when it comes to North Korea.

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