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Decoding North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities in Intensifying the Rivalry on the Korean Peninsula


Since 1953, North Korea and South Korea have been involved in a zero-sum game divided by ideological differences caused by the forces of the Cold War. This hardline mentality forcibly partitioned Korea into opposing states along the 38th parallel. The legacies of this conflict could still be felt today as the democratic South remains on guard against military threats from the communist North. However, recently hostilities have escalated by frequent news of the development and firing of nukes by the North Korean regime near the South Korean and Japanese coastline in the East Asian Sea. Scholars have tried to understand and develop models around this aggressive foreign policy, as such proactive tests can have repercussions throughout the world with the escalation of the possibility of a future nuclear conflict. In pursuing this, North Korea is only driving a wedge with South Korea and the US by creating untenable political and military environments. With these issues in mind, this paper is an attempt to decode and analyse how responsible actors in international society have tried to respond to the security threats posed by the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and whether denuclearisation is possible through deterrence. The research also aims to provide a background to how the South Korean and US alliances have played a significant role in North Korea developing actual war capabilities and whether the furthering of this relationship poses an emergent threat to the escalation of the conflict. The research is important to bring incumbency to prevent the outbreak of another war on the Korean peninsula and how certain strategic stances can be adopted to alter the condition of the uncertain future of international politics in the East Asian region.

Keywords: North Korea, Denuclearisation, U.S Military, South Korea


Decades after the end of the Korean War, the two Koreas divided between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (hereafter South Korea), reside in a past full of enmity, a present of political contentious and a future of uncertainty which can be potentially volatile. This conflict has reached new heights marked by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions indicating that the conflict is not largely regional but is globally interlinked. By virtually all accounts, a major threat to the world order is the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (second to the Ukraine War). The urgency to bring denuclearisation is eminent as the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un signalled that he would conduct more provocative tests. For the continuity of the ‘Asian Peace’, this paper is an attempt to decode and analyse the security threats posed by the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and whether denuclearisation is possible for a peaceful two-state solution. In borrowing relevant information from the sheer volume of the literature on the subject, this paper questions the previous nonproliferation policies', their failure and how the United States bilateral alliance network in Asia is detrimental to peace. The research is carried out by firstly, outlining the history of the Korean Peninsula to draw upon the specific and unique experiences of Inter-Korean Relations. Secondly, to carry out a meaningful exercise of the nuclear capability and politics of North Korea, the angle of South Korean and U.S relations have been examined to discuss the contribution these factors make in continuing nuclear threats. Thirdly, the accounts of U.S. engagement policies towards North Korea are selected to mention how nonproliferation is possible but did not occur because of multicausal interpretations. Lastly, an attempt has been made to reiterate the focus on policy solutions and alliance politics to lead the North and the South towards unification and peace. In this way, by writing on the key features of denuclearisation in North Korea, we can make a compelling study of the ideas around global diplomacy and power transitions on the Korean peninsula. This article acts as a bridge between Asian peace and security studies by highlighting the need for a new and more proactive approach to the lengthy Korean standoff to avoid a catastrophe.

Mapping the History of Two Koreas

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korean’s rejoiced in envisioning their new destiny, however, liberation did not instantly bring about independence. The threat posed by ideological differences caused by the emerging Cold War led to the U.S. forces occupying the southern half of the peninsula and Soviet troops taking control of the north. In November 1947, the US established ‘The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea’ (UNTCOK) which called for general elections in Korea under the supervision of a UN Commission. The North knew that if they agreed their leader would lose since the South had more population, leading to an imbalance of votes. The Soviet Union refused to comply with UNTCOK for the Northern zone but at America’s insistence, the UN voted to proceed with the election only in the South. On May 10, 1948, the elections gave different results. Syngman Rhee was elected the first President of the Republic of Korea with US support, meanwhile, Kim Il-sung was elected the first President of the Democratic Republic of Korea with Soviet support. The Republic of Korea claimed legitimacy as the only lawful government in Korea, recognised by the US and its allies. The discontent was heightened when on June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion of the South, triggering a three-year war which drew in the U.S, USSR, China and other foreign forces. The entire peninsula was devastated by chaos and conflict.

In her essay, Youngho Kim writes, “The US adopted a strategy of inflicting maximum destruction on Communist forces in North Korea through massive bombing campaigns. Stalin, who had killed millions of innocent Soviet citizens, was unlikely to care much about the calamities visited on the Korean nation if the war served his objectives in the Cold War struggle with the US.” Pyong-Choon Hahm in his paper talks about this vicious cycle of growing violence which made “the Korean Peninsula the main battleground of super-power rivalry between power politics and contests for hegemony in Northeast Asia.” A fight between advancing and pushing back the troops went on for two more years. A ceasefire (not a treaty) and an Armistice agreement were signed by the UN, North Korea, and China in 1953 in accepting the division at the 38th parallel and two competing provisional governments were formed: the Republic of Korea identifying democracy, while the Democratic Peoples Republic Korea identifying communism. The legacies of the Cold War still linger on this peninsula with historical tensions, ideological divides and geopolitical competition between both North Korea and South Korea.

Nuclear Politics and Inter-Korean Relations

After the end of the cold war, all aspects of Inter-Korean relations have revolved around the security concern caused by the nuclear issue. The procurement of nuclear power by North Korea started as early as the 1950s after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the successful nuclear testing by the Soviet Union. Uk Heo and Terence Roehrig write in their book that “North Korea signed nuclear cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union and China and received a small nuclear research reactor from the Soviet Union in 1965. The reactor was installed in Yongbyon and became operational in 1967.” This nuclear infrastructure in Pyongyang was built for the first time as a way of guaranteeing North Korean security. The first evidence surfaced in 1982 when a US satellite photographed construction at the Yongbyon nuclear site. Only in 1992 did the U.S see Pyongyang as a major security threat in traditional military terms when Kim Il-sung’s regime initiated the nuclear program in earnest. Charles K. Armstrong in his paper writes about the several steps which were taken such as the “Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges and Cooperation (Basic Agreement) of December 1991, the Agreement on Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in February 1992, the entry of the two Korean states simultaneously into the United Nations in September 1992. [These set of agreements] include the development of economic and diplomatic ties between South Korea and the communist countries, in hope of curbing and aiding the U.S’s nonproliferation efforts.

Foreign policies were driven internally too as Uk Heo and Terence Roehrig mention that the South Korean government reached a breakthrough in the historic June 2000 summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung where the ‘Sunshine Policy’ in engagement with the Clinton Administration in the US was introduced. This policy laid down the principles of — a peaceful relationship and, peaceful coexistence with North Korea without pursuing absorption by South Korea and, North Korea in compliance with reciprocity. However, the policy did not show lasting effects but the South Korean government relentlessly followed policies in continuation. Some of these are the ‘Peace and Prosperity Policy’ to promote peace and prosperity; ‘Policy of Mutual Benefits and Common Prosperity by Lee Myung-Bak’ envisioning denuclearisation and openness of the market as a strategy to lead to Pyongyang’s nuclear abandonment; ‘Trustpolitik and Alignment Policy’ by Park Geun Hye to provision North Korea to establish a minimum level of trust through agreements made with South Korea and the international community; ‘Korean Peninsula Driver Theory’ by Moon Jae-In focused on cooperation with the US and improving inter-Korean relations through dialogue. Even though a major dialogue was also carried out in the form of the ‘Trump-Kim’ Talk, the summit meetings and foreign policy decisions failed to produce tangible outcomes.

North Korea’s various acts of defiance in continuing nuclear weapon development suggest all strategic choices are of no use. On July 5th 2006, North Korea test-fired a Daepodong 2 missile (its first inter-continental ballistic missile) and on October 9th 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Since then, with a total of six nuclear tests, North Korea has been declared practically a nuclear power. In August 2016, a North Korean submarine test-fired a KN-11 ballistic missile off its east coast which has been described as an attempt to develop SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile). If North Korea successfully develops SLBM, the North Korean nuclear crisis becomes very complex as they would have all the possible nuclear delivery systems (bomber, ballistic missile, and SLBM). In October 2022 with the firing of two ballistic missiles, North Korea continues with its weapons tests as a way of announcing its military prowess. This raises several security concerns, the major one being North Korea’s nuclear power can trigger a nuclear domino in the region and under no restriction by any world order, it is a ticking time bomb which can diffuse any day. At the same time, however, North Korea remains constrained and limited by external forces, particularly by the U.S.

U.S Denuclearisation Policies for Nonproliferation in North Korea

The Korean War proved an important catalyst for resolving the incoherence pertaining to US foreign and defence policies. During the Korean War, NSC 8 (National Security Council) under the Truman administration released a report which argued that Washington should not abandon South Korea and needed to provide sufficient support to allow Seoul to defend itself. NSC 8 valued the strategic importance of South Korea for the position of the US in the Far East. After recognising Korea’s strategic importance, the US government has since then significantly increased its defence spending in Seoul under the UN flag. These foreign policies of military cooperation by the U.S changed in the Cold War period due to the domino theory and the concomitant stress that the spread of Communism in one area would have drastic ramifications all over the globe.

The ROK-US alliance is an example of extended deterrence where the United States is attempting to deter an attack on an ally rather than an attack against it. Robert Jervis writes in his seminal essay, “this theory argues that when war is the worst possible outcome for both sides, a state can prevail by committing itself to stand firm by staking its reputation on not giving in.” Because the cost is great, a state can credibly promise to protect another even if the other’s inherent value to the state is less than the cost of carrying out the promise to protect it. He reiterates that “it was then possible for the United States to extend a protective umbrella over much of the globe with a good chance that it would not be called upon to fight”. Therefore, in understanding this paradigm a crucial element of South Korea’s security has been, as President Obama confirmed in a summit at the White House on June 2009, the continuation of the “commitment to extended deterrence under the US nuclear umbrella as a response to the increasing nuclear threats from North Korea.” It appears likely that the alliance, though shifting in form, will remain an important part of South Korean security and the overall security architecture in East Asia for some time.

But on the other hand, the U.S response to North Korea has failed to procure positive results even after trying a variety of approaches, including diplomatic inducements, economic and food aid, and confidence-building measures. Even though engagement remains an important strategy, Kimberly Peh and Soul Park bring forth an important inconsistency in the policy path chosen by the U.S in the form of the “denuclearization-before-concessions” approach. The U.S. decision-makers were unwilling to accept any outcome that falls short of complete denuclearisation. Despite evidence of Pyongyang displaying a willingness to negotiate and add a capacity for nuclear restraint, the fixation of the U.S. on denuclearisation has led to a current deadlock in negotiations. North Korea’s uranium enrichment program also caused the U.S to engage in name-calling and a defensive attitude against the rogue regime of North Korea that can be seen as North Korea was condemned the part of an “Axis of Evil,” along with Iran and Iraq, in Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002. North responded by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and subsequently the Six-Party Talks also did not save the situation. These tendencies gave leeway for North Korea to become a de-facto nuclear state.

Solving the North Korean Denuclearisation Enigma

In seeing the inconsistency in the implementation of U.S. nonproliferation engagement towards North Korea, one also needs to understand the theoretical framework of why North Korea insists on developing nuclear weapons. Mun Suk Ahn in his paper identifies the real intention using a three-model framework: the security model, the domestic politics model, and the symbol/norms model. Among them, the security model first presented by Ole Wæver in 1995 and developed by Barry Buzan and Jaap de Wilde, is instrumental to understand the non-traditional aspects of security. The model analyses the U.S. military presence and its alliance with South Korea as the strongest explanations for why North Korea views nuclear programs from the perspective of national security. One can also see a trend in North Korea’s missile strikes fired when U.S-ROK military ties and exercises are propelled. Most recently, in October 2022 due to the Hoguk military drills – a joint amphibious operation between the U.S and South Korean military, North Korea fired a barrage of missiles near South Korean military bases and areas surrounding the Japan archipelago. Another major issue which threatens North Korea, includes the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on July 7, 2016, by Park Guen Hye as it established that South Korea will always look up to the USA for protection and security purposes.

In this way, one can identify North Korea’s nuclear program, as an example of an offensive-coercive response to the security threat caused by the military alliance between the U.S and South Korea. Van Jackson in his essay writes how “paradoxically, it is the emphasis on deterrence in US, North Korean, and South Korean foreign policy that creates the conditions for recurring crisis and prevents deeper forms of peace from taking hold.” North Korea understands that any nuclear confrontation between North Korea and the United States would result in mutually assured destruction (MAD). Not only has it been unable to develop its needed nuclear arsenal, but there also remains much to be done to resolve the security question and especially the US-North Korean confrontation. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the world to focus on measures that would meet the internal needs of North Korea and understand its reasons for relying on nuclear power for survival. The U.S needs to adopt measures that would attract incentives for Pyongyang to consider and secure a proclamation of denuclearisation.


This paper was written to understand the political history of the triangular securitisation relationship between North Korea, South Korea and the U.S, to decode the reason for the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the factors behind the failure of non-proliferation. The paper looked at how to respond to the increasing rivalry between North Korea and South Korea to expand cooperation and collaboration. The analysis was built mostly on secondary-source research and conveyed historical facts and studies of events, negotiations and policies to highlight the overreach of the U.S in terms of military power and how it has affected the Northeast Asian theatre. The analysis also leaves a bigger question in its wake about how to handle Pyongyang to further the goal of a united Korea peacefully rather than coerced unification, and would denuclearisation of the peninsula aid in that goal? The potentiality of this question is urgent as on January 1st, Kim Jong-Un announced in his New Years Address, in regards to inter-Korean relations South Korea and the United States are “staging frantic exercises to practice for a nuclear war attack on North Korea and a dangerous environment is brewing in which even a minor military conflict can turn out into an all-out war”. Making Korea one of the most potentially dangerous military flashpoints on Earth, the two countries should introduce mutual trust through internal talks to promote peace and ensure U.S-DPRK relations are less confrontational and more cooperative. The securitisation of the whole peninsula will only add to the complexity of the future of both countries, the continued global world order and the existence of all the Koreans themselves.


Barry Buzan, Ole Waever & Jaap de Wilde, “Security: A New Framework for Analysis,” Lynne Rienner Publishers, London, 1998.

Charles K. Armstrong, “Inter-Korean Relations in Historical Perspective,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2005, pp. 1-20.

Kimberly Peh & Soul Park, “Staying the Course: Denuclearization and Path Dependence in the U.S.’s North Korea Policy,” North Korean Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 2021, pp. 57-78.

President George W. Bush Delivers State of the Union Address, The United States Capitol, The White House, Washington D.C.

President Obama’s Nuclear Deterrent Modernisation Plans and Budgets: The Military Requirements, House Hearing, 114 Congress, U.S. Government Publishing Office, July 14, 2016, pp. 114-135.

Mun Suk Ahn, “What Is the Root Cause of the North Korean Nuclear Program?” Asian Affairs: An American Review, Vol. 38, No. 4, October-December 2011, pp. 175-187.

Robert Jervis, “The Impact of the Korean War on the Cold War,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 24, No. 4, Dec 1980, pp. 563-592.

Uk Heo & Terence Roehrig, “South Korea's Since 1980,” Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 207-235.

Van Jackson, “Deviant Cases and Near-Miss Crises,” North Korean Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall 2021, pp. 5-17.

Youngho Kim, “The Great Powers in Peaceful Korean Reunification,” International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 20, No. 3, September 2003, pp. 3-15.

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1 comentário

Ishaan S
Ishaan S
04 de mar. de 2023

So insightful! 👏

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