Nuclear Ambition and Tension on the Korean Peninsula

Nuclear Ambition and Tension on the Korean Peninsula

by John S. Park
October 2, 2013

This chapter presents a new framework of analysis to explore North Korea’s evolving use of its nuclear arsenal and implications for both the Korean Peninsula and U.S. policy.


This chapter presents a new framework of analysis to explore North Korea’s evolving use of its nuclear arsenal and implications for both the Korean Peninsula and U.S. policy.


With origins dating back to the late 1960s, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has evolved to be a multipurpose instrument of the regime’s security strategy. The regime’s goals include deterring adversaries with its nuclear arsenal, generating revenue from nuclear commerce, and creating a North Korean version of President Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look policy. In particular, given internal constraints related to a domestic economy that lacks basic infrastructure, the regime appears to be improving its nuclear arsenal as one means to compensate for a rapidly deteriorating conventional military. If North Korea stays on this course, then it will likely conduct more nuclear tests to miniaturize a warhead design, as well as launch more ballistic missiles to increase range and payload, with grave regional and global consequences.

  • Future nuclear tests by North Korea have the potential to destabilize the region by increasing public pressure in South Korea and Japan to explore a nuclear deterrent. These countries’ well-developed but latent nuclear capabilities make a decision to pursue a nuclear deterrent more a political than a technical matter.
  • If the U.S. is determined to preserve the regional stability resulting from its provision of extended deterrence to South Korea and Japan, it will need to devote more resources and effort to disrupting the North Korean regime’s channels for generating revenue and procuring sensitive components for WMD programs.
  • Washington’s inability to disrupt these channels could eventually result in a North Korean regime with a nuclear deterrent that could threaten the security of the U.S. homeland, as well as in a regime with strategic procurement partnerships with other regimes.

Despite a steady stream of high-level U.S. efforts to demonstrate the United States’ long-term commitment to the East Asia region, a key challenge has been dealing with the nuclear weapons advancements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In a region with extensive latent nuclear weapon capabilities, the stakes are high as Washington seeks to reassure allies and make progress in peacefully rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program.

As the DPRK expands its nuclear capabilities, the prospects rise for further nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula. Even non-nuclear states such as the Republic of Korea (ROK)—which enjoys a comprehensive security alliance with Washington that includes protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella—are not immune to the significant improvements demonstrated by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. South Korea’s considerable latent capabilities could facilitate rapid nuclear weaponization following a political decision to do so. The country’s opinion leaders have been using this potential to increase pressure on Beijing and Washington to rein in Pyongyang—especially after the apparent recent progress by the North toward the operationalization of its nuclear arsenal. Frustrated with the seemingly endless coordinating meetings and exploratory talks with the regime while it moves ahead with nuclear weapons development, the South Korean public has called for an indigenous nuclear deterrent in recent opinion polls. Following North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, 66% of the South Korean public supported a domestic nuclear weapons program. [1]

Despite a bipartisan consensus, South Korea is severely constrained by its awareness of the likely direct consequences of a decision to develop a nuclear arsenal of its own. Moving beyond emotions and rhetoric is a stark choice for South Koreans. In addition to an intertwined comprehensive security alliance, Seoul is heavily dependent on assistance from the United States in running an extensive civilian nuclear energy industry and launching an ambitious nuclear power plant export program. Nuclear energy currently provides 13% of South Korea’s domestic energy use, and this percentage is expected to grow. [2] South Korea’s nuclear export business is projected to be a multi-billion dollar endeavor, with it already securing a $40-billion contract with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 to construct and manage four nuclear power plants. [3] Most importantly, South Korea is a member of the elite club of countries with $1 trillion in annual GDP and was ranked as the world’s twelfth-largest economy in 2012. [4] Thus, unlike North Korea, South Korea is acutely vulnerable to sanctions should it violate its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The first part of this chapter explores the drivers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and how the country’s arsenal has evolved into a multipurpose instrument that is central to the regime’s security strategy. The second part examines North Korea’s ongoing efforts to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mate it to a long-range ballistic missile with proven range and payload. The third part assesses how these growing nuclear capabilities constitute one factor emboldening the regime to carry out conventional provocations against South Korea. These capabilities also constitute a trigger that is influencing South Korean and Japanese debates about whether these countries should follow suit and develop nuclear deterrents of their own. The final part highlights the implications of a potential South Korean decision to convert the ROK’s latent capabilities into a viable nuclear weapons program…


[1] Jiyoon Kim, Karl Friedhoff, and Chungku Kang, “The Fallout: South Korean Public Opinion Following North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test,” Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Issue Brief, no. 46, February 25, 2013, 7.

[2] Meeyoung Cho, “South Korea to Expand Nuclear Energy Despite Growing Safety Fears,” Reuters, January 8, 2013,

[3] Troy Stangarone, “Why South Korea Won’t Develop Nuclear Weapons,” Korea Economic Institute of America, Peninsula web log, May 13, 2013,

[4] Central Intelligence Agency, “South Korea,” in World Factbook 2012 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), available at; and “Facts & Figures,” U.S. Korea Connect,

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