The Nuclear Armament and Denuclearization of North Korea

By Col.(ret.) Dongmyung Kim, Ph.D,
Former Section Chief of International Cooperation CTBTO
Vienna, Austria

Editor’s Note:

While nuclear and radiological materials are part of Non-Conventional Threats (NCT), this is often addressed on a non-state actor level, i.e. terrorist. However, non-state actors usually have direct or indirect support from state actors. Moreover, the nuclear and chemical weapon stockpiles of state actors pose a subsidiary threat level in forms that can include missing or provided lethal materials for use in terrorist attacks. This allows the subservient non-state actor to achieve a physical or psychological end that serves the common political goal of both the state and non-state actor without using a larger weapon of mass destruction, rather utilizing a smaller weapon to further a cause with calculably limited – yet effective – damage. Col. Kim’s overview is welcome because North Korea poses intercontinental NCTs as a state actor - and a supporter of non-state actors. His overview presents the precarious nuclear situation on the Korean peninsula, which poses risks on a global scal

North Korea as a de facto Nuclear Weapon State

Despite many commitments to the broad International Community of nations (e.g. the United Nations) to refrain from developing / continuing with a nuclear weapons program, the People’s Republic of North Korea (PRK) continues to proceed in secret and develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Since 2006, the PRK has conducted a series of six nuclear tests and became a de facto nuclear weapon state (NWS), in accordance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) classification. As of 2019, the PRK is estimated to possess an arsenal of 20–30 nuclear weapons and fissile materials for additional 30–60 nuclear weapons. The PRK successfully tested nuclear bombs based on plutonium, highly enriched uranium and hydrogen, and it claims to have developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead suitable for short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, assessed that the PRK would need further tests and developments to produce a smaller and more robust warhead suitable for an ICBM and re-entry into the atmosphere. The PRK conducted tests of various strategic missiles in order to deliver miniaturized nuclear warheads since the mid-1980s.

The international community’s continues with attempts to solve the denuclearization issues on the Korean peninsula, but all attempts to dismantle the PRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have ended in failure as of 2019. The PRK nullified all previous agreements with the international community using a “deceit, excuse, ambiguity, threat, and brinkmanship” strategy. The International Community must admit failure in the nuclear struggle with the PRK over the last few decades.

The Kim Jong Un regime will not surrender nor cease its nuclear program, because it is concerned about the collapse of its version of a communist regime after the East-West confrontation. In the face of the difference in economic power between the two Koreas, the PRK in the North could not compete in the conventional weapons arms race with the Republic in the South (ROK).

The US standpoint that a nuclear-armed North Korea is intolerable remains unchanged. Nevertheless, the ability of the international community – including the US – to intervene in Korean affairs is, in comparison to other regional countries like Iran and Iraq, very limited, because the South has remained as a hostage of the North. This factor always presents a dilemma for the US in conducting its Korean peninsula policy.

Urgent tasks to precede the denuclearization of the PRK

The characteristics of the PRK’s nuclear issues have changed before and after its nuclear tests. Before the nuclear test in 2006, the task of the international community was to “hinder” the nuclear program of the PRK. After the nuclear tests since 2006, its task has changed to finding out how to “deter and defend” against threats from a nuclear-armed PRK; after which its final goal is to “denuclearize” the peninsula.

The international community should consider measures to deter the threats of the PRK, i.e. how to make the PRK’s nuclear weapons useless. For deterrence, there should be nuclear weapons deployed in the South, which coincides with the concept “nukes for nukes”, as displayed during the Soviet deployment of SS-20 in East Europe (1977) vs. NATO’s dual decision (1979) (Pershing II + Tomahawk Cruise missile: 1983), where the US’ TNWs were deployed in Korea in the period of 1958-1991. This task could be achieved either through the Republic of Korea’s nuclear armament for self-defense purpose (plan A) or through the re-deployment of US’ tactical nuclear weapons into the South (plan B). Plan A has to include the withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is an undesirable option for the ROK in the south, because many disadvantages would be anticipated: worldwide economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation as a result of violation of the NPT, as well negative effects on the image of the de-nuclearized Korea after unification.

The more realistic choice for deterrence would be the re-deployment of the US’ tactical nuclear weapons in the ROK (Plan B), in the sense that previous US commitments to offer extended deterrence including a nuclear umbrella covering the ROK is too symbolic and, in the end, insufficient.

Another deterrent is to suspend the decision to dismantle the ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC), because its dismantling would send the wrong signal to the PRK of the alliance being weakened and therefore provide grounds for the PRK’s possible miscalculations, potentially causing a second Korean War.

Another additional deterrence measure would be to tentatively reserve the transfer of the wartime Operational Control Authority (OPCON) to Korea. It is not desirable to transfer the OPCON to the ROK in the situation that the PRK dominates over the ROK in the field of asymmetric forces, such as the ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The ROK should prepare to strengthen defense capabilities based on the ROK-US alliance for coping with the PRK’s nuclear threat. The ROK-US alliance should make preparations for a contingency plan and strengthen reconnaissance and surveillance systems to detect a possible PRK nuclear attack in advance. It should establish Missile Defense systems such as: Kill Chain, KAMD (Korea Air and Missile Defense), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and KMPR (Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation).

The international community should simultaneously continue to take a stance on how to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula. The PRK signed statements on de-nuclearization with the US, South Korea and other parties, resulting in unkept promises.

From the short-term aspect, the only way to destroy every single nuclear weapon of the PRK is to launch air strikes against the Yongbyon nuclear complex and arsenals, similar to Israel’s air strike against the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. The military option is not in the common interests of the both Koreas, because it would mean the start of a second Korean War.

An immediate prospect for a resolution of the PRK nuclear issues seems to be unclear. The PRK’s nuclear issues can only be fully solved when a pragmatism-oriented regime after numerous regime changes in Pyongyang in the future would take a “voluntary give-up strategy” regarding the self-destruction of PRK’s nuclear weapons, similar to the precedent set by the South African Government which gave up its nuclear program voluntarily in the early 1990s. In this sense, it is desirable that the international community considers this issue from a mid- and long-term aspect. The immediate task of the international community regarding the PRK is to accelerate the change of the regime in the case Kim Jung Un does not conduct a “reform and opening-policy.”


Firstly, any kind of de-nuclearization in the PRK will take years and cost an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, the international community should take a consistent stance that the PRK should abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and faithfully comply with the previous agreements on denuclearization, as well as actively join the international NPT regime cooperating with the IAEA and sign and ratify the CTBT. The nuclear armament of North Korea is a threatening factor for the whole region of East Asia (a domino-effect of a nuclear arms race) and the NPT regimes (against the export of nuclear weapons-relevant materials and technology to the Middle East).

Second, the international community should take a steadfast stance of wide-ranging economic and diplomatic sanctions against the PRK, as adopted by the UN Security Council since October 2006 and imposed by the US, EU and Japan for North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

Third, the international community should consider, that the PRK also stockpiled a significant quantity of chemical weapons in large quantities ranging between 2,500 and 5,000 metric tons, as well biological weapons. The PRK possesses various types of chemical weapons – including nerve, blister, blood, and vomiting agents – as well as some biological weapons – including anthrax, smallpox, and cholera. It is one of the world's largest possessors of chemical weapons, ranking third after the United States and Russia.

Colonel Dr. Dongmyung Kim is a trusted presidential defense advisor, military leader and a celebrated academic specializing in international relations, national defense and regional security matters.

Fluent in German - and passionate about all things “Germanistik” (German literature and language) - he earned his PhD from the renowned University of Konstanz in Germany. Currently he is the Research Director at the Research Institute for German Affairs.