Will North Korea Use Nuclear Weapons?

In July 2016 news emerged that South Korea was covertly developing a missile defence system with the United States In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to transform South Korea into “a pile of ashes”

This was not the first time the secretive nation had threatened its enemies with nuclear weapons Yet, one month later news broke that Pyongyang’s missiles could now reach America, and the North Korean threat suddenly seemed a lot more sinister But will North Korea really use nuclear weapons? In 2003 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, effectively breaking international law to develop weapons of mass destruction Since its first nuclear test in 2006, the UN estimates that North Korea has developed a further 15 nuclear weapons This is set to increase to 100 by 2020

The extraordinary speed of this expansion has led to fears amongst senior US government officials that the state could launch a pre-emptive strike against South Korea or even the United States While the strength of its weapons is unknown, studies conducted by the Economist suggest that they could at least obliterate several large cities Former UK Ambassador to North Korea John Everard suggests that the regime has been preparing to attack This is indicated by its build up of an extensive defence network against nuclear strikes

He says, “It is dangerous to assume that North Korea would never really use a nuclear weapon…North Korea has an elaborate system of defensive tunnels… If the regime believes that it could retreat to these tunnels and survive a nuclear counter-strike, then it will be less reluctant to use its own nuclear weapons” Interestingly, in 2016 former US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel revealed that the US

is now building bases on Alaska, aimed at North Korea It is very unlikely America would develop an expensive military strategy around an artificial threat Despite the risk of instigating global nuclear war, the unpredictable North Korean leadership makes a strike more likely In April 2016 General Vincent Brooks described Kim Jong Un as a more “risk tolerant, aggressive and impulsive” leader than his father Indeed, in August 2016, a leaked report stated that elite North Korean soldiers were being armed with “nuclear backpacks”

These release huge doses of uranium to obliterate enemy forces The same report suggested soldiers had been urged to become a human “nuclear arsenal” in case of war Researchers Joel Wit and Jenny Town believe the risk of a North Korean nuclear strike has escalated thanks to an incident in 2010 The North torpedoed the South Korean ship ROKS Keonan, killing 46 South Korea did not respond in kind

Wit and Town argue that the absence of a reprisal by South Korea empowered Pyongyang to undertake more violent forms of diplomacy However, the US is now developing devastating counter-strike capabilities with South Korea This is a significant deterrent given the vast superiority of American military technology and financial resources And, with almost 1500 nuclear weapons, the American arsenal is 100 times larger than North Korea’s

This vast imbalance suggests that North Korea may simply be posturing Considering it has threatened nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula several times and never followed through, this seems likely In May 2016 Kim Jong-Un revealed that he would only use nuclear weapons in response to being attacked He announced his mission was to “build a peaceful world free from war” and that nuclear weapons would only be used if world peace were endangered It is possible that North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal to stabilize its place on the international stage

Many neorealist political scholars, like Kenneth Waltz, argue that when everyone has significant nuclear capabilities, the cost of attack becomes too great for either to strike This strategy is called Mutually Assured Destruction, and its usefulness was shown during the Cold War America and the Soviet Union avoided conflict by keeping the risks too high North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear collection could therefore be a means of self-protection Moreover, while reports of the nuclear backpacks are disturbing, information about North Korea is notoriously unreliable

Anything said by its state news sources is very often propaganda It is likely that if North Korea made pre-emptive nuclear strike, it would result in its own obliteration However, given how fiery and unpredictable its regime can behave, the possibility of North Korea launching nuclear weapons should not be ruled out The scale of its nuclear program is alarming, and does suggest there may be a devastating master plan in the works However, until its nuclear capabilities can be verified, our only option may be to hope the stakes are too high for North Korea, or any other state, to unleash nuclear destruction on the world

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