Threat from North Korean missiles in Northeast Asia

Are North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Threats Real? (P1)

The following is a two-part analysis on North Korea and the threat it poses to the international security system. 

By Patty Zakaria

Concepts & Thoughts

Toronto–On April 23 2016, the Democratic Republic of Korea [North Korea, hereafter] fired a ballistic missile from a submarine off its eastern coast, which further escalated tensions with South Korea and heightened concerns about the security situation in the region. The latest military move by Pyongyang demonstrates that the security situation on the Korean peninsula is progressively becoming more unstable, prompting calls for the international community to take action.

The nuclear doctrine of the Democratic Republic of Korea can be traced back to its political goals and national strategy since the regime’s creation in 1948, which are state survival, the protection of national sovereignty, and unification with the South (Cha, 2002). North Korea’s nuclear aspirations were also influenced by its opponents, such as the United States, South Korea, and Japan. These influences are entwined with North Korea’s primary goal of state and regime survival. During the Korean War in the 1950s, the United States utilized its nuclear monopoly on several occasions to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict in its favor (Norris & Kristensen, 2006). Following the war and the re-establishment of the 38th north parallel dividing North and South Korea, the United States continued its political and military support of the South as well as Japan.

This situation created a security dilemma for North Korea, and in response, Kim Il Sung became determined in the late 1970s to acquire nuclear weapons in order to balance the threat posed by the United States (Cha, 2002). Additionally, North Korea’s nuclear program was and still is driven by the existential threat posed to its survival by South Korea’s economic growth and military partnership with the United States. Moreover, South Korea developed its own nuclear weapons program in 1970; this posed an existential threat to North Korea’s survival due to their close proximity. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted four underground nuclear tests (2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016); however, its nuclear weapons and delivery systems remain very limited. The present report analyzes the threat to international security and the military balance in Northeast Asia posed by North Korea’s attempt to develop additional nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles capabilities. Part Two of this report puts forward a cooptation option to deal with North Korean proliferation and missile development, given that both UN sanctions and diplomacy have failed.

ANALYSIS: Is the threat real?

This report seeks to answer the following question: is North Korea’s threat to international security and military balance in Northeast Asia real? From the start, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has posed and continues to pose a threat to international security and has impacted the military balance in Northeast Asia. Before proceeding with this argument, a quick discussion of North Korea’s recent nuclear weapon and missile development is necessary. According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, North Korea possesses four to eight nuclear weapons; despite the size of its nuclear possession, North Korea has only been able to test short-range and medium-range missiles, and so far lacks long-range missile capabilities (2013). It is now plausible that North Korea has made progress in developing smaller and more light-weight weapons, which can be better positioned on missiles. Additionally, Pyongyang has had a longstanding goal of advancing its missile program, particularly its long-range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [ICBMs]. It should be noted that ICBMs are strictly used for nuclear warheads. Most if not all of Pyongyang’s short-range and medium-range missiles are notoriously inaccurate. Recently, Pyongyang announced that it has successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic rocket engine; if true, this could possibly increase Pyongyang’s missile range capabilities, allowing them to reach Alaska, Hawaii, and further into the United States (CBC, 2016).

As a rogue government, Pyongyang’s move to increase its nuclear stockpile and improve missile accuracy as well as reliability poses a major threat to international security and the military balance in Northeast Asia. It’s no secret that the regime in Pyongyang is belligerent towards South Korea, the United States, and at times Japan; it has used low-level attacks on South Korean military forces along the DMZ and has sent covert operations into South Korean territory. Pyongyang has never been shy about its ultimate goal of gaining control of the Korean peninsula and its hostility towards the joint American-South Korean military exercises. This has been clearly evident in all of Pyongyang’s military provocations of South Korea and its continued violation of the demarcation line in the DMZ.

north_south_koreaAdditionally, Pyongyang has made deeply irrational and illiberal decisions: political purges; sogun policy, which made the army more powerful in the country than the Communist Party; labour camps; and finally, the complete disregard for the welfare of its own citizens.  A clear example of irrational government decision making was on display in 1995, when the regime blocked food shipments to the entire Northeast region in order to maintain a significant food supply for the capital, where there was critical political support for the regime (Wilson Center, 2002). This situation and the Communist economic system were main factors in the famine that killed millions of North Koreans. With the understanding that the regime is belligerent towards South Korea and prone to irrational decision making, Pyongyang’s withdrawal on January 10, 2003 from the Non-Proliferation Treaty added insult to injury, making the security situation in the region more challenging.

Pyongyang’s latest nuclear and missile tests can and will trigger an arms race in the region, which in turn will threaten security and peace. This situation could force either South Korea or Japan to proliferate in order to deter a potential North Korean attack. Additionally, Pyongyang’s latest provocation could lead to a slippery slope from threats and intimidation tactics to a major conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has proven to be unstable, and we cannot know what its next move will be.

Finally, North Korea’s recent behavior in terms of nuclear weapon and missile development also impacts the military balance in Northeast Asia. It is predicted that by 2020, North Korea will have acquired 50 or more nuclear bombs. If Pyongyang is allowed to proliferate freely without strict military action from the West, which has thus far applied ineffective sanctions, it will contribute to a break in the inter-Korean military balance, thereby further contributing to an arms race and potential escalation for a conflict. Returning to the question at the start of this analysis: is North Korea’s threat to international security and military balance in Northeast Asia real? The answer is yes. So, what’s next in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear quagmire?  Part Two of this report will evaluate the various approaches the international community has undertaken to deal with the threat from Pyongyang.


Arms Control Association. (17 April 2005). The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at a Glance. Available at:

CBC News. (8 April 2016). North Korea claims it successfully tested long-range rocket engine Available at:

Cha, Victor D. (2002). “North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Badges, Shields or Swords? Political Science Quarterly, 117(2): 209-230.

Kim, D. (2013). “Fact Sheet: North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missiles Program” The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.  Available at: missile_programs/

Norris, Robert S., and Hans M. Kristensen. (2012). “Nuclear Pursuits, 2012.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 68(1): 94-98.

Patty Zakaria is a consultant and analyst in international security. She completed her PhD in International Relations from Wayne State University, where she focused on international security, nuclear proliferation, and political corruption. Her other research interests include examination of the impact of nuclear weapons on international politics and disputes, and implications of corruption on economy, society and governance. She has worked as a researcher and lecturer in politics in the United States, Canada, and Croatia. Dr. Zakaria is currently a faculty member at University Canada West, where she teaches political science. She is also a faculty member at Lambton College in Toronto. Dr. Zakaria is an active participant in international and regional conferences in political science and interdisciplinary studies, and continues to publish in major scholarly journals.

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