North Korea is a nuclear power. Here’s why the world just has to live with it.

March 10, 2016
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) reacts as he watches a long range rocket launch in North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 7, 2016. North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday carrying what it has called a satellite, but its neighbors and Washington denounced the launch as a missile test, conducted in defiance of U.N. sanctions and just weeks after a nuclear bomb test.  Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN. - RTX25T51

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) reacts as he watches a long-range rocket launch in North Korea, February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Kyodo

What are Washington and its allies to do about North Korea? In January, Pyongyang tested its fourth nuclear device. It launched a satellite in February to gather additional data for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. Meanwhile, North Korean engineers keep cranking out weapons material that could fuel dozens of nuclear bombs in years to come.

The international response continues to be ineffective. After much pouting from concerned countries, the United Nations Security Council recently responded to the new round of tests with an impressive new collection of sanctions.

The sanctions promise to halt the movement of contraband by monitoring North Korean commerce moving in and out of the country, prohibit the export of jet and rocket fuel to Pyongyang, block the North’s ability to conduct international financial transactions and ban the export of North Korean coal and minerals. But they are not enough. Even combined with the previous sanctions, this will not move the North off its nuclear pedestal. It is simply too late.

First, it is inconceivable that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would give up the weapon that places his nation in the exclusive global nuclear club. Pyongyang has invested so much and come so far to mature a nuclear program that provides it with an atomic deterrent and a means of intimidation. Second, history repeatedly shows that sanctions are unlikely to be fully enforced or sufficient to squeeze North Korea.

Washington and its allies must now come to the realization that it is time to adapt.

Adaptation has already begun. South Korea has made a multi-year commitment to increase its military budget and modernize its conventional forces. It has begun deploying longer-range surface-to-surface missiles and is acquiring U.S. F-35 strike aircraft. Seoul is talking with Washington about installing the sophisticated missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD. Collectively, beefing up of its conventional forces bolsters Seoul’s deterrence capabilities.

Yet many in South Korea still fear that Seoul’s military buildup will not be enough. Some conservative legislators and others both in and out of government have called for the country to go nuclear. Were that to occur, Seoul would follow the path of several countries — the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Pakistan — that responded in kind to their adversaries’ possession of nuclear weapons.

However, any move by South Korea to break its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty vows would pit it against its crucial ally, Washington, which doggedly opposes nuclear proliferation whether by friend or foe.

In addition, nuclear acquisition would present South Korea with its own challenges. Though the country has the technical capacity to build a bomb, it could take years for it to perfect a delivery device and marshal an effective deterrent, or use doctrine. The effort would prove costly because it would divert scarce defense dollars from other vital security needs. It would also raise the ire of China.

Impressing upon North Korea that no good will come from its bomb remains critical. It raises the question of whether more good could come from Washington’s return of nuclear weapons to South Korea — the United States removed them in 1991 as the Cold War ended.

Given North Korea’s unabated nuclear development, is it time to reassess that 1991 decision? Re-installing the weapons would raise a host of additional issues: Would deployment enhance deterrence or make Pyongyang more trigger happy? Would it provide Seoul enough reassurance to eliminate any inclination to go nuclear? Or is offshore deployment enough?

Then, there is the matter of Beijing’s response. Would the return of the bomb to South Korean soil prompt a major dustup in Sino-U.S. relations? Or would it demonstrate Washington’s commitment to assure the security of all its East Asian allies?

These open questions deserve robust public debate in the United States and South Korea. But so does another matter, now even more off the radar. Is it time for the United States to reach out to North Korea, to formally concede what it cannot change — namely that North Korea is a nuclear-armed nation — not as any favor to the Stalinist regime but to generate a quid pro quo, the establishment of official liaison offices in the two countries’ capitals?  This would put in place a permanent face-to-face communication link to defuse the risk of war should tensions mount.

The alternative — keeping North Korea ever more isolated — perpetuates the fantasy that Pyongyang still can be sanctioned or otherwise induced to give up its nuclear bombs. Rather, the challenge now is not to bolster quixotic policies but to nurture others that assure Kim’s bomb does not give birth to a 21st-century nuclear war.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Nope. It is not time to bring U.S. nukes to any place. Better to hack the North Korean systems. If we can not do that, then just shut down the CIA right now and send them all home to their mommies. CIA hasn’t done anything good or useful in 50 years. And I’m not sure they even did 50 years ago.

These are the people who dropped the ball on 9/11, then brought us the brilliant WMD reports out of Iraq.

Prove your worth in North Korea. Or lose all funding. Your Choice.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Ramberg, what do you think nuclear submarines are for?

Posted by juhlman | Report as abusive

Yeah, washington is real committed to nuclear non proliferation, that is unless you are an ally like israel or pakistan. In fact the only instances of proliferation worldwide have been encouraged by the USA. congrats on the bovine scat by an author with zero credibility, coming as he does right out of the same gang that brought us the very proliferation I refer to.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

The situation on the Korean peninsula is unstable. In what fairy-tale world does adding nuclear missiles to an unstable situation create stability? The same missiles could be targeted at North Korea or at China. Considering our reaction to Russian missiles in Cuba, what does Ramberg think China’s reaction will be? Ramberg is just another Dr. Strangelove-esque character who missed the closing scene of his own satirical depiction.

Posted by MoozeTraks | Report as abusive

Why move any US nuke anywhere from where they are?

Simply publish the US nuke targetting of North Korea in response any use of nuclear weapons against the US or US military. The first wave of retaliatory strikes are presumably a hundred warheads hitting North Korean military forces, the seat of power, and industry vital to war.

North Korea seems to be headed toward suicide just to inflict a pinprick of harm to the US.

Nukes were understood to be useless for tactical reasons in mountainous Korea, but they can definitely wipe out 80% of what is required for civilization by destroying cities and industry built over centuries in just a few hours.

Posted by mulp | Report as abusive

because we have nukes in South Korea so they balance power with their nukes, thats all, no need elaborate theories

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Just poison him, like we did his old man.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive