March 26, 2015

Is North Korea a Nuclear State?

By Van Jackson

If the global norm against nuclear proliferation is to retain meaning, North Korea must remain isolated from the international community in certain respects.  But that doesn’t mean the United States or South Korea should be allowed to conduct naïve policy and planning toward North Korea.  Recognizing the threat we are dealing with on the Korean Peninsula—a nuclear-armed North Korea—is a distinct proposition from allowing North Korea to rejoin the international community.

In recent congressional testimony and in other forums, I variously described North Korea as a “virtual” and “de facto” nuclear state, as part of a larger argument about military planning.  Subsequently the chairman of South Korea’s Saenuri Party—whose members control the National Assembly and the Presidency—suggested it was time for South Korea to “recognize” (“in-jeong”) North Korea as a nuclear state.  This has set off a firestorm.  Unfortunately, public commentary and government rhetoric has confused the difference between the multiple meanings—and implications—of “recognition.”

So why describe North Korea as a “virtual nuclear state” at all?  Doesn’t that risk making North Korea’s nuclear weapons a kind of “new normal” or signal acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear program?  On the contrary.  The standard phrasing about North Korea’s nuclear program—that the United States will never accept North Korea as a nuclear state—removes all sense of urgency from public discourse about North Korea policy.  The result is that North Korea is left to build and expand its nuclear and missile programs, moving ever closer to an assured retaliation capability.  The long-term trajectory of North Korea’s nuclear program demands a sense of urgency because there’s no obvious plan in place to prevent it from achieving its aims.  Refusing to acknowledge that North Korea is moving toward capabilities commensurate with a de jure nuclear state downplays the seriousness of the threat.

Read the dull op-ed at The Diplomat.

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • October 15, 2018
    If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War

    In a little under three decades, nuclear weapons have gone from center stage to a sideshow in U.S. defense strategy. Since the 1990s, the United States has drastically reduced...

    By Elbridge Colby

    • Commentary
    • March 29, 2016
    Trump's nuclear views are terrifying: Column

    The contours of Donald Trump’s foreign policy are becoming disturbingly clear. Newspapers have labeled his thinking on international affairs "isolationist” and “unabashedly no...

    By Mira Rapp-Hooper

    • Congressional Testimony
    • November 3, 2015
    Elbridge Colby before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces

    Elbridge Colby testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on adapting U.S. nuclear strategy and posture to a more contested and competitive wor...

    By Elbridge Colby

    • Reports
    • October 28, 2015
    A Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2030

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow Elbridge Colby offers the outlines of a revised nuclear policy and posture that adapts the United States' long-standing approach to nuclear weapo...

    By Elbridge Colby

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia