We Have Nuclear Weapons — Why Not North Korea?

We Have Nuclear Weapons — Why Not North Korea?

By John McLaughlin


Because we are talking about weapons that can wipe out humanity.

By John McLaughlin

OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week.OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week. We want to hear your thoughts: thirdrail@ozy.com

Our question this week: Should North Korea and others be allowed to have nuclear weapons if the U.S. can? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

Below, senior OZY columnist and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin weighs in. 

Should North Korea and others be allowed to have nuclear weapons if the U.S. can? NO! But there’s a separate practical question that’s just as important: Can we prevent North Korea and others from getting these weapons?

When it comes to nuclear proliferation, there are some rules that most of the world has accepted, thanks to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  It was signed by President Johnson in 1968 and eventually by nearly 200 other countries (India, Pakistan and Israel never signed; North Korea withdrew from the treaty). Signatories that don’t yet have nuclear weapons pledge never to acquire them. The states that already possessed them — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — pledged to reduce their arsenals and eventually eliminate them (compliance has been intermittent and spotty). They also agreed to sell nuclear technology to non-nuclear states only when it can be established that it is for peaceful purposes, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is charged with ensuring compliance.

North Korea [is] a cash-starved economy that has shown willingness to sell its sensitive weapons technology.

So the first reason for not being permissive about North Korea getting nuclear weapons is because Pyongyang breaks the rules that most of the world accepts.

And the second reason is that those rules are there for a compelling — and obvious — reason: Nuclear weapons and their spread are dangerous in the extreme. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it’s obvious that these weapons, if unleashed in an escalating battle, could wipe out entire swaths of humanity, or perhaps humanity itself.

A third reason? Terrorists are trying to get their hands on nuclear materials, many of which are not well-secured globally. The IAEA says it investigates 150–200 reports a year of nuclear material that is out of “regulatory control,” and I personally recall incidents in which significant quantities of highly enriched uranium were found on smugglers moving across the Georgian border from Russia.


This of course is a major concern with North Korea, a cash-starved economy that has shown willingness to sell its sensitive weapons technology. The United Nations says North Korea sells conventional arms in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. And it has long been known that Iran’s medium-range Shahab missiles are derived from North Korea’s No Dong missile class. We do not yet have firm evidence of North Korean nuclear transfers, but that seems a logical next step for Pyongyang.

The problem we have in limiting nuclear weapons is twofold: First, it’s an old technology, dating back at least to the 1930s, so it’s no longer a big, hard-to-get secret. Second, insecure countries like North Korea think, with some justification, that nuclear weapons will protect them. So once countries obtain the expertise and start moving with that motivation, reversing the trend is very hard.

That’s the case with North Korea, which now has enough nuclear warheads — an average of all the estimates suggests around 20–25 — that simple persuasion is no longer feasible. Their missile tests indicate that the North is getting close to an intercontinental delivery system, although it may not yet be able to marry warheads to missiles and guide them accurately.

At this point, we have three choices: Live with a nuclear North Korea and seek to deter its potential use of weapons by making clear it would be suicidal; seek to freeze or limit its program through a combination of negotiations and financial pressures; or apply some combination of sticks (economic sanctions and missile defense) and carrots (economic sweeteners and assurances against attempted regime change) with the aim of eliminating its nuclear weaponry.

None of these options are good, which is why so many policy experts now call this the “problem from hell.” But the dangers and uncertainties of a nuclear-armed North Korea are such that it is too soon to give up the idea of abolishing its program — while also laying the foundation for reliance on the other strategies, based largely on deterrence, should that fail.