North Korean Nuclear Threat

Approximately 5 a.m. Sunday, May 14th, the North Korean military conducted a missile test that once again raises concerns about the potential of North Korean nuclear attack. While there are definite risks inherent in any weapons test–especially when conducted by bellicose, dictatorial, and nuclear capable nations–fear related to North Korean nuclear weapons potential should be analysed accurately and realistically (realism here relating to probability rather than IR theory).

A plethora of popular news articles have been published recently that bring attention to possible nuclear attack on the United States. This contributes to a potentially harmful inaccurate hysteria response to perceived threat. Articles that call into question the United States’ preparation for massive Cold War level attacks imply the potential for such attacks to occur at the hands of North Korea. While empirical data that can accurately measure the degree to which the American public believes a nuclear holocaust level attack is possible is lacking, a non-empirical analysis seems to indicate that such a belief is common. It would be extremely useful for those with the expertise to do so to conduct a comprehensive study that can provide accurate metrics to reveal public perception of nuclear threat.

Nevertheless, assuming that the American public does possess a perception of likely widespread nuclear attack on the United States, proper risk assessment debunks this perceived threat. To date, the tested capabilities of North Korea have not indicated an ability to successfully carry out a nuclear missile attack upon the continental United States. Even with the most liberal of predictions, a single small scale nuclear attack upon the Western seaboard of the United States remains a far out possibility. Therefore, a North Korean nuclear capability should not spawn a fear of nuclear annihilation among United States citizens.

That being said, United States citizens should be very concerned about North Korean missile attacks that indicate a potential nuclear missile capability. While realist concerns of self-preservation are not directly linked to missile tests, the liberal implications for treaties, economic security, and the well being of Allies and fellow humans alike should raise great concern. Paul Bracken eloquently explains that North Korean nuclear capability is not akin to a house invader actually threatening you and your family’s life. What North Korean can do is walk into your home and shoot their own brains out leaving a horrendous mess. This colorful example helps to elucidate that North Korea is not able to directly cause harm to the American public. However, they can completely destabilize the economies of South Korea, Japan, and China–the implications of which should be apparent.

Therefore, from an IR theory analysis, North Korea poses a threat according to neo-realism to the economic security and stability of the United States through the complete disruption of East Asian trade, industry, and economic production. From a purely unit level perspective, this would have immediate and far reaching implications for every American citizen. Furthermore, the transfer of power in the region could have potential security implications. Defense assets would be in a heightened state not present since arguably the Second World War–at least the height of the Cold War. Such tense states of defense assets greatly increases the likelihood of both intentional and accidental violent conflict. Therefore, the neo-realist assessment of a North Korean nuclear attack in the East Asian region sees both severe unit and systemic level destabilizations that would not be for the benefit of and concerned party.

In addition, proponents of the neo liberal perspective should also see far reaching negative results of a North Korean nuclear missile strike in East Asia. The complete upheaval of treaties that ensure the protection of weaker nations against Chinese aggression would pose great threat to the sovereignty of these nations. The possibility of maintaining diplomacy in the turmoil sure to follow a nuclear attack would be greatly strained. Diplomats from all concerned parties would be hard pressed to remain ahead of the frenetic pace of developments sure to ensue.

Aside from the implications of international relations, all people of the world should be greatly concerned considering the destruction of human life resulting from a nuclear missile strike in East Asia. Potentially millions of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc., lives hang in the balance. This fact should alarm all people that should not necessitate the immediate threat to oneself.

Therefore, American people should be greatly concerned with every North Korean nuclear missile test not for its implications for nuclear attack upon the United States but the resultant loss of life, destabilization of world economy and defense security, and the upheaval of international law and treaty. It should be the concern of diplomats, defense analysts, strategists, etc., to seek to quickly and peacefully find a way to end the threat of North Korean nuclear capability deftly and carefully. Hopefully, optimism surrounding the recent South Korean elections give promise for the near future.


Bracken, Paul, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, New York: Times Books.

Fifield, Anna, “North Korea launches a ballistic missile that flies about 450 miles,” Washington Post May 13, 2017, accessed May 13, 2017 at launches-a-missile-that-flies-450-miles/2017/05/13/e1647da8-382c-11e7-99b0-dd6e94e786e5_story.html?tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.5baf83708d82

Bump, Phillip, “What to worry about when you worry about North Korea,” Washington Post, March 19, 2017, accessed May 13, 2017 at what-to-worry-about-when-you-worry-about-north-korea/?utm_term=.fc7073fb107c


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