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Mainstream, VOL LV No 22 New Delhi May 20, 2017

Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Standoff

Saturday 20 May 2017

by Sudhakar Vaddi

Despite severe economic sanctions, North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has conducted five nuclear tests and launched several long-range rockets including the latest Pukguksong-2 in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions.1 To address the nuclear crises, the US, under President Donald Trump, announced a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ towards the impoverished North Korean regime. However, in spite of these harsh sanctions and external pressures, why is the isolated nation not willing to give up its nuclear arsenal?

There is a historical link to understand this puzzle. The nuclearisation of the Korean penin-sula started with the policy of US nuclear strategy during and after the Korean War days. The War ended with the Korean Armistice Agreement (KAA) in 1953. Though KAA is not a permanent peace solution for the parties, it would help to ensure a complete cessation of hostilities until a final peaceful solution is achieved. The importance or perhaps the heart of the Armistice is Article II Section 13 (d) which ceases the introduction of combat aircraft, armoured vehicles, weapons, and ammunition from abroad to the Korean peninsula. However, the monitoring and supervising authority was assigned to a four-nation Neutral Nations Super-visory Commission (NNSC) consisting of Sweden and Switzerland for North Korea and Poland and Czechoslovakia for South Korea.

Deployment of Nukes

After the Korean War, the US suffered a serious financial deficit.One of the ways to slash the military budget was to reduce the costs for American forces from South Korea. However, this withdrawal may have created an imbalance of military strength on the Korean peninsula because the Chinese Army was stationed in North Korea until 1958.Moreover,Soviet Russia successfully launched its first satellite Sputnik into orbit in 1957 with the inter-continental ballistic missile technology. At this juncture, the deployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea was a only possible option for Washington to opt for. However, it was difficult to introduce nuclear weapons unless the hurdles of Section 13 (d) and the NNSC were cleared.

Washington did play a considerable role to influence Switzerland and Sweden who were the NNSC members in the northern side.2 As a result, by 1958, the NNSC was virtually defunct and the arms control provisions of the armistice had effectively lapsed. Perhaps, the actions of the US were logical due to the Cold War tensions during this phase. Thus the collapse of the NNSC opened the way for the US to introduce nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula. Accor-dingly, the United States Forces of Korea (USFK) did confirm the arrival of the 280 mm atomic cannons and 762 mm Honest John nuclear missiles in South Korea on January 28, 1958. By the mid-1980s, the US brought in more than 1720 nuclear weapons turning South Korea into the biggest nuclear warehouse. This was the starting-point for North Korea’s nuclear ambition.

Subsequently, the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s led Pyongyang to pursue an independent policy of Juche ‘self reliance’ without depending on its communist bloc allies. Further, the biggest challenge and greater pressure came at the time of the end of the Cold War.3 South Korea’s normalisation of diplomatic relations with its former foes, Russia in 1991 and China in 1992, further enhanced Pyongyang’s nuclear aspirations. At this juncture, North Korea found itself encircled by major powers, including neighbour South Korea.

‘Military First’ Policy

Due to the existing security environment, Pyongyang introduced Songun ‘Military First’ policy during the middle of the 1990s to protect its sovereignty. Consequently, the US stepped up for diplomatic talks and concluded an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994.4 Under this pact, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid from the United States, Japan and South Korea through the Korean Energy Development Organi-sation (KEDO) project.

After the 9/11 attacks and subsequent US policy of war on terror, the US has sent mixed signals by including North Korea’s name in an ‘axis of evil’ and also suspended the key energy project for North Korea. Further, in September 2002, the Nuclear Posture Review listed North Korea as a country against which the US should be prepared to use nuclear weapons.5

Since the failure of the US commitment, North Korea announced that it was no more a party to the agreed pact and formally announced it was pulling out from the NPT due to its energy requirements.6 The subsequent hostile policy of the US directly led to North Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006.

Resisting Pressure

For outsiders, North Korea is a nuclear and missile threat to the entire world, but from the inside, the overwhelming consciousness is that of a small country constantly threatened by the powerful ones.7 Economic sanctions on one side and the search for an absolute assurance of protection from enemies as it was gripped with security concerns on the other have made the DPRK a kind of “porcupine state”, resisting foreign bodies by stiffening its quills, rather than by expanding those.8

Enhancing the pressure further, the joint US-South Korea naval drills have become the bone of contention between the parties. The US and South Korea annually hold more than 40 team spirit joint military exercises such as Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military exercises by mobilising more than 500,000 US and South Korean troops with nuclear-powered submarines. On numerous occasions, the leadership of the DPRK has blamed the war exercises as a reason to halt peaceful negotiations and also advanced a proposal for the US suspension of joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity and the DPRK’s moratorium on the nuclear test.9 In fact, China also appealed on many occasions to freeze the joint US-South Korea military drills to normalise the unstable situation in the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing’s Strategic Approach

China is North Korea’s closest ally, but in recent times it supported the UN sanctions resolution against Pyongyang. Nevertheless, Beijing’s prime concern is stability on the Korean peninsula and it fears that any sudden collapse of the regime could send millions of refugees across the border. Moreover, the US’ continued military presence in South Korea engenders geopolitical calculations to prop up the North Korean regime. China has long feared that the United States and its allies seek to encircle or contain China and therefore wants to ensure the continued viability of the North Korean regime as a buffer zone. The pulse of its strategic concern can be understood during the planned US deployment Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea recently. However, China is worried about this radar deployment action which could potentially help the US to detect Chinese missiles and change the strategic balance in the Northeast-Asian region. No doubt, the Chinese front companies and banks have been assisting Pyongyang to evade the scrutiny of international sanctions. Further, so far there is no control on the banned luxury goods since China is in control of a booming network of trade and smuggling across its 870-mile border with North Korea. The recent ban on North Korea’s coal imports can’t be misunderstood as Beijing’s policy approach towards its buffer state. The import ban can be tentative since China has already crossed the current year’s upper limits of coal imports from North Korea.


The ‘maximum pressure’ approach of Washington on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear, ballistic missiles might not have positive results alone. Handling pressure is not a new phenomenon for the North Korean regime. The replacement of the Korean War armistice agreement with a peace treaty is the only way to move away from the current crisis. North Korea has been living under sanctions for quite a long time and still continues with its course.

The insecurity obsession of Pyongyang is unlikely to remove the nuclear missile blanket unless it receives solid guarantees of a formal peace settlement. The situation with North Korea can be settled by the leaders who genuinely want peace more than war. 


1. North Korea is prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile launches under the UN Security Council resolutions. In the past the UNSC has passed resolutions no. 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2321 (2016) respectively.

2. Park Tae Gyun, “The Korean Armistice System and the Origins of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Incidents“, Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, 24, no. 1, 2011, p. 118.

3. Mitchell Reis, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capability (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), p. 231.

4. North Korea announced in 1993 that it was withdrawing from the treaty, but later suspended the decision and entered talks with the United States.

5. The US-North Korea Agreed Framework at a Glance,, (accessed on April 4, 2017).

6. “US Ruptured Denuclearisation Process”, Korean Central News Agency, May 12, 2003.

7. Gavan Mccormack, “North Korea’s 100th—To Celebrate or To Surrender?”, The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2012, p. 6.

8 Gavan McCormack, “Security Council Condemnation of North Korean ‘UFO’ Deepens Korean Crises“, The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2009, p. 3.

9 “North Korea offers to suspend nuclear tests if U.S. suspends Military Drills”, Reuters, January 10, 2015,, (accessed on April 5, 2017).

Dr Sudhakar Vaddi is a Research Associate at the Bharat Informal Workers Initiative (BHIWI), New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: sudhajnu[at]

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