The Nuclearization of North Korea


North Korea became a nuclear-weapons state in 2006 after successfully performing a nuclear test. It is estimated that it has a nuclear weapons stockpile of 30 to 40 warheads. North Korea was a signatory to NPT until 2003, when it dropped out. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, and after six-party discussions, North Korea agreed to shut down all its key reactors and allow IAEA inspections, but it conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, despite international condemnation.

In September 2017, North Korea successfully conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb with a yield of 100 kilotons that could be delivered by an ICBM. North Korea is concerned about its security and survival and nuclear weapons provide the sense of security which is the reason for the former’s nuclear tests. North Korea’s authoritarian regime is of the view that states like Libya and Iraq were vulnerable as they did not possess weapons of mass destruction and the major powers like the US were successful in changing their regimes. According to reports, North Korea also has biological and chemical weapons, which is a source of concern for the entire world, particularly its neighbors. Even though North Korea is a signatory to the Biological Convention, it is suspected that it has causal agents such as anthrax, smallpox, Botulism, and other diseases. North Korea, on the other hand, is said to have a substantial stockpile of chemical weapons, ranging from 2,500 to 5,000 tons.

Diplomatic Relations of North Korea with Southeast Asian Region

In at least four areas, North Korea maintains positive connections with Southeast Asia: diplomatic presence, visa-free travel, licit trade volume, and illegal economic and financial activity. To begin with, North Korea maintains a strong diplomatic presence throughout Southeast Asia. North Korea has embassies and diplomatic personnel in at least ten countries in South and Southeast Asia, according to statistics from the East-West Center and the National Committee on North Korea: Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the countries represented. North Korea also participated in regional multilateral conferences. In summer 2017, a delegation led by DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Su-Yong, as well as other participants in the ill-fated Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, visited the 24th ASEAN Regional Forum. It’s not just about the diplomatic and economic ties. With security challenges both inside and outside the area, Southeast Asia has become a major site for illegal commercial and financial activity. With the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017, the arms transfer operation with Malaysia has been publicly reported. These two occurrences brought attention to North Korea’s presence in Malaysia and the region. North Korea’s involvement in unlawful activities is not limited to Malaysia; it also extends to other countries. North Korean counterfeit cash was first discovered in the Philippines in 1989. From 2001 to 2015, the Philippines was the target of several North Korean criminal operations and activities. It also served as the major staging area for the 2016 interdiction of vessels flying the North Korean flag in violation of UNSCR 2270.

US Involvement in the Southeast Region

The US policy in the Korean Peninsula is part of a larger framework, as the US is concerned about the spread of nuclear weapons on a global scale, and on a broader scale, the US works with North Korea to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, which can be described as a strategic interest for the US. In a regional context, the United States strives for balance since South Korea is reliant on US extended deterrence. The worldwide interest stems mostly from the United States’ desire to maintain its position as a global leader, which necessitates efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

At the regional level, the United States strives to establish a balance between states to prevent states from engaging in an arms race. At the regional level, the United States strives to establish a balance between states to prevent states from engaging in an arms race. Only Japan’s acceptance of the United States as its security supplier, as well as South Korea’s, is preventing a weapons race between the two countries. In East Asia, US strategy is intertwined with China’s as it strives to deal with China and North Korea through its security alliance with Japan and South Korea, achieving the goal of preventing another hegemon from influencing the region. The United States is working to prevent a war between the two Koreas on the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, through the influence of the US on the ASEAN states, although North Korea was not fully excluded from the regional conference, ASEAN released a statement in August strongly condemning the country’s missile testing and other security acts, which have harmed regional peace and stability. Malaysia terminated visa-free travel for North Korean citizens early this year and restricted travel to North Korea for Malaysian people in late September. This is a significant step for the only country that allows citizens to visit North Korea without a visa. In 2017, India, the Philippines, and Singapore have all announced trade restrictions.

Implications for the Region

The development of nuclear weapons by the DPRK has gotten a lot in the highlights because of the strategic implications. The DPRK’s continued nuclear development has serious consequences for the East Asian area. These trends are likely to jeopardize the peninsula’s previously maintained deterrence stability. North Korea, as a rogue state, could attack South Korea. In addition, the DPRK’s actions may encourage other countries in the region, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, to build nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. This could result in the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. The initial developments centered on increasing pressure on North Korea, with the US focusing not just on North Korea’s ostensibly illicit and/or weapons-grade commercial activity, but more broadly. The emphasis has moved to acting. The Chinese government’s attitude toward North Korea looks to be changing. Analysts have questioned the government’s threat of secondary penalties against Chinese banks, citing the intertwined economies of the US and China, as well as the large financial presence of several of the banks identified in the US. As a result, China’s position shifts. However, some of the groups involved in pushing sanctions evasion believe that this step will allow North Korea to continue “legitimate trade” and that sanctions will not be included in the order. It differs from previous Chinese assertions that it solely applies to weapons-related actions and actors. Even if it is not expressly stated, the endorsement of this principle by the Chinese government and/or Chinese trade and finance personnel will have a significant impact on China’s position. This may result in the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the region. Even though the US nuclear umbrella is now seen as sufficient to deter the DPRK, these countries may pursue nuclear weapons in the long run. This trend of advanced weapon testing has generated a regional arms race, especially on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea, for example, fired four missiles in September 2021, including a cruise missile, a ballistic missile, and a hypersonic missile, causing South Korea to conduct submarine-launched ballistic missile tests for the first time (SLBM). South Korea’s countermeasure of building SLBMs implies that it is unlikely to rely on the US’s extended deterrence in the long run and may instead choose for more powerful armament to secure its security. It’s worth noting that the majority of South Koreans support the development of nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security. This could spark an arms race in East Asia, destabilizing deterrence stability and, as a result, destabilizing the region. Japan also possesses a huge stockpile of plutonium, which is a source of concern for the West. Furthermore, these developments may encourage North Korea to start a war with South Korea, which would have long-term regional and international consequences. The evolution of the United States’ and China’s positions on North Korea is expected to define these nations’ involvement in sanctions enforcement, but some support for expanding their capacity is likely to be required for enforcement to reach its full potential.


North Korea’s actions are causing instability in an already volatile region, making it a possible threat to East Asian regional stability. Relations between the two Koreas have never been stable in the past, and the growth of military technology is making it impossible to maintain a regional equilibrium. Both North and South Korea’s ties are currently shaky, as both have tested new weapons, implying that South Korea has plans to develop nuclear weapons, which would make it hard to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The United States’ participation is critical in that it assures Japan and South Korea that they will not pursue nuclear weapons and will stay reliant on its extended deterrence. In 2017, increased involvement in China and Southeast Asia may alter the argument. In the next months, North Korea may experience increasing pressure, particularly if enforcement is tightened. The question is whether North Korea is under enough pressure to change course. The solution isn’t clear, but the administration appears to be on its way to finding it. As a result, bets on Southeast Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, are more expensive than long-term bets.

Fatima Arshad
Fatima Arshad
Student of Bachelors in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad.


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