North Korea is Going Nuclear. It's Time to Fight Back. | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

North Korea is Going Nuclear. It’s Time to Fight Back.

Comment Writer Colum Hawken argues that the world can no longer rely on the US to defend it from North Korea

North Korea has sought a nuclear capability that can threaten the American homeland for decades, and the launch on the Hwasong-14 missile on July 4th signalled that this is now within reach. This successful test suggests that soon North Korean may be able to threaten US cities and change Washington’s strategic calculus.

The North Korean nuclear arsenal has taken great leaps forward, despite the sanctions against the Kim regime. The newly tested Hwasong-14 missile’s true range is unknown, but can be speculated from its flight path, and distances of up to 8000km have been estimated. This would put Hawaii within range, but even conservative estimates suggest that Alaska is a viable target. Therefore, while the Hwasong-14 cannot yet strike the continental US, the development of this two stage missile suggests that even the East Coast will eventually be within reach as missile research continues. While North Korea lacks fissionable material to make a great deal of nuclear weapons, the ability to destroy even one or two American cities would dramatically change US strategy.

Even conservative estimates suggest that Alaska is a viable target

The First Gulf War showed the Kim regime that nuclear weapons were the only way to prevent a US invasion. The plan for these nuclear weapons in the event of hostilities is almost certainly to utilise a number of short range nuclear missiles to destroy major port facilities, airfields and troop concentrations throughout South Korean and Japan. This would have invited an American nuclear response, but now it is questionable whether the US would risk the destruction of their own cities for their allies. Therefore, this new missile and further development potentially provides the North with the way to potentially win a clash with the South. So what can the US actually do about this?

The US has only a few options. The first, a withdrawal or negotiated troop presence reduction in exchange for reductions in the North Korean missile programme. This is unlikely and ill advised. Firstly, the hawkish Trump administration is unlikely to just back down. Secondly, doing so would set a precedent that nuclear armed countries can bully their way to international power, no matter how much they mistreat their own citizens. Moreover, the US withdrawing from the region could result in increased nuclear proliferation, risking instability and nuclear conflict.

The US withdrawing from the region could result in increased nuclear proliferation, risking instability and nuclear conflict

The other two potential options are either a pre-emptive strike on North Korean WMD sites or alternatively containment of the North. The former currently is still potentially viable. However, such an approach is very risky as it is unknowable whether every missile could be destroyed, and the Kim regime might decide to just ‘go down swinging’ if it got wind of such a plan. At best the plan is risky and at worst could result in millions of deaths. The alternative is containment. This is probably the most promising option, as the THAAD missile defence system has so far been very effective during tests. Moreover, China (the North’s only ally) is losing patience with these antagonistic tests and has threatened to close Korea’s land border in the event of another nuclear test. The downside of this is that it risks the dispersal of WMD to non-state actors if the Kim regime suddenly collapses.

What does this mean for the UK? Currently, the North cannot strike the UK, nor would they have any real desire to. So, is North Korea a threat? Yes; but only indirectly. If more US troops are needed in Korea then there will need to be reductions in other theatres like Europe. This could spur Putin on to further action against the Baltic States. Ultimately the US has few good options against Korea, and if such an impoverished state can challenge the US then there are few who cannot. This is a time of a plethora of security challenges for the US, with more troops deploying to Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula in turmoil, and China unveiling a new base in Djibouti. The US is approaching strategic overstretch. This means that Britain and Europe as a whole must do more to provide for their own security. The time to rely on the US and underspend on defence is gone.


Article by Colum Hawken


26th July 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from

Zennie Abraham