Time to Downplay North Korea’s Nuclear Program
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By Peter Murphy

Time to Downplay North Korea’s Nuclear Program

Apr. 08, 2017  |     |  0 comments

North Korea continues to dominate headlines as the media, global security analysists, and world leaders alike continue to sensationalize every provocative weapon test the hermit state attempts. Meanwhile, the major stakeholders in the region, the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia, have remained unable or unwilling to cooperate on an effective policy for dealing with North Korea. Instead they have allowed three generations of Kim dictators to keep North Korea internationally relevant through provocative acts of brinkmanship and terrorism, and allowed North Korea to consume the focus and diplomatic energy of the major stakeholders of Northeast Asia while keeping the region in a perpetual state of tension.

Perhaps it is time to respond to North Korea’s antics not with hysteria and sensationalism, but rather by downplaying the significance of the hermit state’s nuclear weapons capability. Intuitively, the world knows that a nuclear North Korea is not a positive development. But it might not be as “game changing” as the sensational headlines and soundbite statements would lead people to believe. North Korea’s biggest gain from nuclear weapons may very well be the prestige that foreign sensationalism creates. Perhaps it is time to borrow some rhetoric from another communist dictator and declare North Korea’s nuclear weapons to be a “Paper Tiger.”

Nuclear Weapons as a “Paper Tiger”

The late Chinese Communist Party Chairman, Mao Zedong, famously declared nuclear weapons to be a “Paper Tiger.” This was at a time when the young People’s Republic of China had not yet achieved its own nuclear arsenal and was potentially vulnerable to pressure from the great powers of the early Cold War era. Through this statement, Mao tried to undermine any leverage that the US (or the Soviet Union) could gain over China by denying that such weapons had any decisive power.

The logic of this came from Mao’s assumption that the great powers would not actually use nuclear weapons, reconfirmed by the defeat of the US-supported Chinese Nationalists and the US experience in the Korean War (Powell, 1965). Therefore, the actual use of nuclear weapons is their value in either deterrence or coercion. In rejecting the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in a possible war on Chinese soil, Mao was essentially calling the bluff of the great powers, undermining any coercive advantage they might try to gain through implicitly or explicitly threatening nuclear weapon use against the then still very underdeveloped China.

A similar logic could be applied in responding to North Korea’s incessant nuclear weapon and ballistic missile testing. Instead of sensationalizing every provocative North Korean test, the regional powers can choose to downplay the significance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and essentially declare them to be a “Paper Tiger.” By doing this the international community can undermine whatever political power North Korea stands to gain from continuing to develop nuclear weapons. But first one must understand why North Korea believes it needs nuclear weapons in the first place.

The Purpose of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

As Kaplan and Baker (2013) have argued, the Kim regime needs nuclear weapons for its survival. Kim Jong-un, like his father before him, does not want to find himself deposed like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. The prevailing narrative is that Kim Jong-un needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent against an invasion or regime change.

This begs the question, however; how strong is North Korea’s deterrence without nuclear weapons? John Mueller argued in 1988, shortly before the end of the Cold War, that counter to what most academics and military experts believed, nuclear weapons were essentially irrelevant in Cold War deterrence. His argument followed the logic that absent nuclear weapons, the great powers would still have been deterred from full scale war with each other because industrialized total warfare, as demonstrated in World War II, was sufficiently destructive and deterring (Mueller, 1988).

North Korea was and still is capable of causing thousands of casualties with little to no warning. And the US and other stakeholders could topple the hermit state any time they choose.

One could also apply this logic to North Korea. North Korea possesses a large concentration of conventional artillery and ballistic missiles within striking distance of the greater Seoul metropolitan area, a densely-populated area with more than 24 million residents. Despite some recent analysis that suggests that North Korea’s conventional capability is in poorer shape than often reported (DePetris, 2017), the fact remains that any attack from North Korea could easily result in thousands of civilian casualties in the highly urban Seoul area.

To argue that nuclear weapons provide a deterrent against an invasion by US or South Korean forces means that, absent nuclear weapons, the US or South Korea would be likely to pursue regime change by force in North Korea. Yet there is no analysis that can show that the US decision making calculus cannot accept a small-yield nuclear weapon strike in Japan or Guam but is somehow willing to accept thousands of South Korean civilian casualties.

The calculus essentially remains the same. The risk of civilian casualties renders a military strike against North Korea terribly reckless and inadvisable. Conversely, whether Kim Jong-un fires a nuclear weapon at Guam or a conventional barrage at Seoul, the response would be swift retaliation that would end his reign. The reality of North Korea’s deterrence, therefore, is not changed by the possession of a few nuclear weapons and some higher-tech ballistic missiles.

What Kim Jong-un really gains from his nuclear weapons, then, is status and bargaining power. It is against these effects that a Mao-like “Paper Tiger” policy could be effective. There would be several advantages for the international community to downplay North Korea’s nuclear threat, rather than to sensationalize it constantly. First, it would no longer reward the Kim regime with attention and inflated status. North Korea is a self-made pariah and Kim Jong-un commands an economically pitiful state. Yet North Korea receives the attention, and in some cases the status, commensurate to a regional power by rattling its nuclear sabre. The international community could end this by responding to Kim’s dramatic behavior with less hysteria.

Second, declaring North Korea’s nuclear threat to be a “Paper Tiger” can change the narrative of the Northeast Asian security situation. The reality in Northeast Asia is a geopolitical contest between China, the US, South Korea, Japan, and to a lesser extent, Russia. These countries need to figure out how they are going to cooperate or compete, i.e., how the alliance structure will evolve as the Cold War drifts further into the past. North Korea is a distraction. North Korea provides the regional players a pretense for increased militarization while pretending that a rising China is not the real issue. Downplaying the North Korean threat can bring some calm back into the region and allow the more responsible regional players to focus on the many important issues between them. The regional powers will see little success in addressing issues of trade policy, territorial disputes, military posturing, and freedom of navigation while North Korea is allowed to monopolize the focus of the region.


North Korea is a threat. It has been for nearly seven decades. Yet the basic dynamics of the dilemma have not really changed since before North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. North Korea was and still is capable of causing thousands of casualties with little to no warning. And the US and other stakeholders in the region could invade and topple the hermit state any time they choose. As successive generations of North Korea’s Kim regime have continued to pursue their nuclear weapons program, they have not changed that basic situation, but have instead succeeded in creating a sensationalized instability which they then have been able to exploit for aid handouts and inflated influence in bilateral and multilateral forums.

Downplaying North Korea’s nuclear threat is not a solution to the Korea problem, but it is a course of action that might be more useful in the near term in order to allow the stakeholders in Northeast Asia to focus on one another and other relevant issues. Perhaps if the regional powers find ways to cooperate on more productive issues, they can establish a more stable political environment in the region. Perhaps from a less hysterical and less sensationalized political and security environment, they will eventually agree on a constructive and collective policy towards North Korea as well.


Powell, R. L. (1965). Great powers and atomic bombs are “paper tigers”. The China Quarterly, 23, 55-63.

Robert, D., Kaplan, R. D. & Baker, R. (2013). Why North Korea needs nukes. Stratfor.

Mueller, J. (1988). The essential irrelevance of nuclear weapons: Stability in the postwar world. International Security, 13(2), 55-79.

DePetris, D. R. (2017). Is North Korea’s military the ultimate paper tiger (that could still kill millions)? The National Interest. Retrieved from http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-skeptics/north-koreas-military-the-ultimate-paper-tiger-could-still-19121

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