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Student Instructor

North Korean Nuclear Threat

Kim Jong Un
Nuclear launch

“North Korea is a big worry for all of us.  They’re not at the point right now where they can effectively hit U.S. targets, but each time that they test—even if those tests fail—they learn something.”

— Barack Obama, president of the United States, May 26, 2016

2.1 The Issue

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades, to the dismay of Western countries and its neighbors in East Asia. Some U.S. military officials now believe that North Korea has the capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, although tests have not proved such capability yet. In September 2017, North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test and declared that the country had perfected its nuclear warhead design, hinting at the ability to launch a nuclear weapon on a missile. Whether North Korea has the ability to accurately deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States is unconfirmed, but most analysts agree that North Korea has a reliable nuclear weapons capability to strike Japan and South Korea.

The United States, alongside other countries and the United Nations, has used sanctions and diplomacy to try to convince North Korea’s leadership to change direction and denuclearize. Despite these efforts, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, believes his country should be a nuclear weapons state and continues to pursue the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. He is also determined to deter any initial conventional or nuclear attack by the United States by building a nuclear arsenal that could survive such a strike. Analysts believe that if Kim Jong-un gains these capabilities, dealing with the North Korean threat will become much more difficult for both the United States and other countries.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting


U.S. military officials have just told the president that, based on debris recovered from a recent North Korean satellite launch, they now believe North Korea has the nuclear weapons technology needed to reach the west coast of North America. The launch came days after Kim suspended nuclear negotiations with the United States, citing concerns over proposed inspections of its nuclear sites. The director of national intelligence informed the president that the launch, combined with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear tests and its mastery of warhead miniaturization technology, means that the country is for the first time capable of following through on past threats to fire a nuclear-armed missile at the United States. The president has called a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s enhanced capabilities.

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