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What is the North Korea-US nuclear threat all about?

North Korea tested a ballistic missile on Friday, in spite of US warning. What happens next?

Written by Tarishi Verma | Updated: April 29, 2017 2:27:15 pm
north korea, north korea US, donald trump, trump, trump north korea, rex tillerson, kim jong un, north korea nuclear weapons, north korea nuclear armament, US north korea conflict, north korea nuclear threat, north korea missile test, ICBM, taepodong-2, north korea missiles, US nuclear weapons, donald trump, trump, trump north korea, rex tillerson, world news, US news, North Korea news The two leaders, Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of US, have come to head to head with the former’s latest missile test. (File)

The United States of America has been at odds with North Korea since the latter started developing its own nuclear weapons that put US at visible risk. North Korea on Friday test-fired a ballistic missile, four days after its 85th military anniversary, further aggravating this equation. However, according to reports, this was North Korea’s fourth unsuccessful missile test since March. In response to this test, Donald Trump tweeted that through this test firing, North Korea has disrespected China, adding that the test was unsuccessful.

The test comes after the UN Security Council meeting on Friday where US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the “very real threat” of North Korea launching a nuclear attack on Japan or South Korea. Tillerson said all options to deal with the threat were on the table. He also acknowledged that failure to deal with this threat could cause mass destruction. This was preceded by a week full of ambiguous policies of the Trump administration for North Korea.

Somewhere between aggression and patience

According to an analysis by Vox, the policies of former presidents have been different from each other. The Clinton administration tried negotiations, Bush administration suspended all talks, and the Obama administration waited and watched, terming their policy as “strategic patience”. The Trump administration, however, has been unclear in what its policy will be. It has flitted from aggression to “strategic patience” in the past two weeks.

On Wednesday this week, officials were hauled into a bus and taken to the White House to be briefed on the policy. In this meeting, the administration said it was looking at economic sanctions and diplomacy with its allies (mainly China) in order to curb the nuclear proliferation. This meeting, however, left officials dissatisfied as it was similar to previous policies.

Also Read | North Korea test-fires ballistic missile in defiance of world pressure

On Thursday, Rex Tillerson did a U-turn on his own statement made a month ago and said he was open to “direct negotiations” with the country. Earlier, he had suspended any possibility of negotiations. Vox analyses that these policies essentially mean the administration is sticking to its predecessor’s policy of “strategic patience” even though the officials deny the same; but what the administration wants is still not clear.

On Friday, however, in an interview published by Reuters, US President Donald Trump said that a conflict was very much possible with North Korea.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult.”

In spite of this heady warning, however, North Korea went ahead and tested its ballistic missile, showing defiance in its action. The Trump administration is also keen on pushing China towards economic sanctions over North Korea since China is where it gets most of its economic resources from. If China cuts the trade significantly, North Korea will lose out on major resources required to build these nuclear weapons.


Among all of its nuclear weapons, the US could be most wary of North Korea successfully testing the Taepodong-2, which is an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) missile with a range of 15,000 km. This missile, if launched, can cause destruction in major US cities; a narrative long held by most major news organisations in the country. While the US and Russia have had this missile since the Cold War during which this was used for military threats, North Korea has unsuccessfully tested it under the garb of testing a rocket engine.

North Korea does have a huge stockpile of small and medium range missiles that can be used to launch a nuclear attack on Japan and South Korea, which are strong US allies and 62,000 US troops that are stationed in these countries. North Korea has been trying to develop these weapons for the past 10 years and has managed to downsize the nuclear weapon that will be attached to the missiles, thus coming closer to developing the Taepodong-2.

Long Term Consequences

The US has maintained that an aggressive rogue state should not be given access to nuclear weapons. In the face of such far reaching consequences, Trump administration is still shaky with its North Korea policy and Donald Trump has, in addition, launched an attack on South Korea by asking it to pay for the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Also Read | What is THAAD: Everything you need to know about the US anti-missile system

North Korean dictators – Kim Jong Un and predecessors Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung – have maintained that nuclear armament is necessary for security of the country, beginning their nuclear arms program in 1962 for “all-fortressization”, which has led to the extreme military state of the country today. While it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it backed out of it in 2003 and has continued to test its nuclear weapons since 2006.

Even so, with the economic sanctions that the US can impose – though not as major as North Korea’s trade ally, China – the balance is tipped in favour of US. For North Korea, the development of Taepodong-2 successfully will help secure the odds in its favour. The development of its nuclear weapons will also force US allies South Korea and Japan to develop nuclear weapons of its own as it lies under direct threat from North Korea, even with its mid-range ballistic missiles. This will cause nuclear proliferation, violating the terms of the non-proliferation treaty signed by these countries.

North Korea has defied not just the US but also the UN in its ballistic missile test. With consecutive tests since the beginning of the year, North Korea seemingly remains undaunted by the war of words happening against it. It remains to be seen what concrete action US takes against it.

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