Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
The Case for Recognizing North Korea as a Nuclear Power
The Nuclear Taboo
Nuclear weapons have not been used in offensive military action since 1945. Scholar Nina Tannenwald proposes the concept of the “nuclear taboo” as one explanation for this extended peace . The theory dictates that a “widespread popular revulsion against nuclear weapons” has permeated throughout the international community, triggering a self-regulating impulse within state institutions.
The United States demonstrated such revulsion prominently during the Gulf War of 1991. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney asked the chair of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, about nuclear weapons, Powell responded, “Let’s not even think about nukes. You know we’re not going to let that genie loose ." A senior army planner later echoed this sentiment, stating, “You might lose the moral high ground if you use one of those stupid things ."
China is also reluctant to engage nuclear capabilities. The Chinese nuclear arsenal only contains an estimated 260 nuclear weapons, a mere fraction of the many thousands held by other nuclear weapons states. As articulated by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, China’s nuclear weapons are so limited because they are “meant to sufficiently deter nuclear attacks… [they] serve no other purpose.” China also maintains a “no first use” policy, reflecting an institutional opposition to nuclear warfare.
North Korea, on the other hand, has engaged in an accelerated weapons development program under Kim Jong-un to present a formidable and bellicose nuclear threat to the international order. So why is North Korea exempt from the constraints of the nuclear taboo?
The North Korean Problem
First, North Korean leadership is poorly informed. As proposed by the CIA’s Korean Mission Center, Kim Jong-un’s ultimate goal is to ensure the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. To this end, Kim doesn’t actually want to go to war, which would cause a regional security crisis. He only proposes threats and conducts nuclear tests to legitimate North Korea’s geopolitical claims. The political isolation of Kim’s government, however, produces a dangerous environment of misinformation. Kim could, in theory, launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the Pacific, 500 miles off of the coast of California, intending to intimidate American leadership. The United States government, however, could easily interpret this action as a direct attack on U.S. security, and invoke Article 51 of the United Nations charter to strike North Korea. (Article 51 of the United Nations charter outlines the right for countries to act in self-defense.) This skewed understanding of American foreign policy could engender apparent violations of the nuclear taboo.
Furthermore, considerations of morality do not seem to affect the North Korean regime. The nuclear taboo influences countries like the United States and China who are, as the U.S. army official noted during the Gulf War, worried about losing “the moral high ground” on the international stage . North Korea, on the other hand, does not harbor the same concerns. Just last month, KCNA, North Korea’s official broadcasting station, issued a public statement threatening that “the four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by [our] nuclear bomb.” The moral standard that enforces the nuclear taboo in other countries within the international system does not resonate with North Korean leadership.
To address the North Korean problem, the international community must accept the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a nuclear power. Doing so will increase channels of communication between North Korea and the United States, granting Kim insight into the limits of American foreign policy to prevent a potentially catastrophic miscalculation. Moreover, recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state will draw the DPRK further into the international system. This could in turn expose the regime to accepted standards of morality, making it susceptible to the constraints of the nuclear taboo. Finally, publicly accepting North Korea as a nuclear power will at least temporarily validate Kim Jong-un’s desire for legitimacy on the international stage. This validation could alleviate tensions between the United States, China, and North Korea, decreasing the immediate threat and creating opportunities for peaceable negotiations.
In opposition, officials may question the feasibility of negotiating with a hostile, nuclear North Korea. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently stated that he “cannot imagine a condition under which the United States can accept North Korea as a nuclear power.” While these concerns are justified, the question is no longer one of when North Korea will become a nuclear power, but what it will do now that it is one. The DPRK possesses nuclear weapons and has demonstrated the capability to launch ICBMs within striking distance of the United States multiple times in the past six months. Recent tests suggest that North Korea is developing its ability to mount miniaturized nuclear warheads onto these ICBMs. Therefore, the international system should recalibrate and prioritize diplomatic negotiation with full recognition of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, rather than refusing to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
 N. Tannenwald, "The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Normative Basis of Nuclear Non-Use," International Organization 53, no. 3 (1999): 433-68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2601286?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
 Powell, Colin, qtd. in Tannenwald, “The Nuclear Taboo,” 459.
 Anonymous, qtd. in Tannenwald, “The Nuclear Taboo,” 459.
 Anonymous, qtd. in Tannenwald, “The Nuclear Taboo,” 459.
Jessie Dalman is a senior at Stanford University majoring in history with a concentration in conflict studies.
COMMENT FROM RUOLIN ZHAO (January 20, 2018):
I love your analysis on why North Korea is immune to the nuclear taboo. While the United States and China aim to establish themselves as accountable world powers, North Korea has no such agenda but only focuses on its security and legitimacy on the Peninsula. I am glad that you proposed this bold solution.My concern for recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power is that it would set an example for other countries who desire nuclear capabilities to follow. This would directly challenge the hegemony of superpowers and bring even more instability to the world power balance. Also, can the U.S. government afford the disgrace of responding positively to the demand of an authoritarian regime? Will North Korea really assimilate into the international system or will it demand more? These uncertainties are definitely barriers to recognizing North Korea’s nuclear power and achieving better communication with it.
COMMENT FROM HAILE CHEN (December 22, 2018):
This blog has a clear point of view and many relevant ideas to support it. Recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power is a practical solution in a sense. Doing so can probably make Kim happy and ease the tensions on the peninsula. However, my concern is that we will set a bad example at a time when many countries also want to own nuclear weapons. Doing so may accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This problem should also be taken into account when we make decisions.
Haile Chen | December 11, 2017
Ruolin Zhao | December 8, 2017
Yamillet Payano | December 7, 2017
Yunxin Wang | December 7, 2017
Michael Mullaney | December 6, 2017
Hongjin Xu | December 4, 2017
Chenyu Wu | December 3, 2017
Cynthia Wang | December 3, 2017