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Defying the constant warning from the international community, including its ally China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also called North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and launched several long-range rockets including the latest Pukguksong-2[1] in violation of Security Council resolutions.[2] As a result, North Korea has faced severe economic sanctions. However, in spite of these harsh sanctions, the isolated nation is not willing to give up its nuclear arsenal.


 Is North Korea a real threat for the International Community? Is North Korea under pressure to go conduct nuclear tests? Why is Pyongyang using the nuclear card for its survival? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to examine the security and political developments in the Korean peninsula after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement (KAA) in 1953 following the Korean War.


Importance of the Armistice Agreement


The limited character of KAA implies the necessity of political compromise between two parties for a final peaceful settlement, which is expressly stipulated in Paragraph 60, Article IV of the agreement. Therefore, a political conference was to be held within three months of its signing, which resulted in the Geneva Conference of 1954. However, it ended without any agreement between the two parties.[3]After the conclusion of the Geneva Conference, no further political conference has been held till now.[4] As a result, Paragraph 60 of the KAA remained unimplemented, ending any prospect for a peaceful settlement of the Korean question and placing the Korean peninsula in the ceasefire state for almost 65 years.


The heart of the Armistice is Article II, section 13(d) regarding the ban on bringing arms into the peninsula from overseas – “Cease the introduction into Korea of reinforcing combat aircraft, armored vehicles, weapons, and ammunition”; it ceases the introduction into Korea of reinforcing combat aircraft, armoured vehicles, weapons, and ammunition which is monitored by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC).  The NNSC was one of the major aspects in the Armistice agreement to supervise the weaponization of the Korean peninsula after the Korean War.[5] In-fact, around the signing of armistice in 1953 the combined strength of the United Nations (UN) and South Korean troops were superior to that of Chinese and North Korean troops. The United States (US) proposed the establishment of NNSC to monitor any build up of North Korean forces to maintain its upper hand. The mission of the NNSC was to carry out inspections and investigations to ensure implementation of sub-paragraphs 13(c) and 13(d) of the Armistice.


Violation of Truce


After the Korean War, the U.S. suffered a serious financial deficit. Hence, the reduction of military spending for the defence in South Korea could only be achieved through modernization of the equipment used by the United States Forces of Korea (USFK) including deployment of nuclear weapons. Moreover, turning the table down of the U.S. expectations by developing Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), in October 1957, Soviet Russia successfully launched its first satellite Sputnik into orbit. Subsequently, the U.S. Government also suffered a severe setback in December of 1957 when its first artificial satellite, named Vanguard, exploded on the launch pad. The success of Sputnik had a major impact on the Cold War and Washington’s fears that the U.S. had fallen behind the Communist bloc and led its policymakers to accelerate space and weapons programmes.[6] As a result, to counter Moscow, Washington could not afford to delay any more in deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea.  However, it was difficult to introduce nuclear weapons unless the hurdles of Section 13(d) and NNSC were cleared. 


In order to dilute the NNSC, Washington sought the withdrawal of Swiss and Swedish inspectors from North Korea to Demilitarized Zone. If it were to happen, the U.S. could make an attempt to evict Polish and Czechoslovak inspectors out of South Korea. In other words the U.S. Department of State especially had been putting “all possible pressure” on the Swiss and the Swedish to get out of the NNSC.[7] By 1958, the NNSC was virtually defunct and the arms control provisions of the armistice had effectively lapsed. This collapse of NNSC opened the way for the U.S. to introduce nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula.


Nuclearization of Korean Peninsula in 1950s


The U.S. government formally announced its decision to station atomic weapons in South Korea at a meeting of the Military Armistice Commission on June 21, 1957. On June 27, the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China issued a statement arguing that the “action of the United States is not only a flagrant violation of the Korean Armistice Agreement, but also constitutes a threat to peace in the Far East and the World.”[8]


Subsequently, the United States Forces of Korea (USFK) confirmed the arrival of the 280 mm atomic cannons and 762 mm Honest John nuclear missiles in South Korea on January 28, 1958. By the mid-1980s, the U.S. brought in more than 1,720 nuclear weapons including the “Honest John” tactical nuclear missile, the 280mm-caliber atomic gun, the “B-61” nuclear bomb and the nuclear landmine, turning South Korea into the biggest nuclear warehouse.[9] Thus, the initial nuclear deployments in the Korean Peninsula by the U.S. were undoubtedly facilitated by the local arms race that destroyed the arms control provisions of the armistice.


North Korea’s Nuclear Option


In this process of arms race in the East Asian region, Pyongyang was the biggest loser. For North Korea, regional security uncertainty was certainly strong and it was clearly the driving force behind North Korea’s nuclear efforts.[10] An unfinished Korean War on the one side and the deployment of nuclear weapons during 1950s, the next logical step for Pyongyang was to protect its sovereignty from the U.S. forces in Korean peninsula.  However, the Sino-Soviet split in late 1950s led Pyongyang to pursue an independent policy of Juche – ‘self reliant’ – without depending on its communist bloc allies. Further, the biggest challenge and greater pressure came at the time of the end of the Cold War.[11] South Korea’s normalization of diplomatic relations with its former foes Russia in 1991 and China in 1992 further enhanced Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition. North Korea found itself encircled by major powers, including neighbour South Korea which had either developed their own nuclear weapons or deployed U.S. nuclear weapons on their territory. Due to the existing security environment, Pyongyang was also forced to follow Songun – ‘Military First’ – policy during mid-1990s to protect its sovereignty. Consequently, the U.S. stepped up for diplomatic talks and concluded an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994.[12] Under this pact, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid from the U.S., Japan and South Korea through Korean Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) project. However, before the project could be completed, the U.S. sent mixed signals about its intentions by including North Korea’s name in an ‘axis of evil’ and suspended the key energy project for North Korea.


Joint Naval Military Exercises


The U.S. and South Korea annually hold more than 40 team spirit joint military exercises such as Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulji Freedom Guardian joint military exercises through mobilizing more than 500,000 U.S. and South Korean troops and all means of war including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, strategic bombers, and nuclear-powered submarines.[13] On numerous occasions, the leadership of DPRK has blamed war exercises for halting peaceful negotiations. For outsiders, North Korea is a nuclear and missile threat to the entire world. However there is an overwhelming consciousness inside North Korea that it is a small country constantly bullied and threatened by larger and more powerful ones, and in particular facing nuclear intimidation far longer than any country on earth.


Beijing’s Strategic Agenda


China is North Korea’s closest ally, but supported the U.N. resolution as it has become increasingly critical of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes in recent times. Nevertheless, Beijing’s prime concern is stability in the Korean peninsula and fears that any widespread unrest there could send millions of refugees across the border. The recent ban on North Korea’s coal imports cannot be misunderstood as Beijing’s policy approach towards its buffer state. The import ban can be tentative since China has already crossed the current year’s upper limits of coal imports from North Korea. Due to its political and security reasons, Beijing is not a partner in Washington’s efforts to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile ambition. Further, Beijing’s moves must be viewed in the context of the planned U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to counter North Korea’s missile programme. China is worried that this radar deployment action could potentially change the strategic balance in the Northeast Asian region.




The nuclear weapons were introduced to South Korea in 1958, which might be at the origin of the nuclear problem in North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear coercion strategy will require a genuine effort to address its security concern.  Perhaps, the policy of serious coercive diplomacy stands the best chance of success.  North Korea has already crossed the Rubicon by convincing itself that only nuclear deterrent potential is the necessary element of survival and preserving the state. Moreover, the replacement of the Korean War armistice agreement with a peace treaty is the only way to move away from the current crisis. After reviewing all policy options under the new U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington announced the policy of “Maximum pressure and engagement” with Pyongyang. However, handling pressure is not a new phenomenon for the North Korean regime; may be engagement plus trust building approach will only bring North Korea back to the negotiation table. Since a lack of trust makes the actors hesitant to move first, the DPRK and the U.S. can take parallel actions that can yield a positive result. Till then the denuclearization is a myth in the Korean peninsula.




[1] The Pukguksong-2 is believed to have used a solid-fuel propelled engine which enables faster launch and increases the mobility of the launch process.


[2]  North Korea is prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile launches under UN Security Council resolutions. In the past UNSC has passed resolution no. 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) and 2321 (2016) respectively.


[3] Park Tae Gyun,  “The Korean Armistice System and the Origins of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Incidents “ Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 24, no. 1 (June 2011): p. 118.


[4] For full details on the Geneva Conference, see Fifteenth Plenary Session on Korea, Geneva, June 15, 3:05 p.m.: The United States Delegation to the Department of State, available at, accessed on March 22, 2017.


[6] U.S. Department of State Archive, The Launch of Sputnik, 1957, available at, accessed on March 27, 2017.


[7]South Korean Demands for Withdrawal of Neutral Nations' Supervisory Commission – Attacks on NNSC Compounds – U.S. Support for Swedish and Swiss Proposals for Abolition of N.N.S.C., available at, accessed on March 28, 2017.


[8] Steven Lee (2013) “The Korean Armistice and the End of Peace: The US-UN Coalition and the Dynamics of War-Making in Korea, 1953-76”, The Journal of Korean Studies 18, no. 2: p. 193.


[9] Nuclear Weapon Archive, “Complete List of All U.S. Nuclear Weapons,” updated October 14, 2006, available at, accessed on February 23, 2015.


[10] Mitchell Reis calls North Korea ‘the biggest loser’ in the security environment at the end of the Cold War, due to its diplomatic isolation and general insecurity. Mitchell Reis, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capability (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), p.  231.


[11] Mitchell Reis, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capability (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), p. 231. 


[12] North Korea announced in 1993 that it was withdrawing from the treaty, but later suspended the decision and entered talks with the United States.


[13] John Farrell, “Team Spirit: A Case Study on the Value of Military Exercises as a Show of Force in the Aftermath of Combat Operations,” Air and Space Power Journal, Fall 2000.


[This opinion piece forms a part of an article series, entitled “Geopolitical Implications of the North Korea Crisis”, being published by the Science, Technology & Security forum.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.