It Doesn’t Matter If They’re Bluffing: We Have to Address North Korea’s ICBMs

Photo Credit: Defense News

By Farnaz Alimehri, Columnist

North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program is constantly making headlines, yet many officials in the West are still skeptical of the regime’s nuclear capabilities. On March 14, 2016, leader Kim Jong-un announced that there will be further testing of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.[i]  Experts in the United States dismiss North Korea’s ability to possess a deployable nuclear weapon despite every advancement and new test. Granted, some of the skepticism against North Korea is warranted; the regime exaggerates and lies about the success of its nuclear technology. It was just this past January that arms control experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies were able to prove that the regime used false imagery to demonstrate the ‘successful’ test of its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).[ii] But the latest developments out of Pyongyang state that DPRK has successfully tested a solid-rocket fueled engine, boosting the power of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, and causing the South Korean military to go to high alert.[iii] Despite the lack of confidence in North Korean missile technology, discrediting the success of the North Koreans’ tests has yet to offer policymakers with solutions that have been able to prevent the country from continuing to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. In fact, it has allowed the North Koreans to advance at a much quicker rate and to demonstrate their capabilities more boldly.

North Korea has made many threats, none of which have come to fruition yet, thankfully. However, we cannot keep denying that North Korea is determined to further develop a delivery system for its nuclear weapons through longer-ranged, more reliable ballistic missiles. North Korea’s weaponized nuclear program is a problem that has been around for decades, but its recent advancements with ICBMs deserve separate and distinct attention; these delivery systems pose a direct threat to the United States. We can no longer ignore and denounce bellicose statements as irrational. The United States must approach this issue seriously, not just considering but also acting on plausible options for mediation. As Jeffrey Lewis puts it:

[North Koreans have] paraded two different ICBMs through Pyongyang, conducted four nuclear tests, showed us a compact nuclear design sitting next to a modern reentry vehicle in front of one of those ICBMS, and hung a giant wall map of the United States marked with targets and titled “Mainland Strike Plan. Here’s a wild guess: They are building nuclear-armed ICBMs to strike the United States! [iv]

The threat of a North Korea armed with ICBMs capable of delivering a nuclear warhead is truly something most US policymakers are worried about, but the skepticism over the country’s ability to achieve such an advancement must end. The DPRK is determined to make this nightmare situation a reality. The United States needs to pursue an immediate diplomatic resolution with Kim Jong-un, specifically targeting the North Korean ballistic missile program.

World leaders have taken some political action; the United Nations’ Security Council imposed new sanctions against the regime on March 2, 2016.[v] These harsher sanctions are even more restrictive than those placed on Iran prior to the negotiation of the Joint Plan of Action.[vi] However, it is unwise to think sanctions will achieve a similar agreement with the North Koreans. The North Koreans are not interested in eliminating their nuclear weapons program, but perhaps they would agree to limiting their ballistic missile tests in exchange for some economic relief. The United States’ best interests lie in pursuing a deal with North Korea that restricts the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This agreement would also restrict the export of missiles and any missile-related technologies, but it would not directly eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.[vii] Yes, an agreement such as this might have too many variables going against it—Japan and South Korea would most likely not support a limited agreement because it still leaves the two countries at great risk. However, it might be possible to persuade these countries as long as they are included in the discussions. It also might be possible to placate their security concerns through offering further US support. The details will have to be laid out with great compromise and respect for all countries’ limitations, and it will require Chinese support before approaching the North Korean regime. A perfect agreement is unrealistic, and all parties will need to make concessions; but, a limited agreement can stop North Korea from continuing to create a nuclear delivery system capable of striking the United States. The power of enforcing nonproliferation lies within the hands of world leaders; delaying negotiations might be tantamount to accepting a North Korea with nuclear-armed ICBMs.

[i] Jack Kim, James Pearson, “Kim Jong Un Says Will Soon Test Nuclear Warhead,” Reuters, March 15, 2016,

[ii] Catherine Dill, “Video Analysis of DPRK SLBM Footage,” Arms Control Wonk, January 12, 2016,

[iii] Jack Kim, “North Korea Claims Rocket Engine Success; South Korea on High Alert,” Reuters, 24 March 2016,

[iv] Jeffrey Lewis, “America Is In Denial About North Korea’s Nukes,” Foreign Policy, March 11, 2016,

[v] Louis Charbonneau, Michelle Nichols, “U.N. Imposes Harsh New Sanctions on North Korea Over its Nuclear Program,” Reuters, March 3, 2016,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Jeffrey Lewis, “Are You Scared About North Korea’s Thermonuclear ICBM?” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2016,



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