Nuclear tensions keep rising on Korean Peninsula


Updated December 18 2023

Nuclear tensions have been ratcheted up again on the Korean peninsula with the US and South Korea making threats that any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea will result in the end of the (Kim Jong) Un regime”. The US also sent a nuclear-powered submarine to South Korea to underline the message. North Korea responded by going ahead with another test of a ballistic missile capable of hitting the US mainland.

The US and South Korean actions seem to have been intended to deter Pyongyang from the test. The North Korean response is a clear demonstration of how deterrence does not work and how threats just serve to escalate tensions further.

This escalatory spiral was dramatically demonstrated earlier in the year when North Korea enshrined nuclear weapons in its constitution in response to deepening nuclear cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, also said his country would accelerate production of nuclear weapons to deter the US. This followed earlier threats by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to destroy Kim’s regime if the North uses nuclear weapons.

North Korea has been testing more and more advanced ballistic missiles and warheads, some with the range to reach the US, since last year and has also said it is developing ship-launched cruise missiles, while the Americans have been mounting repeated shows of force including military exercises using nuclear-capable aircraft and the visit of a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea.

In April, the US and South Korea agreed to increase their cooperation on the planning for the use of nuclear weapons following earlier statements by South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, that suggested Seoul might develop its own nuclear weapons. In announcing the agreement, President Biden also threatened to end the North Korean regime should it use nuclear weapons. 

2023 has already seen the largest US/South Korean joint military exercises involving nuclear-capable aircraft in recent years and an escalation in nuclear rhetoric from Pyongyang with North Korea repeatedly accusing Washington and Seoul of bringing the countries to the brink of nuclear war. 

In addition to carrying out more than 40 missile tests last year, North Korea also announced a new law in 2022 making its nuclear-armed status “irreversible”, prohibiting talks on denuclearisation, and, most worryingly, allowing for pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.

The exchange of threats between Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul come on top of  Russia’s explicit threats to use nuclear weapons in connection with its invasion of Ukraine, and responses from the US and NATO implying possible retaliation and the threat by an Israeli minister to use nuclear weapons in Gaza that are undermining the decades-long nuclear taboo by normalising the idea of nuclear weapons use.

The Executive Director of ICAN, Melissa Parke, said: “every additional threat, missile test, military provocation, or declaration of the importance or necessity of nuclear weapons, adds to the risk of catastrophe. This spiral is driven by narrow and short-sighted conceptions of national security, where the possession and brandishing of nuclear weapons is seen as a justified response to real or imagined foreign threats. North Korea, the US and South Korea need to show restraint and avoid escalating tensions further”.

The national security rhetoric North Korea uses to justify its actions is similar to that used by Russia, the US, and the other declared nuclear-armed states. Just like them, North Korea repeatedly claims to support nuclear disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons, while simultaneously asserting that security threats require it to rely on nuclear weapons, and that nuclear disarmament cannot be considered until the security situation is resolved.

But in acting in this way, nuclear-armed states are holding the rest of the world hostage. The wide-ranging and catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons mean that regardless of who owns them, nuclear weapons threaten the security - and the very existence - of all states, and all people.

This is why a growing number of countries are joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). They recognise that total elimination of nuclear weapons is a global security imperative, and the responsibility of all states, not just those with nuclear weapons. As the risks of the use of nuclear weapons grow, driven by threats, inflammatory rhetoric and the increasing prominence of nuclear weapons in security policies and doctrines, the international community’s response must be to stigmatise and delegitimise nuclear weapons and to build a robust global norm against them. The TPNW offers the most practical way forward for this.