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North Korea’s New ICBM Is A Nuclear Game Changer

North Korea ICBM
North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: KCNA.

For more than three decades, the United States has sought to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) an international pariah. The primary goal of that strategy of isolation has been to force Pyongyang to abandon its ongoing nuclear weapons program, but an important secondary goal is to throttle the country’s ballistic missile program.

It is increasingly clear that Washington’s strategy has failed on both counts.

The DPRK’s small but steadily expanding nuclear arsenal renders the first objective utterly obsolete. North Korea’s mounting number of missile tests demonstrates the increasing irrelevance of the second objective.

Like it or not, North Korea is fast becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons power with a capable missile delivery system.

The latest ICBM test is a game-changer in two respects. First, it underscores the futility, indeed absurdity, of Washington’s isolation strategy. The United States is now in the untenable and dangerous position of having no formal relationship—much less a tolerably cordial one—with the world’s latest nuclear weapons power. Second, the prospect of a DPRK fleet of ICBMs in the next few years significantly alters the risk-benefit calculation of the U.S.’s extended deterrence commitment to the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Soon, North Korea will be capable of launching a nuclear strike against the American homeland in the event of a conflict that has spiraled out of control.

Washington’s strategy needs to change on both fronts. It is now imperative to conduct a comprehensive dialogue with Pyongyang to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries. Among other steps, that process must include a peace treaty (replacing the 1953 Armistice), finally ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula, the lifting of U.S. and international sanctions against Pyongyang, and the establishment of formal, bilateral diplomatic ties.

The United States also must transform its security relationship with South Korea.  It was a relatively low-risk venture to provide a military shield to a weak client state in the context of the Cold War. Whether correctly or not, U.S. viewed the DPRK as little more than a puppet of the Soviet Union and Communist China. In that context, a new war on the Peninsula would have had far wider importance than being merely a fight between two small, rival Korean states. It would have been the opening salvo in an escalating East-West confrontation. Such a stark ideological struggle no longer defines a far more complex geopolitical environment. Although its economic importance to the United States has grown, South Korea’s strategic relevance has declined.

Until recently, U.S. leaders also felt comfortable offering a military guarantee to the ROK to deter an attack from Pyongyang, secure in the knowledge that the DPRK could not strike the U.S. homeland. We no longer have that luxury.

It is time to phase out the “mutual” military alliance with South Korea. At the time that alliance was established in the early 1950s, the ROK was a war-ravaged, poverty-stricken country incapable of providing for its own defense. Today it is one of Asia’s most successful and prosperous “economic tigers,” with an economy estimated to be at least 40 times larger than that of its communist rival. South Korea is now fully capable of building whatever military forces are needed to defend its security—including a nuclear deterrent. Seoul’s continuing military dependence on the United States has been a policy choice to save money. It is not even remotely a policy necessity. U.S. leaders need to inform their South Korean counterparts that the defense gravy train will no longer operate

Even more important than ending the ROK’s free-riding ways is to drastically change Washington’s stance regarding an independent nuclear arsenal for that country. Generations of U.S. officials have robotically embraced an insistence on nuclear nonproliferation as a global policy, regardless of circumstances. Washington insists the membership in the global nuclear weapons club must remained closed—despite India’s and Pakistan’s forced entry in the 1990s and North Korea’s steady emergence as a de facto nuclear weapons power. It is a policy that is detached from reality. To the extent it works at all, it guarantees that rogue states will have such weapons, while stable, nonaggressive democratic countries remain nonnuclear—and heavily dependent on the United States for their defense.

It is an unhealthy situation both for the United States and its security dependents. It is especially unhealthy in the case of South Korea. The ROK is betting Washington will honor its security commitment even at the risk of a North Korean strike on the American homeland. But such an extended deterrence promise is inherently less credible than a robust primary deterrent. A South Korean nuclear arsenal would be far more likely to deter North Korea than a fraying promise from Washington that the United States will risk mushroom clouds sprouting above multiple American cities to deter DPRK military aggression against the ROK.

We must not dither and then try to adjust Washington’s obsolete Korea policy in the midst of a crisis. The imminent prospect of North Korea having a nuclear arsenal in the form of warheads on ICBMs requires a drastic, immediate policy transformation.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. Chip Henry

    November 27, 2022 at 2:49 pm

    One hole through that missile while preparing to launch would end the party. I bet you don’t publish this though.

  2. Marbran

    November 27, 2022 at 4:15 pm

    “U.S. leaders need to inform their South Korean counterparts that the defense gravy train will no longer operate.”

    Our presence isn’t about providing South Korea with military subsidies. Our presence is about having the actual presence in South Korea, very close to the DPRK, and China, as well as the larger western Pacific region. We will NEVER leave South Korea unless we are thrown out. Our close proximity in the region allows us much greater espionage capabilities than if we were thousands of miles away. South Korea is ‘US Lite’ in terms of forward operations.

  3. Steven

    November 27, 2022 at 5:21 pm

    Certainly we are entering the era of nuclear proliferation.
    After Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for a territorial guarantee, the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Ukraine, Russia, UK and the US, Russia invaded and is attempting to take over Ukraine.
    Likely there will be widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons, since after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum didn’t guarantee Ukraine’s territory after all, resulting in millions of displaced refugees, thousands of deaths, and widespread destruction in the country.
    Failure of the Budapest memorandum indicates agreements, even treaties, may have little effect.
    Probably there will be widespread nuclear weapons capacity, a “bomb in the basement”, meaning technologically advanced countries will have the components of nuclear weapons ready so they can be assembled in hours or days if the need arises.
    Giving up nuclear weapons means vulnerability rather than security.

  4. 403Forbidden

    November 27, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    North korea’s hwasong-17 and hwasong-15 have enough range to hit the US today.

    But pyongyang needs newer missile tech, especially the kind present in russian SS-29 & SS-30 rockets which are designed to evade interception by ABM systems.

    Hopefully, russia will provide north korea with its latest missile knowhow, and thereby put warmongering joe biden in his place.

    Warmonger Biden is fully and blissfully unaware that washington DC has sometimes being referred to as babylon on the potomac.

    It is now up to north korea to remind him of the very very important fact.

  5. ernie

    November 27, 2022 at 6:15 pm

    now is the time to think cool. we need to brainstorm… military and diplomacy crew needs to assemble to logically outsmart the north korean twitt. hey, the war hasn’t started yet….maybe we have time.

  6. Peter York

    November 27, 2022 at 9:26 pm

    might as well betray the South Koreans. seems like being America’s friend is a dubious proposition nowadays.

  7. TheDon

    November 27, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    Well you blew it in your article. No US President has a strategy on North Korea. ( except during election) So the Kims continue without pressure and chinese support.

    So let me help.
    1 No purchase of chinese goods as long as kims rule.
    2 shoot down every launch
    3 shut down military infrastructure supporting the nuclear program and bomb design site and lauch sites
    4sink all subs

  8. Big Crow

    November 27, 2022 at 10:26 pm

    Big caveat: North Korea said it would only unleash ICBM’s on white people. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, Joe called Corn Pop right away.

  9. John

    November 28, 2022 at 7:40 am

    Well if our allies want to live they need to build their own nuclear deterrence and fast. Our nuclear umbrella is no more.
    And if we do not get serious about space based missile defense, shame on us.
    We know what needs to be done, but are not doing it.
    Russia breaking out from New Start, but we are not activating our reserve warheads. Why?

  10. maulrat

    November 28, 2022 at 4:36 pm

    I don’t think running away is the message we want to send to long term allies. That aside, I’m old enough to remember when we had a president succeed in getting Kim to stop testing missiles and even met him face to face on NorK soil. Could do with another president like that about now.

  11. Arash

    November 28, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    North Korea speaks the only language US understands and they have been proven right.

    Give up your nuclear program and uncle Sam will find an excuse one way or the other to destroy your country and lynch your leaders.
    Agree to a nuclear deal with the US, significantly curb your nuclear progress like Iran did in 2015 and US will read that as weakness and double down on sanctions and pressure!
    Stay strong in the face of American bullying and advance your nuclear program and sooner or later uncle Sam will make his peace with it!

    Be sure that Iran has been watching and taking notes. Iran will never agree to any nuclear “deal” with the US ever again!

  12. Yrral

    November 28, 2022 at 8:48 pm

    You American do not know about the basis thing about NK ,do they have a guidance system or nuclear implosion lens to mount on the missile,the US has tested a reliable guidance system and nuclear implosion lens,the US can blind NK by Jamming their Russian or Chinese GPS guidance system Google North Korea Nuclear Implosion Lens

  13. thomas e haynie

    November 28, 2022 at 11:55 pm

    yeah, but can it hit Chicago? (asking for a friend)

  14. OB453

    November 30, 2022 at 11:17 am

    The use of nuclear weapons guarantees no winners only losers.

  15. xheavy

    December 8, 2022 at 12:07 am

    I dont care what the Norks are able to field in terms of nuclear missiles etc. Ooo scary.

    Not. Ive lived in the nuclear cold war where there is enough warheads to cause the planet to glow 10,000 years as a monument to our foolishness. You made sure to live not far from a nuclear target so that you wont have to survive whats after.

    The Norks can probably nuke a couple dozen of our cities. We will have them cleaned up and operating again if we want. The Norks will cease to exist when their land is utterly turned into glass. Then signed over to the South Koreans to finally have the Reunification that they dream of.

    I dont worry about it. What bothers me more than anything is the USA has barked and barked and barked about the big scary Norks for so damn long someone is liable to shoot the USA dog dead over that noise. And that would be that.

    Maybe they should. In a different reality the Norks would never have had a nuclear anything. That would have been a spot or three of glass when they tried to make them. We apparently lack the balls to do so.

  16. Omega 13

    December 13, 2022 at 6:00 pm

    How is a threat? They have what, two of them? Maybe? Note my jerking off gesture.

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