As if Washington was not busy enough internationally, serious Korea analysts wonder if Northeast Asia could erupt in flames. North Korea is rewriting its constitution to drop plans for peaceful reunification with the Republic of Korea, declaring the South to be the North’s “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.” Worse, Pyongyang celebrated the approach of Christmas by staging another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, its fifth in just one year. Let’s be clear at the outset, ICBMs serve only one purpose for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK): to target the U.S. homeland with a credible nuclear threat and deterrent.

Not long-ago Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was writing “love letters” to President Donald Trump and working to warm up relations with the South. However, after the failed Hanoi summit in February 2019, Kim retreated, essentially ending dialogue with the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK). The Biden administration’s efforts to restart talks have gone nowhere, as Kim accelerated his missile development program, reinforced ties with China, and revived a once moribund relationship with Russia. In mid-December Washington and Seoul felt it necessary to warn the DPRK that a nuclear attack “is unacceptable and will result in the end of” Kim’s regime.

Although minuscule by Chinese and Russian standards, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal may soon raise Cold War dilemmas when it comes to establishing deterrence. America’s and South Korea’s overwhelming military superiority makes Pyongyang’s forces vulnerable to a preventative or preemptive strike. To the extent that Kim believes his forces are essentially “use it or lose it,” he will be tempted to launch if he believes an allied attack might be in the offing. The result would be catastrophic.

Writing about the Soviet Union, Thomas Schelling applied game theory to the international nuclear standoff. As if the duelists, as he envisioned them, “were assured of living long enough to shoot back with unimpaired aim, there would be no advantage in jumping the gun and little reason to fear that the other would try it.” Thus, he suggested, governments should protect weapons before people. In the same way, today’s national antagonists should be wary of seeking first strike and regime decapitation capabilities. Doing so might precipitate the very war everyone wants to avoid. As with the DPRK.

“Why is North Korea America’s problem? Such is the price Americans pay for what is known in Washington as ‘global leadership.'”

All of which is a good reason to ask: Why is North Korea America’s problem? Such is the price Americans pay for what is known in Washington as “global leadership.”

For most of America’s existence events in Pyongyang didn’t matter much. The Korean kingdom was famed as a “shrimp among whales,” helplessly buffeted as the Chinese, Japanese, and Russian empires wrestled for influence, resources, and territory. After Tokyo’s victory over the dying Qing dynasty in 1895, the Korean peninsula came under Japan’s sway. With Tokyo headed to catastrophic defeat a half century later Washington and Moscow agreed to occupy the peninsula, temporarily dividing it along the 38th parallel. As the Cold War went into deep freeze, however, the border hardened, and two competing Korean states emerged in 1948.

The Truman administration (1944-53) believed the peninsula to be of minimal strategic value—a judgment which even General Douglas MacArthur shared—and withdrew U.S. military forces from the South. Washington also refused to provide Seoul with heavy weapons, given then President Syngman Rhee’s threats to march north and forcibly reunify the peninsula. In the North Moscow chose Kim Il-sung, who had fought against the Japanese, as local frontman. Possessing a ruthless will to rule, he took control and convinced Joseph Stalin to approve an invasion of the South. Launched in June 1950, the conflict drew in the United States and then China, ending in an armistice in July 1953. Washington agreed to a “mutual” defense treaty with and left a troop garrison in the ROK, both of which remain more than seven decades later.

In the early years South Korea’s survival depended on U.S. support. Seoul was an impoverished, unstable dictatorship. Only under President, formerly General, Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule in the 1960s did the South begin its economic take-off. His assassination in 1979 led to an equally repressive reign under another general, Chun Doo-hwan. By then South Korea was far ahead of the North economically. And there was little reason to believe that either Moscow or Beijing would support another North Korean invasion. This would have been a good time to shift defense responsibilities to Seoul. Indeed, President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) proposed withdrawing American forces, but his idea triggered wailing, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments on a Biblical scale in both Seoul and Washington. Even members of Carter’s own administration resisted.

Although incoming President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) reversed Carter’s policy, it was the end of the Cold War that would bring change to the Korean peninsula. Why could not a democracy with twice the population and 30, 40, and eventually 50-times the economic strength of its antagonist defend itself? Publicly a South Korean official declared that his nation could not spend more on the military since it had education and health care needs, apparently assuming the United States did not. Privately, South Korean policymakers admitted that the question was hard for them to answer satisfactorily. And the disparity between the two Koreas only grew over the years.

Yet until Donald Trump was elected in 2016, no other U.S. official raised the question. With America wallowing in debt, why not a little burden shifting to rather than sharing with prosperous and populous allies? However, when Trump challenged the conventional wisdom, hysteria again enveloped both capitals. Proposing that a U.S. ally use its own wealth and deploy its own manpower to protect itself from foreign threats, rather than expect Americans to come rushing to its defense, was treated as sacrilege by the U.S. military-industrial-intellectual complex.

There’s no doubt that the DPRK is an unpleasant actor. Kim Il-sung consolidated power by eliminating competing factions linked with South Korean communists as well as the USSR and China. He built a personality cult eventually exceeding those of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong and created a totalitarian state that stood alongside Albania in arbitrary brutality. When I visited in 1992 the North appeared to be a Potemkin country. Pyongyang had an airport without airplanes, roads without cars, and streets without street signs. There were propaganda pictures, posters, and banners in every office and home as well as on every building, over every street, and in every field. Overpowering was the utter grayness with a hint of menace filling the air. Freedom of choice was reduced to choosing which of Kim’s likenesses to pin to one’s clothing. Even today, the North remains at or near the bottom of every international human rights ranking.

At least when I first visited, there was only a whisper of nuclear ambitions. But this would soon explode into a refrain of roars, spawning an international crisis and triggering a tsunami of worries, meetings, threats, deployments, agreements, and, inevitably, failures. The Clinton administration (1993-2001) considered launching military strikes, a step vehemently opposed by South Korean officials who feared such action would trigger Korean War II. When Kim died in July 1994 he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. The latter had pushed aside an uncle and younger half-brother to seize the throne. Despite his lack of revolutionary pedigree and aversion to public speaking, Kim the son would settle in as “Dear Leader,” pushing both nuclear and missile programs forward.

Kim Jong-il began thinking of the succession only after a stroke in August 2008. In turn, he selected his son Kim Jong-un over two older male siblings. But upon his death three years later, many observers believed that Kim Jong-un was likely to end up as merely one of many in a system of collective rule or even as a frontman for others. Instead, the latter proved to be no less ruthless than his grandfather, firing party grandees, disappearing military leaders, executing his uncle, and assassinating his half-brother. Bolstered by his younger sister, the ostentatiously belligerent Kim Yo-jong, the Kim dynasty appears to be in firm control to this day.

Kim Jong-un spent some time in school in Switzerland, during which he evidently gained an appreciation for both the Chicago Bulls and market-based economies. This sparked faint hope that he might be a liberalizer, as he welcomed flamboyant NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman, dabbled with economic reform, enjoyed South Korean K-Pop, showcased his attractive wife, and flirted with Donald Trump. However, after the Donald/Jong-un relationship hit the rocks, so did Kim’s liberal impulses. Today his regime jails teens caught singing the same songs once performed in concert in Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, the ruling Kim has turned his small, beleaguered state into a nuclear power, accelerating both missile and nuclear developments. The North possesses at least enough fissile material to produce 45-55 weapons. Some estimates run twice as high, but no one outside of Pyongyang knows the actual number and the regime is expanding its arsenal. At the high end, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and Rand Corporation have warned that the DPRK could possess as many as 242 weapons before the decade’s end, which would make it a serious second rank nuclear power, ahead of the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan.

Today, Kim is increasing the variety as well as size of his nuclear holdings. He is developing tactical nukes, as well as submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moreover, the regime is threatening to strike first with nukes, suggesting a willingness to use them offensively. Last year, the Supreme People’s Assembly, Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp legislature, formally legislated North Korea’s nuclear status. Kim explained: “As long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth, and imperialism and the anti-North Korean maneuvers of the United States and its followers remain, our road to strengthening our nuclear force will never end.” Indeed, he added, his nation’s nuclear role is “irreversible.”

Until now the potential cost of the U.S. commitment to the ROK was serious but limited. Going to war would risk military forces deployed to the peninsula but not much beyond. North Korea, not America, would be the principal battleground and bombing target. However, Pyongyang’s pairing of nuclear weapons with shorter-range missiles puts U.S. territories, interests, and allies at risk because the ICBMs under development could even reach the American homeland. Thus, in the not-too-distant future Pyongyang will be able to credibly threaten the destruction of U.S. cities. Washington’s stake in an inter-Korean conflict would become almost infinite.

Of course, with credible threat comes deterrence. The threat has never actually been a DPRK first strike. The North has never been seriously interested in attacking America. Rather, Pyongyang’s objective has been to prevent America from striking the North. In 1950 the United States intervened after North Korea’s invasion of the South, driving the former’s forces north and overrunning most of the DPRK. Then Beijing intervened to save Kim Il-sung’s reign. Today China is unlikely to fight America over North Korea. Instead, the North’s new deus ex machina could be the threat of nuclear retaliation if Washington makes preparations to destroy the Kim dynasty. As Thomas Schelling might point out, the U.S. president can now ill afford to play geopolitical chicken. After all, in that case nothing would be more important than preventing the incineration of American cities. Collaterally, the US-ROK alliance would be under extreme pressure and might not survive.

Concern over the viability of so-called extended deterrence has created a cottage industry of analysts and consultants, reassuring Seoul that Washington solons are truly willing to risk their nation’s destruction to protect the ROK. In April of 2023, this effort culminated in the “Washington Declaration,” an outgrowth of President Joe Biden’s summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. As the two presidents observed: “The ROK has full confidence in U.S. extended deterrence commitments and recognizes the importance, necessity, and benefit of its enduring reliance on the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”1Of course, Yoon could hardly say anything else, but every step in North Korean nuclear development makes the statement less believable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of South Koreans express support for developing their own nuclear weapons. Elite political support lags but has been increasing. Indeed, last January President Yoon Suk-yeol observed that “if the issue becomes more serious, we could acquire our own nuclear weapons, such as deploying tactical nuclear weapons here in ROK.”2

No doubt, such a course would set off geopolitical tremors. Washington would have to consider allowing another exception, like India, to its nonproliferation policy. Beijing would be unhappy and might strike back politically and/or economically. Many Japanese likely would want to match the ROK and other nations, perhaps Australia, might also consider the possibility.

Despite such consequences, a South Korean bomb still might be better than the alternative. After all, better the South than America be at risk to defend the South. The possibility of Seoul going nuclear would encourage Beijing to put more pressure on the DPRK to restrain the latter’s nuclear activities. Moreover, a South Korean nuke would also help constrain the PRC, should it grow more aggressive.

Nevertheless, this possibility horrifies U.S. policymakers, who seem passionately devoted to the policy of risking Honolulu, Los Angeles, Chicago, and perhaps many more American cities to protect Seoul. On few issues is there such unspoken unanimity, with alternative views dismissed out of hand. Why are Washington solons so determined to fight a nuclear war on the ROK’s behalf?

Critics insist that the United States shouldn’t abandon its policy of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement/disarmament (CVID), arguing that North Korea shouldn’t possess nuclear weapons at all. Unfortunately, it has produced nukes, and by now it has scores of them. South Africa remains as the only nation that has ever disarmed, and it had only six warheads to dismantle. Virtually no one in the policy community believes that Pyongyang, absent regime collapse or defeat, would follow suit. Wishing won’t make it so. Preserving the possibility requires sounder strategy.

As for nonproliferation policy, the challenge is posed by the North’s arsenal, not Washington’s recognition that the North has an arsenal. Seoul and Tokyo might be unhappy if the United States formally abandoned its denuclearization efforts, but nothing else would change. What amounts to the Ostrich option, pursuing the impossible while hindering a long-time democratic ally from creating its own deterrent, is no solution. The better option would be a policy of de facto arms control, negotiating to limit the North’s nuclear program. It would be a second-best solution with unpredictable geopolitical consequences. However, so far everything else has failed. Although the Biden administration remains committed to denuclearization, Trump is reportedly considering the arms control strategy if he wins.

Setting more reasonable ambitions wouldn’t prevent Pyongyang from eventually disarming if it desired to do so. However, even a change in regime wouldn’t necessarily lead the North to abandon its nukes. The ancient Korean monarchy long suffered the ill attention of its neighbors. In contrast, the recent Kim dynasty ruthlessly defended its independence, skillfully playing Moscow and Beijing against one another. Kim Jong-un likely saw Washington as a third, and conveniently distant, power to bring into the mix.

Indeed, China’s Xi Jinping ignored Kim while courting South Korea until the announcement of the planned Trump-Kim summit; afterwards Xi and Kim met five times, including once in Pyongyang. Notably, they have not previously met since 2019, when the US-DPRK relationship tanked. It appears that Xi was afraid of being dealt out of the game by Washington. More recently Chinese officials have grown nervous about the much tighter relationship between North Korea and Russia, highlighted by the former’s weapons sales to Moscow. The possession of nuclear weapons strengthens Pyongyang’s position against its nominal friends as well as against the United States.

Ultimately, Americans will be safer if Washington steps back from the Korean imbroglio. The United States had special responsibilities toward the peninsula in 1950, having divided the peninsula and refused to arm South Korea, despite the North’s threats. Moreover, concern that the ROK’s fall would have undermined Europe’s defense, though overstated, was real. Today Washington’s military dependent has grown up. The Korean standoff is growing more dangerous, especially so, game theory suggests, as Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal expands in size while remaining vulnerable to attempted allied preemption. The United States remains the world’s most powerful nation, but with rapidly aging population, expanding social programs, and burgeoning national debt, Washington no longer can afford to provide military welfare to the world. The military budget is the price of America’s foreign policy, rising to well above the benefits received from attempting to micro-manage the globe. South Korea would be a good place to start shifting defense responsibilities back on to allied states where it belongs.

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Which is the way it was always supposed to be. The Constitution tasks the federal government with the nation’s defense, by which the Founders meant this nation—its territory, people, and liberties. In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against “a passionate attachment of one nation for another,” which by “infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.” This warning has taken on added importance with the spread of nuclear weapons and consequent increase in dangers of unnecessary wars.


[1] Washington Declaration, April 26, 2023.

[2] Dasl Yoon, “South Korean President Says Country Could Develop Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2023,,

* Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

This article was edited by Features Editor Ed Lopez.