North Korea threatens to start a war by working to develop nukes. These nukes, however, are tiny compared to larger nuclear powers. Their largest nuke is 10kT compared to 15,000 kT for the largest US nuke (they could probably beat that now). North Korea is also struggling to develop delivery systems. I understand how powerful an 10kT nuke is (bye bye whole city) but believe that its use would be minimal compared to the retaliation against them.

Why are they expending so much of their few resources to make weapons that, honestly, seem to only put them at risk? Are they gambling on US morality or Chinese intervention? Are they ignorant of our abilities? Are they really just stupid like the media tells me?

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    Minimal sounds really bad here. I mean in pursuit of their goals they would see little benefit. One 10kT nuke couldn't win them any nuclear war.
    – kaine
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 17:15
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    Nobody "wins" a nuclear war. Nuclear war is about minimizing how much you lose.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 17:45
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    If nothing else, nuclear weapons are a good deterrent. You say it puts them at risk, but they may see it as alleviating certain risks.
    – Geobits
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 17:55
  • @Rathony apologies, I am US centric which is why I used the US example. I will edit soon. Doesn't matter though. I want to know "Why is North Korea developing nukes?". At their scale it is not a very effective deterrent is it?
    – kaine
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 18:27
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    Note: Not so tiny anymore Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 17:35

4 Answers 4


In order to understand the North Korean policy one needs to understand that their enemy number one is not the United States. Their declared enemy is South Korea.

South Korea is not a nuclear power. But when North Korea is, that gives them quite an edge in the North-South Korean conflict. Yes, the United States have 28,500 soldiers stationed in South Korea, they supported South Korea in the last Korean War (60 years ago) and continuously side with South Korea diplomatically, but it is far from given that the United States would be willing to perform a nuclear strike on behalf of their South-Korean allies if push comes to shove.

The threat of incinerating Seoul (which is dangerously close to the inner-Korean border) is a very real one for South-Korea and it might force them to make concessions they would otherwise not be willing to make.

It is also a threat which is a very effective deterrent against a conventional invasion of North-Korea on behalf of South-Korea. NK is well aware that their existence after the Korean war is just thanks to Chinese intervention and that their chances of winning a conventional war on their own didn't increase much in the past 60 years. Should NK ever fall in disfavor with China, there is nothing which would stop the United States and South Korea from starting the Korean reunification by force. But having the bomb gives NK a second life insurance. It allows them to threaten that should someone put them into a situation where they have nothing to lose anymore, then Seoul and other South-Korean cities will be destroyed too.

  • But isn't China for the denuclearization of North Korea. Doesn't their escalation risk them falling into disfavor with China? And the question is largely motivated by the fact that Japan is being threatened by North Korean nukes. If Japan is nuked I feel it seems almost guaranteed that Western countries would retaliate. (Note: this is a very good answer. I am struggling to put myself in their shoes though so this helps.) cnn.com/2016/09/21/asia/japan-north-korea-shinzo-abe
    – kaine
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:28
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    @kaine Of course China is against a NK nuclear program. It means that NK is no longer dependent on China to ensure their own safety which means that China loses control over NK.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:38
  • Wow... I never would have thought of that. And I am sure Japan would express concern over deployment systems reaching their water regardless of whether they were at any risk of being a target. I don't fully understand but this is a self consistent narrative that fits what I know. Thank you.
    – kaine
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 21:44
  • North Korea considers S. Korean government as a puppet under the control of the US government. Therefore, there is no point saying or arguing who is No. 1 enemy of N. Korea. The US B52 which can drop a nuke is stationed in Guam and it flies over K. Peninsular to show N. Korea that the U.S. and S. Korean government are willing to nuke them if they do something very stupid. So, your sentence "it is far from given... if push comes to shove" is not correct. S. Korea announced that they want a peaceful reunification (surrendering of NK), not by force. So, your "Should NK ever..." is not right.
    – Rathony
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 16:38
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    You should note that NK has far bigger conventional military forces than SK (+ US military). There is a big difference in the numbers of soldiers and reserves. It is wrong to assume that SK and the US will invade NK if NK is deserted by China. SK and the US have nothing to gain from engaging in the military campaign against NK. Also, I seriously doubt China will dump NK because China's arch rival in East Asia is Japan. Which is closer to Japan, a NK port in East Sea or a Chinese port in West Sea (of Korea)? So, why is NK developing nuclear weapons? The answer should be "Read the papers."
    – Rathony
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 16:44
  • The underlying ideology of North-Korea is Juche. It's North-Korea's own special flavour of communism which - among other things - heavily focuses on self-reliance.

  • North-Korea and South-Korea have remained enemies after the Korean War; and South-Korea was (and still is) heavily sponsored by the United States, and North-Korea feels threatened.

  • There was a reasonably constructive dialogue happening in the 90s, right up until George W. Bush stopped the talks, declared North-Korea to be a "rogue state" and part of the "axis of evils", and proceeded to invade Iraq under highly dubious pretext (which was later proven to be exactly that), which scared the bejesus out of North-Korea as they felt that they could be next.

Once you understand this things, having nuclear weapons makes perfect sense, from North-Korea's perspective it's very important for North Korea's self-reliant defence.

You're right that they can't pull off the "mutually assured destruction"-trick, but they don't really need to. The ability to nuke millions of people in South-Korea, Japan, and possibly even the United States in the future is scary enough.

And make no mistake, North-Korea's Nuclear program is effective. They've got enough nukes to protect their country, which is really all they want.


To cite North Koreans themselves:

The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord. <...> Both had made the mistake of yielding to Western pressure led by a United States bent on regime change.

With US going on rampage around the world and leaving cesspools and terrorist-breeding grounds (just this week we had suicide bomber in Manchester, self-described in past as "fighter against Gaddafi" and later "against Assad") in place of orderly and even relatively prosperous countries you can't really blame NK for wanting to have a proper deterrent against same fate.


Because nuclear weapons are the only way that a country the size of North Korea can reliably deter an overwhelmingly larger and more powerful nation like the United States from attacking it.

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