There is a lot of media hype that criticizes North Korea for (having?) developing Nuclear Weapons and the international community has roundly condemned them, but why shouldn't they have them?

Surely every country has a right to defend themselves? And North Korea isn't party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Indeed every other country which possesses nuclear weapons use exactly the same argument (deterrence) to maintain their right to possesses nuclear weapons, so why is only North Korea criticized?. Despite maintaining a no - first - strike policy (unlike some other nuclear possessing states).

This question relates more to why they are criticized rather than why they are developing them.

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    "why shouldn't they have them" is a different question than "why do people criticize them" or "does NK have a right to defend itself" .. can you clarify which of these you want answered? I'd assume you just want the title question answered, but if so, this would be improved by removing the other questions.
    – K-C
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 19:20
  • Good question. Unless the US holds India to the same standard, there is no reason to trust the US more than anyone else. Commented Jun 15, 2017 at 19:15
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    The more you look at India, the more you realize how insignificant NK is and how biased the western countries are. Thanks to India. Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 4:02

5 Answers 5


Imagine you have neighbours on either side of you.

One is a peaceful, reasonable type who is happy to live in peace and does not bother you, except for the usual little gripes about dogs barking and rubbish blowing about. You know this guy has a large collection of deadly weapons, which bothers you a bit but you know if you had a burglar your neighbour would help you defend yourself.

The other is an unstable and violent person. He treats his family very badly and you suspect has murdered some. He claims all the other neighbours are ganged up against him. He has a large collection of home-made weapons and often he threatens to kill everybody in the street. At random intervals he lobs hand grenades out of his property and right over your garden. He says he will target your friend's house next.

This is how it feels to us in the western world (whether it's true or not, this is the way it feels.)

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    "Random intervals" usually coincide with you shouting over the fence at him with threats of carpet bombing his home and entire yard into stone age. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 19:22
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    See last sentence
    – RedSonja
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 6:11

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

And North Korea isn't breaking any issues surrounding international law because they are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

That's simply not true. Click the status link of your own source and you will find that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea joined 12 December, 1985 in Moscow.

You might be arguing that North Korea has since left the NPT, but there's no provision to leave. The agreement was that if North Korea (and others) joined, they would be given access to peaceful uses for nuclear reactions (see here). In particular, they could access information not available to non-members. North Korea accessed such information. They cannot now enjoy the benefits of that and ignore their responsibilities.

It is misleading at best and downright dishonest at worst to describe North Korea as not a party to the treaty. It certainly signed. It received benefits (which is how it developed its nuclear reactor that it uses to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons).


Despite maintaining a no - first - strike policy (unlike some other nuclear possessing states).

There is exactly one country that has ever used nuclear weapons to attack. That country (the United States) of course used them in a war where its territorial sovereignty had been violated. So there are zero uses of nuclear weapons that have ever been used in a way that violates the policy that you are calling "no-first-strike" (the North Korean policy). So to say "unlike some other nuclear possessing states" is misleading at best.

Several people have pointed out that this is not really a no-first-strike policy. That's fine. Then North Korea does not have a no-first-strike policy, whatever they may call it. Which makes this particular point singularly worthless. This is what they are calling a "no-first-strike" policy.

Self defense

Indeed every other country which possesses nuclear weapons use exactly the same argument (deterrence) to maintain their right to possesses nuclear weapons, so why is only North Korea criticized?

Other than North Korea, only eight countries have nuclear weapons. Four of them were the victors over Germany in World War II: US; United Kingdom; France; Russia (as the Soviet Union). The other four are China, India, Pakistan, and Israel (undeclared). Perhaps the world would be better off if that list were shorter. But it certainly won't be better off making that list longer.

Israel is a small country created after an attempted genocide that is surrounded by countries that deny its right to exist. Four countries started developing nuclear weapons in response to Germany (with some extra Cold War drama for three of them, so they finished after Germany was no longer an issue). China developed them because it considers itself one of the big three militaries and both the US and Russia already had them. India developed them because China had them and Pakistan wanted them. Pakistan developed them because India was.

Pakistan is the only other country that achieved nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. It did so in response to India and rather shortly after the end of the Cold War. And its example shows part of why North Korea is being criticized today. Pakistan shared nuclear secrets and missile technology with North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

North Korea doesn't need a nuclear deterrent. It already has a Seoul deterrent. Its artillery are capable of killing the majority of the citizens in the capital of South Korea. From whom but an ally of South Korea do they need defense? Russia? China? Their big worries are South Korea and the US, but South Korea is deterred directly. The US is far more likely to attack a nuclear North Korea than one with conventional weapons -- it changes North Korea into a danger to US citizens.


North Korea engages in regular cyberwar attacks to steal money and knowledge from other countries. Their version of a "no-first-strike" policy would allow them to answer even proportionate retaliation with a nuke. Not to mention the possibility that they might argue that South Korea is part of their sovereign territory. Or they could simply drop the policy altogether if it got in their way, as they dropped compliance with the NPT.

In the past, North Korea has used the threat of attack to extort money from other countries. There is a widespread belief that if they had usable nuclear weapons, they would use them in extortion.

In general, many people think that North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons than those countries that have them. Many also think that North Korea is more likely to exchange nuclear knowledge, equipment, and/or materials for money or oil. There are allegations of them trading chemical weapons to Syria. Second source.

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    NK withdrew from the NPT. I am not sure if it is legally subject to it. Also the US nuclear bombing of Japan was unambiguously a nuclear "first strike". No first strike means a commitment not to use nuclear weapons unless they are used on you.
    – Colin
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 19:51
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    (-1) There are some minor inaccuracies (e.g. France developed nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the Soviet Union, it wasn't concerned about Germany anymore) but above this answer is completely confused. What's the point of the whole “self-defense” discussion? It does not seem germane to the question at hand. You also seem confused about what “no first strike” usually implies.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 20:03
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    In the context of nuclear weapons, "First-strike" generally refers to "the first to use nukes", not "the first to fire any weapon", so Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "first strikes" even though the US was the victim of Japanese aggression.
    – Dai
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 21:14
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    @Brythan I hadn't noticed this as I did not follow the link. Still doesn't change the meaning of first strike though, it would be more accurate to note that North Korea did not actually commit to any no-first-strike policy. Regarding Pearl Habor, I still don't see the relevance, the question is what is the policy, the example was the British government, which never used nuclear weapons.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 22:09
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    But if you really want to drag Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the discussion, how does a rather limited attack almost four years before constitute a plausible threat to the sovereignty of the US? Even by May's or North Korea's very lax doctrines, that would not seem reasonable.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 22:13

Most countries agree that the mere existence of nuclear weapons is especially dangerous. The more there are around, the higher the risk that a conflict escalate or that they fall into the wrong hands. That's why there is a large consensus around non-proliferation, whether or not you signed this or that treaty.

Of course, there is a a lot of hypocrisy in criticising nuclear weapons when you maintain some yourself and some pusillanimity in focusing on North Korea while mostly ignoring established nuclear powers but that does not invalidate the underlying concern. That's just realpolitik.

Also, North Korea seems much more unpredictable regime with little ties to the rest of the world and as such more of a worry than countries like France or Israel, which everybody, even their enemies, broadly expect to act rationally and use nuclear weapons as a last resort.

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    North-Korea is not all that unpredictable, their actions are usually pretty rational and make perfect (internal) sense.
    – user11249
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 17:21
  • NK was also a party to the non-proliferation treaty before withdrawing.
    – Colin
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 19:09
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    Kinda by definition, aren't all weapons, nuclear or not, inherently dangerous?
    – Andy
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 20:48
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    @Andy Some weapons are more dangerous than others.
    – JAB
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 20:49
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    @JAB Yes, but that's not what was said in this answer.
    – Andy
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 20:50

The North Korean regime is no ordinary government. Recasting the question:

Why might it be considered a bad thing for an unstable, paranoid, enemy regime with no regard for human life to have nuclear weapons?

Defining these terms:

  • Unstable: The NK regime is a totalitarian dictatorship, lacking the institutions which allow more pluralist societies to manage dissent and adapt to change. History has shown that when such regimes fall, they often do so catastrophically and with very little warning. Examples include Yugoslavia and Syria, and NK society is more closed and rigidly controlled than either. In the event of regime collapse, the government might either lose control of its nuclear weapons; or launch them in the belief it had nothing to lose.
  • Paranoid: Public statements and propaganda from the NK regime indicate an extreme distrust of meddling by outside powers. The NK government may not react rationally to external provocation; in particular, it may believe its own survival to be threatened when this is not actually the case, and pre-emptively launch its nuclear weapons in response.
  • Enemy: NK is still technically at war with the USA and South Korea. The Korean War ended in 1953 with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
  • No regard for human life: The NK government's massive human rights violations, and inert response to a catastrophic famine in the 1990s, provide ample evidence of this.

All in all, the NK regime is much more likely to use its nuclear weapons than most other governments, which would be held back by some combination of self-interest and moral scruples.

Note: Although it is true that NK has declared a no-first-use policy, other governments are understandably reluctant to trust the honesty of a regime which is content to starve its own people.


The Non-Proliferation-Treaty was an agreement where the signants agreed to not develop nor aquire nuclear weapons, while the countries who already had them promised to work to get rid off them. Now, the second part of the agreement is known to be false; even if several START treaties brought down the number of nuclear warheads of the USA and the USSR/Russia, it is clear that the atomic powers are not willing to give up that power.

So, in essence, the NTP is a treaty where the countries who have nukes work together to prevent anyone else to get them, which is perfectly logical from a strategical point of view, but has no right to claim any moral high ground. North Korea's nuclear program is criticised because it's feared, and it's feared because North Korea's leaders are perceived (rightly?) as lunatic, impredictable maniacs. Politically speaking, North Korea has every right to pursue acquiring nukes since it announced its withdrawal from the NPT.

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    "So, in essence, the NTP is a treaty where the countries who have nukes work together to prevent anyone else to get them" +1.
    – Shautieh
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 7:16

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