I heard a prominent university professor say on the radio the other day that we shouldn’t worry about North Korea going nuclear, because Pakistan and India both went nuclear peacefully - is this an accurate comparison? Why or why not?

It seems to me that there are many differences between DPRK and Pakistan and India, both in terms of their internal politics and in terms of their relationships to the US...

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    That might depend on which group you consider "we".
    – Philipp
    Jan 8, 2018 at 16:54
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    Good point. Who do you think is in a position to NOT worry about North Korea?
    – MAA
    Jan 8, 2018 at 17:03
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    Europe, Africa and South-America don't care that much about the NK situation. It's mostly the problem of South Korea, the United States and China (and to a lesser extend Japan). Some people in the middle east might in fact benefit from the tensions, because it diverts the attention of the United States and might give another precedent case for getting away with nuclear proliferation.
    – Philipp
    Jan 8, 2018 at 17:09
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    Is blowing up another country, directly, the only risk? One might not say that everything was okay with Pakistan, for example, since a lot of their technology made their way to more belligerent or less stable actors. Jan 8, 2018 at 17:52
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    @Philipp China in many ways benefits from NK's nukes and position. They can play both sides. I also would say that Japan is in the first tier, not "to a lesser extent". Japan is pretty spooked by NK. Their prime minister has called it the greatest threat Japan has faced since WWII.
    – userLTK
    Jan 10, 2018 at 0:35

5 Answers 5


It is important to understand the vast geopolitical differences between the two situations of India and Pakistan developing nuclear weapons and North Korea developing nuclear weapons.

India/Pakistan Nuclear Development

Following Indian defeat in the Sino-Indian War, India decided that it needed some unconventional arms - nukes - to counter China's stronger conventional war resources and deter China from engaging in similar future conflict. The USSR was more than happy to provide resources for this nuclear development, having earlier tried to bring India into the Asian Collective Security System, which was an effort by the USSR to balance against Chinese influence in the region. Thus India conducted its first nuclear test, "Smiling Buddha", in 1974.

Pakistan, which has been at odds with India since the two countries were created, especially concerning border disputes in the Kashmir region, was understandably frightened by its neighbor acquiring nuclear weapons and wanted its own for deterrence against potential Indian aggression. China was more than happy to help to counterbalance Indian influence, so in 1998, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test.

So the important takeaway from this is that both India and Pakistan developed their nukes for defensive purposes, with support from great powers trying to balance against each other for influence in the region. Both maintain a No First Use policy.

North Korean Nuclear Development

After Japan surrendered in WWII, the Korean peninsula, formerly under Imperial Japanese control, was split between the US (South Korea) and USSR (North Korea). When the Cold War got underway, tensions flared. The Soviets provided some research-based aid in nuclear development, as did China later on (source), but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, they had to turn to more clandestine means of advancing their program. There have been allegations against Pakistan, Libya, Ukraine, and others in helping the DPRK develop their weapons. (See the link above.)

During the Cold War, the US had placed nukes in South Korea, but withdrew them in 1991. Compare this to the first North Korean nuclear test being far later in 2006. The DPRK has continually stated that its nuclear program is for self-defense. Any opinions about the validity of this statement or North Korean nuclear ambitions are subject to the unknowable motives of Kim Jong Un.

Similarities and Differences



  • Indian and Pakistani nuclear arms were developed for reasons of self-defense, and they demonstrate this by maintaining a "No First Use" policy.
  • India and Pakistan received ample support from great powers attempting to balance influence in their region, whereas a sizable portion of North Korean development was purely pursued independently, with aid coming from clandestine sources.

Differences between countries that are pertinent to the nuclear issue:

  • India and Pakistan are democracies, which for a variety of reasons which I believe to be outside the scope of this question, greatly decreases the chance of the decision being made to use nuclear arms. North Korea is a hereditary dictatorship, a system in which the head of state is less accountable to their people.
  • North Korea is considered to be a rogue state and has little in the way of ties to other countries, and thus has less to lose by being aggressive. India and Pakistan by contrast have heavy economic and diplomatic ties around the world, which would be forfeit in the case of nuclear aggression on either side.

In the end the greatest difference between the countries is that India and Pakistan demonstrably use their nuclear arms for deterrence, while North Korea uses theirs in combination with an unstable dictator (or at least, a dictator who believes it is to his advantage to appear unstable) to garner concessions from the world in what one could call blackmail. Whether this posturing has been beneficial to the DPRK in light of recent sanctions, especially those from China, upon whom the DPRK relies greatly and perhaps wouldn't have suspected of opposing them so strongly, is up for debate.

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    Good answer. One nitpick: As far as I can tell, Pakistan does not maintain an official No First Use policy, only a general No First Attack policy. See e..g. carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/30/… for a detailed overview.
    – sleske
    Jan 9, 2018 at 9:36
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    While this is a good answer with solid background and references, I strongly dispute that North Korea is pursuing this for anything other than defence, and that the Kim dynasty is mentally "unstable". The former because North Korea has been behaving rationally (which is not the same as ethically) to ensure its own survival, and knows what happens to rogue states without WMD (Iraq, Libya). The latter is a western caricature because of widespread unwillingness to understand non-democratic societies, and write them off as mad (Iran, DPRK), just because they do not conform to our values.
    – user8398
    Jan 9, 2018 at 10:42
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    The biggest problem in understanding North Korea is that we can't tell which threats against other countries are genuine and which are made only to impress own citizens.
    – Agent_L
    Jan 9, 2018 at 10:47
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    @inappropriateCode I agree that it is likely that Kim is acting rationally though not ethically, and that the west overreacts to his posturing, but it is impossible to tell without him saying whether his threats are merely a rational calculation to get what he wants on the world stage or legitimate threats.
    – Gramatik
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:19
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    India and Pakistan are democracies However India has had a certain element of "hereditary" leaders, and the caste system is very strong. Pakistan was a military dictatorship until a decade ago, and it is still unclear how far the civil government can control the military. Both countries also have massive corruption, and strong religious elements which constrain (or influence) policy. So it's very dubious how genuinely democratic they are.
    – Graham
    Jan 9, 2018 at 17:47

More nuclear powers mean less stability.

There used to be two. Then five or possibly six. But France and the UK were closely allied with the US, so adding them to the mix didn't complicate things very much. The US and the USSR faced each other with vast intercontinental arsenals, the Brits tried to menace Moscow in case Washington got wobbly.

These days, Chinese missiles menace the US and India, and possibly Russia, India menaces China and Pakistan, and so on. So if the US were to install a missile defense against North Korea, China might be prompted to upgrade their arsenal, which would worry India. (There was a suggested edit that China and Pakistan have promised No First Use. That's not the point of this part of my answer. I'm talking capabilities and and the direction these warheads could potentially be targeted, not intentions.)

If North Korea gets an operational nuclear force, both South Korea and Japan may be prompted to go nuclear themselves. If Japan becomes a nuclear power, there will be political earthquakes.

Of course it would be completely unfair to tell North Korea "sorry, the club is full," but this is not the main reason to worry.

North Korea, in particular, is seen as a Rogue Nation.

The North Korean government is probably guilty of crimes against humanity. Many governments which accuse North Korea have a less than perfect track record themselves, and they are willing to overlook despicable acts by their own allies, but even so the North Korean government is clearly evil.

North Korea also appears to be unstable. The government fosters a sense of external threat and crisis to rally the population in the face of internal failings, like their inability to feed the population.

Read about prospect theory. NK is clearly "operating in the domain of loss" which makes them prone to take risk. Or read about power transition theory. NK is a revisionist state under the terms of this theory.

But what about ...?

Pakistan is not exactly an upstanding democracy under the rule of law. Yet they got away with becoming a nuclear power. That might have been a mistake, assuming that there ever was a realistic option of stopping them. So far they didn't use their nukes. Why add another risky nation to the mix?

President Trump's tweets appear just as intemperate as those of Supreme Leader Kim. But the US are an established nuclear power and suggesting that they disarm is a bit impractical.

We should worry about a nuclear North Korea, but should we stop it?

Doing that would require a negotiated solution, a violent regime change, or sustained pressure to bring the regime to it's knees.

There seems to be little hope for a negotiated solution. Kim remembers Gaddafi, who got toppled by forces allied with the West after he gave his WMD away. And he remembers Ukraine, which gave her nukes away against solemn international security guarantees. For that matter, he sees how the US is treating the Iran nuclear deal. He wouldn't believe any Western promises. Likewise sanctions are difficult unless the North Koreans believe that there is a carrot as well as a stick.

A military disarmament won't be possible without a fight to the finish. It is just too difficult to find weapons hidden in tunnels in the mountains.

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    Where did you get the notion that North Korea is unstable? Currently, it seems as one of the most stable countries in the world, with nearly no hope that the Kim regime could be toppled in the next years or even decades. The country is a vision of George Orwell that became real, and according to Orwell (whom you do not have to believe, but still) those regimes can be eternal.
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:08
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    @Nebr, the DPRK has to expend a lot of effort on the surveillance/persecution of their own citizens. It has lasted quite some time, and it may last much longer, but I think the goverment is in a very precarious balance.
    – o.m.
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:40
  • @o.m. Are there sources to provide this assumption? I see a dictatorship that passes through generations (with a few obligatory purges), a military that stands besides the leaders, no existing opposition, and a well-oiled propaganda machine that keeps the citizens of the country in a fake world in which they believe (if only in the doublethink way of Orwell). Even killings of ten thousands in penal camps or extreme poverty seems to have no effect on the regime. Although it would be good if the regime collapses, it seems like wishful thinking to assume this will happen any time soon.
    – Thern
    Jan 9, 2018 at 17:24
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    @Nebr, Europe had the reserves to deal with the Euro crisis, even if the final bill is still to come due. By comparison, North Korea had a famine in the 90s. Outside observers are still arguing how bad it was, but it was a famine. As I wrote I'm not expecting a collapse any time soon, but Kim is sitting on a powderkeg.
    – o.m.
    Jan 10, 2018 at 17:02
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    @reirab Kim Jong Un's life could be ended tomorrow with a single bullet. That would him have replaced by another dictator from the Kim family (which is probably the reason why his uncle was placed in front of a flak cannon). Murder in the family is common in hereditary regimes, be it ancient Rome or medieval monarchies. It never caused them to crumble.
    – Thern
    Jan 11, 2018 at 8:38

There are plenty of reasons to be worried about all these countries having nuclear weapons.

From a selfish position in Europe, it seems most likely that India and Pakistan would use their weapons against each other. North Korea threatens South Korea, Japan and the USA — I have more personal connections with those latter countries.

Looking at the rhetoric, India and Pakistan are more clearly committed to a "No first use" policy. North Korea is less clear about this. This is worrying.

India and Pakistan have succeeded in not nuking each other for several years. That gives me some confidence that they won't do so in the near future. North Korea seem intent on developing its nuclear weapon beyond that apparently owned by the South Asian states, and create a potent offensive weapon.

So generally North Korea is a more immediate and greater concern.

On the other hand, India and Pakistan have both been victims of political violence and, particularly in Pakistan, multiple coups. While I mostly trust the current leadership not to make first use of nuclear weapons, that is not the case when you consider all the potential future leaders of India or Pakistan.

So while the analogy between India, Pakistan and DPRK is not perfect. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in all of these countries is of grave concern.


I heard a prominent university professor say on the radio the other day that we shouldn’t worry about North Korea going nuclear, because Pakistan and India both went nuclear peacefully - is this an accurate comparison?

Not really. The professor on the radio ignored something pretty important: Pakistan may not have nuked India, but the problems with North Korea going nuclear can be directly traced back to Pakistan. Specifically, AQ Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, sold that technology to a lot of unsavory people

U.S. agents had intercepted a German ship named the BBC China carrying parts for a Libyan nuclear-weapons-production program, and Libya, in subsequently renouncing its nuclear ambitions, had named Pakistan, and particularly the Khan Research Laboratories, as the supplier of what was to be a complete store-bought nuclear-weapons program. The price tag was said to be $100 million. At about the same time, it was revealed that the Pakistani-run network had provided information and nuclear-weapons components to Iran and North Korea, and had begun negotiations with a fourth country, perhaps Syria or Saudi Arabia. The current dictator of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, denied any personal knowledge or governmental involvement, and with his masters in Washington, D.C., looking sternly on, accused Khan of running a rogue operation, outside the law.

While North Korea's ICBM threat is a problem, a much larger one going forward is that North Korea is, in turn, selling their technology abroad as well

However, there is another, even more likely way that a North Korean nuclear weapon could explode in a U.S. city: Kim could sell one to terrorists. Are the terrorists the United States is fighting today interested in nuclear weapons? Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda, has been seeking nuclear weapons for more than a decade. Moreover, in 2016, an ISIS-related group was discovered actively pursuing nuclear materials at a Belgian nuclear power plant. Does Kim imagine he could get away with selling a nuclear weapon, or the material to make one, to a terrorist group? One would think not—and the United States must do everything possible to make him believe that.

But no one can erase the fact that Pyongyang has already crossed that line without suffering serious consequences. Beginning in 2001, North Korea sold materials, designs, and expertise to Syria that helped it build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor. By now, that reactor would have produced enough plutonium for several nuclear bombs—had it not been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007.

So, really, India is the only "peaceful" operator here. Pakistan, indirectly through AQ Khan, has made it possible for anyone (potentially even terrorists) to get their hands on nuclear weapons.

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    Thanks this has some things not covered in the other answers
    – MAA
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:08

No, it isn't the same. One chief difference is - neither India nor Pakistan have threatened to use their nuclear weapons... the deterrence aspect doesn't have to be vocalized.

N Korea is run by a dictator who is currently threatening to use the nuclear weapons he has on a fairly flimsy pretext. That is unprecedented - all other nuclear armed nations never do this.

Also, N Korea is run by a hereditary dictator, which means he did nothing to earn the position, not even having to rise to command an army to get the job, like Khadafy or Hussein. Because he is answerable to no one, he has considerable latitude in what he can do, while disregarding the will of the N Korean people.

Even in the midst of the Cold War, the ostensibly authoritarian USSR had the Politburo, and it was capable of removing Nikita Kruschchev as the leader, when he was perceived to be reckless. There is no mechanism within N Korea for removing Kim Jong Un, no matter how reckless he is.

We can dismiss him as a blowhard kid playing with his new toy. But, if we're wrong, the result could be millions of deaths: Seoul, Tokyo, Los Angeles... True that Kim and his regime would not survive such an incident, but also keep in mind that Kim is fairly young, and may still be in that delicate ego phase that gets a lot of young men to disregard the consequences of their actions, in the name of personal ego.

This is the same person who had his own uncle blown apart with an antiaircraft cannon, and appears to have ordered the murder of his own brother, so he does show the signs of an immature person with way more power than he can handle... and no one to stop him.

Nor have negotiations with N Korea proven to be of value in the past - the very reason they have nuclear warheads is they violated previous agreements. Given Kim's apparent immaturity and lack of restraint, it's hard to imagine any solution satisfactory to the rest of the world, that doesn't involve removing Kim Jong Un, and the dismantling of the hereditary dictatorship that put such an inexperienced and temperamental person in such a position.

And that probably won't be a negotiated settlement.

Do we continue to try to negotiate with economic pressure? The longer we wait, the more time Kim has to develop longer range delivery systems, and the more damage he can do.

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