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  • Jonathan B Graves

The Risk of a Nuclear Showdown: North Korea vs. America

North Korean ambitions towards nuclear proliferation are a contentious issue for the United States of America. The issue dates back to October 21, 1994 when Bob Gallucci representing the US and Kang Sok-ju representing North Korea signed the Agreed Framework built on concessions and cooperation to bring North Korea into modernity. However, American leadership has failed to hold up to its commitments which created severe lack of trust towards American leadership by North Korea.

Nuclear war with North Korea is not only a military threat, but an existential international relations issue that involves many countries, governmental agencies, and multilateral diplomacy. The threat of nuclear war and war in general cannot be underestimated; North Korea’s army alone is a force to be reckon with, albeit poorly equipped. North Korean special operation forces are currently estimated at 200,000 strong and 70% of the ground force positioned south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line which allows North Korea to maintain aggressive military posturing and the capability of a surprise attack on Seoul. With North Korea, the fundamentals for a brutal war exist. But, there is a chance for peace and prosperity.

North Korea’s realist tendency implements the Juche ideology based on national self-reliance which encompasses three parts including political independence, economic self-sufficiency, and military self-reliance. Further tightening the reigns on everyday North Koreans, the Fuehrer Doctrine was implemented in the 1980’s stipulating that the Suryong (leader) is “an impeccable brain of the living body” and “the masses can be endowed with their life in exchange for their loyalty to him, and the party is the nerve of that living body”. Not only is self-reliance the most important aspect for North Korean leadership, but the military must come first. In understanding how North Korean political philosophy has developed, the U.S. and the West can more successfully contain, interact with, and affect change within North Korea to achieve world peace and alleviate the suffering of North Koreans.

North Korea was only obligated to dismantle their nuclear facilities when light water reactors were delivered by the U.S., which never occurred. Furthermore, political and economic relations were to be relaxed and the U.S. was to provide, under Clause III of the Agreed Framework, a guarantee not to use nuclear weapons on North Korea. These assurances were never realised. George W. Bush tore up the Agreed Framework and the U.S. never fulfilled its promises to North Korea. This history lesson shows why North Korea has refused to agree to terms presented by the U.S and why tensions are high. By understanding North Korean vulnerabilities such as fuel, food, and economic investment, the U.S. can invest in North Korea’s infrastructure and increase their resiliency to improve the quality of life.

Existential Risk

The risk of war with North Korea is not only existential in nature, but it deals with economics and human rights abuses. The totality of consequence frames the risk of war with North Korea as an unacceptable option where the loss of millions of lives, billions of dollars in economic destruction, and mass human rights abuses of innocent people would occur. War would ensure mass casualties, but the economic devastation would set the Korean Peninsula back a half century unleashing chaos in global markets. Contradictorily, if North Korea is left unchecked, millions of innocent North Koreas will suffer slave labor at internment camps as well as disease and famine.

Peace is vital to U.S. global leadership and national security objectives and President Trump would be considered immensely successful if he negotiated terms with North Korea which alluded his predecessors. While the risk of war with North Korea is high, the risk of failing diplomacy weighs far more on the moral conscience of America’s democratic idealism. Macroeconomic scaling of risk cements the thought that nuclear war with North Korea is an existential threat greater than any threat ever seen before.

Sea of Fire Threat

Not only are 24 million South Koreans within range of North Korean artillery fire in metropolitan Seoul, but a sea of fire from the North would wreak havoc and cause immense losses for South Korea, American military personnel, Guam and Japan. History shows that it was only after the US refused to negotiate and continued with its hostile policy that in July 2003 the DPRK publicly said it was developing a nuclear deterrent. While rhetoric from Pyongyang has been harsh with threats of annihilation and Armageddon, evidence suggests that Pyongyang has been more than willing to renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for quite modest ‘concessions’ from the United States.

In fact, according to the Associated Press, the Bush administration relied on unsubstantiated data that presented a worst-case scenario as an incontrovertible truth and distorted its intelligence on North Korea (much as it did on Iraq), seriously exaggerating the danger that Pyongyang is secretly making uranium-based nuclear weapons. The sea of fire threat is more complicated by the fact that North Korea cannot trust U.S. leadership to follow through on their commitments and détente becomes unlikely.


Vulnerability is a probability indicating the likelihood of a successful attack on a node or link. Not only is it apparent that Supreme Leader Kim could strike allies and start a war, but that North Korea is capable of responding to U.S. aggression by projecting their military power or using it as a bargaining chip in negotiations. If hard assets such as a bridge can be considered on the macroeconomic level, then considering their implications for international macroeconomic levels could prove useful when solving an international nuclear crises. Simply put, infrastructure topography can be scaled up to small networks like the transportation grid of Detroit or scaled up even further to include the transportation grid of Michigan, South Korea, or Japan. By examining the destruction of scaled up networks in a nuclear war crisis such as the complete destruction of Seoul, we can see the risk of war with North Korea is not a risk world powers should gamble with and one with dire consequences.


With a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, extreme loss of life is all but guaranteed, loss of capital assets would be in the billions of dollars, and the economic engine of Seoul would grind to a halt affecting global markets. The “sea of fire” scenario would upend the social structure of an entire region causing the largest international crisis since the end of World War II.

While a hurricane may wipe out the power grid of Puerto Rico, imagine if nuclear strikes on Japan, South Korea, and Guam wiped out entire cities or regions including power grids, water pipelines, economic markets, and entire populations. Scaling up the consequences of nuclear war would kill millions, destroy wealth on an unseen scale, and create immense chaos due to a lack of assets prepared to respond to such a devastating multi-pronged attack certain to cause cascading faults and reaching criticality thresholds. While militaries would be somewhat prepared, the real threat comes from the destruction of social cohesion whereby disease, famine, and more nuclear war would become the norm of the day while peace is all but a forgotten past time that wiped out millions of people in a flash of blinding light.

Congressional skepticism and partisan politics sunk the Agreement Framework deal, and this led to the minimum interpretation of sanctions lifting which created a trust issue whereby the North Koreans have always been disappointed that more has not been done by the US. Robert Gallucci warned the agreed framework “could fail unless the US did what it said it would do, which is to take responsibility for the delivery of the heavy fuel oil”.

With careful considerations and concessions by both North Korea and the U.S., a philosophical victory that reshapes nuclear proliferation in Asia and ushers in an era of peace is not only achievable but an absolute value for Trump’s administration to engage in. Former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange stated that there is “a quality of irrationality about nuclear weapons which does not sit well with good intentions” and that “a system of defence serves its purpose if it guarantees the security of those it protects”. Now more than ever, understanding the risk involved in a nuclear showdown with North Korea offer perspective on the definite loss of life, cost of rebuilding, economic impact on global markets, human rights epidemics like immigration, disease, and famine that would devastate entire regions.

Auribus Teneo Lupum

Relative peace on the peninsula over the last 50 years has not been without tragedy. Millions of North Koreans starve, work slave labor, and die for minor offences the Kim regime finds unsavoury. Quite simply, the innocence of children is being squandered on military provocation through missile launches and nuclear technological progression. While innocence suffers the darkest human tragedies imaginable in an allegory of the cave lifestyle, the world has stood idle but not without reason or empathetic concern.

If the U.S. was to strike North Korea, millions of lives would be lost both in the North and in the South. If the U.S. stands idle while humans rights abuses occur, millions suffer, and many die. Jong-un’s regime is as much a threat to its own people as it is to the annihilation of Seoul; this disturbing negative paradox I call the North Korean Situation, is unique in that doing nothing is equally as dangerous as doing something because either way, people will die.

Auribus teneo lupum is a Latin expression that means holding the wolf by the ears. In this expression, letting go of the wolf means the holder will get bitten while holding onto the wolf means the wolf will get wounded; doing nothing is equally as dangerous as doing something and this predicament perfectly sums up the North Korean nuclear crisis where innocent people are harmed in any scenario but peace through diplomacy. The only path to stability involves the North, the South, and the U.S. making concessions to ensure peace and prosperity as the de facto social norm.

Author: Jonathan B Graves

Jonathan is Founder and President of the Confucius Global Institute, an international think tank that advocates for democracy, freedom, and human rights through harmony, humaneness, and morality.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press