North Korea's Big Nuclear Test: What Do We Do Now?

Improvements in the DPRK's nuclear arsenal create new risks that the United States must address, but deterrence is not dead. 

Meanwhile, the United States may see missile defense as a shield to protect its allies from North Korea, but a potential unintended consequences of improving missile defense against North Korea is expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal. China relies on a relatively small but survivable nuclear force. If American missile defenses reduce the chance that Chinese weapons could strike the United States, then the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent is also reduced. This could easily create a security dilemma, wherein actions taken by the United States to protect its allies prompt China to increase the number or quality of its own nuclear weapons.

Getting North Korea to Negotiate:

Trying to get North Korea back to the negotiating table will also be very difficult, especially after Pyongyang has made so much technical progress. Politically, there is a good chance that any negotiations close on the heels of a nuclear test would be interpreted as a successful case of “nuclear blackmail.” The United States also lacks sources of leverage over North Korea in negotiations. The offer of lifting sanctions has relatively little power since Pyongyang is capable of achieving nuclear and military milestones with sanctions in place. Dropping the U.S.-South Korea alliance in exchange for denuclearization could entice North Korea, but such a course of action is highly unlikely


The question of what to do about North Korea will be front and center for the next U.S. administration. While there is no easy way for the United States to solve the North Korea problem, it should be possible to keep the situation from escalating into full-scale conflict. Kim Jong-Un is a dangerous dictator, but not necessarily an irrational one. The United States must clearly communicate that first use of a nuclear weapon by North Korea will result in the complete destruction of the Kim regime, through either nuclear or conventional means. Improvements in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal create new risks that the United States must address, but deterrence is not dead. 

Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. His research focuses on regional security issues and U.S military strategy in East Asia, with a focus on maritime territorial disputes and China’s military modernization. 

Image: White House Flickr.