Von Frau Annabelle Vuille Masterabsolventin am King’s College in London

October 2006, North Korea declared that it had successfully conducted its first nuclear test. More than a decade later, five such tests have been conducted and the regime in Pyongyang has launched approximately 94 missiles to date – thirteen in 2017 alone.[1] The reactions among its neighbours and the international community have remained relatively constant. Japan and South Korea decry the tests as being ‘unacceptable’ and ‘destabilizing’, and call for North Korea to immediately ‘abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs.’[2] The UN Security Council similarly condemns the events and vows to impose new sanctions, and the United States reaffirms its commitment to its regional allies and reiterates its fundamental position on the matter – demanding for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, also known as CVID.[3]

What about the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? Despite repeated calls, notably by the United States, to use its political and economic influence to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program, Beijing has been reluctant to assume a stronger role in this process. The tightening of trade and financial sanctions in the wake of nuclear and missile tests have largely been of temporary nature; in the UN, China has been said to ‘act as North Korea’s defense lawyer,’[4] diluting new resolution texts and resisting stronger sanctions; and Beijing has continuously maintained that dialogue and diplomacy were the key to resolving the Korean nuclear issue.[5] This raises the question why Beijing has, and in all probability will not take decisive action in the near future? The answer provided here is: North Korea’s strategy of nuclear coercion. To illustrate this point, one must first examine Pyongyang’s current nuclear arsenal and its strategic orientation.

North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program. As mentioned previously, five nuclear explosive devices have been tested since 2006, including a nuclear warhead in 2016, which the regime has claimed will arm its strategic ballistic missiles.[6] The country has made substantial investments to enhance the quantity and quality of its nuclear weapons. Indeed, North Korea has doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility, significantly ramped up efforts to produce plutonium, and has operationalized a lithium 6 production plant – a key thermonuclear material that amplifies the explosive yield and allows for the further miniaturization of nuclear weapons.[7] While expert opinions vary, it is generally estimated that North Korea possesses anywhere between 15 and 20 nuclear weapons today.

What is more, the regime has invested heavily in diversifying its ballistic missile capability. Its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBM) include at least six KN-08 with an estimated range of 5,500-11,500 km, and an unknown number of the Taepodong-2 missiles that could, hit targets within a 6,000 – 9,000 km radius. While both are considered operational, neither has undergone successful testing and thus remain largely unreliable. The intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles arsenal includes the road-mobile Musudan missile with a speculated range of 2,500 to 4,000 km, as well as the Nodong missile with a range of 1,250 km. The regime is said to hold up to 50 of each. In May this year, the regime tested a new missile of this class known as the Hwasong-12, capable of carrying a large, heavy nuclear warhead. The new missile flew approximately 787 kilometres (489 miles) before plummeting into the Sea of Japan. Experts have noted that if flown on a standard instead of a lofted trajectory, the real range of the missile could be extended upwards of 4,500 kilometres (2,800 miles).[8] However, far more impressive are the North’s stockpile of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) – that is, missiles with a range of up to 1,000 kilometres. Indeed, of the 94 missile launches conducted over the past 6 years, approximately 49 of these were SRBM. It is estimated, that the country currently deploys over 600 Scud missile variants, including the KN-02, KN-17, Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6, and the Hwasong-7. The latter three are considered North Korea’s most reliable missiles, capable of carrying chemical or high explosive warheads, and potentially housing a capacity to be fitted with miniaturized nuclear warheads.[9]




Adding to the credibility of the ‘North Korean threat’ is the fact that the country has 2,400 multiple launch rocket systems, and that nearly all of its missiles are road mobile. This means that they can be moved across the country, hidden in tunnels and underground facilities, and essentially shielded from detection.[10] Several experts have noted that that these trends suggest the regime’s intention of developing a first-strike capability. Foreign Policy’s Jeffrey Lewis argued in March that North Korea is ‘developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of conflict,’ and added that the missile tests conducted all over the country are ‘military exercises … practicing for a nuclear war.’[11] Such intentions have seemingly been validated earlier this year when Choe Myong Nam, the deputy ambassador at the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said that the country would continue to develop a ‘pre-emptive first strike capability.’[12]

While the strategic objective of such a capability remains elusive, one can speculate that, at a minimum, the aim is to extract economic, political or diplomatic concessions from the United States and its allies that will ensure the survival of the regime. The ultimate aim, however, would be to achieve historic reunification with South Korea under the leadership of Kim’s regime; a move that would communise and liberate the Korean peninsula from ‘foreign’ – notably U.S. – influence.[13] An active nuclear program and the threat of a nuclear strike are, however, insufficient to achieve either of these objectives, or anything in between. Success requires two things. Firstly, sufficient economic capital to keep the regime in power, and secondly, sufficient political capital that grants North Korea credibility on the world stage and allows the regime to play its games vis-à-vis the United States without fear of retribution. Such capital is arguably best provided by a more powerful state: China.

Yet, while the two states may have been inseparable during the era of the Korean War, this is no longer the case. To be sure, both states are still considered allies, but Sino-North Korean relations have progressively deteriorated since China’s ‘reform and opening up’ in the 1980s. Pyongyang has become increasingly alarmed at Beijing’s wide-ranging interactions with the United States, its normalization of relations with South Korea since the early 1990s, and its criticism of North Korea’s policy of hereditary succession. Given that bilateral relations have grown rather frosty, the regime in Pyongyang has opted for a strategy of nuclear coercion to keep its ‘brother in arms’ committed. As noted by Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert based at Troy University in Seoul, North Korea’s nuclear program ‘is as much aimed at Beijing as it is at Washington.’[14] With Beijing situated only about 812 kilometres (505 miles) from Pyongyang, and 750 kilometres (468 miles) from Kusong – the test site closest to the Sino-North Korean border – the PRC’s political capital is well within range of North Korea’s reliable, and substantial SRBM arsenal. Other cities, including Dadong, which is China’s largest city along the 1,400-kilometre-long shared frontier, may also become targets. Indeed, earthquakes have repeatedly shaken Chinese citizens along the border in the wake of nuclear tests, demonstrating that Kim’s North Korea does not shy away from actions that may adversely affect the PRC. Indeed, in a recent commentary published by a state-run news agency, Pyongyang warned that Beijing’s ‘reckless remarks’ concerning the country’s nuclear program were undermining bilateral relations, worsening tensions, and had the potential to trigger unspecified ‘grave consequences.’[15]



Source: Center for Nonproliferation Studies


North Korea is thus using the nuclear card to coerce Beijing to maintain the status quo. That is to (i) continue to provide substantial economic aid, including oil deliveries, consumer goods, and food supplies; (ii) defend the North’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security concerns on the international stage; (iii) counter attempts by external powers, such as the United States, to adopt a more forceful approach and engage in limited armed conflict; (iv) promote bilateral negotiations with the United States, rather than pressing for a resumption of the Six Party Talks that call for North Korea’s complete denuclearization; and (v) support South Korea’s more conciliatory approach under the newly elected Moon Jae-in, which would add further pressure on Washington to engage Pyongyang diplomatically.

Deterrence is often viewed as one of the most effective means with which states can marshal power to prevent war, restore the balance of power, and ultimately regain their political manoeuvrability. Essentially a psychological phenomenon, deterrence involves one party persuading another to not to pursue a line of action against his interest by conveying a commitment to defend these interests and convincing the opponent that the costs of unfavourable action would far outweigh the benefits.[16] For deterrence to be effective the threat of retaliation, as well as the resolve to defend one’s interests must be credible and sufficiently powerful in the eyes of the opposing state. This can be achieved through several ways. One is to possess a second-strike capability. In the words of Albert Wohlstetter, ‘[t]o deter an attack means to be able to strike back in spite of it. It means, in other words, a capability to strike second.’[17]

China has been steadily investing in developing and enhancing such a capability. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly known as the Second Artillery Force (SAF), has rapidly evolved from primarily fielding intermediate and medium-range missiles, to a deterrent force that combines intercontinental- and medium-range nuclear forces with a sizeable arsenal of precision-strike short- and medium-range conventional missiles.[18] One estimate holds, that China has increased the number of SRBM from approximately 30-50 in the mid-1990s to over 1,200 today.[19] The PRC has also introduced the road-mobile DF-21 MRBM, the road-mobile DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs, and the 12-tube Jin-class Type 084 ballistic missile submarine (SSBNs).[20] These developments have increased the survivability of China’s nuclear forces, and allow for the credible nuclear- and conventional deterrence of adversaries within a 1,500-kilometre radius.

China has added further credibility to its resolve and retaliatory capability with the publication of a harshly worded editorial published by the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned and operated by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper. The editorial states that China will unilaterally launch attacks against North Korea’s nuclear facilities if the North threatens the security and stability of northeast China – crossing the so-called ‘bottom line.’[21] In line with this warning, China has also been reported to have ramped up inspection- and policing functions at the border, and to have deployed an additional 150,000 troops to the region; although the latter has been denied by the Defense Ministry.[22]

Deterrence – through an impressive SRBM arsenal and the bolstering of military and policing capabilities along the border – is China’s response to North Korea’s nuclear coercion strategy. It is a means with which Beijing seeks to regain political manoeuvrability and break free from the grip of a potentially nuclear Pyongyang, whose implicit willingness to ‘strike first’ poses a grave threat to national and regional security. While it is highly desirable that this strategy of deterrence succeeds, particularly from a regional security standpoint, its effectiveness is also highly uncertain. Traditional deterrence theory assumes that the opposing party is rational. Yet given Kim Jong-Un’s repeated violation of U.N. orders, his unprecedented brutality and lethality when dealing with ‘domestic issues’, and his blatant defiance of world pressure call into question whether his regime is rational and deterrable in the traditional sense. Several scholars have argued that he is inherently unpredictable, and posit that any threat to the legitimacy of Kim’s rule – whether in the form of a possible invasion or a failure to elicit more external economic assistance – will likely trigger an overwhelming first use against an ‘enemy state.’[23] Miscalculations and potential nuclear escalation thus remain a distinct possibility.

The conclusions to be drawn are twofold. Firstly, Beijing faces a unique paradox. On the one hand, it must continue to appease Kim’s North Korea in order to safeguard national security, stability, and the North’s position as a strategic buffer. On the other hand, Pyongyang’s nuclear coercion strategy has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the CCP in the eyes of its citizens, as well as the international community, and thus demands that Beijing adopt a more revolutionary approach grounded in strength and decisive action. Doing so, however, will require a willingness and preparedness to carry the consequences – be this the collapse of the Kim dynasty, or even a forceful and potentially nuclear response by North Korea. This reality leads to the second conclusion: as long as Beijing faces this paradox, it is unlikely that the security situation on the Korean peninsula will change for the better. Without the withdrawal of Beijing’s economic and political support, the North will continue to play its games and test the boundaries of the international community.

Essentially, North Korea’s nuclear coercion of Beijing is a key reason for the enduring stalemate and instability on the Korean peninsula. Whether or not this will change in the future will therefore likely depend on China’s ability to regain political manoeuvrability through strategic deterrence, and the nature of the regime’s strategy to deal with a dangerous, and paradoxical situation.


[1] This includes successful and failed missile tests. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) (April 24, 2017), Understanding North Korea’s Missile Tests, Nuclear Threat Initiative, available at <>.

[2] Wa Dae, Cheong (September 9, 2016), ‘Statement by the Government of the Republic of Korea on the DPRK’s Fifth Nuclear Test,’ The Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae, available at <http://english1.president.go-kr/activity/briefing.php?srh%5Bview_mode%5D=detail&srh%5Bseq%5D=17406>; Abe, Shinzo (September 9, 2016), ‘Statement by the Prime Minister of Japan (on the Nuclear Test by North Korea)’, Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, available at <>.

[3] Obama, Barack (September 9, 2016), ‘Statement by the President on North Korea’s Nuclear Test’, The White House, available at <>.

[4] Klingner, Bruce (August 11, 2016), ‘Chinese Foot-dragging on North Korea Thwarts U.S. Security Interests’, The Heritage Foundation, available at <>.

[5] Reuters (May 26, 2017), ‘Russia, China urge caution in countering North Korea’s nuclear program’, Reuters, available at <>.

[6] Hunt, Katie, Kwon, K.J., and Hanna, Jason (September 10, 2016), ‘North Korea claims successful test of nuclear warhead’, CNN, available online at <>.

[7] Although there is a lack of concrete evidence indicating that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads, many experts believe that the regime is capable of fitting nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles. See Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (May 2017), ‘North Korea’, Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, available at <>.; Albright, Burkhard, Gorwitz, Mark, and Lach, Allison (March 17, 2017), ‘North Korea’s Lithium 6 Production for Nuclear Weapons’, Institute for Science and International Security, available online at <>.

[8] Cha, Victor (May 15, 2017), ‘Policy Implications of North Korea’s New Missile Test’, CSIS, available at <>; David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the missile could have a range of 4,500 kilometres (about 2,800 miles) if flown on a standard, instead of a lofted, trajectory. See: <>

[9] Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (May 2017), ‘North Korea’, Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, available at <>.

[10]Jennings, Ralph (September 1, 2016), ‘North Korea’s Military Escalation: The Real Long-Term Goal’, Forbes, available at <>.; BBC (April 20, 2017), ‘Have North Korea’s missile tests paid off?’, BBC, available at <>.

[11] Lewis, Jeffrey (March 9, 2017), ‘North Korea is Practicing for Nuclear War: North Korea isn’t testing its missiles. It’s preparing a nuclear first strike’, Foreign Policy, available at <>.

[12] Reuters (March 22, 2017), ‘Exclusive: North Korea has no fear of U.S. sanctions move, will pursue nuclear arms – envoy’, Reuters, available at <>.

[13] Lee, Sung-Yoon (2014), ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Unification Policy’, International Journal of Korean Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 121-122.; Park, Yung Ho (2014), ‘South and North Korea’s Views on the Unification of the Korean Peninsula and Inter-Korean Relations’, Korea Institute for National Unification, pp. 1-21.

[14]Campbell, Charlie (February 11, 2016), ‘North Korea Isn’t Going to Stop Provoking Its Ally China Anytime Soon’, TIME, available at <>.

[15] Kim, Hyung-Jin (May 4, 2017), ‘North Korea Lashes Out at China Amid Nuclear Dispute’, TIME, available at <>.

[16] Kay, Sean (2012), Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Security (Maryland, United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), p. 28.; Craig, Gordon and Alexander, George (1995), Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of our Time (New York, United States: Oxford University Press), p. 179.

[17] Wohlstetter, Albert (1959), ‘The Delicate Balance of Terror’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 37, No. 2, p. 213.

[18] Cordesman, Anthony H. with the assistance of Kendall, Joseph (2016), ‘Chinese Strategy and Military Modernization in 2016’, CSIS, p. 377. Available at <>.

[19] Ibid. p. 377.

[20] Schreer, Benhamin (2015), ‘China’s Development of a More Secure Nuclear Second-Strike Capability: Implications for Chinese Behavior and U.S. Extended Deterrence’, Asia Policy, No. 19, pp. 14-20.

[21]Durden, Tyler (April 12, 2017), ‘China Threatens to Bomb North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities if it Crosses Beijing’s “Bottom Line”’, ZeroHedge, available at <>.

[22] Vanderklippe, Nathan (April 28, 2017), ‘Nuclear Neighbours: China and North Korea at the Edge of Patience’, The Globe and Mail, available at <>.; Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (April 27, 2017), ‘Regular Press Conference of Ministry of National Defense on April 27’, China Military, available at <>.; Wood, Peter (May 17, 2017), ‘China’s Northern Theater Command’, Real Clear Defense, available at <>.

[23] Chung, Chaesung (2017), ‘The North Korean Nuclear Threat and South Korea’s Deterrence Strategy’, in Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Cohen, eds., North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering a New Era of Deterrence (Washington, United States: Georgetown University Press), pp.113-128.; Terry, Sue Mi (March 13, 2017), ‘The Rising Threat of a Nuclear North Korea’, comments in the ‘What to Do About…’ CFR series, Council on Foreign Relations, available at <>.; Long, Mary Beth (March 13, 2017), ‘The Rising Threat of a Nuclear North Korea’, comments in the ‘What to Do About…’ CFR series, Council on Foreign Relations, available at <>.

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