How Big a Threat is North Korea’s Nuclear and Space Program?

Source: Getty
TV/Radio Broadcast Voice of Russia
North Korea has vowed to continue expanding and strengthening its 'self-defensive military power' to cope with sanction pressures.
Related Media and Tools

Carnegie's Lora Saalman spoke to the Voice of Russia about North Korea's vow to continue expanding and strengthening its 'self-defensive military power' to cope with sanction pressures.

Lora Saalman: As you’ve mentioned I don’t think that it really surprises anyone, particularly given the overall environment in which North Korea exists. Now, of course when we look at the North Korean environment as it exists today, it is not just an issue of the international security environment, but also of the domestic situation. And I would say that many of the things that we see occurring we have to also think of the domestic audience within North Korea, it is not just foreign external audience.

So, the strong reaction also needs to be categorized and the fact that they have a new leader who is also very young, who is also trying to prove his mettle vis-à-vis the military community within his own country and also trying to demonstrate that North Korea can undertake a very strong reaction and stand up against the pressure from the outside world, particularly from the US.

I was a little bit surprised by the reaction of the Chinese media. I think the bit of news I have seen on the Chinese Radio International was rather strong worded, I’d say. And this was a little bit unexpected to me. They are saying that if North Korea holds true on its position to withdraw from its previous agreements – that would mark the biggest setback in a diplomatic rapprochement in a decade. Would you agree with this assessment?

I think from the Chinese perspective what we are seeing here is also to a degree has its domestic and external motivations. I think from the Chinese perspective of course, they have been pushing all along for the importance of returning to the negotiating table, the importance of the six-party talks.

And so this has been one of their major talking points all along, when any other country have excoriated North Korea and said that it doesn’t have a commitment to denuclearization or to the multiparty process, China has always brought up this idea that if they return to the negotiating table or if they will be willing to give some way North Korea would return.

The fact that North Korea wants to walk away from everything would of course be a major blow, particularly to the kind of diplomacy that China has been engaged in and also to its role as a mediator within this entire North Korean nuclear issue.

There was a word which looked a key word to me, which was “if”. As far as I understand North Korea has been rather demonstrative in what had anything to do with their nuclear program. Remember they invited an American scientist and they showed him all the centrifuges. They were kind of acting like to show the international community that they would be dangerous adversaries to deal with. How much substance do you think this time there is to that statement?

Well, I think that actually when they were willing to reveal the fact that they had centrifuges to Siegfried Hecker, that was the scientist who went there, actually it depends on your perspective. I think that there was a veiled threat aspect to that, but as well there was a certain degree to which they were actually being transparent, which of course is what the international community is constantly pushing North Korea to be.

So, it is very hard to say one way or the other. It is a veiled threat and it is at the same time they actually engaging in behavior that the international community would like to see. If they have this program, then of course they may let everyone know and this is actually a form of mutual reassurance.

I do think however that we have to take them seriously on such threats. For example, when they talk about significant action or that they might engage in some form of significant action after the UN Security Council resolution has emerged – I do think that the likelihood of them for example conducting another nuclear test is extremely high.

But once again, I don’t know that this necessarily violates or is in discordance with their past behavior. We saw this in 2006 after a missile test, we saw it in 2009 after a missile test. And of course their current commitment, the UN Security Council resolution set forward all of those activities. So, I think that actually they’ve been extremely consistent all the way through. And so, if anything I would take them on the word if they say that they are going to do something or engage in some form of somewhat provocative behavior.

Which stance would you suggest as the most sound in regards to North Korea after that statement?

Lora Saalman: Well, I think one of the big steps forward and one of the things which will probably bolster the international community is the fact that both China and Russia have come forward in agreement with the UN Security Council in supporting this particular UN Security Council resolution. In the past there have been efforts by those two countries in particular to water things down or to soften the language, or to make sure that for example Chapter 7 is not involved, suggesting that there could be some form of military action.

And I think that in this particular case it does show that there is a consensus in the international community and particularly among these five members of the Security Council, that this is extremely serious. 

End of document

About the Nuclear Policy Program

The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.


In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.