Can America Live with a Nuclear North Korea?


Jun 19, 2024

North Korea conducts a test firing of a tactical ballistic missile at an unknown location in North Korea, May 18, 2024, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korea conducts a test firing of a tactical ballistic missile at an unknown location in North Korea, May 18, 2024

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on June 19, 2024.

While the U.S. government still seeks North Korean denuclearization, senior U.S. personnel have recently argued that the United States is prepared to negotiate interim steps to achieve that objective. Which is to say that the U.S. government believes that it can live with North Korean nuclear weapons for some significant period of time.

And that is very risky for many reasons. If Kim Jong-un had only five to ten nuclear weapons and a very stable country, that would be one thing. But Kim already likely has fifty to 100 nuclear weapons or so, and he appears to be shooting to produce hundreds at an exponentially increasing rate.

North Korea's instability and growing nuclear weapon inventory could embolden him to carry out limited conventional force attacks on the South and perhaps even nuclear attacks. That could put the United States in a difficult position because any military response to such provocations could escalate to full nuclear weapon employment by North Korea. Kim might hope that this “nuclear shadow (PDF)” effect would undercut the South Korea–U.S. alliance, one of his key objectives.

While the South Korean president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has been stern in threatening serious retaliation against North Korean attacks, the United States has sought to avoid any kind of military escalation on the Korean Peninsula. The United States clearly worries that Kim has threatened to annihilate South Korea or at the very least conquer and annex it. Once a military conflict begins, the United States may not be able to control the subsequent escalation.

North Korean instability would also factor into Kim's behavior. This instability might increase Kim's use of provocations to divert the North Koreans from their miserable living circumstances. And he may hope that South Korea will respond to a limited North Korean conventional attack with an escalation that demonstrates to the North Korean people that the South really is the enemy of the North. Kim could then appear justified in the North for blaming various regime failures on the South as the regime's main enemy. This also would confirm Kim's renunciation of negotiated unification because the South is such an enemy.…

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Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.

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