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It Is Not Too Late to Stop North Korea’s Rogue Nuclear March

North Korea’s recent launch of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is another dangerous step toward Pyongyang acquiring the capability to target nuclear warheads worldwide.

North Korea's ICBM
Image Credit: KCNA/North Korean Government.

North Korea’s recent launch of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is another dangerous step toward Pyongyang acquiring the capability to target nuclear warheads worldwide. More disturbing, however, is the tacit assumption that underlies most reactions to news of the launch: that it represents another inevitable step for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to achieve an objective that American presidents said for decades was unacceptable.

North Korea ICBM

North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: KCNA.

It now seems that we are prepared to accept this outcome, but we’re just not very happy about it. The Biden administration, more concerned with their leader’s valedictory Ireland visit, managed a response only from a National Security Council deputy press officer. Likely setting a record for most cliches in a one-paragraph statement, the text condemned the launch as “a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” and asked North Korea “to come to the table for serious negotiations.” Just so Pyongyang didn’t miss the point, the statement added “[t]he door has not closed on diplomacy,” and the North should “choose diplomatic engagement.”

Uncertainty Remains High on North Korea

No wonder the Kim family’s hereditary Communist dictatorship dismisses Washington’s formulaic criticisms. These contain little more than bluster in answer to the DPRK’s continued march toward becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Is this what “unacceptable” means? History will record that repeated, unsuccessful American calls for negotiations have empowered nearly three decades of North Korean advances in nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile technology. No one in Pyongyang fears that any dispositive action will be taken to thwart their efforts.

Indeed, the very people who most vociferously advocated a diplomatic resolution of rogue-state nuclear proliferation programs now argue just as vociferously that it is too late to take serious action, and that we must accept the DPRK — and soon enough, Iran — as nuclear powers. First, it was too soon to consider the use of military force or regime change, and now it’s too late. Pyongyang and other nuclear aspirants benefit from this muddled thinking, knowing what they want even if we don’t, and single-mindedly pursuing their objectives while we worry about those poor, brazenly violated Security Council resolutions.

Fortunately, it is not yet too late. It remains highly likely that the North still cannot mate a nuclear device to one of its ICBMs, nor is there physical proof that a missile and weapons payload can reach this country. We do not know if Pyongyang has successfully developed re-entry vehicles that can sustain warhead integrity and reliability when their trajectories bring them back into Earth’s atmosphere, nor do we know whether the DPRK has sufficient targeting capabilities to actually hit what it is aiming for. 

As Donald Rumsfeld frequently warned, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and our level of uncertainty is high. But knowing, as we do, the complexity of the science and technology needed to fabricate deliverable nuclear weapons, we can have some confidence that North Korea’s threat is not yet fully realized. Of course, we cannot exclude that Pyongyang would simply place a nuclear device into one of its tramp steamers, sail to a U.S. port, and detonate it to considerable effect. Time is, as always, definitely not on our side.

But neither should we overestimate the strength of Kim Jong Un’s regime, economically or politically. Just weeks before last week’s Hwasong-18 launch, we saw new indications of the North’s efforts to assist Russia in its war against Ukraine. Incredibly, according to declassified intelligence, Moscow is offering to barter food with Pyongyang in exchange for artillery shells, showing how weakened both regimes are. Indeed, the DPRK’s food shortages are worsening, with unconfirmed reports of starvation and perhaps the worst levels of deprivation during Kim’s entire tenure.

Regional Leadership Is Crucial

Accordingly, when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Biden next week, the top agenda item should be to develop new and improved means of facilitating regime change in Pyongyang. That is one sure way to eliminate its nuclear program, not to mention liberating its oppressed citizens. Reinvigorating and stiffening the enforcement of existing sanctions and expanding the range of economic and political pressure directed toward toppling the regime will be key. There is no denying the difficulties involved in pursuing regime change, but they pale before the potentially devastating consequences of the DPRK using its nuclear weapons, or threatening and intimidating weak American presidents away from our historic commitment to defend the South. Given the current White House occupant, Yoon’s leadership will be key to developing any effective new policy. Clearly, if Seoul is not actively concerned about the human rights and long-term prospects of its fellow Koreans above the DMZ, it will be difficult to inspire others.

Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM

Hwasong-17 North Korea ICBM. Image Credit: North Korean State Media Release.

South Korea is demonstrating an increased awareness that Beijing’s growing threat to Taiwan, and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific, directly affects the peninsula. This will contribute to rising Asian support for a vigorous counter-DPRK policy, which Japan will certainly welcome. Therefore, increasing trilateral Tokyo-Seoul-Washington cooperation against the menace of China and North Korea must also be a top agenda item for the Biden-Yoon summit. The historical obstacles to closer South Korean-Japanese cooperation are well-known, but Yoon’s recent efforts with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are promising, and they deserve full U.S. support.

One particularly important area is ongoing trilateral cooperation on missile defense, which recently resumed after a three-year break due to unrelated Tokyo-Seoul disagreements. America itself urgently needs to increase emphasis on national missile defense, further development of which would reduce, even if not completely eliminate, rogue-state threats of nuclear attack. Enhanced theater missile defense in East Asia, which amounts to national defense for South Korea and Japan, could pressure Pyongyang’s fragile economy just as Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative did to the collapsing Soviet economy, leading to its demise.

No one, least of all Kim’s regime, should harbor the misapprehension that America and its allies have grown indifferent to whether North Korea achieves deliverable nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding our manifest policy failures over the last 15 years, it is and always will be unacceptable for the DPRK to reach that goal.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.



  1. John

    April 18, 2023 at 8:12 am

    Sk Japan and Australia need to urgently develop their own nuclear deterrence.
    The US should help them. Just 60 Trident D5 with 480 warheads on mobile launchers would do the trick.
    The antinuclear mafia is putting our allies in great danger

  2. 403Forbidden

    April 18, 2023 at 8:59 am

    Already too late, Mr Bolton.

    Pyongyang already has the requisite thermo warheads, liquid-fuel rockets, solid-fuel rockets and the new underwater nuclear drone.

    So, it’s best to be always be wholesomely civil and very respectful when dealing with Pyongyang.

    Otherwise, it’s like trying to grab a porcupine or an adult catfish with your bare hands.

    In short, north Korea ain’t no Iraq or Libya.

  3. Ahmad

    April 18, 2023 at 9:11 am

    Try what you will, it will not avail you, you will face punishment for becoming an empire of sodomy and evil. Change your ways and repent to God, stop your wars on Islam and muslims or you will soon face great regret in this life and the nwxt.

  4. Jimmyf40

    April 18, 2023 at 10:25 am

    US left the important ABM Treaty in 2002.

    North Korea repudiated its membership of the NPT in 2003.

    Heh, one good turn deserves another.

    We now live in a time where we decide our own freedoms and our own choices (as shown in the 2 above examples) and no longer want other people to decide what’s good or bad for us.

    That must be respected. And also must be accepted and regarded as a truly globalized new normal.

  5. Stephen Pershing

    April 18, 2023 at 1:20 pm

    I’ve never seen a war that John Bolton didn’t want to start.

  6. Smarg Jones

    April 18, 2023 at 3:07 pm

    Patriots can only hope that Kim sends a nuke to DC, eliminating the criminal enterprise known as the US Federal government.

  7. Arash

    April 18, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    The best part of nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran is watching how much anguish they bring to likes of John Bolton!

    We in Iran have every technology North Korea has. We have been co-developing every military technology you can think of with them for 3 decades now. From centrifuge technology to cruise and ballistic missiles to solid fuel propulsion to precision weaponry to underwater drones and torpedos. Everything each side has, the other has acquired shortly afterwards.

    The difference is that we in Iran are more secretive about it and like to keep things under cover.
    North Korea launches solid fuel ICBMs, whereas we launch solid fuel satellite launch vehicle (SLV) as an example!

    Soon we both will have all the means to hold every American city under our nuclear sword. Then we will conduct a rampage of military action and drone killing with impunity the same the US has been doing it for decades!

  8. Webej

    April 18, 2023 at 6:47 pm

    Comments from the peanut gallery by John Warmonger.
    Based on margins of error about Korean nuclear capability and intelligence about food for shells after intel officials told us that sometimes declassifying untrue information is necessary to help the narrative.

    What is the threat exactly?
    Has Korea damaged the USA or was it the other way around?
    Has Korea used nuclear weapons or was it the USA?
    Has Korea invaded Japan, China, or Russia recently?
    Has the USA invaded Japan, China, or Russia recently? Yes Yes Yes

    Perhaps signing a peace treaty would help best.
    I know it’s simple-minded thinking.

  9. Gavin Longmuir

    April 18, 2023 at 9:24 pm

    Poor old John Bolton. It is not enough for him that the US is already fighting a (proxy) war against Russia — a war which is not going well for us and is showing big weaknesses in US manufacturing. Nor is it enough that the DC Swamp Creatures are amping up their rhetoric about starting another war with China — which supplies so many critical parts for the already-flailing US war machine. Now he wants war with North Korea. And can war with Iran be far behind?

    Common sense says Bolton is pointing down the wrong path — a path that can only lead to the destruction of the US. Instead, we should switch to a purely defensive military posture, shutting down overseas bases and quitting NATO, focusing on restoring the US southern border. And then we should focus on de-financializing the US economy and de-corrupting the Federal Government, while rebuilding the US educational system and restoring the US manufacturing base.

  10. Commentar

    April 18, 2023 at 9:54 pm

    US politicians need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or the millet from the husks.

    China’s xi jinping is cranking up production of chemical precursors widely used in the production of illicit fentanyl and the people involved are sending them to the western hemisphere using Chinese mainland air carriers.

    North Korea’s missiles and rockets are a response to endless or non-stop US military drills and war rehearsals.

    Xi jinping’s complete fentanyl chemicals exports are to bring in dollops of dollars used for generating bribe money to grease dirty hands of Biden and other corrupt underlings.

    See the difference between the two ??? ??? ???

    Time for US politicians to demand arrest warrant for xi, ban all flights by the mainland carriers, stop entry of illegal PRC police into US, close down the consulates and get the CBP to confiscate all imports unless xi steps down from his paramount leadership post.

    In the meantime, leave north Korea alone !!!

  11. Sofronie the Monk

    April 19, 2023 at 2:01 pm

    Hey, Webej, can you please enlighten us on a few points as well?

    When did the US invade South Korea recently? Or ever?
    Who did invaded South Korea in 1950?
    On who did the US use nuclear weapons and in which conditions?
    When exactly did the US invade Japan, China or Russia?

    Thank you.

  12. Aarsh

    April 19, 2023 at 3:27 pm

    One obvious point that is never addressed by likes of John Bolton is that what right does exactly the United States has to dictate to other countries what weapons they are allowed or not allowed to have?!

    It is just given that the US has a right to make decisions for other countries and if they don’t follow the US dictat, they are rouge nations!!

    North Korea was in NPT for a few years and then it withdrew from it in 2003. It has no international obligation to commit to unilateral disarmament. The self serving and unelected group of countries called the “security council” has no right to tell North Koreans what is best for them.

    They have as many much, given to them by God, to arm themselves the same way you are armed.

  13. Webej

    April 19, 2023 at 11:21 pm

    The US invaded Russia in the aftermath of ww1
    The US participated in the Second Opium War against China, and helped the nationalist Chinese government in the aftermath of ww2, marines, navy, etc. Even evacuated the government to Taiwan (previously occupied by Japan) and defended it with the navy.
    The US refused to meet with representatives of the Korean resistance/provisional army, preferred to take over the Japanese occupational authority, lots of resistance and rebellions, put down by the American with bloody force.
    The US invaded Japan after ww2 and is still present there.
    The rest of your questions are easily satisfied with some basic googling.

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