Chief among US national security concerns is the North Korean nuclear threat. Led by its reclusive, enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the last bastions of communism, representing a strategic and ideological challenge for the United States in the post-9/11 era. So great is the perceived threat of the DPRK, that in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush proclaimed, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” Moreover, President Bush argued it is in within the rights of the United States to strike first against such threats, lest the nation be caught off-guard again and suffer the harrowing consequences of another September 11.

Although North Korea has yet to test a nuclear weapon, most security experts agree Pyongyang has at least enough fissile material and the technical expertise to construct a handful of crude nuclear bombs. Moreover, using its long-range, intercontinental Taepodong-2 missile, the DPRK could launch an attack against South Korea, Japan, or even the United States (e.g., Hawaii, Alaska, and San Francisco). Thus, with one well-placed strike, North Korea could devastate a major American city.

Given the isolated and mysterious nature of Kim Jong Il, and the probability that the DPRK has nuclear weapons, two key questions arise for debate: (1) How can the United States best understand the behavior and preferences of the DPRK? (2) What policy options should Washington consider in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat?

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Copyright © 2006, Center for Strategic and International Studies. This article first appeared in A Collection of Papers from the Nuclear Scholars Initiative: Project on Nuclear Issues (2006), 34-49.

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