The Koreas

Today’s Nuclear North Korea Is Yesterday’s China: Lessons From History

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The Koreas

Today’s Nuclear North Korea Is Yesterday’s China: Lessons From History

North Korea isn’t the first Asian communist state to acquire a nuclear ICBM capability of concern to the United States.

Today’s Nuclear North Korea Is Yesterday’s China: Lessons From History
Credit: неизвестный via Wikimedia Commons

North Korea’s recent successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests have put Pyongyang on the cusp of having the means to credibly threaten the continental United States with a nuclear strike. The Trump administration has vowed to “not allow” North Korea to continue on its “destructive path” but so far has not put forth specific new policies to stop Pyongyang. Since the latest test, several senior administration officials have stepped up their rhetoric, labeling the DPRK as the most urgent threat facing the United States and stating that it is “unimaginable” to allow North Korea to have the capability to attack the U.S. mainland.

As U.S. policymakers ponder how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, it is important to remember that we are not in uncharted territory. The United States found itself in a similar situation more than 50 years ago, when faced with the prospect of Maoist China going nuclear. Then as now, experts questioned if rational decision makers were behind the nuclear controls of a reclusive communist state and military options — no matter how risky — were seriously considered. Despite initially having great fears about the prospect of a nuclear China, both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations came to realize that China’s modest nuclear arsenal failed to alter the underlying balance of power in East Asia or undermine the confidence of U.S. allies in the credibility of Washington’s security guarantees. And even though nuclear-armed China continued to champion global revolutionary causes and provide direct military assistance to North Vietnam against the United States, Chinese rhetoric on nuclear weapons gradually moderated and began to show evidence of calculated restraint vis-à-vis the United States.

A Rogue China   

In December of 1960, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) warned that, “[China’s] arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor, and distorted view of the world may lead [Beijing] to miscalculate risks. This danger would be heightened if Communist China achieved a nuclear weapons capability.” Revolutionary fervor aside, the same assessment could be written about North Korea today. North Korea continues to be one of the most isolated regimes in the world, run by the mercurial Kim Jong-un. In addition, the country engages in kidnappings and assassinations, hurls utterly bizarre imprecations against the United States, and regularly threatens preemptive nuclear strikes against South Korea. When observing North Korea from afar it is easy to mistake it for an exceptional case of obdurate despotism.

As the NIE suggests, however, the same rogue state description fit the profile of China in the 1960s. Throughout the decade, Chinese leaders routinely dismissed the dangers of nuclear war and would stress the inevitable victory of the “people’s war” against U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism. At the same time, Chinese leaders greatly exaggerated the capabilities of their own nuclear program and downplayed the risks posed by potential counter force strikes against the Chinese mainland.

In reality, China’s belligerent rhetoric was a strategic bluff to compensate for the great disparity between China and the two superpowers in nuclear capabilities. When looking today at uncannily similar boasts by North Korean state press that their country is now “a strong nuclear power state” and has “a very powerful ICBM that can strike any place in the world” it is important to remember that North Korea continues to have a small nuclear arsenal, has no second strike capability, and will never be able to shift the military power balance in the region on its own. North Korean saber rattling is a screen to deflect from the regime’s weakness and fear of the future.

North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine

The DPRK does not have a publicly available official nuclear doctrine, which leaves analysts the sole option of piecing together a strategy from open-source statements. Kim Jong-un has spoken about the importance of breaking the “nuclear monopoly” held by the United States. Pyongyang has stated that it has a “no first use” policy and that it is in favor of complete global disarmament. Despite the “no first use” language, North Korea has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in preventive strikes against either the United States or South Korea. Since pulling out of the Six Party Talks, North Korea has effectively rejected efforts to denuclearize the North Korean peninsula.

North Korea’s commentary on nuclear weapons closely parallels China’s official positions on nuclear weapons during the 1960s. Following China’s first nuclear test in 1964, Beijing also stressed three points: China’s goal for developing nuclear weapons was “to break the superpower monopoly;” China holds a “no first use” policy; and that China supports the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Despite the cautious public stance, China was vehemently opposed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) and did not moderate its hostile position toward nonproliferation until its nuclear program reached a more mature stage in the 1970s. China’s record suggests that North Korea is purposely adopting a hostile stance to compensate for the overall weakness of the North Korean arsenal.

Dealing with North Korea Effectively  

As William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson document in Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle”: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-64, John F. Kennedy viewed a potential Chinese nuclear test as “likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s.” The Kennedy Administration was so concerned about the specter of a nuclear China that every measure from direct U.S. strikes to parachuting Chinese Nationalist commandos from Taiwan was considered. Kennedy even authorized officials to approach America’s archrival, the Soviet Union, regarding joint preventive action against China.

Kennedy was hardly alone in his fears that a nuclear China was the greatest threat to world peace. As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, the U.S. Navy was concerned that China would quickly gain submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology and would launch them in a way to fake a Soviet strike, triggering a global nuclear war. (See Lyle J. Goldstein in When China Was a ‘Rogue State’: The Impact of China’s Nuclear Weapons Program on US-China Relations during the 1960s.)  To counter this putative threat, the Navy recommended the sinking of China’s first missile-armed submarine on its maiden voyage. Not only did these fears border on paranoia, they greatly exaggerated China’s technological capabilities. In the case of SLBMs, China would not test its first submarine-launched missile until 1982. The press was also highly critical of Mao possessing nuclear weapons and called for military action to curtail Beijing’s nuclear ambitions.

Kennedy’s fears over the prospect of China going nuclear were not shared by everyone in government. The State Department’s Policy Planning Council produced an influential study that questioned the consequence of China’s nuclear test. The study argued that the Chinese nuclear arsenal could not pose a major threat to the United States and would hardly alter the balance of power in the region. Moreover, China’s nuclear arsenal was vulnerable to a U.S. counter force strike. Hence, a nuclear China would not feel emboldened to further challenge the United States. Although initially controversial, proponents of this view eventually won out in the Johnson administration.

The report acknowledged that there could be some adverse political ramifications of a Chinese nuclear test (i.e., proliferation), but they could be addressed by U.S. reassurances to its allies. Indeed, even though in the wake of China’s first nuclear test Japan expressed a strong desire to develop its own bomb, the Johnson administration was able to provide security reassurances combined with diplomatic pressure to dissuade Tokyo from going down the nuclear path. In the subsequent years, the United States applied similar pressure to block Taiwan and South Korea from going forward with their own nuclear weapons programs.

If China’s nuclear program did not pose a serious threat to the United States in the 1960s, then there is even less reason to fear North Korea’s today. Even with improvements in North Korean missile capabilities, the United States and its allies still enjoy an overwhelming military and economic advantage over the North. Just as during the 1960s, the United States simply needs to be public and credible in its reassurances to its regional allies and partners. Any North Korean effort to split the U.S.-ROK alliance will fail if the United States continues to provide a broad security guarantee to South Korea. As long as the Trump administration continues to offer its public support to Japan, Tokyo too will feel that there is no need for drastic action.

Lastly the United States needs to forcefully come out against the linkage of the North Korean nuclear question with unrelated issues in the U.S.-China relationship to address Taiwanese concerns that Washington will trade away the de facto independence of the island in exchange for Chinese assistance in reigning in North Korea. It has become clear that either due to a lack of leverage or deliberate unwillingness, Beijing will not apply the necessary level of pressure to compel Pyongyang to reverse course. The United States should not fall into the trap of expanding the scope of talks in the hope of eliciting additional Chinese cooperation on North Korea.


After the 1964 Chinese nuclear test, President Johnson used trade controls and extra intelligence monitoring to slow down the pace of China’s nuclear development. Despite continued apprehension, the U.S. learned to live with China’s nuclear program. This was made possible in large part due to swift and credible U.S. reassurances to key regional allies such as Japan. Over time, as Chinese leaders decided to shift strategies and pursue greater engagement with the Western world, China’s nuclear positions underwent a gradual evolution. North Korea is not China, but a similar policy of strategic patience combined with robust security assurances to South Korea and Japan is the best bet for getting North Korea back to the negotiating table. The alternative is untenable.

Yevgen Sautin is a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University working on a Ph.D. in modern Chinese history.