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The Influence of the Obama Administration to North Korean Arms Race


While no universally accepted definition for arms race has been produced yet, most scholars agree that arms race is a severe armaments fight between two or more rival states, which can reveal itself through either technological advancements or numerical superiority, and which may or may not bring about war (Atkinson, 2011). Arms races are an enduring characteristic of international relations that appears truly arduous to restrain (Atkinson, 2011; Crosse, 2010).

At present, two of the countries that are involved in the issue of international arms race are the United States and North Korea. International arms race has been a focal point of international affair for several decades, particularly on the Korean peninsula (Olsen, 1986). At present, North Korean has foreseen new arms race, while, on the other hand, new stances on space policy, missile defense, and nuclear deterrence in the US have been pursued by the Obama administration (Zhang, 2011).

To investigate the current issues on international arms race, this paper discusses the new positions of the Obama administration that affect the nuclear weaponry in North Korea. This paper will examine how the nuclear weaponry modernization and missile defense system expansion under Obama administration influences arms race in North Korea.

Prior to this, during the Bush administration in 2004, North Korea advised that a divulged South Korean experiment with uranium enrichment could hasten a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia and blamed the United States for applying a double standard to the two Koreas’ nuclear programs (Brooke, 2004). While the Bush administration was in persistent opposition to any international agreements to prohibit weapons in space, the Obama administration made some modifications. The space policy of the Bush administration has been extensively amended by the Obama administration (Zhang, 2011).

With its official opposition to the deployment of weapons in space, the Obama administration leads the construction of a multilateral framework to put a stop to space weaponization (Tian, 2007). According to Hui (2009), arms race will be prevented and space arms will be controlled more easily through the willingness of the Obama administration to achieve an international treaty that prohibit space-based weapons and to set up a cooperative mechanism worldwide. As it demonstrated an exceptional willingness to control US missile defense, the Obama administration has cut the budget for missile defense and withdrawn new weapon systems (Zhang, 2011)


In 2003, North Korea retreated from the global anti-nuclear weapons pact, which is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Charbonneau, 2011). In the same year, the American-led invasion of Iraq took place and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il indicated that if Iraq had had nuclear weapons, it would have been able to avoid being attacked by the United States (Brooke, 2004). This implies that North Korea is using nuclear weapons to protect itself from the United States in particular, whether literally or only as a bluff. China has even helped the United States in its attempt to persuade North Korea to relinquish its weapons, but no positive response from North Korea was seen. North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, which provoked the U.N. Security Council to enforce two rounds of sanctions on Pyongyang to coerce it to put its missile and nuclear programs into an end (Charbonneau, 2011). Between these years, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament was established by Australia and Japan in 2008 (Evans, 2009), but in the same year, disarmament talks collapsed (Lederer, 2011).

In 2009, the declaration of the major nuclear test of North Korea was not surprising but it had instigated indignation (Fox, 2009). While prevalent international criticism had ensued after the launch of a communication satellite rocket, North Korea claimed that the enhancement of its nuclear arsenal also enhanced the safety of the Korean peninsula (Fox, 2009). After a year, the two Koreas continued its engagement in an extended arms race, which risked Korean peninsula and the region’s peace and stability (Moon & Lee, 2010). To become a real nuclear weapon state, North Korea has already satisfied three conditions, which include availability of nuclear warheads, workable missiles deployment, and success in nuclear testing, but has not yet obtained one condition, which is the decreased technology to mount nuclear warheads (Moon & Lee, 2010).

One factor that caused the rapid increase in defense spending of North Korea, which refuses to disclose the actual amount, is the adoption of the military-first politics in North Korea (Gause, 2006). If the full-fledged nuclearization of North Korea is not deterred, a horrendous nuclear domino effect may ensue in the area, and addressing and assuring the security concerns of North Korea are prerequisites to its denuclearization (Moon & Lee, 2010).

According to Moon and Lee (2010), it is necessary for North Korea to demonstrate its genuine endeavors and concrete progress toward denuclearization. The United States, on the other hand, must build trust with North Korea by means of lightening the economic sanctions and assuring non-antagonistic objective and policy, concrete measures for diplomatic co-existence, a peace regime substituting the armistice agreement, and wise diplomatic normalization with the country (Moon & Lee, 2010).

As indicated by the Ballistic Missile Defense Review (2010) of the Obama administration, the United States has a goal to control its missile defense. However, this is primarily in the strategic context of Great Power relations only, which involve Russia and China. From the 2009 level, approximately $1.2 billion has been cut by the Obama administration for the 2010 budget year for missile defense budget (Wolf, 2009). Moreover, the Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (2010) revealed that the homeland missile defense capabilities of the US are concentrated on regional actors, one of which is North Korea.

At present, what the United States intends to determine is the readiness of the nuclear-armed North Korea to take tangible and irrevocable steps to relinquish all its nuclear weapons programs, which entails permitting the international weapons inspectors to return (Lederer, 2011). In return, North Korea will enjoy a better relationship with its Asian neighbors, energy assistance, and an assurance from the United States that it would not attack the country (Lederer, 2011). After the conduct of North Korea’s second nuclear test and the revelation of its uranium enrichment facility, there is much skepticism on the side of the Americans with regard to the sincerity of the North Korean leaders to give up their weapons permanently.

Along with the United States are four other nations, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, which are have been discussing since 2003 to persuade North Korea to take its nuclear programs apart (Lederer, 2011). In 2011, a declaration signed has been signed by a security bloc called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which comprises China, Russia, and four previous Soviet Central Asian states, in order to condemn any unilateral upsurge of missile defenses (Charbonneau, 2011).

On the other hand, a new nuclear arms race in North Korea may be prompted by the plans of the United States to deploy a missile shield that aims to guard Europe against a likely attack by Iran (Charbonneau, 2011). This plan that is being developed by the United States in with NATO consultation necessitates that by 2020; interceptor missiles will be progressively deployed based on sea and land (Charbonneau, 2011).


If the genuine intention of the United States is merely to protect Europe from Iran, then North Korea is getting the wrong impression about this plan. North Korea interprets the plan for the missile shield as nothing but a means of the United States to expand its absolute supremacy and global control over the different nuclear power rivals (Charbonneau, 2011). This is the very reason why a new nuclear arms race in North Korea may be eventually ignited when the United States modernizes its nuclear weapons and expands its missile defense systems (Lederer, 2011).

There was a plan from the Bush administration to deploy interceptor missiles in such country as Poland and radar located in the Czech Republic; however, the idea was canceled by the Obama administration. Ironically, the Obama administration introduced a scaled-back interpretation of the idea formulated earlier by the Bush administration, which is now the current missile-shield plan defenses (Charbonneau, 2011). North Korea believes that if the United States, being the largest nuclear weapon state, truly desires to discontinue the spread of nuclear weapons; it has to demonstrate its good example by settling the Treaty of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons (Lederer, 2011).

With the modernization projects of the United States, which includes the manufacture of little nuclear weapons that can be utilized like typical weapons and the expansion of its missile defense systems, North Korea believes that the United States has lost its legal or moral validations to speak of proliferation matters (Lederer, 2011).

Initially, the United States desires to verify the readiness of North Korea to fulfill its commitments under a 2005 agreement that requires its abandonment of all nuclear weapons programs and permission for a return of international inspections. Eventually, the United States itself revealed its plan to build a missile shield that apparently does not involve North Korea. Nevertheless, North Korea expressed bold comments on this plan, accusing the United States of empowering itself in a subtle manner, and added a possibility of a new race of nuclear arms. When requested for comment on these provocative comments from North Korea, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations did not respond directly (Lederer, 2011). North Korea went on to challenge the missile defense systems being promoted under the alleged reason of acting in response to ballistic missile developments by what is called rogue states (Lederer, 2011).

The failure of the United States to deny the allegations of North Korea immediately may be interpreted either as a sign of guilt or a careful measure to avoid exacerbating the likelihood of arms race. Fortunately, since the collapse of disarmament talks in 2008, an exploratory meeting between the United States and North Korea has been set in New York (Park, 2011). In this meeting, the United States wanted to seek North Korea’s commitment not to repeat the destabilizing provocations against South Korea in 2010 and to abide by denuclearization rules under the September 2005 Joint Statement of Principles, while North Korea wants to resume the Six-Party Talks and for humanitarian food aid assistance (Park, 2011). Aside from the United States and North Korea, also involved in the Six-Party Talks are South Korea, China, Japan and Russia (Gaur, 2011). After the meeting, it was reported that both sides acknowledged that the bilateral relations development and the peaceful negotiated settlement of the Korean Peninsula denuclearization follow mutual interests and agreed to further dialogue (Crail, 2011).

In conclusion, the ambiguous willingness and readiness of North Korea to irrevocably and completely relinquish its nuclear weapons programs has a long history that endured through the decades and remained unresolved up to the present. Meanwhile, the nuclear weaponry modernization and missile defense system expansion by Obama administration is a new issue. It does not matter whether this plan by the United States is truly intended for European protection from Iran or a true self-empowerment as alleged by North Korea.

Up to the present, there is not even a concrete consensus declared by the Six-Party Talks with regard to the denuclearization of North Korea, as the aim is still the same, which is to get North Korea to relinquish its nuclear programs in trade for extensive aid and better diplomatic ties (Herman, 2011). Apparently, this endeavor is repetitive and tiresome but the major countries involved, which are those included in the Six-Party Talks, have no better choice. It will be a dangerous move to coerce North Korea to surrender all its weapons as it is close to complete a missile that is powerful enough to imperil not only South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia but even the United States. In this dilemma, the best alternative these five counties have is to maintain the support it is giving to North Korea and be careful their expression of power. Based on the demands of its government, North Korea needs to maintain two major things, which are financial aid and power.


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Brooke, K. (2004). North Korea Says Seoul’s Nuclear Experiments Stoke Arms Race. The New York Times
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Crail, P. (2011). U.S., North Korea Hold Bilateral Talks. Arms Control Association
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Gause, K. (2006). North Korean Civil-Military Trends: Military-First Politics to a Point. US Government
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Lederer, E. (2011). North Korea predicts new nuclear arms race. The Associated Press
Lederer, E. (2011). US, North Korea Wrap Up First Day of Talks in New York. The Associated Press
Moon, C. and Lee, S. (2010). Military spending and the arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Yonsei University
Olsen, E. (1986). The Arms Race on the Korean Peninsula. University of California Press
Park, J. (2011). The U.S.- North Kore “Exploratory” Meeting in New Yok: Why Now? United States Institute of peace
Tian, H. (2007). Xin yidai “julang” tisheng he wishe liliang (The new generation ‘giant wave’ has strengthened nuclear deterrence). Junshi wenzhai (Military Digest)
Wolf, J. (2009). US missile-defense salvage operations under way. Reuters News
Zhang, B. (2011). US missile defence and China’s nuclear posture: changing dynamics of an offence–defence arms race. International Affairs

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