The “Nuclear Arms Race” between the USA and North Korea, a new dilemma?

COMMENTARY –An important paradox between the North Korea/US conflict over nuclear threats versus the Nobel Peace Prize win of the ICAN group (for nuclear disarmament) has emerged in recent current affairs.  In the wake of these events, it is interesting to question ourselves on the evolution of discourses on the nuclear weapon since the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the meaning of today’s new phase of nuclear foreign policy. This article will begin by reviewing the history of politics surrounding the nuclear weapon, and then move on to analyzing recent developments and what they entail for international politics.  


ICAN demonstration - source: Flickr

A brief history of nuclear armament

The nuclear discord began in 1942, when the Manhattan project was established by the United States of America, to develop the first nuclear weapon, which led to the 1945 nuclear test in New Mexico. Less than a month later, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, first in Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, killing an estimate of 214’000 people. [1] In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly called for a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and set up a commission designed to deal with problems related to the discovery of atomic energy, to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes. Many multilateral treaties were later signed to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote disarmament. These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) or Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer spaces, and under water. [2] Despite these efforts to control the reach of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union started testing its first nuclear bomb in Kazakhstan in 1949, thus marking the beginning of the “nuclear arms race”, a competition for supremacy in nuclear warfare between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The UK later joined the US and Soviet Union in 1952, followed by France in 1960, China in 1964, India in 1974, Pakistan in 1998 and North Korea in 2006. [3] During this time, opposition to nuclear weapons grew, illustrated by the Russell-Einstein manifesto in 1955 (a declaration issued by leading scientists, warning governments on the danger of nuclear weapons), the 1968 New York City rally for disarmament (when 1 million people gathered to show opposition to the nuclear weapon, in the largest anti-war demonstration in history), or more recently the 2017 UN treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, adopted with 2/3 of the world’s nations vote. [4]

Throughout these proceedings, a “nuclear taboo” has emerged from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the bombings did not prevent the testing and developing of nuclear weapons in different countries, the many treaties previously mentioned cooled hostile interactions and instilled a feeling of safety from nuclear warfare. Indeed, it has been reported that the conscience of the world stigmatized nuclear weapons and relegated them to an inhuman and uncivilized status, illustrated by many anti-war movements and protests throughout the years. [5]

In fact, the nuclear weapon is often described by governments as a tool for deterrence, and not an actual weapon to kill. For example, the main discourse in French politics since the 1960s is one of “force de dissuasion”, which began with President Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a French “Force de Frappe” capable of protecting the country from foreign attack through the mere threat of inflicting damage on an adversary’s population. This idea is clearly illustrated in his statement that “Within ten years, we shall have the means to kill 80 million Russians. I truly believe that one does not light-heartedly attack people who are able to kill 80 million Russians (…)”. [6]

Recent developments and what they entail

However, the “sensible norms of restraint and careful diplomacy” surrounding nuclear proliferation and use– that had been adopted through the portrayal of the weapon as a simple deterrent, or the establishment of treaties – are slowly being broken down, as exemplified by the open conflict between US president Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jung-Un. [7] Indeed, the two men have in the past months been communicating in escalating social media posts and public declarations. Additionally from his expression of a willingness to wage a “preventive” war in North Korea during his presidential campaign and the increased investment in nuclear arms, Trump has threatened, at the United Nations, to “completely destroy” North Korea if the US or their allies were victim of an attack. In response to this, Jong-Un asserted that he would “pay” for his statements. [8] This relationship has been associated with the term « brinkmanship », which is defined as the art of « manipulating the shared risk of war », meaning both actors aim to create the right amount of fear without slipping. [9]

Journalists and academics have been particularly alarmed by these occurrences, as they mark the end of the sense of security that had settled in since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Indeed, many have claimed that the USSR/ USA nuclear dispute during the cold war never actually represented a risk because of the perceived rationality of the former presidents, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Accordingly, the two countries were supposedly not on the brinks of a nuclear war. [10]

In the case of North Korea and the USA, however, the threat seems to be real. International political science theories such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” - the idea that in international relations, states will always act in their rational self-interest, thus choosing to arm rather than disarm and risk military inferiority if the opponent continues to invest in its military – and the rational actors theory – that claims international actors will act consistently in choosing the best choice of action – reinforce the belief that the two countries are heading toward a nuclear conflict. Indeed, both the American and North Korean leaders are often described as unpredictable and inexperienced, having less than 7 years of experience in political leadership between them. Regardless, they possess in their respective countries complete control over nuclear weapons, making them “nuclear monarchs”. [11] Furthermore, the two countries have no diplomatic relationship – and consequently no means of effective communication - , relying on the “New York channel”, an office inside North Korea’s mission to the United Nations, to negotiate the release of prisoners or discuss nuclear tensions. [12] Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and military analyst, wrote that Trump’s “quick temper, defensiveness bordering on paranoia and disdain for anyone who criticizes him do not inspire deep confidence in his prudence.” [13] In this sense, the fact both countries are arming, coupled with the belief Trump and Jung-Un are “irrational” actors, leads many to fear the escalation of the conflict to the point of nuclear strikes. For instance, Americans living in California are starting to prepare for an attack in Long Beach, by thinking through the possible consequences of a North Korean bombing. [14]

The Nobel Peace Prize of 2017, nonetheless, is said to be political gesture to defuse the escalating conflict. ICAN director Beatrice Fihn’s first declaration after the results were made public was that their win “sends a message to all nuclear-armed states and all states that continue to rely on nuclear weapons for security that it is unacceptable behavior… We can’t threaten to indiscriminately slaughter hundreds of thousands of civilians in the name of security.” [15] Additionally, the committee declared that this year’s prize came at a time where “the risk of nuclear weapons being used is greater than it has been for a long time.” [16]


In conclusion, one could argue that the risk of a nuclear war between the United States of America and North Korea has never been higher, despite the growing efforts of the international community to moderate the conflict between the two countries’ leaders. As Martin Luther King Jr., a fierce anti-atomic bomb advocate, once said, “When scientific power outruns spiritual power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men”, clearly demonstrating the correlation between unpredictable leadership and nuclear conflict.   

 By Manon Fabre - Research Assistant at CIPADH


[1] ICAN. Nuclear weapons timeline. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[2] UNODA. Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[3] ICAN. Nuclear weapons timeline. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[4] IBID

[5] The Guardian. For Trump and the US right, breaking the nuclear taboo has always been thinkable. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[6] Gadal, S. (2009). Forces aériennes stratégiques: histoire des deux premières composantes de la dissuasion nucléaire française. Institut de stratégie comparée.

[7] The Guardian. For Trump and the US right, breaking the nuclear taboo has always been thinkable. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[8] Huffington Post.Kim Jong-un et Donald Trump se menacent et s'accusent mutuellement d'être "fous". Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[9] The New Yorker. The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

[12] IBID

[13] The Guardian. Trump is the real nuclear threat, and we can’t just fantasise him away. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[14] The Guardian. 'How do we survive?': fearful Californians prepare for nuclear attack. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[15] The Guardian.  Nobel peace prize 2017: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons wins award – as it happened. Retrieved on October 27, 2017 from

[16] IBID