2017 in review: the menace of North Korea

Doctor’s orders: North Korean labs are said to be producing “military-size batches of anthrax”.

Is North Korea the gravest threat to world peace since the second world war? The country has dominated the headlines in 2017. And now it appears it is experimenting with biological weapons…

It is a country the size of the US state of Mississippi. Its gross domestic product per head is similar to that of Uganda. But North Korea continues to play a role in world affairs which is completely disproportional to its size.

And when historians look back on this period of history, it is likely that they will pinpoint 2017 as the year things became serious on the Korean peninsula.

The country has held 16 missile tests so far this year — as many as in the last 15 years put together. Any faint hopes that the accession of Kim Jong-un as the country’s third hereditary leader might usher in a more open, less bellicose future have been dashed.

North Korea’s threat is reliant on its status as a nuclear power. But US officials now believe that the country is branching out into biological warfare.

Ten years ago, intelligence officials sent a report to Congress warning that secret work also was underway on a biological weapon. The regime, which had long ago acquired the pathogens that cause smallpox and anthrax, had assembled teams of scientists but was lacking in certain technical skills.

But now, those barriers are falling away. From factories which can produce “microbes by the ton” to genetic modification laboratories, a new menace may be approaching. Worryingly, the country is also aiming to export its scientists abroad to study microbiology, exploiting the goodwill of its enemies to learn their skills.

According to Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs who visited North Korea last week, there is now an "urgent need to prevent miscalculations and open channels to reduce the risks of conflict". He added that “Time is of the essence.”

Meanwhile the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons warned that the destruction of mankind is one “impulsive tantrum away”.

North Korea today is capable of striking major US cities. In a year’s time, London could be a target. Many consider North Korea the greatest threat to world peace since the second world war. Are they right?

Korea-ing towards disaster?

Yes they are, say some. What distinguishes this crisis is how unpredictable are North Korea, and to some extent Trump’s USA. One rash move or one misunderstanding from either side could send the world tumbling towards all out war. And given the advance of technology, a war in the 2020s could be worse than anything seen before.

What rubbish, reply others. North Korea is not even the gravest threat on Earth today. What about Islamic terrorism? What about potential economic collapse, or climate change? Anyway, North Korea would never start a war it knows it cannot win. The situation is difficult, but it will not herald a new world war.

You Decide

  1. Is North Korea the greatest threat facing the world today?
  2. Do you expect a third world war to break out in your lifetime?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes that the USA should invade North Korea and overthrow its leadership.”
  2. Look at two conflicts, one before the second world war, and one after it. Write 500 words comparing how they started, highlighting both the similarities and the differences.

Some People Say...

“To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”

George Washington

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
North Korea upped both its actions and its rhetoric in 2017: it fired 23 missiles in 16 tests, accused the USA of declaring war, and assassinated the brother of Kim Jong-un (so it is assumed, along with an uncle and many other potential opponents). The North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as its most fail-safe way of staying in power, and we can now be almost certain that North Korea is developing biological weapons.
What do we not know?
Whether 2017 represents the peak of the North Korean crisis, or whether worse is to come in future. There is an argument that North Korea and its enemies developing more advanced weapons actually makes conflict less likely. We also do not know whether sanctions and internal pressure will ever lead to true regime change in North Korea.

Word Watch

The size of the US state of Mississippi
This is slightly smaller than England (without the other nations of the UK). North Korea is also smaller in population than the four countries in the region closest to it: China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
Similar to that of Uganda
According to the United Nations Statistics Division.
16 missile tests so far this year
The most recent came on November 28th, the first in over two months. North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile which travelled for 50 minutes and reached 2,800 miles in height, both of which were new milestones. It flew 600 miles east into the Sea of Japan.
A bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease.
Any microscopic organism, many of which exist in single-cell forms.
Capable of striking major US cities
Military analysts say the latest North Korean ballistic missile appeared to have a range of around 6,200 miles, which would put the US mainland within its reach.


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