North Korea threatens USA with nuclear war

Devastation: Historians think at least 39,000 people died immediately at Nagasaki.

Over the last two weeks tension has risen on the Korean peninsula. Now North Korea is threatening the unthinkable. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 — is that about to change?

“Thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”

Those were the words of North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Kim In-ryong, on Monday.

In the last two weeks a tense stand-off has been taking place between America and North Korea. President Trump has sent three aircraft carriers to the Korean peninsula. North Korea has held a failed missile test and reiterated its desire to build a missile which can hit the USA. The Americans have held joint military exercises with South Korea.

The situation remains perilous today. This week Mike Pence, the US vice-president, said his country’s “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was over. He said recent military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan were warnings to North Korea and reiterated US support for Japan. Meanwhile North Korea’s deputy foreign minister said his country would test missiles “weekly, monthly and yearly”.

The dispute dates to the Korean war of the 1950s, when the communist North invaded the capitalist South. Technically the two Koreas have remained at war with each other since; a significant threat of hostilities has remained.

China and Russia have kept close ties with North Korea’s government, so a conflict could escalate. And since 2006 North Korea is believed to have carried out five tests on its own nuclear bombs.

Could the world now be on the brink of a nuclear exchange? Only two nuclear weapons have ever been fired in war: the USA dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, to bring the second world war to an end.

Now nine countries are believed to have nuclear weapons. During the cold war both the USA and the USSR threatened to use them several times — most plausibly during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which followed the USSR’s decision to site nuclear warheads in Cuba.

In each case the two sides backed down — thanks largely to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. But now North Korea is threatening “all out war” as the USA warns it not to test its “resolve or strength”.

Nuclear fallout

The age of fear of nuclear war could now resume, say some. The cold war was only stable because leaders made rational decisions; Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leaders of America and North Korea, are both unpredictable. The USA hardly understands its adversary; if Kim feels he has nothing to lose he may lash out. And a nuclear exchange could escalate quickly.

That is hyperbole, others respond. Nuclear-armed states often bluff to get what they want. Globalisation makes us understand other countries better and global politics is more interdependent than ever before. Nuclear war would be devastating for all involved — including the USA and China, who have the most influence in the region.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried by the stand-off between the USA and North Korea?
  2. Will nuclear weapons ever be used again?


  1. You have been asked to predict what will happen next between the USA and North Korea. Write five questions you would ask to help you make your prediction.
  2. Create a timeline showing the history of nuclear weapons. Include at least ten events and write a short paragraph for each explaining why it is significant.

Some People Say...

“Nobody would ever be crazy enough to press the nuclear button.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
North Korea has held several missile tests in recent months. Another test failed this weekend. The USA has moved three aircraft carriers into the Korean peninsula. North Korea has said it will continue to test missiles and has threatened the USA, South Korea and Japan with nuclear war. The USA has warned that it would respond.
What do we not know?
Why North Korea’s test failed, how serious the threat is and what would happen next if a nuclear weapon were fired.
What do people believe?
The Americans may have sabotaged the missile launch. North Korea may be capable of hitting South Korea and Japan and of developing a missile which could hit the USA. If a weapon were fired it could lead to a stand-off between the USA and China — the two biggest powers in the world.

Word Watch

South Korea
The country most at risk from North Korean aggression. North Korea’s leaders say they should lead a united Korea.
North Korea regularly threatens to destroy Japan.
Korean war
North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. An American led UN force repelled the attack. But China joined in on the North’s side. The two sides fought each other to a standstill before the armistice of 1953.
The USA, China, Russia, the UK and France possess nuclear weapons legally under international law. India and Pakistan have them, and stand-offs such as the 2001–2 crisis over Kashmir have threatened to turn nuclear. North Korea and Israel are also believed to have them.
Cuban missile crisis
In 1962 the Soviet Union tried to site nuclear missiles in Cuba — a communist ally just 90 miles from the US coast. A 13-day crisis ensued, with both sides threatening nuclear war. It only ended when a deal was struck between the two governments.
Mutually assured destruction
The idea that if one side fired its missiles, the other side would too — so there was no point in starting a nuclear war.


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