21st Century East Asian Nuclear Geopolitics

Connor Kennedy
April 19, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Map of East Asia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Asia-Pacific is home to nine nuclear-armed states. A map of this region, with key states emphasized, is pictured here. Additionally, there exist three developed states that depend on nuclear allies for umbrella protection, as well as other states that have unrecognized nuclear capacity but have sought the weapons as a geopolitical equalizer in the region. [1] The primary actors in the region, and the primary potential source of volatility, are China and the United States as the most preeminent nuclear powers. Japan and South Korea are fully capable of nuclearizing but do not do so due to nuclear deterrence security guarantees by the United States. As China attempts to assert more influence in the region and attain the status as regional hegemon, this stasis becomes ever more precarious. Additionally, the rogue state of North Korea, which has the potential for nuclear proliferation, is also a large source of geopolitical volatility in the region. This paper will focus on the North Korean state, and the geopolitical ramifications of its nuclear developments.

The China Dimension

China is North Korea's most important regional ally, the primary provider of food, arms and energy, as well as the largest trading partner for the regime. China has often blocked international punitive action against North Korea and much of the international dealings with the state rely heavily on Chinese cooperation to be effective. China's primary interests in the region concern the stability of the Korean peninsula with which it shares a border, as well as the continued existence of a buffer state between it's borders and the U.S. democratic ally found in South Korea. [2] Any action taken to ameliorate the geopolitical volatility surrounding the nuclear capabilities of North Korea will likely require China as a fully committed international partner.

The North Korean Dimension

Informing the United States of their weapon potential in 2003, the North Korean state has a complicated the geopolitical calculus in the region. For the first-time since the Cold War, a economically autarkic and diplomatically irrelevant regime was able to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests in the East Asian region. [3] North Korea is attempting to leverage their nuclear capabilities in order to deter a pre-emptive strike by the United States and it's allies. The lack of an alliance umbrella that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the North Korean state accepting nuclear strikes as a legitimate policy option. [3] U.S. security assurances likely work better when they are considered in relation to a more ostensibly rational actor like the Chinese state. When North Korea consistently threatens South Korea with new missile and nuclear developments, the United States is required to make it more and more clear the proximal countries within it's nuclear umbrella have the full assurance of the United States.


The future of U.S. interests in the East Asian region centers on the handling of the nuclear geopolitics surrounding the North Korean state. Some with the United States foreign policy establishment have advocated for strategic patience, waiting for the inherently unstable autocratic regime to collapse upon itself, or simply waiting for a more favorable geopolitical environment for action [4] . Others, such as former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, favor a preemptive military strike against the rogue state to cull their nuclear and weapons development. [5] Whatever the solution, it is clear that in order to diminish geopolitical volatility in the region, any long- lasting solution in regards to North Korea will require Chinese cooperation on the issue.

© Connor Kennedy. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. Evans, "Nuclear Deterrence in Asia and the Pacific," Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, 1, 91 (2014).

[2] T. Hildebrandt, "Uneasy Allies: Fifty Years of China-North Korea Relations," Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Septemper 2003.

[3] T. Lin, "Toward a Nuclear Peace in East Asia: Facing North Korea's Nuclear Reality," J. East Asian Aff. 18, No. 1, 49 (Spring/Summer 2004).

[4] E. Chanlett-Avery, I. E. Rinehart, and M. B. D. Nikitin, "North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation," Congressional Research Service, R41259, January 2016.

[5] A. B. Carter and W. Perry, " The Case for a Preemptive Strike on North Korea's Missiles," Time, 8 Jul 06.