The Clock is Ticking - North Korea, on the Brink of Nuclear War

Stephanie Pham
April 30, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

2 Minutes to Midnight

Fig. 1: The above graph details the history of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock from 1947 until the recent announcement in 2018. [12] The clock is closest ever to "midnight" this year. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On January 25, 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight, the closest its ever been to midnight since the Cold War in 1953. The clock serves as a symbol of the potential that we may be near the end of all humanity. [1] We can view this trend in Fig. 1, whish shows the clock's rapid decline in recent years, until the two-minutes-to-midnight announcement of 2018.

A Brief History, North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program

This ominous change primarily stems from the current state of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the ways in which United States President Donald Trump has responded. As early as the 1980s, North Korea has looked to expand its nuclear arsenal, asserting itself as a true global power to be reckoned with. The country began to build a reactor to produce plutonium to fuel nuclear weaponry. [2] Though North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons program in 1994, the country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. The country almost immediately began to import centrifuges from Russia and Pakistan to generate enriched uranium, uranium with a high concentration of the radioactive isotope, U-235. Then, in 2006, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test. [2]

Two years prior, Sig Hecker, who had been the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where America constructed its first nuclear bomb, was invited to tour North Korea's nuclear complex. [3] Hecker was also the co-director of the Center of International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) between 2007-2012. [4] Hecker was the first American to see North Korea's nuclear reactor. The North Koreans also made a point to show him that they had successfully produced plutonium. [3] Four years later, Hecker was invited back to the complex, only to witness that the country had entirely modernized its nuclear facilities with thousands of centrifuges for enriched uranium and no plans to stop building. [3]

Last year, Hecker wrote an opinion piece on ways to approach North Korea's nuclear weapon program. [4,5] In his column, Hecker advises that "talking to the North Koreans is the best option for the Trump administration at this late date to limit the growing threat". [4,5] Talking, Hecker states, will not be a "reward or concession" to the North Koreans, but it may lead to learning more about North Korea's security apparatus and objectives. [4,5] He also explains how dire the situation has gotten, with statements that parallel the recent Doomsday Clock announcement: "The crisis is here. The nuclear clock keeps ticking. Every six to seven weeks North Korea may be able to add another nuclear weapon to its arsenal." [5]

Important Numbers

In just the past year, conversations between the United States and North Korean governments have gotten increasingly tense and volatile. Last September, in a speech to the United Nations, President Donald Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man on a suicide mission for himself". [6] Trump also warned that the United States "will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea". [7] Just a month later, on November 29, North Korea tested a newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15. According to renowned North Korean newsreader in a special announcement, Ri Chun Hee, "with this system, [North Korea] can load the heaviest warhead and strike anywhere in the mainland United States". [8] Hwasong-15's flight time was 53 minutes, flying to a height of approximately 4,475 kilometers before landing in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone. [9] From its launch location, the missile traveled 950 kilometers. [9] Experts have confirmed that the missile probably has the capacity to even reach Washington, D.C., but this does not mean nuclear war just yet due to the need for more tests and developments. [8] Further, on New Years Day, Kim proudly announced in his 2018 address: "It's not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office ... All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike." [10]

Moving Forward

The threat of nuclear war with North Korea, as the country continues to aggressively push forward its nuclear program, continues to increase. As a result, at the beginning of this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced a new nuclear strategy to address the North Korean threat. The strategy involves modernizing the Pentagons nuclear arsenal and developing smaller nuclear weapons. [11]

Indeed the diplomacy taking place, such as that between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, is neither traditional nor predictable. Indeed there are hardly incentives for any country to launch such a weapon, but these events are important to observe as they will influence the global political climate in the next decade. Only time will tell how events will unfold as we are forced to watch the consequences of the rash actions of the United States and North Korea.

© Stephanie Pham. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] S. Chan, "Doomsday Clock Is Set at 2 Minutes to Midnight, Closest Since 1950s," New York Times, 25 Jan 18.

[2] D. E. Sanger and W. J. Broad, "How U.S. Intelligence Agencies Underestimated North Korea," New York Times, 6 Jan 18.

[3] D. Martin, "The American Who's Seen North Korea's Nuclear Secrets," CBS News, 14 Jan 18.

[4] H. Hirschland, "Sig Hecker on Nuclear North Korea," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[5] S. Hecker, "The U.S. Must Talk to North Korea," New York Times, 12 Jan 17.

[6] K. Liptak and J. Diamond, "Trump to UN: Rocket Man Is on a Suicide Mission," CNN, 19 Sep 17.

[7] D. Nakamura and A. Gearan, "In U.N. Speech, Trump Threatens to Totally Destroy North Korea and Calls Kim Jong Un Rocket Man," Washington Post, 19 Sep 17.

[8] A. Fifield, "North Korea's Latest Missile Launch Appears to Put U.S. Capital in Range," Washington Post, 29 Nov 17.

[9] "North Korea Says New Missile Puts All of US in Striking Range," BBC News, 29 Nov 17.

[10] C. Sang-Hun, "Kim Jong-un Offers North Korea's Hand to South, While Chiding U.S."," New York Times, 31 Dec 17.

[11] T. Vanden Brook, "New Nuclear Weapon Would Deter North Korea, Defense Secretary Mattis Says," USA Today, 7 Feb 18.

[12] "Doomsday Clock Moved to Just Two Minutes to 'Apocalypse'," BBC News, 25 Jan 18.