How Nuclear Deterrence in North Korea Became 'A Game of Chicken'

Chung-in Moon, the former ambassador for international security affairs and professor emeritus at Yonsei University, discusses the grim situation South Korea faces with North Korea.

On Tuesday, North Korean state media announced that the country had successfully completed a ground test of a new rocket engine to launch satellites, the latest development in what many experts see as a preface to a long-range rocket launch. The rocket engine test — which comes just weeks after Pyongyang’s fifth “nuclear explosion test” — is an indication that threats from the isolated state are increasingly credible and need to be addressed with renewed urgency.

“It's unrealistic that we expect the collapse of the North Korean regime soon,” Kim Sung-hwan, the former South Korean ambassador to Austria and Uzbekistan and professor at Hanyang University’s College of International Studies in Seoul, said on Tuesday during a high-level discussion at Asia Society in New York. Kim explained that sanctions and the risk of famine do not pose a sufficient threat to Pyongyang to be a solution to the nuclear problem.

“The [North Koreans] have their own know-how, [and] they [have] known how to govern that country for already three generations.”

According to Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and current dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, denuclearizing North Korea requires leveraging China’s influence on the country.

“We have a tremendous challenge," he said. "There was more sort of rhythm to [America's] relationship with China in the past than there is now. Right now, the U.S. and China have just not found those kinds of patterns of cooperation that I think we need. We’ve got a lot of diplomacy to do. But really I think time is running out and we should stop thinking in terms of time being on our side.”

However, Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that Beijing does not consider a nuclear North Korea any more of a threat than the presence of the American military on China's northeastern border.

“Without providing China an endgame that [it] can aspire to, China is not going to cooperate with us on North Korea," she said. "They acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear development as a problem, but it’s not the top problem for China — that privilege is reserved for the United States.”

At present, North Korea is not currently engaged in negotiations with any key players.

“We see now a game of chicken. No way out, because there’s no place for dialogue and negotiation ... you have sanctions, deterrence, [and] defense.” Chung-in Moon, the former ambassador for international security affairs and professor emeritus at Yonsei University in Seoul, said. “But [there's] no dialogue or negotiations. That makes us very, very fearful of current developments in the Korean Peninsula.”

Watch the video below for the full program: 

Panelists Chung-in Moon, Kim Sung-hwan, Christopher Hill, and Yun Sun discuss the current state of relations between China, the United States, South Korea, and North Korea.

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Michelle FlorCruz is a Content Producer at Asia Society. She was previously a reporter for, focusing on stories relating to business and culture in China and other areas of Asia.