Confronting a nuclear North Korea: Lessons from China

A Communist Asian nation successfully tests a nuclear device, stoking anxiety among U.S. intelligence officials who have been monitoring the sudden progress of the rogue nation’s nuclear weapons program. The U.S. president weighs preventive military strikes, the specter of war looms, and bellicose rhetoric spews from unpredictable leaders on both sides.

A scene-setter for current tensions with North Korea? Yes, but also a fair description of events in 1964, when the People’s Republic of China, ruled by Mao Zedong, conducted its first successful test of a nuclear bomb.

North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests have already surpassed the Chinese test of 1964 (considered to be the moment China joined the nuclear club) and, according to, initial calculations of its Nov. 29 test launch “indicate the new missile could deliver a moderately-sized nuclear weapon to any city on the U.S. mainland.”

That is a frightening prospect. But some foreign policy experts think it may also represent a step toward stability. They raise the possibility that a North Korea with a credible nuclear deterrence capability could be open to the kinds of implicit and explicit agreements that during and since the Cold War have kept the other nuclear-armed nations from plunging into the abyss of “mutually assured destruction.”

Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1963; and, the explosion of the first Chinese atomic bomb, on October 16, 1964. (Photos: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images, Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

“If we’re optimistic, we could say this moment sets the scene for possible talks,” says Devin Stewart, senior program director at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

The history of China’s nuclear program offers some lessons.

China was the rogue state of the 1960s, with an unpredictable and potentially irrational strongman at the helm. Mao was desperate to maintain the revolutionary fervor that brought him to power.

If Kim Jong Un and his father before him have been characterized and caricatured as unhinged mad men, consider what Mao said in 1957: “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left.”

Even as Mao dismissed nuclear weapons as inferior to his country’s conventional…

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