U.S. and North Korea Debate Whose Nukes Present Biggest Threat to the World at Disarmament Conference

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (right) waits with U.S. Army Captain Murzban Morris of the Department of Defense Joint Staff before their address on North Korea to the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 30, 2017. “North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” Wood said. Denis Balibouse/Reuters

The American and North Korean envoys to the United Nations–sponsored Conference on Disarmament debated the danger presented by the two countries' nuclear capabilities in a lively exchange at a meeting held on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood used the occasion to brief the international gathering about President Donald Trump's Nuclear Posture Review, a Department of Defense–drafted document that spells out the administration's stance on the use of nuclear weapons, which differs significantly from its Obama-era version.

"We are determined to ensure that so long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. nuclear deterrent is second to none," he said.

Wood described the changes as necessary to face a more "complex and threatening" security environment, pointing to the expansion of nuclear arsenals' strategic importance in North Korea as well as in Russia and China.

"Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and—in some cases—pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations," Wood said.

Singling out North Korea, which conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September—the only country to have tested a nuclear weapon in the 21st century—Wood said the Pyongyang regime represented an "urgent and unpredictable threat" to the U.S. and its allies.

"North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles," Wood said, echoing similar warnings from the Pentagon and the CIA, and calling for the "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol predictably objected to the U.S. characterization of the country's nuclear development program, saying the U.S. envoy made "unacceptable references to the self-defense nuclear deterrent of the DPRK." DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is the official name of North Korea.

Ju also blamed "dangerous U.S. moves" in the Korean Peninsula for escalating tensions and accused the U.S. of considering an attack on North Korea. "In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a preemptive strike against the DPRK," he said.

Wood responded to the accusation, saying that North Korea is the one who is seeking confrontation by continuing its pursuit of nuclear and missile weapons—and which it should abandon if it is serious about achieving peace on the peninsula. "What I would call 'the charm offensive' frankly is fooling no one," he said, referring to the recent inter-Korean talks, the first in two years, which produced an agreement over North Korea's participation in sporting and cultural events linked to the Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.

But the North Korean diplomat's response did not diverge from his country's traditional position, claiming the threat posed by the U.S. is the reason why North Korea sought to develop nuclear weapons. "The U.S. is left with no option but to recognize DPRK status as a nuclear power and find a way to coexist with the DPRK," Ju said.