Is North Korea’s Nuclear Belligerence Rational?

Analysis by Alex IRELAND

North Korea’s pursuit of deliverable nuclear weapons, with all of the attendant missile and bomb tests, is extremely expensive and attracts costly international condemnation. Many of the international sanctions crippling the country’s economy are motivated by North Korea’s nuclear belligerence, yet instead of renouncing nuclear weapons pursuit, the country is spending scarce resources continuing the programme. Is this cause irrationally pursued by North Korea, or is there logic behind it? And if it is rational, what is driving it – and what may this tell us about how best to counter the programme?

The nuclear programme brings little benefit – and imposes substantial indirect costs – upon everyday North Koreans. However, it is the North Korean regime and policymakers that decide whether or not to sustain the nuclear programme, and for them there are tangible benefits. These benefits can be arranged into three main groups. Firstly, the nuclear programme can be used as a bargaining chip, whereby temporary compliance with international demands can extract substantial concessions and benefits from the international community. Secondly, it provides a perceived security guarantee for the regime to escape external intervention. Thirdly, it is a source of domestic legitimacy for the regime.

A North Korean missile unit takes part in a military parade in Pyongyang
A military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. The regime places a lot of emphasis on military prowess to secure legitimacy – by Babeltravel, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The North Korean regime is adept at negotiating benefits and concessions from the international community in exchange for ‘good behaviour’ on their nuclear programme, and then reneging on their side of the deal when they see fit. The nuclear programme is an important bargaining chip for this process, because there is very strong political will amongst the international community to force compliance on nuclear proliferation issues, and so the concessions and aid that can be extracted is greater. One such example of this behaviour is provided by the extremely positive joint declaration signed by North and South Korea in June 2000, after which the United States substantially relaxed sanctions, but which was never acted upon seriously by the North Korean regime.

Possessing nuclear weapons is also perceived as a vital guarantor of security from external intervention by the North Korean regime, which is aware that there is desire in some countries to replace their regime for geopolitical reasons, human rights causes, or to unify the Korean peninsula. Whilst the security of the regime may in actuality be guaranteed by less costly measures – most notably the array of artillery pieces within striking distance of Seoul, the large conventional army, or perhaps even the international norm against regime-changing interventions – it is clear that the regime views nuclear weapons as necessary. This perception may have been exacerbated by the demise through external intervention of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, after they had both discontinued their pursuit of nuclear weapons in the face of international pressure.

Finally, the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons can help secure the North Korean regime domestically by increasing legitimacy (although the largest part of securing the regime domestically is done by the police state). The image of defying North Korea’s international enemies in general is important, and especially so in specifically military matters. A major source of Kim Il-sung’s legitimacy was supplied by his (true or fabled) military prowess in liberating the country from Japanese rule during the Second World War. Kim Jong-il continued this with occasional incidents, such as the sinking of the South Korean ship ROKS Cheonan, thereby seeming to be a legitimate inheritor of his father’s military legacy. This has created a culture whereby military prowess is a strong determiner of legitimacy for the individual leader. The advantage of pursuing nuclear bomb or missile tests in this context, instead of instigating a conventional military incident, is the very low risk of direct military escalation, which would be risky for the North Koreans’ dangerous but ultimately weak army. The spectacle of a missile test, or drama of an underground explosion, also provides a concrete achievement that the government can point to in a way that a strengthening of the conventional army cannot.

It is already clear from the dire human rights situation within the country that the North Korean regime will go to extraordinary lengths to protect itself, even at significant cost to its own population. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the regime is willing to pursue nuclear weapons capability at cost to the general population if it helps to secure their position. There are a number of unique rational benefits to the regime from its nuclear belligerence, and so any policy aiming to prevent North Korean nuclear weapons capability must counter these benefits or offer credible alternative sources.


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