Deconstructing North Korea’s Obsession with Nuclear Weapons Through Realism

Realism as an international relations theory puts securing the state’s survival as the primary objective of nation-states. In an anarchic world, uncertainty surrounds a state; thus, realism argues that states make decisions that ensure survival. States often safeguard their national interest through the use of power. In this context, North Korea’s affinity towards nuclear weapons can be seen. One must note here that the Korean Peninsula is one of the most sensitive regions on the planet. This is where North Korea sees the anarchic nature of the international order. From their viewpoint, they are surrounded by existential threats, mainly from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Therefore, they rationalize the only way to secure their survival is through nuclear weapons.  

A policy for survival

The North Korean state is headed by the totalitarian Kim family, whose survival depends on the state’s existence. What may be seen as reckless in the minds of most countries is seen as rational in the minds of the North Korean leadership. For them, the existence of nuclear weapons guarantees their survival, without which they believe they would be prone to attack. It is a deterrent against any threat the country faces. In North Korea’s eyes, a lack of nuclear weaponry shows weakness and invites trouble. In their view, the scaling back of the nuclear program invited existential threats in Iraq and Libya. They argue that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi could not deter a US intervention in their respective countries due to the scaling back of nuclear programs. Thus, they realize that nuclear weapons are the only guarantee for survival. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons gives the United States no viable military options in engaging with North Korea.

Some of the most commonly used actions conducted by the US on hostile countries are targeted airstrikes on weapons development sites. In North Korea, the United States cannot conduct airstrikes due to fear of retaliation by North Korea on South Korea, where the US has stationed troops and maintains its bases. Moreover, any retaliation by North Korea would be targeted at Seoul, which sits just 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The United States inability to conduct a military operation in the Korean Peninsula signifies that nuclear weapons are working for North Korea. Hence, they would be unwilling to end the nuclear weapons development program.

A policy for power 

When looking at power, we are looking at the power of the North Korean leadership, the Kim family, and, more specifically, Kim Jong Un. This power is exercised on both the domestic and the global front to legitimize the regime. North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship that blurs lines between the political system and the leader. In such dictatorships, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the leader and the political system wherein the former and the latter depend on each other to survive in a dictatorship. In North Korea, the state’s political system depends on the survival of the Kim Dynasty and the Korean Workers Party. Therefore, in North Korea’s case, the power of the Kim Family is synonymous with national power. Nuclear weapons provide North Korea and its leader with national power because it ensures that North Korea’s demands are taken seriously across the world. It is much more difficult to ignore a country when it can use nuclear warheads. This makes other countries more accommodating to North Korea’s security concerns in the Korean Peninsula. This can be seen in the fact that the United States President met with the leader of North Korea. As a result of the Singapore and Hanoi Summits, North Korea achieved what it had long desired: legitimacy from being seen as a credible state by the United States. 

The availability of nuclear weapons also increases the power of Kim Jong-un over the North Korean public. It allows him to be seen as a leader who aspires to make the nation strong. It allows the party and the Kim dynasty to solidify their rule over the country. It presents him as a legitimate ruler guiding his nation to greatness. Unlike his father and grandfather, he lacks the revolutionary credentials and the Korean War experiences; therefore, he has tried to cultivate an image of himself as the leader who will lead North Korea to great power ever since taking over. The development of nuclear weapons has provided credence to that image.

Despite all this, one might argue that a nuclear weapons program is the last thing the country needs, given the dire state of its economy. It seems like a favorable compromise to the outsider in which the economy is restored, and the country can fully develop. However, from the lens of Kim Jong-un, this seems like an irrational decision. This is where the two aspects of realism play a role. The two aspects of realism that can be seen here are national interest and the state being unitary actor. The former can be seen in Kim Jong-un’s perceptions and the latter in the decision-making process in North Korea. 

National Interest

National interest has been defined as”reason of state,” wherein the state carries out what it believes is in its best interest. The national interest of a state is defined by the government that rules the country. It cannot be evaluated normatively as the perception regarding the national interest differs in various contexts. For Kim Jong-un, the country’s national interest is closely tied to his interest. In this case, that interest is to stay in power. As far as Kim Jong-un is concerned, the existence of the North Korean state in its present form is the only guarantee that he retains power. Therefore, anything threatening the state’s existence is an existential threat to his rule. Given the nature of the United States’ relationship with North Korea and the extended nuclear deterrence provided by the United States for South Korea, Kim Jong-un sees himself in a threatened position. It can also be seen that, as earlier mentioned, the United States had conducted various operations to depose dictators. As a result, he sees nuclear weapons as the only deterrent to prevent an American invasion or airstrikes. This is why he perceives the denuclearization of North Korea as being against the country’s national interest.

Unitary Nature of State

The unitary nature of the state posits that among the various domestic actors, the state is the most important player, and all other actors are subordinated under its influence. This unitary nature is seen in North Korea due to the political system of administration and decision-making. Due to the country’s autocratic governance model, all other actors, such as businesses or the economy, are subordinated. Due to the concentration of power in the hands of Kim Jong-un, what he perceives to be of national interest is what the state will prioritize, and since the state is the most important actor, other concerns, however genuine, will be discarded. Unless Kim Jong-un also expresses such concerns. As a result, whatever Kim Jong-un sees as beneficial for the country’s national interest is only considered. In this case, the development of nuclear weapons is beneficial to the national interest. As a result, other factors, such as the economy, are not a concern to the state. Thus, we can see how the national interest of North Korea is the interest of Kim Jong-un.

Realism shows that North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons is in the state’s national interest. Attempts at denuclearizing the North Korean peninsula will only work if the regime is convinced that nuclear weapons are detrimental to its survival. Therefore, to solve this issue, the world community would need to provide North Korea with incentives to denuclearize; these incentives, in any manner, should be attractive enough that North Korea feels compelled to denuclearize. To understand their concerns, constant dialogue between North Korea and countries like Japan, the USA, and South Korea is imperative. Although this sounds pretty straightforward, the politics and optics of negotiation and agreements seem to outweigh the results, leading to derailment and cancellation of talks. Therefore, the optics of the short-term should not blind the long-term objectives. Continuous sanctions only harden the resolve of the North Korean government to pursue the program as they are convinced the world is against them. From a realist viewpoint, the effective way to denuclearize the North Korean Peninsula is not through disarmament conventions but rather to address the security concerns of the North Korean Peninsula. Any agreement that does not guarantee the security and survival of the state and regime will not lead to denuclearization. The failure to achieve these objectives by the different parties involved has stalled the denuclearization efforts. Therefore, any dialogue on denuclearization will only succeed if it addresses the security concerns of North Korea.

[Photo by Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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