North Korea’s Nuclear Mindset: Why Nukes Still Matter

North Korea has evolved from a weakened country to one seen as a legitimate global military power due to its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Although, strength is a key factor behind its establishment of a nuclear program, there are other reasons that expand beyond the typical perception surrounding North Korea. There are four main reasons that North Korea immersed itself into the acquisition of a nuclear program.

The first was the desire to bring the US back to the negotiating table. “Pyongyang was effectively sending the message that the DPRK wanted finally to achieve results in its relations with the US. More specifically, North Korea has sought bilateral negotiations with the US, stipulating that progress on denuclearization would be contingent upon improved relations with the US – including economic aid, the end of sanctions, diplomatic relations with the US, and a peace treaty to end the Korean War” (Kim, 2011, 348). The benefits of super powers supporting and providing aid to North Korea would only be obtainable by recreating dialogue. However, North Korea would not eliminate its new position of military strength first in order to obtain it.

The second reason is the perception by North Korea of open hostility toward it by the United States. The belief is that the United States is trying to tear down the North Korean government and impact its internal decisions by causing disruption and chaos within the regime. The challenges implemented by the US government via sanctions and propaganda have the potential to not just undermine the planned regional dominance of North Korea but may even threaten the ultimate survival of the governing regime. It was believed that the acquisition of nuclear weapons had the potential to negate this American manipulation and bring it more humbly back to the negotiating table.

The third reason was to create an image to the world that North Korea is a strong and powerful nation that is not to be overlooked or summarily dismissed. Since the signing of the armistice, North Korea has been trying to rebuild its power and prestige standing in the region. Due to its weakened economic status and poor governmental performance, it has been labeled a third world country, far less significant than countries such as the United States, Russia, or China. The actions of the government to establish a nuclear program would begin the changes needed to elevate this status in the eyes of the world, gaining itself respect as a potentially dominant force across Southeast Asia at least.

Finally, the fourth reason is for economic sustenance and rebuilding. With the growth of a nuclear program, North Korea is able to sell nuclear products to countries, such as Pakistan. At this point, North Korea’s ailing economy cannot provide care to its own people. The nuclear program has provided them access to international resources and funds that it was not able to acquire by other means, including aid from other countries which North Korea always say as coming with strings attached and external interference.

For many years North Korea worked to establish a treaty with the United States without the involvement of South Korea. “Pyongyang has always demanded that the United States hold bilateral talks on various issues such as its nuclear program and conclude a peace treaty or non-aggression pact to replace the current armistice agreement, one that excludes the South” (Koh, 2004, 439). From an outside perspective, the actions of North Korea with its nuclear testing program have been to create concern if not outright fear amongst many countries across the Southeast Asian region and beyond, including the United States.

The results and motivation behind the missile test were also a strategic move to bring the United States back to the diplomatic table but with less hubris and more equanimity. By this time, the United States had ceased the talks with North Korea regarding the 1999 U.S.-North Korea moratorium on missile tests. “The 1999 agreement had been worked out under the assumption that the two countries would conduct further talks on the proposal to ban the testing and production of missiles, but the U.S. had indefinitely suspended the talks since 2001, making the moratorium moribund. The missile tests were another display of Pyongyang’s tried-and-true strategy to grab attention for itself and coax Washington into direct diplomacy” (Cho & Woo, 2007, 96). 

Thus, the nuclear actions of North Korea overall are done in order to obtain “U.S. recognition and consequent benefits: acknowledgment of its legitimacy and security interests; Japanese recognition; and substantial economic aid from Japan, multilateral lenders such as the World Bank, and the U.S. itself” (Gurtov, 2002, 405). This allows North Korea access to aid, technology, and many other necessities for survival and growth. North Korea’s focus to reconnect with the United States on its own terms is driven by its perception that the US has willingly opposed agreed-upon treaty and international negotiation frameworks. The North Korean fear is that America does this because it is adamantly opposed to the existence of North Korea as it is currently formulated and governed. “During 2001, senior administration officials had acknowledged that North Korea had upheld its obligations under the Agreed Framework. But the United States now confronted the possibility of a covert fissile material program not covered by the 1994 agreement, thereby enabling Pyongyang to circumvent its declared nonproliferation commitments” (Pollack, 2003, 14). As North Korea has professed, the United States is not willing to create a dialogue between the two countries, but instead find loopholes to disavow any established agreements and then declare it was North Korea’s fault with random accusations.

North Korea feels it must be able to react to the threats posed by the United States. The establishment of a nuclear weapons program provides it with the protection needed. North Korea understands that their military personnel cannot compete with the strength of the United States military without the assistance of nuclear weapons. Before the late 1990s and into the 2000s, North Korea began to reinvent its image and stance within the global arena. In the mid-1970s, “North Korea was now recognized by more than 80 countries; it has also sought and gained acceptance into several international organizations including the World Health Organization and the International Parliamentary Union, and it has gained observer status at the United Nations” (Zagoria & Kim, 1975, 1022). Over the years, however, its economy and political acknowledgement would dwindle, thus forcing it to find a new avenue of acceptance as a global power. It desperately sought a recognition from others that it a weak and failing country but a state of relevance, impact, and high status.

The nuclear tests that began in 2006 established North Korea as a nuclear threat to surrounding nations. Analysis by the North Korean government on retaliation from adversaries produced “the likelihood of an all-out invasion by the U.S. to bring down the regime in Pyongyang as minimal because of the possibility of North Korean retaliation against U.S. allies, the burden on the U.S. military, and the global costs of war in an economically vibrant region” (Song, 2011, 1140-1141). The NK government, therefore, felt pursuit of global power through nuclear acquisition was an obvious winning strategy with only minor costs, despite high rhetoric from the United States. The nuclear program’s benefits extend beyond the assertion of being a respected global power. “North Korea’s reinvigorated nuclear program gives it the potential to export fissile materials, nuclear weapons development technologies and expertise, or even completed operational weapons” (Huntley, 2006, 725). The ability to sell uranium to other countries will arguably help North Korea stabilize its fractured economy regardless of how other countries like the US feel.

The development of the nuclear program has given North Korea the ability to impact the world’s economy in a significant way. “North Korea also has the ability to threaten the global economy. Japan and South Korea, the second and 11th largest economies in the world, respectively, as well as major U.S. trading partners, are both vulnerable to any DPRK attack” (Howard, 2004, 810). The continued perseverance to create this nuclear program has put NK ahead of countries, such as Japan and South Korea, who do not have nuclear weapons and are not formally pursuing them. This extant potential threat of a nuclear NK also drives its need for greater international respect, let alone having a nuclear program increases the chances of North Korea being successful in any future military actions taken against it. North Korea has demonstrated that it is willing to use these weapons if needed to protect its country.

Although NK actions over the last several decades have been portrayed as “proof” of an aggressive and irrational North Korea, these calculated moves clearly have rational purpose to the NK government. If North Korea was focused on truly expanding its territory and taking control over South Korea, rather than just using the nuclear threat to solidify its own place in the global community and at the international table, its military actions would be far more invasive and chaotic. There have been instances since the armistice agreement in 1953, but they have been minimal and did not develop further into another war.

The overall purpose of the NK nuclear program is to reestablish dialogue with the United States on a more equal footing and create economic stability for its country. North Korea’s nuclear program established itself (at least in NK’s mind) as a significant military power and one that cannot be taken lightly. The fear of being undermined, disrespected, and dismissed was minimized. If the rest of the world wants North Korea to voluntarily walk away from its nuclear status, then it needs to find a compelling strategy that shows North Korea is considered seriously, taken as an equal partner, and legitimately respected in the global arena. Otherwise, the world better get used to a nuclearized North on the Korean peninsula.

Leann Maloney
Leann Maloney
Leann Maloney is originally from East Bridgewater, MA but currently resides in Florida. She has a bachelor's degree in History and Criminal Justice from the University of Central Florida and a master's degree in Business Continuity, Security, and Risk Management from Boston University. She is currently enrolled in the American Military University’s Doctorate of Strategic Intelligence program.