In the past few decades, nuclear weapons have come to be synonymous with North Korea. The country’s growing nuclear proliferation programme has been a concern for the international community as well as the non-proliferation regime. Despite joint communiques and several rounds of negotiations, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula remains a distant dream. Nuclear weapons have helped North Korea maintain a credible deterrent against adversaries and, in the process, have achieved a position almost intrinsic to the North Korea regime. In popular perceptions, North Korea is often depicted as a nation obsessed with nuclear weapons. However, popular portrayals often lack nuance and critical assessment which can lead to ignorance and misinformation. A deeper look into North Korea’s ‘obsession’ with nuclear weapons reveals a somewhat different picture; a picture that is strikingly similar to any third world country grappling with its insecurities and dilemmas, however, having some of the most dangerous weapons known to humankind at its disposal.
Origins of the Nuclear ‘Obsession’
With roots dating back to the days of the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea’s atomic ambitions have shaped its relations with great powers and neighbours alike for decades. This reliance on nuclear weapons has not come about in a vacuum but in the milieu of several critical reasons. During the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration threatened using nuclear weapons when China and North Korea stalled the ongoing peace talks. Eager to end the war and gain influence on the Korean Peninsula, the United States considered using nuclear weapons several times over the course of the Korean War. It was much recognised that the threat of nuclear weapons was pivotal in inducing the North Korean and Chinese signatures to the eventual Panmunjom Armistice that brought the hostilities to an end. Following the Korean War, the US continued to provoke North Korea by declaring nuclear support to the South and stationing nuclear weapons and troops in the South Korean territory. Given these circumstances, North Korea’s interest in obtaining nuclear weapons intensified.
There were various reasons that contributed to this drive for nuclear proliferation. First, North Korea believed that a nuclear program was important to counter the US nuclear umbrella over the South, which threatened its sovereignty and existence. Second, North Korea feared an emerging South Korean nuclear programme and wanted to pre-empt South’s superiority. It was also economically much more feasible to develop nuclear weapons than indulge in a conventional arms race which the North Korean regime was destined to lose given South Korea’s booming economy. Third, the North Korean regime might have viewed possession of nuclear weapons as a means of gaining diplomatic leverage, perhaps to extract economic concessions from the international community amidst a stagnant economic growth. Lastly, in line with the Juche (roughly translating to self-reliance) ideology, the possession of nuclear weapons would have allowed North Korea to reduce its dependence on China and Russia, at least in security matters. Hence, a desired self-reliance tactic could be better employed.
Until the late 1980s, the United States’ Korean defence strategy was actively pinned on routine plans to use nuclear weapons very early in any emerging combat to counter and terminate North Korea. This aggressive stance was given up after North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme came to the fore in the 1990s. By this time, North Korean leadership had recognised the need, viability and necessity of nuclear weapons in defining their national interests and facilitating their survival needs.
The 1990s ushered in a new phase in dealing with North Korea. Abandoning direct nuclear threats, the United States turned towards negotiating to denuclearise the country. The Agreed Framework (1994) was negotiated. Under the terms of the agreement, North Korea would freeze and dismantle its nuclear program and comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in exchange for Light Water Reactors from the United States. However, in the absence of strict measures and unfulfilled promises, the Agreed Framework eventually failed. While nothing lasting came out of it, for Pyongyang, the Agreed Framework served as a model for future negotiations with the United States. Concessions and aid in exchange for denuclearisation became the template for negotiations with North Korea going forward. This was reflected in the subsequent Sunshine Policy (1998), the Six Party Talks (2003), The Singapore Summit (2018) and the Hanoi Summit (2019). While these attempts at negotiations became commonplace, they were carried out in an air of mistrust and lack of cooperation. No concrete negotiations indicating possible denuclearisation were agreed while North Korea’s nuclear proliferation programme continued to grow.
On the Brink
The recent events on the Korean Peninsula have led to widespread concerns among the international community. On November 18, North Korea test fired yet another Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the fourth such incident in 2022, since breaking a self-imposed 5-year moratorium in March earlier this year. The latest ICBM test adds to a record breaking year, taking the tally to 60 missiles tested this year. This spate has been met by yet another wave of sanctions and condemnation from the United States, South Korea and Japan. On the other hand, China and Russia have failed to support the sanctions regime, claiming that such sanctions further restrict commencement of talks and risk humanitarian harm.
While North Korea’s aggressive posturing has severely jeopardised peace and stability in the immediate Northeast Asian region as well as the world, the missile tests are not just another ploy to gain economic concessions or diplomatic leverages but hint towards an issue that has plagued peace processes on the Korean Peninsula for decades. Pyongyang’s aggressive nuclear policy is a testament to its growing threat perceptions that have been largely fuelled and maintained by the retaliatory stances of the United States and its allies.
Since assuming office in May earlier this year, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has identified North Korea as Seoul’s ‘main enemy’, advocating in favour of maintaining a strong deterrent against the North Korean aggression, even considering the possibility of pre-emptive strikes and redeployment of US strategic assets including nuclear bombers and submarines to the Korean Peninsula. These statements and threats have culminated in the largest US-ROK joint military exercises in recent years and a series of trilateral military drills involving Japan as an ally.
While these measures were incorporated as an attempt to amplify the United States’ presence in the region and bolster the security of its allies, they have seemingly made the situation worse. Since the start of the military exercises, North Korea has significantly increased its missile tests, seriously jeopardising the security and stability in the region. Another objective of these policies is to pressurise North Korea into entering negotiations on denuclearisation, which has also backfired as Pyongyang has continued on the path of nuclear proliferation, steadily increasing its nuclear capabilities and indicating towards the possibility of a nuclear test in the coming months.
Dismantling the ‘Obsession’
Peace and stability in the Northeast Asian region heavily depends on the establishment of a peaceful order on the Korean Peninsula. A nuclear test has the capability of severely altering the power structure that can lead to further escalation of hostilities in the region. Hence, denuclearisation or a cessation to North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear proliferation programme is of utmost priority. However, with the recent events and current hostile policy measures, denuclearisation remains a distant reality. Achievement of such a difficult task demands certain policy shifts in dealing with this nuclear conundrum. For a start, the international community must recognise that North Korea’s aggressive nuclear posturing is not just an obsession with weapons of mass destruction but rather is deeply rooted in the country’s threat perceptions and security concerns. North Korea turned towards nuclear weapons at a time when its survival interests were threatened and has ever since maintained it as a credible deterrent against any threat to its sovereignty and existence. While nuclear weapons have become intrinsic to its nature, they serve the very specific purpose of ensuring survival in a highly hostile order. The reconciliatory policies pursued under the administrations of former South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in have shown that North Korea can be brought to the negotiations table and a possible agreement on denuclearisation can be made if Pyongyang’s threat perceptions can be conclusively addressed and resolved. However, negotiations cannot go ahead with military drills and retaliatory policies. The failed negotiations of the past are a testament that dialogue pursued amidst lack of cooperation and trust cannot lead to concrete agreements. The international community has so far prioritised pressuring North Korea into surrendering its nuclear weapons to no avail. While the scarcely backed reconciliatory approach under Kim Dae-jung and Moon Jae-in administrations has been outrightly criticised as a failed strategy, the retaliatory policies that have been a feature of US and ROK’s North Korea strategy for decades are still maintained under various administrations to this day. The international community must recognise the failure of these retaliatory policies and should take the initiative to pursue dialogue and cooperation as a possible way out of the escalating conflict brewing on the Korean Peninsula.