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“Mission Impossible: Nuclear Disarmament of North Korea”

Author: Hanyoung Park

Editors: Antara Basu and Hannah Westfallen

Despite the international restraint on nuclear weapons, North Korea has continued their pursuit by withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons in January 2003. President Kim has been evident that the country's nuclear status is "irreversible", codifying the policy into law in September 2022. Not bound by any global rules, I explore different explanations that have been used for why North Korea has defied international standards and has continued to stockpile nuclear weapons.

Deterrent in the Anarchic System

Is North Korea's decision to go nuclear a strategic choice to increase its security? Kenneth Waltz has outlined defensive realism as the first concern of states to maintain their positions in the system to ensure safety and survival. In an anarchic system, no central authority can enforce international laws to ensure a country's safety. In this regard, pursuing nuclear weapons is a form of deterrence. As an external security driver, North Korea mitigates prospects of foreign aggression in the international system. The greater the threat of Chinese infiltration or war with the US, the higher the likelihood North Korea will nuclearise.

North Korea's Security Dilemma with the US

The US has long been North Korea's strongest adversary. As a superpower, the prospect of a US-led attack is ever more threatening. The US acts as a continuing existential threat, creating a "mutually interactive vicious circle of security dilemmas”. In a security dilemma, states are unsure of each other's intentions, leading to a decrease in overall security for both states. Additionally, the US has multinational alliances with Japan and South Korea, further portending North Korea's nuclear deterrent pursuit. In the 1990s, "Kim Jong-Il admitted that he was developing nuclear weapons because of hostile US policies." He even stated that North Korea could abandon its nuclear weapon program in return for security assurance from the US. Security assurance could be in the form of removing UN sanctions that have severe effects on North Korea’s economy. North Korea is aware that nuclear weapons will not guarantee a major victory over the US. It will, however, decrease the risk of a US preventive attack.

North Korea's Principle of 'Juche'

North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons directly fuels its state ideology of Juche which translates to self-reliance. The state ideology of Juche is a device for the state's survival and security. The interaction between defensive realism and its state ideology illustrates North Korea seeking security through a principle of self-help. Nuclear weapons have allowed North Korea to enhance its security and independence. As nuclear weapons provide a maximum level of security, alliances and external powers have become less valuable. North Korea has become a more sovereign unit, allowing more autonomy from its allies. As defensive realism outlines, alliances are only seen as a "temporary marriage of convenience".

The Search for Security without China

North Korea has tried to seek security without help from its superior alliance partner - China. China explains over 90 per cent of North Korea's total trade and is almost the only source of North Korea's oil imports. But the price of being over-dependent on China is vulnerability and insecurity and makes long-term reliability infeasible. Often, the level of "alliance commitment to the state's defence" has determined the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Alliances are constantly shifting, yet nuclear weapons remain a stable source of protection. From the 1960s, North Korea perceived China as non-dependable. The greatest betrayal came in 1992 when China normalised relations with South Korea - “the Chinese dumped Pyongyang in a heartbeat.”

In contrast, South Korea was able to give up its initial willingness to acquire nuclear weapons because of "the perceived reliability of US guarantees." Under this paradigm, it is likely that if South Korea were not provided with a US nuclear umbrella, it would also do anything to protect its security, including the development of nuclear weapons.

Maximising Power

Alternatively, scholars have also used offensive realism to explain North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Offensive realists believe that expansion and conquest make states more secure. North Korea is aware that it cannot compete with other states economically or with the traditional military. However, pursuing nuclear weapons can be seen as a viable alternative and a "shortcut to its aspirations for attaining a global power status."

North Korea's nuclear weapons symbolise the "nation's unlimited potential and scientific, technical and organisational process." The military, in general, symbolises the state's power; as seen with North Korea’s unveiling of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile at a parade just days before the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. Further, with Pyongyang's previous goal to expand socialism over the Korean peninsula, it is not unreasonable to assume that North Korea seeks regional hegemony. Offensive realism argues that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a means to "dominate inter-Korean relations and eventually achieve North Korea-led unification."

An Incomplete Picture

Defensive and offensive realism focus centrally on the international system, disregarding non-security variables. An alternative argument has been nuclear weapons as a product of North Korean leaders. The psychological makeup of political leaders and their national identity conceptions are critical to understanding the motives behind pursuing nuclear weapons. The North Korean political system depends on a man at the top from whom all wisdom flows. Despite being the youngest of three sons, he succeeded his father at 27. Kim Jong-Un is often labelled as a “young general”, who had to find an effective method to establish his dominance. Nevertheless, he has successfully cemented his grip on power through nuclear weapons.

North Korea is estimated to have spent $620 million on its nuclear weapons program in 2019. This equates to $1,180 for every minute spent on nuclear weapons. In this same year, North Korea could not feed about 8 million of its 25 million population. Whilst being one of the poorest countries in the world, North Korea still spends nearly a quarter of its gross national product on military defence. It remains challenging to distinguish the main reason for North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, what is clear is that it is doubtful they will agree to nuclear disarmament in the near future.

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