The Impact of Domestic Politics on North Korea’s Nuclear Decisions

by Hiroshi Nakatani

It is generally believed that there are three or five common motivations that drive nuclear proliferation.[4] Notwithstanding the fact that “security” is considered as a main nuclear motivation, it shall not be examined; instead, this essay shall focus on the “domestic politics” motivation since North Korea has a peculiar political system. Without mention, domestic policy-making is a highly sophisticated process while an important policy like a nuclear program is the final product of institutional and specific fractions disputes.[5] As Colin Gray notes, after all every single policy is ultimately determined within states.[6] Specifically, North Korean nuclear motivations are divided into three categories: shields, swords and badges.[7] More importantly, the causes of nuclear proliferation differ from nation to nation.[8] That means that some motivations are important for some states but they are less important for other states.

North Korea is known as a totalitarian nation with extremely strong leadership – even stronger than that of Stalin and Mao.[9] Moreover, the military is the most influential organization in North Korea and it even controls the domestic economy.[10] Although it not easy to say, due to the lack of reliable information, it seems that military activities and their relation with the economy are very deep and strong.[11] It is said that Kim Jong Il gained power particularly from the military.[12] However, it is wrong to suppose that this formidable regime was not restrained by domestic political and bureaucratic actors.[13] For instance, the centralized regime is still required to control the military interests; otherwise it is difficult for the regime to stabilize the nation. For example, when Kim Jong Il was inaugurated as the head of the North, he first controlled the military.[14] Furthermore, its political course echoes the institutional interests.[15] Therefore, although it seems that the leadership can control everything, its decisions are still strongly influenced by other actors mostly from the military interests.

With regards to the political motivations of the North Korean nuclear program, it is said that the North seeks to pursue nuclear weapons in order to maintain its “military-first” politics (Songun) otherwise it cannot stabilize the country.[16] Benjamin Habib maintains that “nuclear weapons development also serves the narrow bureaucratic interest of institutions within the North.”[17] Nuclear weapons are vital to the regime survival as they can demonstrate its strong posture in the state.[18] Additionally the nuclear capability enhances its symbolic figure in the politics.[19] North Korea’s own survival (internationally and domestically) is particularly important to the regime given its unique political system, Juche (founded by Kim Il Sung for the protection of the national sovereignty), or self-reliance. In fact this Juche system was successful until the 1960’s partly because of the industry infrastructure Japan left behind during its annexation of Korea (1910-1945).[20] Yet, this system has virtually collapsed due to the economic crisis and the great famine of the 1990s which created the need for international help.[21] However, the Kim regime fears that international help would undermine the regime due to an inflow of new culture from overseas.[22] North Korea understands that it needs to open the society in order for economic recovery to come about. Nevertheless, it will probably not do so, and thus nuclear weapons appear to be an absolute means to control the nation. In this respect, nuclear weapons have become the badge of the military regime to justify its existence.[23]

It is important to note that Kim Jong Il’s greatest concern was his power.[24] As long as Kim was in power, he tended to pursue nuclear weapons that were used as a means to secure the status quo. According to John Park and Dong Lee, nuclear weapons enabled Kim Jong Il to sustain the regime since they brought him power and norm.[25] Kim’s Songun or “military-first” system strengthened its regime position,[26] and became his norm.[27] Although both Songun and Juche (self-reliance) systems are not successful, they, in fact, enable the regime to justify the nuclear weapons program.[28] For instance, the nuclear weapons program in Songun politics can allow the regime to spread an ideology, show a strong symbol, and meet bureaucratic interests such as the access to more resources.[29] Benjamine Habib clarifies further these three points:

 “Firstly, it provides the ideological pretext to divert the nation’s resources to the military. Secondly, the nuclear programme is the defining symbol of North Korea’s unique anti-American nationalism. Thirdly, nuclear weapons development also serves the narrow bureaucratic interests of institutions within the DPRK state.”[30]

Furthermore, Kim Jong Il domestically could claim that the North Korean people were protected by its nuclear arsenals, which was merely in his interest.[31] Ultimately, nuclear weapons can legitimize and stabilize the regime, and the bureaucratic actors.[32] In this light, it becomes obvious that the nuclear weapons program under the names of North Korea’s political system, Juche and Songun, does not only serve as a security guarantee but also as a means to stabilize the nation domestically. Despite the great technological barriers such as the mineralization of warheads for mounting the missiles, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is more feasible than generally perceived.[33] Most importantly, however, as long as the “military-first” regime gains profits from the program, it is unlikely that North Korea will relinquish its nuclear weapons. Moreover, the regime highly relies on the weapons program to ensure its own survival. Then, it is safe to say, even after the change of the leader, that the North Korean nuclear weapons are here to stay. Most likely, the new leader, Kim Jong Un, will follow his grandfather’s and father’s logic and manner, so as to establish and secure his own power. Nevertheless, we also need to examine international factors that greatly affect the nuclear decision; otherwise, this paradigm does not account for its security posture and diplomacy, or known as nuclear brinkmanship, which will be discussed in a future essay.

Hiroshi Nakatani is from Tokyo, Japan. He studied Political Science in Japan and obtained an MA degree in International Relations from the University of Birmingham, UK. He is currently translating two chapters (8 and 10) of the book Hew, Strachan & Andreas, Herberg-Rothe. (eds.) Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), from English to Japanese. The Japanese book is due to be published this year (2012). His research interests lie, among other things, in nuclear proliferation in the 21st century; the history of the Japanese nuclear weapons program; nuclear deterrence in the second nuclear age; and the nature of war and the Clausewitzian ideas of war. You can reach him at uob.ir.hiroshi@gmail.com.


[1] This essay is partly based on the MA dissertation of the author: Why are nations still attempting to obtain nuclear weapons?, University of Birmingham, 2011.

[2] Justin McCurry, “North Korea holds funeral for Kim Jong-il.” The Gurdian, 28 December 2011. Accessed 29 December 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/28/kim-jong-il-funeral-north-korea&gt;

[3] Shigemitsu Toshiaki, “Kitachousen no Shinzitsu (The facts of North Korea)” Tokyo: Nihon Bungei Sya, 2012.

[4] Scott Sagan’s three nuclear paradigms are most prominent: Security, Domestic Politics and Prestige. See Sagan, D, Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter., 1996-1997, pp.54-86; Joseph Cirincione raises another two causes: Technology and Economy. The following is a completed list:

Proliferation Drivers

Security

States acquire nuclear weapons to protect their own sovereignty.

Prestige

States acquire nuclear weapons to fulfil perception of national destiny or to be viewed as a “great power” in international affairs.

Domestic Politics

States acquire nuclear weapons when a set of well-placed bureaucratic actors convince political leaders of the need for them.

Technology

States acquire nuclear weapons because they have the technological ability to do so.

Economics

Economics generally do not drive a state to pursue nuclear weapons, though advocates of nuclear weapons do argue that a nuclear defence is cheaper than a conventional defence.

See Joseph Cirncione. Bomb Scare: The History & Future Of Nuclear Weapons.2007, P. 49

[5] Ibid. 63-64.

[6] Colin, S. Gray. The Second Nuclear Age. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.1999.

[7] Victor, Cha. “Badges, Shields or Swords?: North Korea’s WMD Threat.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117, No. 2, Summer, 2002, pp. 209-230.

[8] Andy, Butfoy. “Nuclear Strategy.” In Snyder, C. A. (ed.) Contemporary Security and Strategy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2008, pp. 136-152

[9] David, Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival.Oxford: Oxford University Press.1998.

[10] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.” The Pacific Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2011, pp. 43-63. Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.2007, pp.118-140.

[11] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.” The Pacific Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2011, pp. 43-63.

[12] David, Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival. Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.” David, Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival.

[15] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[16] Watanabe, T. Shin datsua ron (New de-Asianization). Tokyo: Bungei Shusyu.2008. Emphasis added.

[17] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.” pp.56

[18] Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East.

[19] Jonathan, D. Pollack, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program to 2015: Three Scenarios.”

[20] Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East.

[21] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[22] David, Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival. Willian, J, Perry. “Proliferation on the Peninsula: Five North Korean Nuclear Crises.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 607, Sep., 2006, pp. 78-86.

[23] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[24] David, Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival. Willian, J, Perry

[25] John, S, Park. and Dong, Sun, Lee. “North Korea: Existential Deterrence and Diplomatic Leverage.” In Muthiah, Alagappa. The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia. California: Stanford University Press. 2008. pp. 269-295

[26] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[27] Ibid; Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.2007, pp.118-140.

[28] John, S, Park. and Dong, Sun, Lee. “North Korea: Existential Deterrence and Diplomatic Leverage.”

[29] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[30] Ibid.49

[31] Jasper, Becker. Rogue Regime: Kim Jong IL and the looming threat of North Korea. New York: Oxford University Press.2005.

[32] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[33] Justin McCurry, “North Korea holds funeral for Kim Jong-il.”

16 thoughts on “The Impact of Domestic Politics on North Korea’s Nuclear Decisions

  1. .Dear writter Hiroshi Nakatani, thanks for your info , if you do not mind ,we will be glad to share our throught on this topic . We will send our opinion to your inbox criticising the arguments written in the article . But need time to do so .

  2. Last comment although i did not want to make but situation compelled me . First you need to straight my remark . First need to understand what I say . I have told you that nuclear weapon can not maintain domestic stability and there is no domestic dispute as western media publish . Because my number one rule , European see many problem in North Korea. Not only in North korea but also every country that are so called enemy of EU . You have also mentioned some informations about North korea which are completely false . Anti north korea publicity . You have bestowed advice to straight my geography . It is totally foolish and comical argument . To remark about North korea’s nuclear weapon i need to be Japanise ? Lol Have I claimed here that I have managed to reject this article ? To do so a new article needs to be written . I just mentioned my opinion by quoting one rule and said that such publicity creates hostility . And you missunderstood , subsequetly i had to explain what i wanted to say . At this time you could ask explanation to me for my opinion . Here is no scope to show argument , but opinion . But you did not do it , you started to argue and again criticise . It is not way of debate . USA role on North korea or similar statements on your remark are totally irrelevent here as i did not mention it and I was talking about rejecting the claim of having Domestic dimension of nuke and the publicity that creates hostility . This is for a problem as I mentioned . You think that we are anti American , so we will oppose everything whatever it is logical or not logical . If we say something out of your text book , you will not take in straight . Western scholar see many dimensions of nuclear weapon i.e Domestic stability , Enemy will drop nuke on EU -USA , iran will wipe Israel off by Nuke . Many dimensions Western IR specialist formulates to help imperialism that I dont see any reality . To state own opinion We need to have Phd in IR ? if it is then everyone needs to be graduate in at least half dozen disciplines . In second remark , Mariana wrote that i dont have any concept on it . It is also too much comical and arrogant statement . Do you actually know me who am I ? How can you think it ? In international affair page of every newspaper , only IR graduate opposes or endores the concept of article ? Who dont read IR , they will stay silent ? If i said that I am agree with writter that Nuclear weapon has domestic dimension then this question would not come . But Trouble is that i protested this article main theme. Then what is the meaning of expression of freedom ? And also you bestowed advice to show some respect for writter . To respect writter means to agree with him ? I can give you many website link specialy CNN GPS where readers respect Fareed Zakaria if he write against US. You say about freedom of expression but if someone opposes your idea then you will advice him to show respect . It is not sign of what you claimed . It is the actual situation . People can hear opposite comment or can respect other’s nation cultural norm . You wrote that i am making similar things in each or every comment and used the word ” Seriously ” . I have so far made comments on a few article . Whatever you like or dont like you have a right to delete all . Seriously we also review our comment policy so that such kind of invasion we dont confront .

  3. From the writer of this article

    To those who left comments on my article.

    Let me make one point clear. Regardless of whether you like my essay or not, any comments and queries are welcome at uob.ir.hiroshi@gmail.com

    This is not my website and thus, if you need further clarification from the writer, just send an email again at uob.ir.hiroshi@gmail.com

    The editors are not responsible for my article.

    Thank you in advance

    Hiroshi Nakatani
    uob.ir.hiroshi@gmail.com

  4. Seriously Lee, you keep ranting against this article when you obviously have absolutely no idea what the author argues. You keep saying the same things over and over again in each and every comment you make in this website… Please show some respect to the authors and accept the fact that they actually have more knowledge on the issues they write since it is their job, this is what they have been studying for years now and they have gained the tools needed to analyse world politics. You telling the authors how they should analyse politics is like me telling a mathematician how to solve an algorithm!

  5. Your last comment “Or that the author hates N.Korea?? That kind of ideas and understandings are just narrowminded. ” . I respectfuly want to tell you , you dont have any idea actually . Read my comment again . I have mentioned ” people hate North Korea ” . People not writter . Now you again make same mistake and term it narrow mindeded . Whatever your comment style is i dont mind . But i told you true . From this type of publicity , people hate North Korea . North korea did not do any thing against USA OR EU but just publicity like this article . North korea obtained Nuke to maintain domestic stability , leader is not popular , north korea would drop nuke on west etc . It is my evidence . 87 % people think North korea as Enemy . Galloup poll . I did not survey it . Now consider who are narrow minded . http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/02/americans-love-canada-poll-shows/

    • First of all, the author is not western. He is from Japan, so get your geography straight. That means that he is more than capable of writing on N.Korea than you are. Second of all, just because you said that “Nuclear weapon can not maintain domestic stability or it does not has any impact on domestic policy” it doesn’t mean that you managed to reject his article. And the fact that 87% of the people see N.Korea as a threat is still irrelevant. I never said that the US behaviour towards N.Korea or Iran, for example, is right. But just because people see North Korea as a threat and because the US is not acting righfully towards it, it doesn’t mean that what the author said above is wrong! He has provided evidence which you have not. Your thinking is too simlistic, too narrow-minded, and too bised for two reasons: 1) you see everything as a US propaganda and therefore you are unable to appreciate an objective analysis if you dont like it; and 2) Regardless of N.Korea’s relations with the US and the rest of the world, as well as the fact that it is not democratic, Nuclear weapons always have at least some impact and are influenced at least to some extent from domestic politics because national security is not isolated from society; and in the case of N.Korea, despite whether US is wrong or right, the regime is indeed anti-systemic and isolated and for this reason, apart from nuclear deterrance (the security dimension), needs to keep the people attached to it. Moreover in N.Korea, either you like it or not, and either it’s right or not, the leadership is institutionally detached from the society which means that the acquirement and maintanance of nuclear weapons would be a success and a sign of power that could keep the people devoted to the regime by creating nationalism as a reactionary feeling to the West’s policies. All that and more are very well illustrated in the above article and will be complemented from the one that will follow. These observations have nothing to do with what is right and what is wrong, but with what IS – the plain reality- either you like it or not, either you agree or not. OK, Shiblee?

  6. Your last comment , i did not say any where that Writter rejected these . I just say in second comment , Nuclear weapon can only prevent USA invasion . If you have nuclear weapon , USA will not fight against you . For this rule , everyone want to obtain nuke. Writter said domestic and international impact of nuclear weapon . I said only international impact . There is no use of nuke in Domestic politics . You probably ignored the word ” Only ” If i say it , that does not mean that i claimed writter rejected international impact . But now you find in my comment that i did so . Now my question is Why you can not take my answer in the way as I delivered ?

  7. There is no internal dispute in North korea but western news media can easily see it . Okay but why you did not understand my comment and termed it as irrelevant . Because there was a word ” USA ” . If anyone say anything against USA ( USA led EU- America bloc ) , then people term the comment as anti american . As you are anti american so your everything is wrong . Even comment can be listened but can not be heard .

  8. Look at my first two comment and title of this article “The Impact of Domestic Politics on North Korea’s NuclearDecisions ” . In article , writter explained domestic dimension ( actually Domestic dispute ) . Correct ? Then i commented my two opinions . There is no impact of domestic politics . I have just rejected his whole article . Nuclear weapon can not maintain domestic stability or it does not has any impact on domestic policy . But why Western scholar see domestic impact of nuclear weapon ? Simple . The rule i stated in first comment . Which nation is not slaves of USA , they have many problem . North Korea is not slaves of USA . So western scholar see the impact of nuclear weapon on domestic policy . If you read the rule of mine in first comment and headline of this article , then it will be clear what i wanted to say . In short ” there is no impact of domestic politics of nuclear weapon . Simple .

  9. This language and style used in the article always create hostility between two nations . There is a flow of such article in media which is the main reason why people hate North Korea .

    • Dear Lee, you haven’t explained any rules and you haven’t given any correct information… I order to give information you need to have evidence which you clearly don’t .. all you do is go on a rant against the USA, which is not even the case in this article. I would agree with what Zenonas said on the above comment “why can’t you appreciate an article for what it is” and you have to make comment completely out of topic?

    • The author never said that the nuclear weapons of N.Korea are not used to deter the USA! if you had read the article carefully (including the references) you would see that the author says that there are 3-5 reasons why a nation attains nuclear weapons! He also clearly says that in his essay he will focus on the domestic politics dimension. But at the end of the article he also says that one cannot fully understand the situation of N.Korea if they dont take into account all the dimensions and especially the security one and that is why (as he says!) he will analyse this dimension in an upcoming essay! What did you not understand! Or did you not read the article? It is very wrong of you to say that someone gives wrong info since you have no idea about the matter and since you obviously havent read the article in its entirety. Your truth (by the way) it’s not the only truth. And you said that we hate N.Korea?? Or that the author hates N.Korea?? That kind of ideas and understandings are just narrow minded. If you dont like an analysis about a country that doesnt mean that the author hates the coutntry! It is just an analysis from a person who studied the subject and knows more than a few things about it! Not everything is a propaganda! Get real.

  10. I have just explained the rule , why this article main theme is not correct. First i wrote the rule , then i explained why writter stated wrong information . The writter wrote on North Korea internal dispute , the problem that new leader have to face etc . “how the nuclear program is used from the regime to maintain domestic stability and coherence.” I also implied that Nuclear weapon can not maintain domestic stability , north korea just produced weapon to prevent the USA invasion . I dont have any interest in North Korea . But wrong information in article should be protested .

    • Why can’t you appreciate an article for what it is. first of all this article says nothing about human rights or democracy etc. Either you like it or not, N.Korea is an authoritarian regime isolated from the rest of the world! This has nothing to do with whether it is democracy or not, an ally of the US or not! The writer just explains how the nuclear program is used from the regime to maintain domestic stability and coherence. Stop making the same comments about every subject. take your problem about america somewhere else or bring it up when it is appropriate. Anti-americanism doesn’t fit everywhere.

  11. When a country is not a slaves of USA . it means, in that country there is no democracy , poor record of human rights , no freedom , people do not support their government . Government repress their people , internal dispute etc . Western media observes many problem in that country . But if the country becomes slaves of USA . Then everything is okay . It is the rule . Nothing is new in this article , any new ideas or new speech . The Writter just followed this rule !

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