The Role of Security Motivations in North Korea’s Nuclear Decisions

By Hiroshi Nakatani

It was the last month that new progress was achieved between North Korea and the United States, concluding to the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program.[i] In return for US food aid, North Korea has agreed to halt its nuclear project including long-range missile tests.[ii] However, surprisingly, North Korea has announced that it has reached the final phase of the preparation for the launch of the Unha-3 rocket, as a part of its space program.[iii] As a result Japan has deployed the four PAC-3 Interceptors in Okinawa and three Aegis destroyers have been shipped to the East Asia Sea for Missile Defense.[iv] In order to identify the reasons for this action, it is crucial to examine why North Korea is in desperate need of its indigenous nuclear arsenals. Generally speaking, three or five common nuclear motivations are considered.[v] Yet, this essay shall attempt to particularly analyze whether the security driver prompts North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.

In the International relations theory of Realism, states seek power for their national survival in a self-help world.[vi] Since nuclear weapons are the most powerful weapon human beings ever created, they play a tremendous military and political role. Nuclear weapons can guarantee a nation’s survival and they have a deterrent effect.[vii] As Kenneth Waltz argues,[viii] nuclear weapons greatly reduce the possibility of the outbreak of war and arms race since the massive destructive power of nuclear weapons is tremendous. Nations facing grave security threats from their opponents tend to pursue nuclear weapons.[ix] Especially when their regional rivals seek to obtain nuclear weapons, they respond to this action by also developing nuclear programs. This is known as a chain nuclear reaction. North Korea’s nuclear program, for example, could trigger nuclear proliferation in East Asia involving Japan and South Korea.[x]

First of all, it is important to note that North Korea faced the first US nuclear threat during the Korean War of 1950-53 as the US considered actually using nuclear weapons against the North.[xi] In the end, the US did not use the nuclear weapons against North Korea but this incident affected North Korea’s nuclear perceptions and became a primal cause of its nuclear ambitions.[xii] Furthermore, after the Korean War, US troops and even tactical nuclear weapons were deployed in South Korea and thus the US military threats prompted the North to consider obtaining a nuclear weapons program.[xiii] Moreover, North Korea’s geostrategic environment changed dramatically after the end of the Cold War as its protector, the Soviet Union, had collapsed and the new Russia and China established formal diplomatic relations with South Korea.[xiv] Therefore, its survival became a crucial issue.[xv]

For these reasons, North Korea’s nuclear option is thought to aim at its own survival. Self-help and survival are particularly important to North Korea as its unique political system Juche or self-reliance requires the North to be independent.[xvi] In addition, North Korea has faced US nuclear threats for six decades; a fact which makes the nuclear option even more important.[xvii] In fact, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship aims to offset its evident military weakness against US military superiority.[xviii] Moreover, the fact that its conventional military strength is much weaker than that of South Korea could to a certain extent explain why North Korea tries to acquire nuclear weapons.

Yet, it does not necessary clarify why the North attempts to obtain nuclear weapons when there could be other choices.[xix] It is important to note that the US removed its tactical nuclear weapons from the South Korean soil.[xx] In addition, according to the Agreed Framework of 1994, the US will not use threats of nuclear weapons against North Korea.[xxi] In this respect, North Korea should not fear the US military power, but North Korea still has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

It is supposed that North Korea pursues nuclear weapons in order to obtain a deterrent for its survival.[xxii] North Korea believes that its nuclear arsenals may have a minimum deterrence effect against the US since even a single small nuclear bomb that can reach US soil could inflict serious damage on the US.[xxiii] Therefore, although it is really unlikely that North Korea will launch nuclear attacks against its opponents for its survival, North Korea has the capability of devastating the opponents by nuclear attacks. From that perspective, Japan and the US may be vulnerable to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail. As Cha argues, “nuclear weapons, therefore, offer the most efficient means by which to optimize security needs, abandonment fears, and resource constraints.”[xxiv]

Nevertheless it is still uncertain that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is the result of security concerns. It is supposed that US recognition of North Korea as part of the axis of evil poses a further threat to North Korean survival.[xxv] However, it is North Korea that created this situation as it violated previous agreements. More importantly, it has never terminated its nuclear weapons program even after it received benefits and security guarantees from the US. Most importantly, its program might not favor the strategic environment of the North. It is really uncertain that North Korea has secured itself through its own nuclear deterrent. It cannot be concluded that the North has a very effective military tool unless it already has missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and a sophisticated command system; otherwise it is not effective as a robust nuclear deterrent. Due to the shortage of information, it is unknowable that North Korea has a nuclear doctrine. In order to ensure the deterrent capability, the North has to have a second-strike capability. North Korea cannot obtain this capability and thus, it would risk its survival in this circumstance.[xxvi] Nevertheless, given the geography of the region, Japan and South Korea are still vulnerable to North Korea’s missile attacks. Yet, it is really questionable that the North can absorb the US massive retaliation should it conduct nuclear attacks against the US regional allies.[xxvii] It may be true that small nuclear arsenals could deter its opponents as long as such arsenals exist. However this notion is based on existential deterrence, which means that by having nuclear weapons no one would risk undertaking reckless actions due to massive destructive power of retaliation.[xxviii] The initial nuclear deterrence was based on this notion. However, it is actually North Korea that proved this is not adequate since it invaded the South at a time when the US had nuclear weapons. In addition, deterrent capability must be credible in order to be successful.[xxix] This means that the North must have Capability, Commitment and Communication.[xxx] If these elements do not apply, the US, or other regional powers might consider using forces to stop the program.

When the first nuclear crisis emerged on the peninsula in 1994, as commonly known, the North felt forced to halt the program as the US was ready to fight, so in fact North Korea did stop it for its survival.[xxxi] Additionally, as Lawrence Freedman argues, “Japan might have to consider how to respond.”[xxxii] Japan actually conducted a research of how they could attack North Korea’s nuclear facilities since the missile defense (MD) is not flawless and could be vulnerable to missile attacks.[xxxiii] It is still uncertain how precise they could be in destroying ballistic missiles. Thus, it is logical to destroy the related facilities first (Preemptive attack) for national security. The conclusion of the research requires Japan to use F-22 to destroy the facilities.[xxxiv] Though it is really unlikely to follow this route on account of technological and political (Japanese peace constitution and political system) difficulties, needless to say, it poses a great threat to North Korea. On top of this, if the regional powers felt strongly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, they might go nuclear. South Korea, for example, although terminated now, did have a nuclear program.[xxxv] Again, although it is the least likely, Japan has been said to move to the nuclear option to protect itself from North Korea’s nuclear threat. Furthermore, Japanese politicians such as Foreign Minister Aso claimed the necessity of discussion on the nuclear option after North Korea launched nuclear tests in 2006.[xxxvi] This is a clear example of a security dilemma. However, it is important to note that these are hypotheses and their future course cannot be predicted but envisaged. Overall, it is not so clear that its indigenous nuclear weapons make North Korea more secure. It appears there is another strong nuclear motivation which it is argued that North Korea exploits as well as it calculates its threats.[xxxvii] It is necessary to take into account this additional dimension, namely “prestige”, or to be more exact North Korea’s “nuclear brinkmanship” (Domestic Politics and Security motivations have been examined), as a diplomatic card. This shall be discussed in the next essay.

[i] This essay is based on the author’s MA dissertation: Why are nations still attempting to obtain nuclear weapons? Moreover, this is the second essay from a series of essays that analyze the causes of North Korea’s nuclear decisions. The first essay can be found here

[ii] The Daily Yomiuri, 2 March, 2012.

[iii] It is presumed that it will launch the missile between 12 and 16 April. See BBC “North Korea moves rocket into place for launch” 9 April 2012. Accessed 9 April 2012. <;

[iv] The Japan Times, “PAC-3 deployment in Okinawa complete” 6 April 2012. Accessed 9 April 2012. <> The Asahi Shimbun, “Three Aegis Destroyers leave ports for the North Korea’s missile” 7 April 2012. Accessed 9 April 2012. <;

[v] 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


States acquire nuclear weapons to protect their own sovereignty.


States acquire nuclear weapons to fulfill 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.


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


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

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

[vi] John Mearsheimer. “Structural Realism.” In Tim Dunne, et al.International Relation Theories : Discipline and Diversity. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford Unviersity Press.2010. pp. 77-94

[vii] Joseph Cirncione. Bomb Scare: The History & Future Of Nuclear Weapons. New York: Columbia University. 2007

[viii] Kenneth N Waltz. The spread of nuclear weapons. USA: W. W. Norton Company, Inc. 2003 pp. 3-45

[ix] Tsuyoshi Sunohara. “Kakuganakurananai nanatuno riyu(Seven Reasons why nuclear weapons cannot be eliminated)” Tokyo: Shincyosya. 2010.

[x] Kurt M Campbell. The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices. Washington, D. C. The Brookings Institution. 2004. pp. 18-31

[xi] Richard K Betts. “Paranoids, Pygmies, Pariahs and Nonproliferation Revisited.” In Frankel, B. and David, Z. S. (ed.) The Proliferation Puzzle: Why Nuclear Weapons Spread and What Results. London: Frank Cass. 1993. pp. 100-124. 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. 269-29

[xii] William 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.

[xiii] Syuichiro Iwata. “Kakukausan no ronri (The logic of Nuclear Proliferation: battles among states over the national sovereignty and interest).” Tokyo: Keisou Shobo. 2010

[xiv] Victor D Cha. “Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula.” International Security. Vol. 27, No. 1, 2002. pp. 40-78

[xv] Ibid.

[xvii] Roland Bleiker. “A rogue is a rogue is a rogue: US foreign policy and the Korean nuclear crisis.” International Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 4, 2003. pp. 719-737.

[xviii] Edward A Olsen. “The Goal of North Korean Brinkmanship: Mediation.” Strategic Insights (Online),Vol.3,Issue3,March.,2004.pp.1-4.<;, [Accessed on 9th April 2012]

[xix] Etel, Solingen. Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East. Princeton: Princeton University Press.2007

[xx] William J Perry. “Proliferation on the Peninsula: Five North Korean Nuclear Crises.”

[xxi] Larry A Niksch. “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program Latest Development.” CRS Issue Brief for Congress, pp.1-6. 2005(Online), < >, [Accessed on 9th April 2012]

[xxii] Victor D Cha. “Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula.”

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

[xxiv] Victor D Cha. “Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula.” P.217

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

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

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

[xxviii] Thomas M Kane and David L Lonsdale. Understanding Contemporary Strategy. Oxon: Routhledge. 2012

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Syuichiro Iwata. “Kakukausan no ronri (The logic of Nuclear Proliferation: battles among states over the national sovereignty and interest).”

[xxxii] Lawrence Freedman. Deterrence. Cambraidge: Polity Press. 2008. P. 48

[xxxiii] Yomiuri Online, “Nuclear Threat. Japanese deterrence; the role of JSDF.” 25 March 2007. Accessed 9 April 2012. <;

[xxxiv] Yomiuri Online, “Nuclear Threat. Japanese deterrence; the role of JSDF.” Accessed 9 April 2012.

[xxxv] Joseph Cirncione. Bomb Scare: The History & Future Of Nuclear Weapons.

[xxxvi] Maria Rost Rublee. Nonproliferation Norms: Why States Choose Nuclear restraint. Athens: Unviersity of Georgia Press. 2009

[xxxvii] Edward A Olsen. “The Goal of North Korean Brinkmanship: Mediation. Accessed 9 April 2012.

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