North Korea: The Utilization of Nuclear Weapons for International Prestige

By Hiroshi Nakatani*

It is striking that North Korea violated the agreement (the suspension of its nuclear program) concluded with the US earlier this year and launched the long-range missile, only to fail.[1] However, it was not surprising that it breached the agreement again given that it has, in fact, never fulfilled the commitment.[2] Because of North Korea’s actions the US food aid to the country has been halted.[3]

It is worth noting that, according to a document compiled by the Worker’s Party, North Korea’s actions have been inherited by the late Kim Jong IL, who allegedly ordered the nuclear program.[4] Now, the world is uneasily monitoring North Korea’s next move, which will most probably be the underground nuclear test – following the long-range missile launches in 2006 and 2009. North Korea appears to be carefully examining the time that its action will take place. It has been argued that the North exploits this crisis for diplomatic purposes, an act which is often called Nuclear Brinkmanship.[5]

This essay aims to address how international prestige secured by North Korean nuclear weapons influences North Korea’s nuclear decision.[6] In conclusion, it summarizes the arguments by referring to the other two factors, Security and domestic politics, that influence nuclear decisions in North Korea, as this is the final of the three essays.

It is commonly believed that nuclear weapons bring international attention to nations.[7] Scott Sagan argues that “nuclear decisions serve as important symbolic functions both shaping and reflecting a state’s identity.”[8] It is said that if a nation possesses nuclear weapons, the nation can augment its international status and even a small nation can confront a major power.[9] Nuclear weapons enable nations to perceive themselves as more powerful, recognized and prestigious.[10]Therefore, it is safe to say that nuclear weapons are a source of international norm. From that perspective, among other nuclear motivations, North Korea is also believed to pursue nuclear weapons for to gain international status and diplomatic leverage against the international community.[11] North Korea’s nuclear weapons enable the state to be regarded as a major power, so its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have become the symbol of its status.[12] North Korea gains international attention due to its nuclear weapons.[13] In fact, without them, North Korea would not have been where it is today.[14] Furthermore, it is said that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program set the floor for the negotiations with the US.[15] It is also true that now that North Korea is internationally recognized, as the newest member of the nuclear club, it can start a discussion with other regional powers like China, South Korea and Japan.[16]

It is important to note that throughout the Cold War, North Korea’s international norm was completely ruined on account of its provocative activities such as the destruction of the Korean Airline Flight in 1988. The consequence was severe enough to designate North Korea as a terrorist state by the US following the incident. After the end of the Cold War, its diplomatic situation deteriorated even more due to treacherous acts by its patrons, Russia and China.[17] South Korea’s Northern Policy (nordpolitk) established the official diplomatic relations with China and Russia in the 1980’s and 90’s, which eventually led to the acceleration of the nuclear program.[18] During these harsh situations and the isolation, nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons for North Korea’s survival, while it also appears to calculate their utility cautiously so that it can gain international attention, which is what it is aiming for. It is plausible to presume that the nation that was alienated from the international community desperately strives to acquire nuclear weapons to countervail against the major powers.[19]

All of a sudden, North Korea’s international norm was dramatically and entirely changed by the Framework agreement in 1994. Heavy oil and two light water nuclear reactors were provided to North Korea on condition that it closes the nuclear facilities in compliance with the agreement.[20] Furthermore, the US proclaims that the US ends its economic sanctions and allows North Korea to conduct a peaceful nuclear program; so, overall North Korea gained energy, economic, and diplomatic benefits.[21] In fact, notwithstanding the agreed framework that requires the North to freeze its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has not relinquished its nuclear weapons program. On the contrary, North Korea declared itself as a nuclear state in 2005 and launched the nuclear test in 2006 to show the world that its technical achievement.[22] In this respect, it appears that North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is effective when it comes to exempting diplomatic and economic concession from the international community. It is important to stress that the US and the South tend to eschew severe punishment on the North as they fear the formidable escalation (exchange fires) resulting from their act.[23] Therefore, the likely consequence is that North Korea could start the diplomatic negotiation and have the major powers lift the sanctions.[24] It critically calculates the crisis risk.[25] For example, as commonly known, the US declared North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil”; yet, the US stopped considering the North as a the terrorist state in 2008 without any preceding concrete and constructive disarmament progress.[26]

According to Sunohara,[27] there are three main outcomes of this nuclear brinkmanship: 1) first it successfully signed the Framework agreement with the US in 1994; 2) second the secretary of state, Albright, visited the North; and 3) third, as noted previously, the North was eliminated from the list of terrorist states. Strikingly, when the US proclaimed North Korea was no longer a terrorist state, it seemed that they had compromised with North Korea on the nuclear issues. As Habib maintains, “denuclearization negotiations have followed a cyclical pattern in which the North has provoked crises to make new demands and gain leverage in negotiations.”[28] In other words, the nuclear option is intended to extract diplomatic concessions.[29]As Thomas Schelling clearly points out, “Diplomacy is bargain”.[30] North Korea may utilize its nuclear latency as a diplomatic card.

However, it is necessary to highlight that the international norm has changed over decades and now joining the nuclear club is no longer admirable while maintaining non-nuclear status is more honorable.[31] The world now recognizes nuclear weapons as the formidable barrier to international security. Moreover, today nations apart from a few countries are no longer keen on having a nuclear status while, contrarily, they oppose the idea of nuclear diplomacy.[32] More importantly, it is uncertain that “nuclear-armed France, Pakistan or North [Korea] have more international prestige or diplomatic muscle than, say, non-nuclear –armed Germany, Brazil or Japan.”[33]

Regardless of whether North Korea has international fame or ill repute, it is true that it relies on its utility. It cannot be disregarded that nuclear weapons are diplomatically and strategically fruitful in world politics.[34] In addition, overall, nuclear weapons have arguably enhanced North Korea’s international norm, or at least successfully gained it attention from major regional powers. Most importantly, North Korea has managed to produce nuclear weapons notwithstanding international restraint and observation.[35]

All in all, given the main three motivations, security, domestic politics and prestige, currently domestic politics and prestige are the most important nuclear motivations for North Korea though its national security motivation initially dominated its nuclear option particularly during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War world period, politics and prestige motivations appear to have gained tremendous momentum due to the dramatic change (the end of the Cold War) in the strategic setting of East Asia.

Both domestically and internationally North Korea appears to use nuclear weapons for its regime survival. As Habib argues, “economic, bureaucratic, and diplomatic considerations, as well as national security calculations, are integral to the decision of a state to obtain nuclear weaponry.”[36] Nuclear weapons overall enable the nation to stabilize the nation, gain international tensions and possess its own deterrence.[37] It is true that one paradigm cannot comprehensively account for the nuclear motivation.[38] Each state has distinct nuclear motivation depending on its circumstance.[39] Ultimately, as Scott Sagan claims, nuclear proliferation occurred for several reasons.[40] All things must be considered and included to analyze the causes. The three essays suggest that the tree main motivations connect one another and they, altogether, create a more comprehensive account. Not even one piece should be missing otherwise the account will be rather limited.

Conclusively, it would be, without a doubt, impossible for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program unless the conditions that have led it to maintain established interests, like the regime survival, improve dramatically. Without its nuclear weapons, however, it might be impossible for North Korea to counter major regional powers and sustain its regime on its own initiative. Thus, North Korea’s indigenous nuclear weapons are here to stay as far as North Korea is concerned.

*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

[1] This essay is in part based on the author’s MA dissertation: Why are nations still attempting to obtain nuclear weapons? Moreover, this is the final essay in a series of three essays that analyze the causes of North Korea’s nuclear decisions. First Essay: The Impact of Domestic Politics on North Korea’s Nuclear Decisions, at Second essay: The Role of Security Motivations in North Korea’s Nuclear Decisions, at

[2] The biggest breach of the international agreement would be the withdrawal from NPT in 2003.

[3] Nikkei Shimbun(Newspaper), 14 June,2012.

[4] The Japan Times, 3 July, 2012

[5] Nikkei Shimbun, 3 April, 2012

[6] There are other drivers of nuclear decisions. 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 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.


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

[7]. Kenneth N. Waltz, Peace, Stability, and Nuclear Weapons. Policy Papers, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, UC Berkeley, 1995, at;jsessionid=694CC5A750C5BC8E7D5F9264255C53AB,

[Accessed, 4th July 2012]

[8] Scott, D, Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter., 1996-1997,p.73

[9] Kenneth N, Waltz. “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, 1990, p. 731-745. Muthiah, Alagappa. The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia. California: Stanford University Press. 2008, p. 78-107

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

[11] William T. Tow, Asia-Pacific Strategic Relations: Seeking Convergent Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Chris Hughes. Japan’s Security Agenda: Military, Economic & Environmental Dimensions. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 2004. 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] Victor Cha. “Badges, Shields or Swords?: North Korea’s WMD Threat.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117, No. 2, summer, 2002, pp. 209-230.

[13] Andy Butfoy. “Nuclear Strategy.” In Snyder, C. A. (2nd ed.) Contemporary Security and Strategy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 136-152, 2008. Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.”

[14] Ibid

[15] David Reese. The Prospects for North Korea’s Survival. United States: Oxford University Press, 1998. Tsuyoshi Sunohara. “kakuheiki ga nakunaranai nanatsu no riyu(Seven grounds why nuclear weapons cannot be abolished)” Tokyo: Shincyo Sya, 2004.

[16] Ibid

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

[18] Ibid

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

[20] Larry A. Niksch. “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program Latest Development.” CRS Issue Brief for Congress, pp.1-6.(Online)2005, at, [Accessed, 4th July 2012].

[21] Ibid

[22] Jonathan, D. Pollack, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program to 2015: Three Scenarios.” Asia Policy, No.3, 2007, p.105-123

[23] Victor Cha. “Badges, Shields or Swords?: North Korea’s WMD Threat.”

[24] Ibid

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

[26] Tsuyoshi Sunohara. “kakuheiki ga nakunaranai nanatsu no riyu(Seven grounds why nuclear weapons cannot be abolished)”

[27] Ibid

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

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

[30] Thomas Schelling. “Arms and Influence.” In Mahnken, T. G and Maiolo, J. A. (ed.) Strategic Studies: A Reader. New York: Routhledge. pp. 86-104,2011.

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

[32] Colin Gray. Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare. London: Phonix, 2006.

[33] Andy Butfoy. “Nuclear Strategy.”

[34] Colin Gray. Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare.

[35] Kenneth N, Waltz. “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 4, p. 2-5,2012.

[36] Benjamin, Habib. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the maintenance to the Songun System.” P.46.

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

[38] Colin Gray. Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare.

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

[40] Scott, D, Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb.”


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