Why North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons
Analysis Conflict and Fragility

Why North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons

20 Mar 2018 - 18:03
Photo: (Stephan) / Flickr
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It will presumably not take long before North Korea is able to target its ‘arch-enemy’, the United States, with nuclear weapons. Will potential talks between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump be able to defuse the risks of nuclear war? Considering the motivations behind North Korea's nuclear weapons, the chances that it will denuclearize are almost zero.

North Korea’s ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads will soon be able to destroy cities in the mainland of the United States.1  Looking at the provocative statements from Pyongyang, this may not seem a purely theoretical option. Yet, taking into account the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the risk that these weapons will be actually used by purpose is relatively low. The main risks are actually miscommunication, misperception, or domestic turmoil in Pyongyang, leading to inadvertent launch of nuclear missiles.

The main motivation behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and actually behind any North Korean policy, is simple: keeping the regime in place, or in other words: regime survival, preserving the status-quo for the country’s ruling elite. This key priority can be divided in two subcategories: foreign policy aims and domestic aims.

On the foreign policy level, the main goal is deterrence. The regime in Pyongyang is sincerely fearing regime change efforts from outside – actually, not only from South Korea and the US, but from other regional actors like China and Russia as well. To deter such efforts, North Korea is continuously presenting itself as a military powerful actor, an unpredictable and dangerous player that should be reckoned with. Provocations – military and non-military – are meant to signal that North Korea is so powerful that any attempt to threaten it will fail and end in bloody retaliation.

Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea.-wikicommons.jpg
Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Next to the aim of deterrence, nuclear weapons are meant to create room for manoeuvre for the regime in foreign policy; it signals that international rules and norms of state behaviour cannot be enforced upon ‘great power’ North Korea, that other countries will have to accept that the regime can act as it desires. One could call this a policy of using nuclear weapons for ‘diplomatic blackmail’.2

Domestic support
The domestic perspective is as important as the foreign policy dimension. The totalitarian regime uses the image of a dangerous enemy from abroad to maintain the support of the population. The enduring message to the North Korean population is: support this regime, because only these powerful leaders are able to prevent foreign invasion and oppression. Creating continuing tensions with the ‘enemies’ and showing military successes of the regime to counter them are necessary propaganda tools for this domestic aim. At the same time these ‘successes’ should not cause actual war, which the regime realises it will lose.

Nuclear exhibitionist
These motivations also explain the lack of secrecy around its nuclear programme from early on. Long before its nuclear weapons were usable at all, North Korea was already using them as a tool for provocation – among nuclear weapons experts North Korea is sometimes referred to as a ‘nuclear exhibitionist’. Continuing threatening statements to use nuclear weapons that where not usable yet were meant to frighten – and thus deter – perceived enemies, to blackmail them into making concessions, and last but not least, to show the domestic public the great achievements of their leaders.

To use or not to use
Taking into account these motivations, one should not exaggerate the risk that North Korea will actually launch missiles with nuclear warheads too easily. Even though in Western media and politics the North Korean regime of ‘Rocket Man’ Kim Jong Un is sometimes pictured as irrational, the opposite is true. Few governments have such long-term rational foreign policy strategies as North Korea. The fact that this very poor and small country (25 million people, GDP $ 28,000 million, approximately 20 nuclear weapons) is regarded as a dangerous arch-enemy by superpower the United States (325 million people, GDP $ 18,500,000 million, 6800 nuclear weapons) is very well-played. North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons for decades, and has always been able to prevent any foreign attempt to stop it; diplomacy, sanctions, nor military threats did have much effect.

Vandermeer-foto8-North Korea Victory Day 2013-Stefan Krasowski-flickr
North Korea Victory Day in 2013. Source: Stefan Krasowski / Flickr

Why then, would this rational player ever use nuclear weapons? The regime in Pyongyang realises very well that any use of nuclear weapons will be suicide. Any nuclear attack will be immediately retaliated and few of the North Korean elite will survive. This is completely contradicting the ultimate aim for which these nuclear weapons were developed: regime survival. Using them as actual weapons would destroy all results of this long-term policy immediately.

Nightmare scenarios
Yet, while the risk that North Korea will start a nuclear war by purpose may be small, there are other risks. In times of tension – and in North Korea this means: always – the risk of miscalculation, miscommunication and misperception is always there. If the regime mistakenly perceives that it is being attacked it may decide to launch nuclear weapons immediately, before they are destroyed by the attack. For example, military exercises of adversaries or technical errors in air defence systems may be mistaken for actual surprise attacks. Especially because there are hardly any direct emergency communication systems between North Korea and its adversaries, such developments could quickly escalate out of control.

Another risk is domestic turmoil in North Korea. What if, for any reason, a coup d’état takes place in Pyongyang? If Kim Jong Un and his top aides may consider their end near, one cannot exclude that they decide to enter the history books with a ‘big bang’, for example taking some US cities with them in their fall. This is a nightmare scenario for US policy makers; they risk a sudden nuclear attack under circumstances that they cannot influence in any way.

Military action?
Much has been tried over the past decades to stop the North Korean nuclear weapons development: diplomacy, sanctions, ‘strategic patience’, yet without any success. This failure of the international community is mainly due to the lack of any good options.

Any military action against North Korea will be retaliated

Considering the motivations of the current North Korean leadership it is very unlikely that it will ever give up the nuclear arsenal; these powerful weapons are considered the best guarantee for regime survival. The world will have to accept that neither diplomacy nor further isolation of the ‘hermit kingdom’ will roll back its nuclear weapons status. Military action may, but it carries large risks; that is why it has not been tried earlier.

Any military action against North Korea will be retaliated – the regime has to, if it wants to maintain its credibility at home and abroad. Even a limited attack against a few military installations could quickly escalate into a broader regional conflict. North Korea cannot yet strike the US mainland yet, but in particular South Korea – according to Pyongyang a puppet regime of US occupation forces – would be the victim. North Korea often threatens to turn Seoul into a sea of fire within a day, and this is not just bluster: it has so much artillery and short distance missiles deployed at the border, only 60 kilometres from Seoul, that South Korea’s capital (including many of its ten million inhabitants) is at risk.3 Japan may be a target for North Korean retaliatory attacks as well, and maybe even China if Beijing decides not to support Pyongyang in a conflict. North Korea will never win a war against the US and its allies, but before it loses it can do inconceivable harm.

Regime change
Even though an armed conflict would most probably lead to the removal of the regime in Pyongyang, this would only be the start of a long-term military operation. A crucial question is: what to do with North Korea after removing the current regime?

Previous regime-change operations such as in Iraq and Libya show that without any adequate follow-up policies, it is a recipe for long-term regional chaos and instability. What to do with 25 million indoctrinated North Koreans? Breakdown of the centralized food distribution system – very likely in the event of the regime’s collapse – may lead to a humanitarian disaster, causing large flows of refugees. Moreover: what will happen with the enormous number of weapons in the country, including its nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals?

A tourist shows his pictures to North Koreans in the capital
A tourist shows his pictures to North Koreans in the capital Pyongyang. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Contingency scenarios about regime change in North Korea are generally pessimistic. A mission to stabilise the country runs the risk of turning into a bloody guerrilla war against well-armed citizens who have been drilled to see any foreigner as an enemy, while the country could become an ungoverned territory enabling terrorists, criminals, smugglers and WMD proliferators to hide and operate. Stabilizing the country (and presumably preparing it for reunification with South Korea) would take enormous amounts of humanitarian, political, military and economic efforts.4

Accepting nuclear weapons?
Although officially accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapon status would create dangerous precedents, in the short term unofficial acceptance is the most viable option. The key issue is to prevent these weapons being used. At least establishing efficient emergency communication lines between Pyongyang and Washington (as well as Seoul) is important. Clear communication on issues like military exercises is required to prevent dangerous misperceptions in Pyongyang.

At the same time, it could be made clear that forced regime change is not an aim of its adversaries, which might decrease the paranoia in Pyongyang a little – although the regime will never fully believe such statements. The regime is regularly pointing at ‘worthless’ similar deals between the West and, for example, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, as well as shifting positions regarding nuclear deals with Ukraine and Iran. A peace agreement formally ending the Korean War (1950-1953) including certain security guarantees may be a viable option for discussion as well. This will not enormously change the motivations of the North Korean regime, but it may decrease tensions to some extent.

If any top meeting between Kim and Trump will take place, one can hardly expect more than empty promises by Kim to put his adversaries off

Any diplomatic initiatives should take into account that Pyongyang often used such talks to just win time and divide its adversaries, just as is currently happening; after US President Trump increased both military threats and economic sanctions, North Korea reached out to weaken the hard stance. If any top meeting between Kim and Trump will take place, one can hardly expect more than empty promises by Kim to put his adversaries off.

Dialogue is important to prevent any escalation, yet pressuring the North Korean regime for policy changes (regarding its aggressive foreign policy as well as its brutal domestic policies5 ) remains essential as well. This can only be a goal for the long-term unless sudden unexpected windows of opportunity will open, for which continuing monitoring of developments in the isolated country is required. Chinese urges for slow reforms in Pyongyang did not work either in past decades, so one should not have too high expectations of any such pressure.

Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)-(stephan)-flickr
The Arirang (Mass Games) in Pyongyang 2007. Source: (stephan) / Flickr

As impotent as it may seem, the common international policies of carefully avoiding abrupt changes in the status quo situation still appear the least dangerous way of dealing with North Korea. That this is exactly the aim that North Korea is trying to reach, shows the rationality of the regime again.

Considering the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the regime will not easily use them to attack the US or any other country. Yet, one could imagine nightmare scenarios in which North Korea will launch nuclear weapons because of misperceptions or domestic turmoil. Since the current North Korean regime will never give up its nuclear weapons, while options to force it to do so are limited or even dangerous, international efforts should focus on preventing (inadvertent) use of these weapons.

While not giving up efforts to reach denuclearisation and policy changes in North Korea in the long term, the world has few options beyond informally accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons status. Diplomatic negotiations, such as high-level talks that are currently initiated, are important to prevent escalation. Yet, one must not get the impression that they will easily lead to a nuclear weapon-free North Korea.


Sico van der Meer
Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute