Why Pyongyang wants nukesAll the debates about whether a preventive military strike is necessary against North Korea or whether diplomacy is possible with Pyongyang depend on one underlying question that experts rarely address: Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons?
There are two common hypotheses as to why Pyongyang desires nuclear weapons, and they can now be ruled out based on the evidence before us. The first is that North Korea desires nukes as a negotiating card with the United States. That is true insofar as Pyongyang wants leverage with Washington, but after two decades of noncompliance with earlier commitments to denuclearization and a 2012 constitutional change confirming the nation’s nuclear weapons status, it is obvious that Kim Jong-un has no intention of abandoning nuclear weapons in exchange for other national objectives like economic development. It is possible that the regime might be compelled and convinced over time to do so, but not at this point.
The second hypothesis that can be rejected is the proposition that North Korea decided it needed nuclear weapons because of the Iraq War or the demise of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi after he abandoned his programs. These developments may have reconfirmed North Korea’s determination to have nuclear weapons, but they are not the root cause. We now know this because of evidence that North Korea began developing its highly enriched uranium program well before either event.
That leaves four motivations for developing nuclear weapons and associated medium-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles:
1. Deterring the United States. During the Korean War, North Korea learned the hard way how effective American air power could be when applied from safe bases. Kim Il Sung also saw how hesitant the United States was to use ground forces against North Vietnam once a nuclear-armed China had military forces on the ground as a deterrent. North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are designed to complicate U.S. planning for the defense of South Korea or any other scenario in which American air power might threaten the regime.
2. Deterring China. After the Iraq War, U.S. interrogators asked Saddam Hussein’s advisers why their leader deliberately led the United States to believe there were weapons of mass destruction deployed in Iraq. The answer they gave was that Hussein was afraid of letting his ancient enemy Iran know how weak he really was — so afraid that he was willing to risk war with the United States.
In a similar way, North Korean leaders need a deterrent to prevent China from absorbing or collapsing the North. How else could Pyongyang accept almost 90 percent of food and fuel from China without risking the possibility of Beijing ending life support for the regime at any moment? This stratagem has worked for Pyongyang, and the nuclear weapons are the regime’s guarantee that China will be afraid to push too far.
3. Deterring the Korean People’s Army. When North Korean commandos are seriously injured in training, they are discharged on the spot. Pilots cannot fly enough hours to be credibly proficient at aerial combat, and tanks barely engage in combat exercises for want of fuel. Nuclear weapons offset these shortcomings, but they also retain the loyalty of a military that knows it would lose a conventional war.
4. Predatory isolation of South Korea. As South Korea surpasses the North in every indicator of national power and prestige, nuclear weapons provide the one symbol of superior status for the Kim regime. Missiles capable of hitting the United States offer the prospect of decoupling Washington from Seoul and forcing the South to deal with the North without American protection. The North could also use nuclear weapons to threaten the stability of the South Korean economy.
Ultimately, the North may believe that this opens the way for coercive unification under Pyongyang. As unlikely as this may seem to us today, it remains a core pillar of North Korean ideology, and the leadership may in fact believe it could be made possible with nuclear weapons.
The hard conclusion one must draw is that Pyongyang is extremely unlikely to abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for economic development or other sources of survival and legitimacy that would appeal to other authoritarian regimes.
One must also conclude that the top priority for U.S. strategy should be to convince the regime that it will pay an unprecedented cost for pursuing nuclear weapons and that the U.S. response will be more commitment to the defense of South Korea and not less.
The Chinese and Russian proposal for a “freeze-for-freeze” agreement with the North would be completely counterproductive because it would represent a U.S. decision to weaken defense cooperation and exercises with South Korea because of a new threat to the continental United States. This move would only further encourage the North to pursue decoupling, and that is why the U.S. side cannot accept it.
Ultimately, if North Korea is developing nuclear weapons for the strategies noted above, then the best way to begin gradually opening a way for diplomacy is to demonstrate that Pyongyang’s strategy will not work. That means sustained and systematic sanctions and strengthened defense cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan. This will take time to have an effect on the North Korean calculus. The leadership in Pyongyang did not just decide it needed nuclear weapons yesterday, and they will not just abandon them tomorrow.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.