External Affairs

What Is the Endgame of North Korea’s Nuclear Programme?

North Korea wants the security and prestige of nuclear weapons. It won’t give them up.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its programme. Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Aside from the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition programme, it underscores how North Korea does not feel constrained by the US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Nor is it coerced by UN sanctions.

As we await technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast and indicate how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.

Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a speculative endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still. In the absence of reliable information, what we have, at best, is educated guesswork. All the same, discerning what Kim Jong-Un wants from his nuclear gambit is crucial to articulating a response to North Korea’s latest test.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic. North Korea’s nuclear programme began in the early 1990s and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support.

However the tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear programme is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the programme is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are anyone’s guess.Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all countries.  As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself.

While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces. Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security as given their destructive force, they’re thought of as the ultimate guarantee.


Also read: What Earthquake Science Can Tell Us About North Korea’s Nuclear Test


The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

So calibrating a response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to the nation in general and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.

All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work. Equally, cutting off the already isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its programme. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

While it would be a dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.

Nick Bisley is executive director of La Trobe Asia and professor of international relations, La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.