Editor's Note

Dong-Yub Kim, a professor of Military and Security Studies at the University of North Korean Studies, analyzes the motive behind DPRK’s unabated pursuit for improvement of nuclear capabilities. Highlighting that the DPRK will continue developing its nuclear arsenal to address external security threat and improve regime stability, Kim cautions that U.S.-ROK governments’ insistence on military response may be politically convenient but detrimental to the long-term stability of the Peninsula. To effectively address the North Korean nuclear issue, Kim proposes that South Korea should work towards creating conditions where nuclear weapons become irrelevant and ineffective. To achieve this goal, he calls for an approach that takes into account the comprehensive impact of nuclear weapons on humanity such as environment, climate, the economy, society, and culture.

North Korea's nuclear capabilities have been rapidly advancing. Even after a total of six nuclear test launches and the declaration of the completion of its nuclear force in 2017, the DPRK regime’s pursuit of qualitative and quantitative strengthening of its arsenal continues unabated. North Korea's efforts to enhance its nuclear capability have been closely following the plan outlined during the 8th Party Congress in January 2021. At this very moment, the Yongbyon nuclear reactor producing plutonium and a centrifuge creating highly enriched uranium are both operational. New missiles of varying ranges, capable of delivering not only intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) but also nuclear warheads have been unveiled.


Defining North Korea's motive behind the advancement of its nuclear force is a complex task, but it can plausibly be viewed as a rational choice made with calculations on diplomatic, military, and internal fronts. Diplomatically, it could be seen as a form of coercive diplomacy aimed at leveraging negotiations as a means to secure sanctions relief or concessions from the United States. On a military level, it seeks to deter military threats from the United States or South Korea. North Korea is broadening the spectrum of its nuclear operational strategy, encompassing both "deterrence by punishment" through the development of nuclear weapons capable of targeting the U.S. mainland and "deterrence by denial" on the Korean Peninsula.


At the state level, nuclear capabilities could function as a political tool to alleviate the security concerns of North Korean citizens, thereby creating conditions conducive to a greater focus on economic activities. In fact, Kim Jong Un's greatest apprehension may not stem from South Korea or the United States, but rather from the potential shift in the public sentiment of North Korean citizens towards the regime. This is exemplified by North Korea’s stipulation of “people-first politics” as the “basic political mode under socialism” in its party rules. External security threats compel North Korea to bolster its military capacity, all while emphasizing its commitment to economic development. North Korea is moving towards a "Byungjin Policy 2.0," leveraging its nuclear capabilities to address security concerns while vigorously pursuing economic development. Indeed, nuclear force is both a necessary and sufficient condition for the DPRK's departure from its military-first (Songun) policy and the construction of a prosperous socialist country.


The series of recent North Korean actions aimed at developing its nuclear and military capabilities have become closely intertwined with the domestic political situation in South Korea, resulting in a military standoff without concessions. By attributing the rationale for its development of nuclear forces to the threats posed by the United States and South Korea, the DPRK establishes a justification and legitimacy for its military actions, clearly indicating its lack of intention to pursue denuclearization. The current South Korean administration explicitly defines North Korea's military actions as “provocations” and relies on the U.S.-ROK alliance to advocate for preservation of peace by force. Meanwhile, the United States characterizes North Korea's nuclear development as a ploy to engage the U.S. in dialogue or extract concessions. It then utilizes this rhetoric as a pretext to revitalize trilateral military cooperation between ROK-U.S.-Japan and the United Nations Command (UNC).


This is not to suggest that a military response to North Korean nuclear issue is meaningless or unnecessary. Rather, the real question hinges on the actual effectiveness of U.S.-led pressure within the context of shifting geopolitical dynamics involving bloc confrontation. Since the collapse of the Hanoi summit in 2019, North Korea does not appear to anticipate concessions from the U.S., including bilateral dialogue or sanctions relief. Under the “new Cold War” narrative, North Korea will actively seek to leverage its nuclear capability to expand its strategic autonomy, while capitalizing on the intensifying U.S.-China competition and the crisis in Ukraine to align with China and Russia. In short, “denuclearization" on the Korean Peninsula may no longer be a realistic concept.


Amid rising military tensions and the growing risk of inadvertent armed conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, the future remains uncertain. Depending solely on alliances to maintain peace will not achieve denuclearization; instead, it may exacerbate the North Korean nuclear crisis and escalate it to the brink of nuclear war. South and North Korea must acknowledge their capacity for mutually assured destruction—South Korea ranks as the world's 6th most powerful conventional military force with a defense budget of nearly 60 trillion won, while North Korea possesses nuclear weapons.


Simply opting for a military solution to the nuclear issue without a thorough understanding of North Korea or comprehensive strategy may be politically convenient, but it is far from being “audacious.” The entire South Korean population will have to suffer the consequences of the government's North Korea policy. Therefore, preemptive measures and strategic choices for managing the North Korean nuclear threat must be considered before denuclearization.


North Korea has made clear that nuclear weapons can no longer be subject to an “equivalent exchange” with any corresponding benefits in return, and has further rejected the approach of pursuing denuclearization and a peace regime in parallel. In this context, exchanges should be grounded in mutual equivalence rather than on the basis of “equivalence” or “sequential moves.” To mitigate the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it is crucial to address the security concerns that North Korea faces. The dilemma and complexity arise when attempting to dismantle North Korea’s existing nuclear warheads and materials, as it requires addressing North Korea’s future security concern.


Rather than promoting an unrealistic vision of denuclearization, a pragmatic alternative would be to create the conditions so that nuclear weapons would become irrelevant and useless. The solution to the DPRK nuclear issue should not start with denuclearization, but with making the use of nuclear weapons unnecessary. To establish an environment where North Korea has no incentive to employ its nuclear arsenal, it is imperative to approach the nuclear issue from a broader perspective that transcends national security, encompassing more humane considerations—an approach that I refer to as the “humanization” of DPRK nuclear issue.


It is wrong to assume that North Korea will never use its nuclear weapons. In September 2022, North Korea promulgated its Nuclear Forces Policy Laws, outlining conditions for the preemptive and retaliatory use of nuclear weapons. While the decision of whether or not to use nuclear weapons is under the regime's purview, it raises concerns in South Korea regarding how to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. The North Korean nuclear threat extends beyond the regime's physical use of the weapons. It encompasses a broader scope, including human rights, the environment, climate, the economy, society, culture, and various aspects of human life. In this sense, whether North Korea's nuclear arsenal becomes an instrument of desperation or a source of peril depends on our understanding of North Korea's actions and our perception of the risks involved. The window of opportunity for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is still open.



Dong-Yub Kim is an associate professor of Military and Security Studies at the University of North Korean Studies and the Director of North Korean Nuclear Issue Center at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES).



Typeset by Jisoo Park, Research Associate
    For inquiries: 02 2277 1683 (ext. 208) | jspark@eai.or.kr

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