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The driving forces behind North Korea’s nuclear policy – a neoclassical realist perspective

Kim Jong-un has once again vowed to advance North Korea (DPRK)’s nuclear capabilities, confirming the failure of the denuclearization talks between Kim and President Trump. Since its withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003, the country has developed an estimated arsenal of approximately 30 nuclear warheads, as well as fissile material for an additional 30-60 weapons (ACA 2020). The country’s nuclear policy has not only raised concern among its neighbors but also damaged U.S. regional leadership and prompted the imposition of heavy sanctions. But what are the driving forces behind North Korea’s nuclear policy? And why have the sanctions, which are severely hurting the North Korean economy, been futile in preventing the advancement of the country’s nuclear program? The answer can be found using neoclassical realism. Following this school of thought, the causes of the North Korean security crisis are the results of the country’s unique external environment – more concretely, the existential threats posed by the U.S. and South Korea (ROK) – and further supported by its internal environment – the juche ideology.

North Korea’s External Environment

Due to North Korea’s difficult “geostrategic location surrounded by great powers and its historical contention with South Korea since the North’s founding in 1948” (Cho and Lim 2018, 326), it is impossible to ignore the tremendous influence of the country’s external environment in explaining its foreign policy strategy to go nuclear. According to realist thought, North Korea faces an external environment of international anarchy, characterized by statism, survival, and self-help. Realism sees the state as the main actor in international politics, being the “legitimate representative of the collective will of the people” (Baylis et al. 2014, 101). While the domestic realm is one of hierarchy where the state can exercise its authority, the international realm is one of anarchy where the survival of the state cannot be guaranteed. International politics is thus a struggle for power in zero-sum terms where the main goal is to ensure state survival and defend national interests.

Using this realist approach, it is not difficult to see North Korea’s troubling situation and its incentives to provide for its own security through nuclear deterrence. Particularly during the Cold War era – when the DPRK first initiated its mission to become a nuclear power – the supposedly hostile American threat in Northeast Asian geopolitics constituted one of the major causes of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions (Cho and Lim 2018; Clemens 2010). In the anarchic self-help system, the DPRK “doubted the reliability of Soviet and Chinese backing in times of crisis” (Clemens 2010, 128), and thus sought to obtain nuclear capabilities to counter external threats and secure regime survival. From North Korea’s standpoint, the United States’ strong military presence in the region along with social contracts with both the ROK and Japan since the end of World War II has constituted an aggressive and imperial policy towards the DPRK regime. The aggressive anti-Communist rhetoric of the Reagan administration (1981-1989) especially compelled North Korea “to catch up militarily, particularly in terms of nuclear capabilities, since the mid-1980s” (Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019, 17). Although primarily aimed at the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration’s policy implicitly involved the DPRK as the U.S. expanded its military capabilities and set up the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) in 1984 – today known as the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) – raising security concerns in Pyongyang.

While the U.S. continues to represent an overwhelming external security threat to the DPRK, since the end of the Cold War South Korea has arguably come to constitute North Korea’s foremost external threat with its “increasingly robust conventional military capabilities” (Lee 2007, 17), for which North Korea requires a nuclear deterrence. In other words, against the ROK’s robust, modern military, North Korean missiles do not pose an existential threat without nuclear weapons (Hayes and Moon 2016, 706). While North Korea has been largely left to fend for itself in the post-Cold War era, with its traditional allies normalizing their relations with their former common arch enemies, “the USA has maintained strong social contract activity with the ROK” (Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019, 2), as late as 2017 having nearly 35,000 troops stationed in the country, as well as an additional 40,000 personnel in nearby Japan (Holmes 2017).

Furthermore, the mere existence of South Korea poses an existential threat to North Korea as “the two Koreas’ constitutionally [stipulate] territorial, political, and cultural infringements on each other, and [declare] national goals of reunification on different terms (one liberal-democratic, the other socialist totalitarian)” (Cho and Lim 2018, 237). As both sides of the 38th parallel are dissatisfied with the territory they possess, they can both “be classified as revisionist states that pursue expansionist goals (although limited to the Korean Peninsula’s unification) even at the expense of their security” (Cho and Lim 2018, 329). Thus, the ROK’s existence presents a sufficient threat for the DPRK to develop nuclear weapons. Adding to the threat is the fact that as the DPRK’s allies normalized their relations with the ROK, North Korea lost the long-lasting national-legitimacy competition. With South Korea’s political reconciliation and impressive economic development in the post-Cold War era, it has become clear that reunification can only happen under ROK leadership – an unacceptable scenario for the DPRK (Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019, 12).

In short, North Korea’s external environment – characterized by the anarchic international system, the hostile American threat in Northeast Asian geopolitics, and the existential threat coming from South Korea – poses a tremendous security concern for the DPRK, providing strong incentives to develop a nuclear deterrence. However, these incentives have been further reinforced by the country’s internal environment, to which we will now turn our focus.

North Korea’s Internal Environment

It is important to remember that foreign policy choices are made by individual leaders, and ideological predispositions are thus likely to play important intervening roles (Cho and Lim 2018, 326). North Korea’s internal environment is strongly characterized by the Kim regime’s oppositional nationalist “national identity conception” (NIC) of the juche ideology, which can be loosely translated as “self-reliance,” “Korea first,” or “master of one’s own destiny” (Cho and Lim 2018, 332; Hymans 2008, 265). Juche was made the ideological basis of the DPRK by Kim Il-sung to legitimize his regime against intra-state rivals (Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019). The ideology “asserts an independent state of mind and attitude toward the outside world” (Cho and Lim 2018, 332), which resonates well with the Korean people due to their long and turbulent history of foreign invasions and colonization. The juche ideology is thus used to define the country in opposition to the world outside its borders, including the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and everyone else (Hymans 2008).

According to Hymans (2008), to understand why a state chooses to make revolutionary decisions – such as deciding to develop nuclear weapons – one must recognize the power of non-rational factors, such as a leader’s NIC. This is because it is impossible to predict the full effects of such a move in advance, and it thus “makes little sense to assume that this decision would be the product of a cost-benefit calculation, even an imperfect one” (Hymans 2008, 263). When a leader’s NIC is oppositional nationalist – as in the case of the Kim regime’s juche ideology – however, “going nuclear seems like nothing less than the natural choice to him or her, whatever outsiders may think about the ‘objective’ international situation” (Hymans 2008, 263). Oppositional nationalist NICs give rise to emotions of fear and pride in dealings with the outside world, compelling leaders to pursue revisionist policies to provide for their own security in the anarchic international system.

While the ideology was developed by Kim Il-sung, juche was originally viewed as a variant of Marxism-Leninism in the DPRK’s early years, linking the country to the USSR and China through communist alliances in the early Cold War era. Kim Il-sung both respected and emulated Stalin before the Korean War and saw its strategic partnership with the USSR and China as a useful mechanism to counter U.S. military presence in the region and to delegitimize the separate political entity in South Korea. The Korean war re-altered Soviet-North Korean relations, however, as it became clear that the USSR would not provide for DPRK security against the U.S. military threat (Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019, 14), with China partly filling the gap left by the USSR. Furthermore, North Korea “felt betrayed by one Soviet leader after another” (Clemens 2010, 147), with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization efforts, the Soviet backdown in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the USSR warming of ties with South Korea (Cho and Lim 2018; Clemens 2010). North Korea thus sided with China in the Sino–Soviet split, but at this point, the DPRK had already learned that no superpower could be reliable in securing its national defense. This, coupled with the decline of economic assistance from its Communist allies, Mao’s non-interference policy, and the ensuing Cultural Revolution from 1966, caused the Sino-DPRK schism (Cho and Lim 2018; Cook, Ohle, and Han 2019), in turn reinforcing the DPRK’s juche ideology and nuclear ambitions. Thus, on August 12, 1966, the DPRK announced that it “would no longer rely on the judgment of the Chinese or the Soviets in determining its policies, and that the juche idea would be the basis of all aspects of North Korea, including politics, economy, diplomacy, defense, and culture” (Cho and Lim 2018, 333).


To conclude, North Korea’s external environment – characterized by the anarchic international system, the hostile American threat in Northeast Asian geopolitics, and the existential threat posed by South Korea – constitutes a tremendous security concern for the DPRK, providing strong incentives to develop a nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, North Korea’s internal environment – characterized by the country’s juche ideology – compels the Kim regime to pursue nuclear weapons development to provide for its own security in the anarchic international system where it finds it impossible to rely on foreign powers to provide for its security, highlighted by the Sino-Soviet and Sino-DPRK schisms. North Korea’s nuclear program is thus non-negotiable and is simply something that cannot be halted by sanctions.

Lars Erik Dahl Johansen is a postgraduate student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS University of London and a Yonsei KLI alumni.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


Arms Control Association (ACA). 2019. “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” July. Accessed at, 26 November 2019.

Baylis, John, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. 2014. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, 6th edition. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Cho, Pyungse and Jea-Cheon Lim. 2018. “North Korea’s Foreign Policymaking and Nuclear Weapons.” Asian Security 58(2): 320-340.

Clemens, Walter. 2010. “North Korea’s Quest for Nuclear Weapons: New Historic Evidence.” Journal of East Asian Studies 10(1): 127-154.

Cook, Richard J., Maximilian Ohle and Zhaoying Han. 2019. “Bargaining interactions reconsidered: the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis viewed through the lens of hierarchy.” The Pacific Review 1-33.

Hayes, Peter and Chung-in Moon. 2016. “The North Korean Nuclear Multilemma: Options to Break the Nuclear Deadlock in Northeast Asia.” Korea Observer 47(4): 699-719.

Holmes, Oliver. 2017. “US Military: What is the US military's presence near North Korea?,” The Guardian, August 9. Accessed at, 28 November 2019.

Hymans, Jacques E. 2008. “Assessing North Korean Nuclear Intentions and Capacities: A New Approach.” Journal of East Asian Studies 8(2): 259-292.

Lee, Chung-Min. 2007. “Nuclear Sisyphus: The Myth of Denuclearizing North Korea.” Australian Journal of International Affairs 61(1): 15-22.


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