Arming to Disarm: North Korea’s Nuclear Paradox

North Korea has performed quite a lot of long-range ballistic missile exams in 2022, breaking a self-imposed moratorium in place since 2018, amid a interval of détente throughout the Moon Jae-in and Trump administrations. North Korea started a rigorously choreographed stratagem in January 2022 with an announcement on the eighth Korean Employees’ Celebration Central Committee that it could resume “all temporarily-suspended actions.” Initially, Pyongyang test-fired medium-range and cruise missiles. After a pause in February, coinciding with the Beijing Winter Olympics, issues have been escalated with a sequence of ICBM launches over the next months. The firing of upgraded missiles utilizing diversified launching strategies demonstrated vital technological and tactical development. In the meantime, experiences that the nuclear take a look at website in Punggyeri has been restored have led to hypothesis {that a} subsequent step could also be a seventh nuclear take a look at.

The apparent query is whether or not, in gearing up its deterrence functionality, Pyongyang has now discarded its “Korean Peninsular denuclearization” doctrine, the so-called “denuclearization instruction” enshrined within the legacies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il? My response is that North Korea will keep a tenacious dedication to denuclearization.

Because the early Nineteen Nineties, Pyongyang’s place has remained constant: It has unwaveringly pressured the inevitability of nuclear growth in response to a hostile U.S., whereas persevering with to pledge a dedication to denuclearization. This nuclear paradox – arming to disarm – is more likely to persist, whilst its nuclear capability continues to advance and the hole between its anti-nuclear doctrine and nuclear-deterrence follow continues to widen.

Understanding North Korea’s ever-fluid nuclear rhetoric is extra essential than ever. This text seems to be on the deep roots of Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear follow to debate how this served its geopolitical, home, and psychological pursuits throughout the Chilly Warfare.

Geopolitics of Anti-Nuclearism

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Securing the dedication of its highly effective allies to supply prolonged safety underpinned Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear technique within the Nineteen Fifties and ‘60s. Long-established in a Chilly Warfare antagonism, it adopted a type of realpolitik, externally associating with the us and China to counterbalance the U.S. prolonged deterrence offered to the South. Internally, North Korea centered on strengthening its standard functionality, as set out within the 1962 Byungjin coverage. A security-inferior Pyongyang felt the need to interact in normative nuclear politics and embrace the worldwide anti-nuclear motion as a way of condemning and looking for to discourage nuclear-shield Chilly Warfare enemies.

Its anti-nuclear posture was, nonetheless, sophisticated by Sino-USSR rivalry and a concern of abandonment. Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated as soon as Khrushchev took workplace, and regional geopolitics grew to become much more intricate with the Chinese language nuclear take a look at in 1964. By the early Nineteen Seventies, it was not evident to Kim Il Sung that Moscow and Beijing would essentially stand agency in defending Pyongyang. Certainly, Sino-U.S. détente heightened safety uncertainty surrounding the peninsula and intensified each Koreas’ nuclear aspirations. Given the character of the uneven alliances, it was inevitable that the 2 shopper states would query the depth of their patrons’ dedication. Nixon’s resolution to tug the U.S. Seventh Division out of South Korea in 1971 was a watershed second for Park Chung-hee, who resolved to develop his personal nuclear functionality, embarking on a clandestine nuclear program. Likewise, exploration of nuclear expertise cooperation was prime of Kim Il Sung’s agenda.

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The distinction was that whereas Washington’s maneuvers pulled Seoul again into the non-proliferation orbit, Moscow failed in its makes an attempt to reassure Pyongyang. Beneath stress from Washington, Seoul proceeded not solely to finish its long-overdue ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in April 1975, but additionally cancelled a reprocessing cope with France in January 1976. Its reward was better nuclear vitality cooperation with Washington. In distinction, regardless of Moscow’s efforts, North Korea resisted signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It regarded the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons within the South as a relentless provocation. All through the Sixties and ‘70s, Pyongyang sought help from its allies to construct nuclear reactors, to no avail. The end result was to irritate its concern of abandonment. On the identical time, juche concepts fueled Kim’s fears that the regime’s survival was threatened, growing the urgency to safe a self-reliant deterrent.

Given these issues, Pyongyang’s balancing act – not absolutely embracing both patron, as a way to extract strategic benefit from each – foreshadowed what would change into a facet of its apparently counter-intuitive “arm to disarm” doctrine.

Semantics of “Inevitability”

Within the late Forties, echoing the Kremlin’s technique of delegitimizing U.S. nuclear weapons, the North had enthusiastically embraced international peace and anti-nuclear campaigns. As well as, its anti-nuclear discourse conveyed a powerful message to a home viewers: Whereas affirming the common values of the trigger, the discourse was expanded to replicate native actuality, i.e. the division of Korea. By the flip of the Nineteen Fifties, due to this fact, the anti-nuclear agenda had change into conflated with the nationwide unification crucial, specializing in the “inevitability” of civil struggle.

For instance, Han Sol Ya, chair of the Korean Nationwide Peace Committee, delivered a speech on his return from the 1949 Paris World Peace Congress, solely a 12 months earlier than the outbreak of the Korean Warfare, counter-intuitively justifying struggle as an choice in attaining unification, “to finish peace on the earth.” In related vein, the 1950 Stockholm Peace Attraction was appropriated to incorporate a nationwide unity message calling for “peace and nationwide reunification,” with the emphasis on the latter. Thousands and thousands of signatures have been organized in a petition to help the enchantment, whilst struggle raged on the peninsula.

Sooner or later, one other “inevitability” was embraced, this time nuclear acquisition to counter the nuclear institution (evidenced by China’s 1964 take a look at). In the meantime, a newly emergent non-proliferation regime, culminating within the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, was sure to hassle a juche-inspired Pyongyang. Juche demanded a “rightful” place for North Korea on the worldwide desk, from which it might contest a nuclear order dominated by the prevailing powers, particularly the US. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, due to this fact, was condemned as defending the place of Washington by means of an “unfair” nuclear protocol. Pyongyang’s resistance was a rerun of the wrestle for independence and a restatement of its anti-imperialist crucial throughout the Japanese colonial interval. Thus the mixture of an anti-U.S. imperialist narrative and juche-based sovereignty underpinned Pyongyang’s ambition to accumulate “righteous” nuclear weapons. The pursuit of “justice” within the nuclear order led it to rationalize “inevitable” nuclear-arming as an interim response to “injustice.”

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Psychology of Anti-Nuclearism

The dynamics of Chilly Warfare rivalries continued to evolve at worldwide, regional, and subregional ranges, main the main target of Pyongyang’s anti-nuclearism to shift from, first, engagement on the earth peace motion, to second, the creation of regional nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZs)/zones of peace (ZOPs), to 3rd, advocacy of peninsular denuclearization.

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Early Chilly Warfare geopolitical rivalry had seen Washington and Moscow attain out to their respective allies, resulting in the strengthening of opposing blocs. The Kremlin agreed on joint nuclear analysis exercise with Beijing in 1953, whereas Eisenhower launched an formidable “Atoms for Peace” initiative that very same 12 months. Within the later a part of the last decade the US started to deploy nuclear weapons in Europe to counterbalance the Warsaw Pact’s superior standard forces. Within the Asia-Pacific, it prolonged its nuclear umbrella to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Moscow’s response, constrained by inferior nuclear functionality, was to play the anti-nuclear card, condemning U.S. deployment in each the European and Asian theaters and proposing NWFZs in Central Europe and the Asia-Pacific in 1959. As Washington continued to extend its tactical weapons disposition in Asia all through the Sixties, the main target of Pyongyang’s technique shifted from the world peace motion towards the creation of an Asia-Pacific NWFZ and ZOP.

The early Nineteen Seventies marked a strategic turning level in East Asia, with a sequence of safety developments that included, notably, U.S. Nationwide Safety Advisor Henry Kissinger’s pragmatic engagement with Beijing. The impact was to extend Pyongyang’s uncertainty about its allies’ dedication, motivating it to look past its conventional “socialist” diplomacy to achieve out to the Third World and embrace the anti-nuclear thrust of the Non-Aligned Motion (NAM).

Within the Eighties, the steadiness of energy shifted towards the South, inflicting Pyongyang’s anti-nuclearism to focus extra narrowly on the Korean Peninsula. Its advocacy of a peninsular NWFZ/ZOP demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. In the meantime, it was being additional confronted by the U.S. menace by means of the enlarged Workforce Spirit army workout routines. The urgency Pyongyang had come to connect to an anti-nuclear posture uncovered its fears that survival of the regime was in danger. On the flip of the Nineteen Nineties, responding to a brand new geopolitical actuality on the finish of the Chilly Warfare, it adopted a extra tightly centered anti-nuclear mission, shifting past peninsular NWFZ calls for to advocate peninsular denuclearization.

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Given its inferior safety capability, Pyongyang anticipated two advantages from its anti-nuclear stance: The NWFZ was more likely to ship the identical end result as an prolonged deterrence, with Pyongyang acquiring destructive safety assurances from nuclear-armed enemies. On the identical time, NAM-related postcolonial anti-nuclear solidarity would serve to problem and undermine the legitimacy of Washington’s nuclear technique, offering a psychological increase within the face of U.S. domination.


Pyongyang’s Chilly Warfare anti-nuclearism served essential geopolitical, semantic, and psychological functions. First, in reacting to a continual existential menace, North Korea actively engaged in peace/anti-nuclear campaigning with the intention of delegitimizing and deterring the adversary. Second, its anti-nuclearism mirrored a capability to adapt to Chilly Warfare safety challenges whereas promulgating its juche-inspired autonomy. Lastly, it offered each a psychological safeguard and psychological warfare instruments in opposition to its nuclear-armed enemies.

Trying forward, and opposite to critics who regard North Korea’s anti-nuclear posture for the reason that early Nineteen Nineties as camouflaged realist habits, I argue that Pyongyang’s ostensible dedication to denuclearization will proceed to be integral to its nuclear doctrine. This may increasingly seem puzzling, contemplating the proclaimed crucial of “inevitable” nuclear arming. However it’s evident that the emergent Sino-U.S. rivalry of the early twenty first century has revived among the Chilly Warfare safety dynamics in East Asia and exacerbated Pyongyang’s menace notion.

Rising strategic uncertainty, alongside the regime’s hereditary home politics and juche-inspired autonomy, means that even when the hole between its denuclearization rules and nuclear follow continues to widen, Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear advocacy will endure as the premise of its technique. Because of this if North Korea needs to proceed to say denuclearization, it should retain its nuclear capability as a method of hedging its safety inferiority. This paradox continues to supply geopolitical, semantic, and psychological safeguards: Pyongyang seeks to delegitimize U.S. nuclear technique within the area whereas looking for to restrain South Korean nuclear ambitions, and, of necessity, justifies its minimal nuclear capability as an interim measure towards a phased nuclear disarmament – “arming to disarm.”

This text relies on the findings of a analysis paper revealed in The Pacific Evaluate; a global relations journal masking the interactions of the international locations of the Asia-Pacific.