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Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 2 – Preparing for the worst: Was North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons rational?

Abstract

North Korea’s foreign policy decision-making procedure is highly centralized to a single leader or, at most, a few political/military elites. While democratic governments are restrained both horizontally and vertically, authoritarian regimes are relatively free of constraints from the public. This paper examines the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in light of the rational deterrence model, then discusses the strategic implications of a rational, or irrational, North Korea. It concludes that North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was rationally motivated by the deteriorating security environment surrounding the state, but that this will not guarantee deterrence.

Keywords: Deterrence, Irrationality, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Rationality

Introduction

North Korea is voluntarily walking down the road of isolation. The question is why? What led to North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons, despite the heavy economic sanctions and its resulting “axis of evil” reputation? Scott Sagan asked the same question and provided three models of explanation, only to conclude that “different historical cases are best explained by different causal models.”[1] The same logic applies to the North Korean case; what happened in other countries cannot explain North Korea’s motivations to develop nuclear weapons. Multiple dimensions must be dealt with, looking inside and outside the state, considering the systemic impact, and accounting for misperceptions or miscalculations by a political leader.

First, I will discuss the basic logic of rationality and irrationality under nuclear deterrence theory, then determine whether it may be applied to North Korea in evaluating the motivations of its nuclear program development, and finally will extract implications based on the results. This paper finds that North Korea’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was rational considering the structural pressures of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, I argue that rational motivations in acquiring nuclear weapons do not automatically erase the possibility of irrationality in the future, nor ensure deterrence.

[1] Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/97), 85.