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



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


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.

PacNet #11 – Two tasks for making US-ROK troop burden sharing sustainable

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Why have US-South Korean negotiations over a new military cost-sharing deal been so contentious? Yes, the size of the US “ask” is significantly larger than in the past. But negotiations also have been complicated by the fact that South Korea is nearing a legislative election on April 15. The latest meeting between US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon on February 24 failed to yield a breakthrough.

The US position is that the cost of common defense cannot fall disproportionately to US taxpayers. Yet without taking into account the political necessity of persuading the Korean citizenry that any increase is reasonable and justifiable, a hefty increase in South Korea’s contribution risks fraying this crucial alliance.

The Trump administration is aggressively negotiating a new framework for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that governs how the two countries split costs for maintaining 28,500 US soldiers based on the Korean peninsula. Demanding that allies make higher contributions for mutual defense costs has been a priority for the US president since the 2016 campaign trail.

The US “ask” reportedly began at nearly $5 billion annually, a five-fold increase from South Korea’s current contribution of KRW 1.039 trillion ($875 million), a request that shocked both the Korean negotiators and the Korean public. The US seeks to broaden the scope of the agreement to include funds for rotational troops and other military assets—which is far more expansive than the current framework. Enhanced transparency is especially important with an upcoming election so the Korean public can better understand the U.S. position.

Negotiations are now in overtime. The 10th and most recent SMA expired December 31 and the two countries face their seventh round of negotiations with a wide gap remaining. The US has stated that it will start furloughing thousands of Korean workers paid under the SMA if a new agreement is not reached. Never before has the US gone that far.

Often overlooked in discussions about these difficult talks is the need for broad South Korean political buy-in. Notably, a new SMA does not require US congressional approval, but it does require ratification by the democratically elected South Korean National Assembly, the members of which are highly attuned to public sentiment.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is not up for re-election in April (presidents are limited to a single five-year term), but all 300 National Assembly seats are in play.

If the Trump administration wants a deal it faces two tasks. One is political, to win over both South Korean public sentiment and the National Assembly. For that to happen, greater transparency in the American ask is necessary, and greater emphasis in explaining its logic to the South Korean electorate.

The stakes are high. The South Korean press has provided blanket coverage of the SMA negotiations and the US demands. As a result, anti-American protesters have staged rallies and one group even broke into the grounds of the ambassador’s residence.

Recent polls have revealed some incipient fissures in South Korean public opinion. In early December, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found an overwhelming majority (92%) of the Korean public supports the US alliance and three-quarters (74%) support the long-term stationing of American soldiers in South Korea. The poll also revealed that “a clear majority (68%) believe South Korea should negotiate a lower cost than America’s new proposal, but most are willing to pay more than the current amount. One-quarter (26%), however, said South Korea should refuse to pay. If the two countries fail to reach a deal, a majority would be willing to see US forces in South Korea reduced, a potentially dangerous development that would be welcomed by China and North Korea.

South Korea can afford to pay more, and it should: more strategic assets are now required to defend South Korea and the East Asia region from North Korea’s increasingly potent missile and nuclear threats. As a share of GDP, Korea pays more than Japan and Germany for its own defense, but a higher price tag for the US military presence may be justified based on these changing conditions.  The task yet to be taken up by US negotiators is to clearly explain the new formula.

The second task is strategic. The Trump administration should agree to allow the SMA to once again become a multiyear agreement and not continue the process of annual renewals that it instituted last year. This would minimize disruption—and tension—in this important alliance. Former US Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks has gone on record arguing that one-year renewals cause “structural instability” and should be replaced by three-to-five year deals.

The US-ROK alliance has successfully deterred aggression from North Korea as well as China for nearly seven decades. It has led to a flourishing of economic and cultural exchanges that has significantly benefited both countries. Failure to find common ground is counterproductive to a shared deterrence posture and faith that the US and its ally will credibly deter in crisis. That, in turn, has broader ramifications.

The time is now for the United States and South Korea to come to terms on a deal that works for both sides. The smooth functioning of the alliance should not be impaired by an accounting impasse that loses sight of the incalculable benefits from 70 years of partnership.

Kathleen Stephens ( is the chair of the New York City-based Korea Society, the president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011.

Thomas Byrne ( is the president of the Korea Society and was the Asia-Pacific regional manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.

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YL Blog #21: Mitigating the Danger of Nuclear Escalation in a Western Pacific Crisis


The potential of a crisis between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an inherently chilling proposition. Beyond the substantial loss of life that could be expected to accompany any conventional confrontation the existence of strategic nuclear forces on both sides raises the specter of inadvertent nuclear escalation. During the recently concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held in Maui US and PRC participants gathered to exchange views on the state of nuclear deterrence in the region. Participants identified a variety of potential drivers of inadvertent escalation, including practical difficulties involved in differentiating nuclear forces from conventional forces, the commingling of Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (N3) with conventional Command and Control (C2) capabilities, and a lack of mutual understanding regarding the scope of US policy under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Concerns over the distinguishability of nuclear forces were primarily raised by US participants. US participants noted that discriminating between nuclear and conventional PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) would represent a particular challenge in a crisis situation. This raises the prospect of inadvertent destruction of PLARF nuclear missile systems, which would cause conventional forces to unknowingly degrade the PRC’s nuclear deterrent. In a similar vein, US participants also expressed concern over potential difficulties differentiating between PLA Navy ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines. During a conventional conflict any unintentional destruction of PLA nuclear-capable forces, to include SSBNs, would degrade the PLA’s nuclear deterrent, and potentially lead PRC policy makers to erroneously conclude that opposing forces were engaging in a deliberate effort to remove the PLA’s ability to deter an external nuclear attack. Such an assessment could drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, and thereby create an unintentional cycle of escalation.

US participants also raised questions regarding the dangers of comingling N3 and C2 functions. This largely reflects the fact that while US nuclear forces are organizationally and operationally distinct, falling under the aegis of US Strategic Command, PLA nuclear forces remain more closely tied to their individual branch of service. The most prominent concern on behalf of US participants was the dual-role of the PLARF, which provides both strategic (nuclear) deterrence and conventional medium and long-range precision fires (China Brief). The potential ability of the PLARF to degrade US power projection in the Western Pacific has been the topic of intense public discussion (RAND/USCC). To the extent that degradation of the PLARF’s C2 networks during a conventional conflict would adversely impact the responsiveness of its subordinate nuclear forces commingling N3 and C2 could create substantial risk of nuclear escalation. Inadvertent degradation of N3 systems could serve to drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, including the preemptive dispersal of TELs, leading to unintentional escalation. 

The potential danger inherent in lack of shared understanding regarding new language in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review became apparent over the course of the conference. During one session a PRC participant raised the potential that US early warning satellites may be destroyed during a regional conflict. This prompted a visceral reaction from multiple US participants, who pointed to the importance that the US places on maintaining the integrity of its early warning systems. It was noted that under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review “attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities” were included as extreme circumstances under which the US may consider the employment of nuclear weapons. Clearly there is additional work needed to clarify the exact definition and delineation of key terms.

Despite all of the misunderstandings and misgivings that were identified over the course of the dialogue, there remain a number of options for policy-makers on both sides to improve mutual understanding and reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. The role of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) as a durable channel of communications, for the transfer of relevant technical data and arms control notifications during pre-crisis situations, and for direct dialogue during periods of tensions, should be viewed as a model of effective bilateral confidence building measures. One avenue for increasing transparency and improving crisis communication would be to expand the mandate of the NRRC by concluding new bilateral agreements to allow data exchanges with the PRC. Alternatively, policy makers could establish a parallel set of institutions designed along the lines of the NRRC dedicated solely to data exchanges with the PRC. In the long term policy makers on both sides could also explore the possibility of selectively disclosing a portion of their N3 architecture, and pre-identifying potential operating areas for mobile nuclear forces, in order to begin establishing baseline expectations regarding which assets and areas would be considered most critical to maintaining strategic deterrence in a crisis scenario. These disclosures would create a level of mutual vulnerability but could also aid in crisis management by providing a more clearly defined set of expectations for decision-makers on both sides.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.