North Korea’s Nuclear Programme: Moving Towards Developing A Fully Functional Nuclear Arsenal


The standoff between North and South Korea in the Korean Peninsula has not yet been resolved and has always remained as one of the most dangerous regional flash points. Despite regional and international actors’ dedications in de-escalating the tensions, the strategic environment on the Korean Peninsula has become more complex since North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. North Korea has conducted several missile tests to develop a functional delivery system and finally conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. The international community, such as the United Nations, imposed several sanctions on North Korea in order to stop the North’s nuclear programme. In the meantime, the international community also initiated multilateral negotiations to persuade the North to stop its nuclear aggression. The most recent and influential one was the Six-Party Talks which involved China, the US, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea. Nevertheless, the North continued its nuclear programme and conducted its fifth nuclear test in September 2016. This report reviews North Korea’s nuclear programme and the incentives behind North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The report holds a negative opinion towards North Korea’s de-nuclearisation because nuclear weapons are the ultimate means for the regime to achieve regime survival.

North Korea’s Nuclear Programme: An Overview

North Korea’s nuclear issue has been a persistent phenomenon in the contemporary international system. The North’s nuclear programme officially started in 1952 after the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Academy of Sciences. At the early stage, the Soviet Union was the primary supporter of the North’s nuclear programme. After years of development, the North’s nuclear capabilities expanded largely from the 1970s onwards. Oddly enough, North Korea signed an agreement with the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) in 1977 roughly at the same time of the expansion of its nuclear capabilities. North Korea’s technical capacity of developing a nuclear weapon has grown substantially since the 1980s. As reported by international observers, North Korea developed its ability to gather plutonium since 1986. However, the North decided to sign the NPT in the same decade. In 1994, North Korea unilaterally discharged and removed spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear site without the IAEA inspection. As a result, the US intervened with a proposed Agreed Framework. According to the Agreed Framework, the US would provide energy resources assistance and security assurance to North Korea, and North Korea, in turn, would gradually dismantle its nuclear programme. However, North Korea withdrew from the Agreed Framework due to the perceived delay of the US to exercise its duty. Eventually, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. North Korea has become more assertive under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. The North has successfully launched a long-range rocket in December 2012 and conducted the third nuclear test in February 2013. As North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, nuclear weapons and the delivery system, become more sophisticated, it can be anticipated that the North is moving towards developing a fully-functional nuclear arsenal.

International Community’s Responses

The international community has paid close attention to North Korea’s nuclear programme and has initiated different strategies to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. On the one hand, the international community has imposed several sanctions on North Korea against the North’s missile, rocket launches and nuclear tests. Nevertheless, the results of the sanctions have been mixed and the North remains aggressive. For example, North Korea threatened the US with a pre-emptive nuclear strike in response to the UNSCR 2094 in 2013. On the other hand, the international community also initiated multilateral negotiations aim at denuclearising North Korea. The Six-Party Talks was an influential mechanism to resolve North Korea nuclear issue with the participation of China, the US, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea. The Six-Party Talks has achieved the aim of denuclearisation to some extend in specific times, such as the agreement achieved in the 19th September 2005 where North Korea agreed to gradually dismantle its nuclear programme. However, the Six-Party Talks has not resolved North Korea’s nuclear issue. North Korea’s withdraw in 2005 and its first nuclear test in 2006 announced the final failure of the Six-Party Talks.

The Motivations in Pursuing Nuclear Weapons

North Korea’s nuclear weapons serve as the ultimate means to achieve regime survival Domestically, North Korea, as a weak state, faces several domestic challenges. The domestic challenges facing North Korea’s regime range from the poor economic performance to the potential military uprising. The poor economic performance might lead to the grassroots uprising and the military may launch a coup if the regime could not fulfill the military’s interests, namely the defence funding and military equipment.

In order to tackle the potential coup, KIM Jong-Il proposed the military first (Songun) politics which aims at making North Korea a “strong and powerful country.” In exercising the military first politics, Kim Jong-Il successfully separated the organisations of the Korean Workers Party (KWP) and the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Kim Jong-Il also grant more power to the KPA compared with the KWP. In order to exercise the effective control over the army’s power, Kim Jong-Il grant the KWP a constitutional power which ensures the KWP’s position as the highest executive organ in North Korea. Therefore, as the ultimate leader of the KWP, Kim Jong-Il grant himself the power to lead the KPA to deter any potential internal political movement aiming at overthrowing the Kim regime. Therefore, through the power transition from the KWP to KPA, North Korea’s regime has successfully accommodated the army’s pursuit of power and made the army the vanguard of the regime. The successful acquisition of nuclear weapons further gives the army the prestige which further prevents the army from conducting a coup.

While addressing the potential grassroots uprising, the Kim regime managed to transfer the domestic grassroots resentments toward the regime to the external powers. The regime has managed to do so through propaganda, information control and information manipulation. As a result, the Kim regime has painted itself as the only party that can deter the external imperialism threats. In this context, nuclear programme has become an ultimate means to promote domestic nationalism and to deter potential external threats. When facing any potential domestic uprisings, the regime can manipulate the escalation of external threats and mobilise domestic supports to the nuclear programme. By successfully develop nuclear weapons, the regime invokes domestic North Koreans sense of pride.

Although the international community imposes sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear aggression, oddly enough, North Korea is using its nuclear programme to tackle its poor economic performance. Scholars, such as Nah and Park, argue that the North constantly uses its nuclear weapons as a “bargaining chip” to extract external aids to address the issues of the poor economic performance. North Korea started using nuclear weapons as a “bargaining chip” since the early 1990s for international aids and concessions. Coincidentally, every agreement signed between North Korea and the different actors in the international community was a result of the North’s nuclear provocations. Similarly, external powers agreed to either reduce sanctions or provide direct economic aids to the North Korea expressed in almost every signed agreement.

In tackling the external threats, North Korea considers nuclear weapons as the most effective means to deter external threats. North Korea perceived external threats include the potential threats posed by both socialist camp and the US-led Western world. In terms of the socialist camp, North Korea has never fully trusted either the former Soviet Union or China. North Korea is threatened especially at the time when the Soviet Union stopped its treaty with North Korea and when China initiated its economic reform. The North considers Russia and China as betrayers of the socialist camp and therefore opted out to adopt the ideology of isolationism. The US-led Western bloc has also shaped North Korea’s isolationism ideology. The US military presence in South Korea and the nuclear threats during the Korean War convinced North Korea that to isolate itself and develop its own nuclear weapons are the only effective ways to defend itself. The threat was intensified when the previous US President George W. Bush listed North Korea as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ alongside Iraq and Iran. Seen the outcome of the Iraq War, North Korea started actively developing its nuclear weapons. The North believes that no state will retaliate against nuclear power. Therefore, nuclear weapons have become the most important tool for North Korea to deter perceived external threats.


This report has reviewed the developments of North Korea’s nuclear programme and the rationales behind North Korea’s decision of developing its own nuclear arsenal. As North Korea recently conducted its fifth nuclear test, this report argues that North Korea is moving towards developing a fully functional nuclear arsenal. While discussing the failure of the international community to denuclearise North Korea, the very reasons why North Korea was pursuing nuclear weapons can offer an explanation. As shown in the report, nuclear weapons are so valuable for the Kim regime to address both domestic and international threats that cannot be abandoned. Therefore, the international community should come up with methods, other than simply imposing sanctions, in order to achieve the goal of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula. In the same time, the US should continue its commitment of the extended nuclear deterrence to its allies, such as Japan and South Korea, to avoid the further nuclear proliferation.