They Must Be MAD: Why Is North Korea Developing Nuclear Weapons?

On 6 March 2017, as South Korea and the United States deployed tens of thousands of troops and military assets in their annual Foal Eagle training exercises around Japan and South Korea, North Korea launched four Scud missiles. According to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, three of the four missiles landed within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The missile tests come weeks after a successful demonstration of what is suspected to be North Korea’s new-found Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capabilities, the first such demonstration since Donald Trump became President of the United States. The immediate result of the missile tests is a ramping up of rhetoric from both camps, promising strong, uncompromising stances in response to any signs of aggression from the other. The missiles themselves are not overly troubling; rather, the combination of successful missile launches and North Korea’s recent nuclear tests present the international community with a dangerous prospect of a “rogue state” with long-range nuclear capabilities. The heightened rhetoric, from two bellicose leaders, with nuclear weapons at its centre is a troubling sign in an increasingly unstable region. But is the North Korean nuclear weapons program offensive or defensive?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but when it comes to deterring nuclear war, many in strategy and security circles believe that more nuclear weapons make for a safer world. To support this, they cite the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD theory argues that nuclear weapons are so destructive that their only tactical benefit is as a deterrent against an attack from an enemy state. No state would engage in total war with a super power like the United States or Russia for fear that they would retaliate with nuclear weapons, wreaking terrible destruction on the attacking state’s civilian population. In order to protect one’s self from such retaliation, a state must develop their own nuclear weapons program, because an enemy surely would not launch a nuclear attack knowing that equally destructive retaliation is likely. Thus, according to MAD, states may still engage in armed conflict, but the risk of nuclear war is lessened by the mutually assured destruction that would follow escalation beyond conventional armed conflict. North Korea has this theory in mind in developing their nuclear program. They are increasingly finding themselves alone in the world, surrounded by perceived enemies in US allies, like South Korea and Japan, and suffering under economic sanctions. Thus, they are developing nuclear weapons to ensure their own security. Ironically, the North Korean nuclear program is largely cited as the reason for these sanctions by the international community.

An alternative means of seeking safety from nuclear war is stopping the development and spread of nuclear weapons altogether, rather than relying on states and their leaders acting rationally and restraining their use out of fear of retaliation. In this vein, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed by 190 states in 1968 and came into effect in 1970. The NPT was designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and keep the bulk of them in the control of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), while encouraging states to not develop their arsenals.

North Korea was a member of the NPT until 2003. In 1994, they threatened to leave the treaty, but through diplomatic efforts, led by the United States, they were convinced to stay. The US and North Korea reached an Agreed Framework, whereby North Korea would freeze development of nuclear weapons and in exchange the US would provide aid to the impoverished nation. In 2002, George W. Bush refused to sign the Agreed Framework. In the same year, he made his infamous “Axis of Evil” pronouncement in the State of the Union address. President Bush accused Iran, Iraq and North Korea as colluding to sponsor global terrorist networks and develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). In the ensuing months, the US actively debated expanding their operations in Afghanistan to Iraq. Kim Jong-Il did not wait to see if the US would be true to their word. In January 2003, North Korea announced that they would trigger Article X of the NPT, withdrawing from it, and releasing themselves from their obligations not to develop nuclear weapons. 2006 marked the first nuclear test by North Korea. Subsequent nuclear tests have been growing in magnitude, and missile tests have grown in frequency. Since North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, there have been multiple attempts to reach a solution, including the Six Party Talks, involving the US, North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. These talks have since deteriorated and with them the chance of reaching agreement on nuclear non-proliferation with North Korea.

Bellicose rhetoric from the United States at the turn of the century was the initial reason behind the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Now, 15 years later, President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are talking and tweeting tough against North Korea. On 18 March 2017, Mr. Tillerson went so far as to declare that a pre-emptive strike is on the table. In response to this tough talk from the US, North Korea is flexing its nuclear muscles. Jeffrey Lewis, from the James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, says that the recent launches are not tests; they are practice for a nuclear attack to “repel” a US-South Korean invasion of North Korea, of the kind they are practising right now. North Korea announced to the international community after the launches that the missiles’ range and trajectories matched those required to target South Korean military assets in Busan and the US military base in Iwakuni, Japan. North Korea is developing first-strike capabilities so that, in the event of an attack from the US and its allies, they can launch devastating counter-attacks, designed to repel such an invasion.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is essentially defensive; it is designed to be a deterrent against invasion. North Korea’s leaders have made statements to this effect, declaring after the latest test that the missiles will be deployed “in case the US and the South Korean puppet forces fire even a single bullet at the territory of the DPRK.” As long as the US and its allies in the region continue provoking North Korea with threats of military action, the missile and nuclear tests will continue and will likely escalate. North Korea must present a credible nuclear threat in order for its program to have the sufficient deterrent impact, thus it is likely we will see more missile launches, more nuclear detonations, and potentially a full display of North Korean nuclear power. The US and its allies must change their tune, both towards North Korea and their only remaining friend in the region, China. If a diplomatic solution cannot be found, a nuclear weapon may be fired in anger for the first time since the second World War.


Anton Anin