APLN-Korea Times Essay Contest Honorable Mention
The Dangers of Nuclear Nationalism in North Korea
by Sang-hoon KIM
North Korea achieved comprehensive nuclear weapons capabilities by conducting its sixth nuclear test in 2017 and test firing numerous long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), including the Hwasong-15 that can reach the U.S. mainland. The country reportedly tested a hydrogen bomb, successfully miniaturized the nuclear warhead, and is at present perfecting the ultimate deterrent—the submarine-launched ballistic missile that can survive and can be used to retaliate against an adversary’s nuclear first strike. The U.S. intelligence community in 2017, openly admitted that North Korea had crossed a “key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power,” and little doubt remains about North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear war. For over 30 years, the international community has focused on denuclearizing North Korea through sanctions and engagement strategies; however, both efforts have only led to either raising the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war or accelerating North Korea’s nuclear development. In addition, a closer look into the narratives of “nuclear nationalism” in North Korea indicates that efforts to denuclearize North Korea from outside may be practically difficult. This article elaborates on the reasons behind North Korea’s obstinate adherence to nuclear weapons despite the enormous political costs, and finally, calls on the international community to enhance the norm of a “nuclear taboo” to restrain the North Korean use of nuclear weapons.
In brief, denuclearization of North Korea has failed because North Korea finds the weapons beneficial for national security. Not only was North Korea able to deter the U.S. military action but also it acted as a wedge in the U.S.-ROK alliance by putting the credibility of American extended deterrence in doubt in South Korea. As Mira Rapp-Hooper noted in an interview with the author, “once North Korea has reliable ICBMs, it creates a dilemma of whether the United States would be willing to come to South Korea’s aid given the possibility that North Korea could strike the U.S. homeland in return.” Considering that the presence of the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) has been the major impediment to North Korea achieving many of its goals on the Korean peninsula, a fissure in the U.S.-ROK alliance will serve North Korea’s interests by raising the prospects of U.S. withdrawal from South Korea. Already, signs of strategic decoupling between the United States and South Korea are becoming prominent—the annual combined exercises have been scaled-down from field-training exercises to command post exercises; the Special Measures Agreement negotiations have been deadlocked for several months; and disagreements over the conditions of the transfer of wartime operational control are becoming evident. Another benefit that the procurement of nuclear weapons brings to North Korea is that they justify North Koreans’ current economic struggles. The Kim regime successfully portrayed nuclear weapons as a symbol of nationalism—the “dear weapon” that prevents foreign intervention in North Korean domestic politics and keeps the country from falling into the hands of foreign “imperialistic” forces— justifying the economic hardships as an inevitable opportunity cost of maintaining independence. The North Korean Communist Party-owned newspaper Rodong Sinmun published a commentary in 2017 portraying nuclear weapons as symbols of national revival that could not be traded at any cost. Propaganda posters and signboards in streets and on buildings showcased North Koreans’ sense of pride about nuclear weapons similar to how soccer player Son Heung-min and K-pop band BTS symbolize South Koreans’ national pride on the world stage.
To summarize, nuclear weapons are instruments of deterrence against external military intervention, and at the same time, are considered as instruments of domestic integrity. Considering the substantial benefits that the weapons bring to the country or specifically, to the security of the Kim regime, there is little reason for North Korea to agree to denuclearization. While experts have focused on the question of how to denuclearize North Korea, a closer look into the domestic narrative regarding nuclear weapons reveals that the deeply embedded nationalistic sentiment cannot be easily manipulated from outside. Furthermore, the main concern regarding North Korea’s “nuclear nationalism” is that stronger external pressure, usually in the form of economic sanctions, enhances the regime’s rationale that North Korea is the “victim of great powers.” As a result, as Hans J. Morgenthau argued in his book Politics Among Nations, the greater the instability and the sense of insecurity of its members, the greater are the chances for collective emotions to seek an outlet in aggressive nationalism. In that regard, maximum pressure campaigns are especially dangerous as North Korea, driven by aggressive nationalism, can take more adventurous steps to demonstrate greater resolve against the adversary. Considering North Korea’s centralization of decision-making in a single leader, the risk of an accidental nuclear war is particularly high. Engagement, on the other hand, can easily turn into an appeasement strategy, enhancing the North Korean perception of the United States and its allies such as South Korea and Japan as weak and emboldening North Korea’s low-level military provocations.
In conclusion, instead of agonizing over the problem of how to denuclearize North Korea, which has been attempted but has failed over the course of 30 years, the international community must recognize the priority of managing the actual risk of a nuclear war. Some scholars such as Nina Tannenwald have proposed that the norm of a nuclear taboo—“a powerful de facto prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons”—has developed, but more efforts should be made to stigmatize these weapons. For instance, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists raised awareness that the “Doomsday Clock” is 100 seconds to midnight, and events such as the APLN-KT essay contest aim at energizing public opinion “to take seriously the very real threats posed by nuclear weapons.” When the nuclear taboo gains an irreversible status as an international norm, North Korea will find that having nuclear weapons carries greater costs than benefits and may one day voluntarily renounce these precarious weapons.