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History Explains Why North Korea Wants Nuclear Weapons

KCNA Hwasong-16 Image
KCNA screenshot of Hwasong-16 ICBM.

North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and associated delivery platforms remains a top national security and foreign policy challenge for the United States. The most substantive aspects of the North Korean nuclear program began in the mid-1980s and has been a major foreign policy concern for the U.S. since the 1990s. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is often viewed through the lens of larger North Korean strategic objectives, be they regime survival or reunification of the Korean Peninsula. While these are unquestionably significant, a more comprehensive understanding of North Korea’s motivation for its pursuit of nuclear weapons requires examination of the strategic and ideological foundations of the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions that were set down decades before the emergence of the current program. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons today was heavily influenced by practical experience and ideological development that took place in the DPRK during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Korean War:

The Korean War fought from 1950-1953, is for many reasons a seminal moment in North Korea’s history, not the least of which is the conflict’s impact on North Korea – and in particular Kim Il Sung’s – appreciation for the value of nuclear weapons. Kim may well have been aware of the potency of nuclear weapons even before the start of the Korean War: that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan could so easily cripple the mighty imperial empire that Kim had devoted much of his life to fighting likely did not escape notice. The war, however, would have reinforced this understanding; American threats to use nuclear weapons in order to end the Korean War left a profound mark on the North Korean leadership, and the threat posed by American nuclear weapons to this day been a major factor in North Korean strategic thinking. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War, North Korea began to make preparations to survive a nuclear attack.

The destruction wrought by the Korean War also served to harden anti-U.S. sentiment within the DPRK, and still forms the basis for much of North Korea’s anti-American propaganda. The effect of American airpower was particularly impactful, with U.S. strategic bombing devastating not just military and industrial targets but also major infrastructure and population centers. But the legacy of American airpower is significant beyond just its effectiveness as a propaganda tool; the American air campaign left North Korean leaders with an acute sense of vulnerability, and from this vulnerability emerged a desire to ensure that the country would never again fall prey to the destructive effects of American airpower. Here then emerges the first sign of the strategic logic that would eventually lead to the development of a nuclear deterrent.


Hwasong-16 ICBM.

Ideology and Military Strategy

One of the other significant developments in post-war North Korea was the emergence of the juche ideology. The juche ideology, often understood simply as self-reliance, stresses the prioritization of the North Korean “self” as opposed to a reliance on or subjugation to other powers, and its emergence in the aftermath of the Korean War offered the North Korean regime a means of circulating perceptions of external threat. Indeed, a core aspect of juche is an emphasis on self-defense in the face of imperialistic hostile powers. Juche was not, however, a doctrine formulated solely with the United States in mind. Juche’s focus on political independence and its rejection of reliance or dependence on others was also inspired by Kim’s belief in the unreliability of North Korea’s patrons – China and the Soviet Union – and his desire to maintain North Korea’s autonomy in pursuit of its strategic objectives.

It was from this logic that a North Korean military strategy emerged that heralded the eventual pursuit of nuclear weapons. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis confirmed Kim’s suspicions regarding the Soviet Union’s lack of resolve or commitment in the face of a nuclear standoff with the United States, and further cemented in his mind the need for a self-reliant national defense capability. In December 1962, North Korea adopted the Four-Point Military Guidelines of the National Defense Policy, the contents of which included the militarization of the population, the creation of a stronghold-based fortified country, the creation of a cadre-based military, and the modernization of military equipment. The desire to create a stronghold-based fortified country likely reflected the DPRK leadership’s experience with American airpower during the Korean War, and called for an extensive network of bunkers and underground facilities designed to protect against repeated air attacks. It is the fourth point, however, from which the logic of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons can be drawn. The call for the modernization of military equipment was not indicative of a comprehensive modernization program, but instead emphasized selective modernization of capabilities in keeping with North Korean resource constraints; modernization of the military would therefore focus on capabilities that provide the greatest strategic advantage. North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles – as well as other capabilities designed to provide the DPRK with an asymmetric advantage, such as special operations forces – are the product of a long-established North Korean military policy.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has been undertaken in service to larger strategic objectives. But a complete understanding of how North Korea arrived at the decision to pursue nuclear weapons requires examination of strategic and ideological motivations that first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. North Korea’s wartime experience and its ideology promulgated in the aftermath of that conflict combined to steer North Korea down the path of nuclear-armed survival.

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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