Many in the West believe that the North Korean regime is driven by a suicidal madness. The North Korean regime, in this view, does not care about survival, instead, its leaders are driven by a totalitarian desire to either conquer the world or die in the attempt. But North Korea is building nuclear weapons because it values its own survival. As hard as it may be for western observers to accept, the United States is a far greater threat to North Korea than North Korea is to the United States.
Memories of the Korean War
North Korea’s interest in nuclear weapons was born in the aftermath of the Korean War. During the Korean War, most of North Korea was leveled by a U.S. air bombing campaign that did not discriminate between military and civilian targets. Yale historian Charles Armstrong wrote:
To escape the bombing, entire factories were moved underground, along with schools, hospitals, government offices, and much of the population. Agriculture was devastated, and famine loomed. Peasants hid underground during the day and came out to farm at night. Destruction of livestock, shortages of seed, farm tools, and fertilizer, and loss of manpower reduced agricultural production to the level of bare subsistence at best...By the fall of 1952, there were no effective targets left for US planes to hit. Every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed. In the spring of 1953, the Air Force targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River, both to destroy the North Korean rice crop and to pressure the Chinese, who would have to supply more food aid to the North. Five reservoirs were hit, flooding thousands of acres of farmland, inundating whole towns and laying waste to the essential food source for millions of North Koreans
While there are no precise figures, it is estimated that “possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the [North Korean] population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.”
The Korean War, perhaps more than any other event, shaped the collective conscious of the North Korean regime. The war “gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of an outside threat that would continue long after the war’s end.” Furthermore, North Korean anxiety was heightened by the fact that both U.S. presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower considered using tactical nuclear weapons to break the stalemate in Korea.
The Korean War is not over. The Korean War did not end with a peace treaty, it ended with an armistice. On both sides of the demilitarized zone, troops are stationed in preparation of a resumption of hostilities. War could break out at any moment. As much as North Korea exaggerates the threat of the United States and likelihood of war, North Korea does face a serious security threat from the United States. And North Korea is no match for the United States with regards to conventional military power.
Furthermore, the current president of the United States is a man who has a history of making statements threatening to wipe North Korea off the map. In a speech before the United Nations, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that, “No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles…The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea…Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
For small states like North Korea, nuclear weapons are a great equalizer because they allow small states to defend themselves against large ones. They are small, relatively cheap and easy to hide and move around. North Korean leaders know that in a conventional military battle against the United States, they do not stand a chance. Nuclear weapons enable North Korea to defend itself without relying on a large standing army. No matter how much North Korean government spends on its military, it will never be able to match the conventional military capabilities of the United States. Nuclear weapons eliminate this imbalance.
North Korea is trying to develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States. This undoubtedly frightens people. But North Korea’s strategy should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with nuclear deterrence. For North Korea to be able to deter the United States, North Korea needs to have nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the United States. If the United States was determined to overthrow the North Korean government, the United States might be willing to sacrifice Seoul or even some of its military bases in the process. This to destroy Seoul and U.S. military bases in the South Pacific and Japan is problem enough to deter the United States, but it is not a foolproof guarantee. If North Korea, however, has nuclear missiles that can hit Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City, the United States will not even consider invading North Korea. Pyongyang knows that the United States would love to see North Korea wiped off the map. Yet North Korean leaders know that the United States is not willing to sacrifice Chicago to win Pyongyang. Thus, by developing nuclear missiles capable of taking out American cities, North Korea is merely guaranteeing that it will never be invaded.
North Korea is not going to abandon its nuclear program any time soon. It is a regime that values survival above all else. Every move that the state makes is geared towards continuing this goal. North Korea does not want nuclear weapons because it desires martyrdom, it desires nuclear weapons because it wants to live. As Andrei Lankov notes in his article, “Why Nothing Can Really Be Done About North Korea’s Nuclear Program” (2017), the North Korean regime:
[H]as no ideological attachment to any foreign state…North Korean leaders are state-oriented pragmatists who know perfectly well that Soviet-style centrally planned economies do not work. They are willing and eager to play neighboring states against one another to maximize gains…this worldview means that there is very little chance for success in either the hard-line or soft-line approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. The North Korean hereditary elites will be remarkably indifferent to the promises of economic benefits and remarkably tough and uncompromising when faced with outside economic pressure and international sanctions. They do not trust the benefits gained from denuclearization to be worth the tremendous security risks, and they believe that giving into what they see as foreign blackmail will merely invite more blackmail.
In addition, North Korean leaders are guilty of human rights violations on a vast scale. They know that if they are overthrown, they will not only lose their power, they will be charged with crimes against humanity and imprisoned. Pyongyang saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. The Iraq War and the 2011 Libyan War taught North Korean leaders of the importance of developing nuclear weapons.
In the end, the U.S. will have to live with a nuclear North Korea in the same way it had to live with a nuclear Soviet Union and China. Because no matter happens, North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons anytime soon. Only when North Korea no longer views the U.S. or South Korea as a security threat, will it be willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.