Why North Korea's foreign policy relies on nuclear capability?

Are North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Threats Real? (part II)

The following is part 2 of a two-part analysis on North Korea and the threat it poses to the international security system. 

By Patty Zakaria

Concepts & Thoughts

Toronto–How should the international community deal with North Korea after its recent submarine ballistic missile test?  On April 23, 2016 North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submarine off its eastern coast. Despite Pyongyang’s claim that the test was a success, Seoul has questioned this claim, and rather has stated that the test was a failure because the missile had only travelled 30 km before crashing into the sea (Padden, 2016). Following the launch, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) stated that it will take significant measures against this confrontational behavior by North Korea.

North Korea has had several failed Submarine Launch Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) tests in the past few years; however, with each failed test Pyongyang has been able to correct its mistakes and move much closer to obtaining more reliable SLBMs. The recent SLBM test clearly shows that Pyongyang has improved its missile capabilities by switching to solid fuel engine from liquid propellant design (Panda, 2016).  Pyongyang’s recent move presents two problems for international peace and security. First, if North Korea can successfully develop SLBMs then this gives Pyongyang second-strike capability in case the United States attempts a preemptive attack. Second, the test has further increased tensions between the two enduring rivals – North Korea and South Korea, pushing South Korea and Japan to move towards nuclear proliferation as a deterrent force; therefore, sparking an arms race in the region.

Why is Pyongyang so determined to acquire nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities? How should the international community deal with Pyongyang’s proliferation and maintain peace and security in the region at the same time?  In order to answer these questions and offer policy recommendations, it is necessary to assess Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions in the context of its nuclear doctrine and national security concerns.

Why do states seek nuclear proliferation? Studies have confirmed that states decide to go nuclear for the following reasons: improve international status, gain leverage in international negotiations, balance against conventional military forces, and deter attacks from a nuclear adversary. In the case of North Korea, nuclear doctrine is strictly driven by regime survival.  North Korea’s military doctrine asserts that nuclear weapons are intended “to beat back any aggressor troops at one strike” (as cited by Mansourov, 2014). Given Pyongyang’s national security concerns, it is extremely unlikely that it will give up easily its nuclear and ballistic missiles program.  So, what’s next?  The international community has followed two strategies in dealing with North Korea: sanctions and diplomacy.

The international community, principally the United States, South Korea, and Japan, have imposed sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its first nuclear test in 2006, and have continued to strengthen sanctions on North Korea as it makes further advances in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test and rocket launch in January and February 2016 respectively, Washington signed the Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, so as to improve the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea as well as target potential sources of revenue that support its nuclear and ballistic missile programs (H.R. 757). Additionally, the UNSC has adopted 5 major resolutions (2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, & 2016) as a means to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs. Sanctions have become a non-military approach aimed at forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons; however, 10 years later and the sanctions have failed to solve the problem, but rather have been counterproductive, wherein Pyongyang has come to view these measures as a threat to its national security.

north_south_koreaSo, why have sanctions failed? China’s lackluster support of sanctions againt North Korea can answer this question. For the United States, South Korea, and Japan, the ultimate goal of the sanctions is regime change, whereas for China this is not the goal, so this prevents the Chinese from fully supporting the sanctions (Park & Moon, 2016). Additionally, the sanctions have failed because Pyongyang still has relations with other states, such as Iran, Pakistan, and several African countries. For example, North Korea has become Iran’s main provider of missile technology (Zakaria, 2015). Despite the United States and UNSC strengthening the sanctions regime over the years, they have failed to discourage Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation.

Diplomacy was another strategy employed by the international community to deal with North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. There has been three agreements about nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. The first agreement was signed on December 31st 1991, wherein “North Korea and South Korea pledged not to possess nuclear weapons, not to possess plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities, and to negotiate a mutual nuclear inspection system” (Niksch, 2003: p. 10).

The second agreement was on January 30th 1992, when North Korea ratified the comprehensive Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, which permitted the IAEA to conduct a wide range of inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Following the inspections, the IAEA confirmed that North Korea had reprocessed more plutonium than the amount it had disclosed to the organization (Albright & Brannan, 2010). Consequently, the IAEA “invoked a provision in the safeguards agreement and called for a ‘special inspection’ of two concealed but apparent nuclear waste sites at Yongbyon” (Niksch, p. 10). In response, North Korea refused the IAEA’s request for special inspection, and threatened to withdraw from the NPT in March 1993.

Finally, the Agreed Framework, which was signed on October 21, 1994, sought to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and prevent further proliferation. Despite the agreement, in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT, which led to the breakdown of the Joint Declaration with South Korea, the Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, and the Agreed Framework with the United States. In 2006, North Korea joined the nuclear club with its first nuclear test, a landmark failure of diplomacy to prevent Pyongyang from proliferating.

So, what’s next given that both sanctions and diplomacy have failed? Any approach to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs must take into account – why they need this weapon? Once this component is taken into consideration, a feasible solution can be found to peacefully deal with the crisis. The problem is that the North Korean crisis has been approached with a zero-sum game mentality, where the United States, South Korea, and Japan seek regime change in Pyongyang through sanctions and subsequent dismantling of the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a major threat to Pyongyang’s national security. No solution is likely to be found with this approach; rather it will have the opposite effect of pushing Pyongyang even harder to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

So how should the international community deal with Pyongyang? The best option is engagement with Pyongyang so as to bring it out of economic and political isolation – make it part of the world without feeling threatened.  Washington should change its stance on Pyongyang and start seeking direct negotiations with it. This is a non-zero-sum approach that offers the West gains (peace and security) in the crisis without causing Pyongyang to feel insecure and threatened. This approach can lead to regional de-escalation and promotion of economic and financial stability.



Albright, D., & Brannan, P. (2010). What is North Korea building in the area of the destroyed cooling tower? It bears watching. Institute for Science and International Security, ISIS Imagery Brief.

Niksch, L. (2013). North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program. CRS Issue Brief of Congress.

Mansourov, A. (December 16, 2014). “Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy: What Everyone Needs to Know”, NAPSNet Special Reports, Available at: http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/kim-jong-uns-nuclear-doctrine-and-strategy-what-everyone-needs-to-know/

Padden, B. (24 April 2016. UN Security Council Condemns North Korean Missile test. Voice of America. Available at: http://www.voanews.com/content/north-korea-submarine-missile-launch-successful-failure/3300320.html

Panda, A. (25 April 2016). North Korea Tests Solid-Fuel Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile. Available at: http://thediplomat.com/2016/04/north-korea-tests-solid-fuel-submarine-launched-ballistic-missile/

Park, P & Moon, K. (2016). Are sanctions enough to deal with North Korea? Brookings Institute Report.

North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 – HR 757. (2016). Passed February 13 2016 by Congress, 114th Congress of the USA at the second session.  Available at: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr757/text

Zakaria, P. (2015). Did the new nuclear deal diminished the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons? Maybe, The Mackenzie Institute for Security, December 8th 2015.


Patty Zakaria is a consultant and analyst in international security. She completed her PhD in International Relations from Wayne State University, where she focused on international security, nuclear proliferation, and political corruption. Her other research interests include examination of the impact of nuclear weapons on international politics and disputes, and implications of corruption on economy, society and governance. She has worked as a researcher and lecturer in politics in the United States, Canada, and Croatia. Dr. Zakaria is currently a faculty member at University Canada West, where she teaches political science. She is also a faculty member at Lambton College in Toronto. Dr. Zakaria is an active participant in international and regional conferences in political science and interdisciplinary studies, and continues to publish in major scholarly journals.

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