Academic journal article North Korean Review

Explaining North Korean Nuclear Weapons Motivations: Constructivism, Liberalism, and Realism

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Explaining North Korean Nuclear Weapons Motivations: Constructivism, Liberalism, and Realism

Article excerpt


Mass media coverage of nuclear weapons proliferation by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)-North Korea-produces security-centric perceptions. Typical news about North Korean saber-rattling highlights threats to engulf the South Korean Blue House (presidential residence) in a "sea of fire" in response to military drills.1 An identical threat was made during North-South talks about the North Korean nuclear weapons program in 1994, and the "sea of fire" rhetoric was interpreted as a nuclear strike. Because the mass media frames the DPRK as threatening, the idea is created that nuclear weapons are the only pillar of its militarycentric national survival strategy.

A more discerning analysis of North Korean nuclear weapons motivations should involve not only factors concerning military security (realism), but also economic interdependence and development (liberalism) and international nuclear nonproliferation norms (constructivism). Neglecting other explanatory dimensions results in one-sided appraisals.

Hence, as the North Korean nuclear arms conundrum can be better understood from a tripartite realist-liberalist-constructivist framework, it is proposed that only when North Korean national security concerns vis-à-vis the United States-South Korean alliance are adequately addressed, the weakness and isolation of the moribund DPRK economy ameliorated and due recognition given for denuclearization norms expressed by Pyongyang, can there be concrete progress on North Korean nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, the rest of this article will elaborate the contemporary historical relevance of each component of the tripartite framework for North Korea, explain U.S. nuclear disarmament failure due to one-dimensional policies or benign neglect and establish the relevance of the tripartite framework for concurrently addressing North Korean existential and reputational pressures to achieve nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.

Contemporary Research and Analytical Approach

Coverage of liberalism and realism is extensive in nuclear weapons scholarship. Regarding unitary theory studies applicable to North Korean nuclear decisions, some examples include the security-centric analysis of Scott Sagan and the politicaleconomic basis behind nuclear weapons policy in Etel Solingen, the former touching on proliferation as an attempt to restore the balance of power vis-à-vis nuclear armed rivals and the latter positing that nuclear armament/disarmament is determined by the relative strength of domestic factions promoting globalized trade and investment (hindered by nuclear pariah status) versus militant isolationists promoting nuclear arms as central to national strength.2

In studies relevant to North Korea, single theory analysis is prevalent. For instance, Jaewoo Choo covers asymmetric economic dependence on China, with China as a principal supplier of crucial food, fuel, and fertilizer to North Korea. Here, China is an example of a senior partner state using incremental economic liberalization of North Korea to help normalize the DPRK economy as part of a holistic effort to encourage more responsible behavior by Pyongyang, including eventual nuclear disarmament.3 But however helpful Beijing might be, it is not in the interest of Pyongyang to be economically dependent, as China could easily pressure North Korea. Hence, Pyongyang should broaden its state economic relationships and integrate itself into the world economy, but, in order to do so, must conclusively address the problem of its nuclear arms proliferation.

Regarding holistic scholarship, T. V. Paul holds that enduring rivalries fuel nuclear proliferation because of threatened national security. As long as international relations are conflictual and both alliances and military modernization are denied to the would-be proliferator, pro-nuclear arms policies are likely.4 This describes North Korea in that the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance is seen as adversarial; China is its only ally, and funds for military modernization are insufficient. …

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