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Too Close and Too Strong: U.S. Power and Proximity Contributing to North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions

This article critically examines common arguments explaining North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Testing the arguments against a set of hypotheses, the author offers an alternative perspective he considers better grounded in evidence. The article is situated in the context of questioning U.S. foreign policy, which calls for a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea.

The existing dominant explanations for North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions are presented around two main positions. First, the so-called “doves” argue that U.S. and South Korean policies of military threats, political isolation, and economic underdevelopment drive North Korea’s nuclear behavior. Second, the so-called “hawks” argue that psychology, domestic political incentives, the desire to extort humanitarian aid, and the desire to revise the status quo drive North Korean leaders’ nuclear weapons stance. Most generally speaking, the arguments can be viewed in the contrasting terms of “policy” vs. “personality.”

The two lines of argumentation are evaluated through a set of hypotheses alongside historical and quantitative evidence. The author measured the “policy” and “personality” arguments in relation to North Korea’s nuclear development trajectory. The latter, he reminds us, has varied little over time if one considers the plutonium program, the highly enriched uranium program, and the ballistic missile program as the three main components. Neither the “policy” nor the “personality” arguments were clearly related to North Korea’s nuclear development trajectory. All examined hypotheses show significant variation in the factors of military threats, diplomatic isolation, food aid, leadership, domestic priorities and pressures, and military and non-military provocations, while the long-term nuclear policy remains constant.

These findings lead the author to provide alternative arguments. Importantly, he adds that the dominant arguments are not wrong but need to be viewed as contributing factors to some of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He attempts to offer insights into what is left unexplained, by arguing that the U.S. power and position on the Korean Peninsula are the primary drivers for the North Korean nuclear program. This argument acknowledges that foreign threats and U.S. foreign policies play important roles. However, central to North Korea’s nuclear program are the U.S.’s overwhelming military capabilities and geographic position of forward deployment. The previously mentioned variables have undergone multiple changes, while U.S. forward deployment and military power have been constants vis-à-vis North Korea. The author maintains that evidence viewed through this lens provides a clearer picture of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

The primary policy question, that of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea, then becomes clear as well. As long as the U.S. maintains their strong military presence on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea will be highly unlikely to abandon its nuclear program regardless of the “policy” and “personality” factors. CVID, as the author suggests, in this context will be a non-starter. The U.S. will have to choose between its military presence or a denuclearized North Korea, which might seem like a catch-22 for US policy-makers. Concluding, the author provides important foreign policy prescriptions, most notably the suggestion to drop CVID as the defining feature of U.S. foreign policy. This would allow the conflict parties to make progress in other areas such as officially ending the war, addressing the remains of prisoners of war, and improving diplomatic relations. Without CVID as a precondition, the author argues, progress in those areas is far more likely.

Talking Points:

  • The U.S.’s overwhelming military capabilities and the presence of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula are primary motivators for North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • The U.S. and South Korea’s use of military threats, political isolation, and economic underdevelopment are not the primary drivers of North Korea’s nuclear behavior.
  • Psychology, domestic political incentives, the desire to extort humanitarian aid, and the desire to revise the status quo are not the primary drivers of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stance. 

Contemporary Relevance:

With the advent of the Trump administration, the already troubled relationship between the U.S. and North Korea has deteriorated dramatically. In a September 2017 address at the United Nations, Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” In November, Trump announced that the U.S. will designate North Korea a state sponsor of terror. North Korea conducted missile tests, and their leader Kim Jong-un responded in kind to Trump’s threats and insults. We are witnessing a very dangerous pattern of conflict escalation by two nuclear-armed leaders whose power rests upon strong-man talk and action. In this pattern, a move by one must be answered with a stronger countermove by the other. This is unacceptable to Americans, North Koreans, and humanity.

The escalating violent rhetoric and provocative action between nuclear-armed U.S. and North Korea have caused considerable concern beyond the nuclear nonproliferation advocacy communities. U.S. lawmakers have introduced bills that would require congressional authorization for a nuclear strike and make it a policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first. The U.S. Senate held its first hearing in 41 years on whether the president should have the sole authority to launch a nuclear first strike. Military leaders feel compelled to openly state that they would disobey an illegal order by President Trump to launch nuclear weapons.

Americans are rightfully concerned and recognize this exceptional moment in what has been the first notable public debate on nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. Experts overwhelmingly agree that there are no military solutions to the current nuclear dilemma. It then becomes important to inject research findings such as the ones discussed in this analysis, not brash rhetoric, into public discourse and policy-making. 

Practical Implications:

Philip Yun, COO of the Ploughshares Fund, asserts that there are only lousy options to the U.S.-North Korean nuclear crisis. Taunting Kim Jong-un is dangerous, not sound policy, and not a solution. He argues that we need to get away from tit-for-tat mentalities and the rhetoric of escalation. Suzanne DiMaggio from New America suggests that there is only a diplomatic solution. Any belief that this can be solved militarily is a myth. Despite “lousy” and limited options, it is important to use a broad spectrum of nonviolent approaches which are based on an accurate understanding of the conflict context.

By centering the U.S.’s overwhelming military capabilities and geographic position of forward deployment as motivators for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, practitioners and policy-makers need to develop responses accordingly. For example, as the author of this article asserted, CVID is simply not feasible at this point. For the North Korean regime, their nuclear capacity is a guarantee of survival. Much better short- and long-term actions exist. Global Zero’s Nuclear Crisis Group[1] released recommendations, emphasizing the immediate steps of refraining from nuclear threats and provocative military action. Additional steps include: talk with North Korea without preconditions; engage with the adversary through multiple levels of diplomacy; move away from the tit-for-tat mentality and towards problem-solving approaches through recognition and respect, even in an adversarial relationship; reference and implement the difficult but successful diplomatic strategies at our disposal (e.g., the Iran Nuclear Agreement); engage conflict resolution experts in policy-making and the media; acknowledge the fears and the need for security in all parties involved; and initiate citizen-diplomacy efforts to humanize “the other.”

In light of the new research insights, North Korea’s fear of overwhelming U.S. power and position on the Korean Peninsula needs to be acknowledged publicly. Talks with North Korea should include long-term visions of U.S. troop withdrawals. As we know from anthropologist David Vine, military abroad undermine national security and cause global harm. By including power and position in the narratives of diplomacy, constructive shifts in the U.S./North Korea relationship can move the entire situation away from merely “lousy” options to little diplomatic wins on all sides.

[1] Urgent Steps to De-Escalate Nuclear Flashpoints (


Anderson, N. D. (2017). Explaining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions: power and position on the Korean Peninsula. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 71(6), 621–641.

Continued Reading:

Foreign Policy and Security Issues in the Trump Administration A War Prevention Initiative Briefing, May 2017.

Press Briefing: Pathways to a Diplomatic Resolution on North Korea by Arms Control Association, December 2017.

Urgent Steps to De-Escalate Nuclear Flashpoints By Global Zero Nuclear Crisis Group, June 2017.

North Korea. Issues and Analysis. By Ploughshares Fund. 2017

America’s Global Military Bases Actually Undermine National Security. Here’s How. By David Vine. 2015.

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