What Drives North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition?

With the latest test of Hydrogen bomb on Sunday in North Korea, it may seem as if this country is mad and its leader is senseless. In sharp contrast to ordinary belief, North Korea knows what it is doing, and it continues to do so in defiance to international community namely the United States of America. Why such small country with a dynastic regime and a sanctioned economy pursue its ambition of obtaining nuclear program is an interesting story.


North Korea is located on Korean peninsula surrounded by China, Russia, and South Korea. This country is the product of Cold War rivalry between Soviet Union and the United States. With the defeat of imperial Japan in the Second World War, the Red Army occupied the northern part of the peninsula while the allied forces occupied the south. The Korean war of 1950-53 saw a devastated peninsula and little to no change in the status quo. The Communist regime has continued to rule North Korea backed by China and Russia as oppose to South Korea backed by the US.

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The North Korean elite see themselves at a disadvantage. Its rival to the south has continued to prosper and develop. Its military spending is only a fraction of South Korea’s defense spending. With the gap between the two growing bigger and bigger, the elite see nuclear weapon as an effective deterrence against any possible attack, and gives leverage on any negotiation table. North Korea seeks regime preservation. This view is only reinforced by the American involvement in regime change around the globe.  The death of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 after an uprising against his rule forces North Korea to pursue nuclear weapon at all cost. We cannot forget that Gaddafi had given up his nuclear program in 2003 in exchange for better relationship with the west, yet less than a decade later he was killed on the street by rebels. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was another clear example to the North Korean leadership that only with nuclear weapon that they can stop this scenario from happening in their country. The United States will have to think twice before making such a move against North Korea because in any event of war Pyongyang will not hesitate in using nuclear weapon should its regime is under existential threat.

The international community cannot provide guarantee to North Korean regime regarding its preservation since the US hold enormous influence. The combination of sanctions and isolation from the world has done little to hinder its quest for nuclear supremacy on the Korean peninsula. Just like Russian president Vladimir Putin said that North Korea would rather eat grass than dismantling its nuclear program. In such circumstance, it is clear to many that it is only a matter of time before Kim Jong Un acquires weapon of mass destruction capable of reaching the US mainland.

What Drives North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition?
North Korea Map

Another reason for North Korean nuclear ambition is to maintain the balance of power with its hostile neighbors. There is no question that its rival South Korea has a modern and powerful military with large budget. Economically, the south has maintained a steady growth resulting to better standard of living and welfare for its people. Meanwhile, North Korea has suffered sanctions resulting in food scarcity, slow economic growth, and poor standard of living. However, nuclear weapon assures the Kim dynasty that his country will be taken seriously on the world stage. Of course, in any events of war South Korea will be the most affected.


In a country, where ordinary citizens struggle to find food to survive and suffer torture or even death should there be any opposition against the regime, it is not surprising that the elite will try to maintain their rule and prevent any possible rebellion within the country. North Korea is no different. The great concern for the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang is the fact that its people could rise up against its rule while neighboring countries could use such opportunity to their advantage. Therefore, implementing effective propaganda of the threat of invasion by outside powers and justifying the need to acquire nuclear weapon are used by the regime to gain peoples’ support. It is also a show of force to the people by giving the impression that their leader is strong and in control. This tactic is common among dictatorial regimes around the world because instability at home could hinder the elite from exercising control.

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North Korea will never abandon its nuclear program no matter the cost. This is a simple truth. Sanctions imposed by the United Nations do not work effectively since China, which is its biggest trading partner, is still reluctant to cooperate at full force. North Korea is not a mad country with senseless leader. It knows that nuclear weapon provides the best possible assurance for its survival against all odds. Seeking regime preservation while at the same time maintaining the balance of power on the Korean peninsula are existential to Pyongyang. Mobilizing people’s support to justify its action is an effective tool for the regime to sustain itself and quell possible internal division. Nuclear weapon is, therefore, an answer for North Korea’s many questions. What options are available for the world to put an end to Pyongyang’s ambition? Only one thing is clear. Nuclear program will remain and the tension is here to stay.




Puthyraksmey Yama

Student at Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey

Department of Political Science and International Relation

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