North Korea and the Prestige Dilemma

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

North Korea and the Prestige Dilemma

Security guarantees are one thing, but will Pyongyang ever give up the national prestige of having nuclear weapons?

North Korea and the Prestige Dilemma

Participants cheer as they take part in a parade marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea (Sept. 9, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The North Korea nuclear issue is an extremely complex problem, to say the least. But it essentially boils down to this: The Kim regime wants security, prosperity, and prestige. If it concludes that its wants can be better satisfied by relinquishing its nuclear weapons, it will. If not, it will hold on to them.

Pyongyang has hinted at how its security requirements for denuclearization might be met, and the United States and its partners have dangled tantalizing economic inducements before the Kim regime to coax it into giving up its nukes. Yet the trickiest part of the denuclearization equation could be finding something to offer North Korea that it would consider more prestigious than being a nuclear power.


Pyongyang says that its primary motivation for developing nuclear weapons was to bolster its security. Its most potent weapons, the Kim regime claims, help to deter the United States from attacking it.

But, as much as Pyongyang values its nuclear arms, it has indicated that it would trade them for a more hospitable security environment. The steps needed to produce that new security environment, at least the ones that were sketched out in a July 6, 2016 statement by a North Korean spokesman, are more or less acceptable to Washington. They are, in essence, means of reassuring Pyongyang that it will not be subjected to a U.S. nuclear attack or intimidation.

However, once Pyongyang and Washington get down to negotiating the fine points of denuclearization, many analysts believe that Pyongyang will dust off its old expansive definition of denuclearization, which includes the United States removing its nuclear umbrella from South Korea and Japan, or even worldwide nuclear disarmament. It seems likely that the Kim regime will in time make other demands that have historically been unacceptable to the United States.

Regardless, if North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the United States continue to improve, the Trump administration bets — and some former high-ranking U.S. diplomats believe — that the right mix of security guarantees and confidence building measures could be concocted to satisfy Pyongyang’s basic security requirements for denuclearization.

But that alone might not be enough to convince the Kim regime to abandon its nuclear program.


North Korea has a long history of putting its nuclear program to economic ends, having used it over the years to extort money and goods from other countries.

Now that North Korea has purportedly put the finishing touches on that program, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has made clear that Pyongyang intends to shift its focus toward its current five-year strategy for economic development. In other words, the mature nuclear program provides the Kim regime with an added benefit: it gives North Korean leadership the peace of mind to grind away at the country’s economic challenges rather than constantly worry about countering perceived external threats.

In their respective meetings with Kim Jong Un, U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in all offered to help North Korea develop its economy.

During Trump’s tête-à-tête with Kim last June in Singapore, the U.S. leader showed Kim a melodramatic video that presented two alternative futures for North Korea: One where the North remained isolated, insecure and mired in poverty; and another where a secure (and presumably denuclearized) North Korea had the opportunity to flourish with “investments from around the world” and “medical breakthroughs, an abundance of resources, innovative technologies and new discoveries.”

Assuming that international sanctions on North Korea remain in place until it takes significant steps toward denuclearization — i.e. the international community does not allow Pyongyang to have its cake and eat it too — North Korea would clearly be far better off were it to choose a nuclear-free future. Or at least that is true from an economic perspective.


The idea that North Korea is, or at least is becoming, a powerful state that commands respect and will one day reunify Korea is central to North Korea’s national narrative. Hence, one finds references to the country’s dignity, pride, and power peppered throughout official North Korean statements. For instance, in his August 1997 speech on national reunification the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il grandly pronounced that once Korea is reunified, in accordance with Pyongyang’s precepts, “our country will make its appearance on the world arena with great dignity as a rich and powerful, independent and sovereign state […] and our nation will exalt its pride of being a resourceful, dignified and great nation.”

North Korea’s mission to protect its dignity and elevate its status in the world is closely linked to its core Juche ideology, Songun (military-first) policy and, by extension, its nuclear program.

Kim Jong Il claimed that the North’s Juche ideology of self-sufficiency and self-reliance was necessary for preserving “the dignity of the country and the soul of the nation.” North Korea’s nuclear program has become intertwined with that ideology and with Pyongyang’s quest for prestige in three important ways: First, the Kim regime portrays its nuclear program as a great achievement of Juche self-sufficiency. Following North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test, state media proclaimed that the test “was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent [sic].” Second, Pyongyang views its development of nuclear weapons as having made it strategically self-reliant. Whereas in the past the North could at best hope for the defensive support of its nuclear-armed allies the Soviet Union and China, it now has its own supposedly deliverable nuclear weapons to deter its foes. Lastly, under the cover of its nuclear deterrent, Pyongyang contends that North Korea can push forward with Juche to build a prosperous, self-sufficient economy.

In addition to being held up as a triumph of Juche self-sufficiency, North Korea’s nuclear program is also cast as an outgrowth of the North’s Songun policy. North Korea’s foreign ministry argued in February 2005 that North Korea had begun developing nuclear weapons in response to American nuclear aggression, a course of action it said was “true to Songun politics to respond to good faith and the use of force in kind.” Years later, speaking at a banquet to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of “Songun-based revolutionary leadership” on August 25, 2012, the newly minted Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un heaped praise on North Korea’s People’s Army and declared that his country had “emerged as a world-class military giant and a dignified nuclear state.” Songun thus has been credited with spurring the North Korea’s nuclear achievements and in turn strengthening the country’s sense of dignity.

To understand precisely why nuclear weapons are such an important source of pride for Pyongyang, one must consider the country’s present condition and how the North sees itself in relation to South Korea.

By almost all measures the North Korean state is an abysmal failure. The country’s estimated GDP per capita for 2015 was slightly less than Haiti’s and more than 20 times smaller than South Korea’s. North Korea lacks membership in some of the world’s principal international organizations including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It is, however, invariably included in, and often tops, numerous lists of the world’s worst human rights violators. The North’s atrocious human rights record and military provocations have made it an international pariah and led the United Nations to condemn and sanction the country several times since it joined the organization in 1991. In short, the story of North Korea is one of extreme deprivation and disgrace.

South Korea, on the other hand, has been enormously successful in all the ways that North Korea has not. Since it emerged as one of the Four Asian Tigers in the 1960s, South Korea has grown into an industrial and technological powerhouse. Today, the country stands as a respected member of the international community represented in virtually all of the world’s major international institutions. South Korea has done more than just build good government-to-government relations with other nations; it has also developed considerable cultural influence throughout East Asia and beyond.

Unable to compete with its southern neighbor in the economic or diplomatic realms, Pyongyang relies on its military might and supposed righteousness as sources of pride and prestige. According to the Kim regime’s narrative, North Korea is the truly successful Korean state because it is powerful, independent, and it is steadily advancing towards its goal of reunifying Korea; while South Korea is a “vassal,” a “puppet” and a “flunkeyist” that has long let its dependence on the United States get in the way of Korean reunification. Pyongyang asserts that its self-reliance in defense, to which its nuclear weapons are critical, frees it to pursue an independent foreign policy and thus lead the way to reunification. Kim Jong Un drew clear connections between North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, its quest for status, and its foreign policy when he told the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea that since North Korea had attained “the status of a full-fledged independent power, a nuclear power, the DPRK will develop its external relations in conformity with its status.”

The Kim regime is not unique in its belief that nuclear weapons accord a country greater status and agency in international affairs. In the wake of World War II as their empires crumbled, Britain and France sought nuclear weapons as much to maintain their prestige and influence on the world stage as to guard against the Soviet menace. During Britain’s nuclear debates of the 1950s, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made this clear when he told an interviewer that:

[The hydrogen bomb] gives us a better position in the world. It gives us a better position with the United States. And it puts us where we ought to be: in a position of a great power. […] I can imagine no situation we should have to use it at all. But I say that the fact that we are a nuclear power helps us with the United States and makes them pay a greater regard to our point of view. And that’s of great importance, in my point of view.

French President Charles de Gaulle made similar arguments in favor of France’s nuclear weapons program. The proud general-turned-politician once stated, “There are two groups in the world, the Anglo-Saxons and the Soviets, who for years have been building and stockpiling atomic weapons. France will not accept a position of permanent and massive inferiority.”

Despite some domestic opposition to nuclear weapons within Britain and France both countries still maintain nuclear arsenals more than a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, a fact that does not bode well for the campaign to denuclearize North Korean. Nevertheless, North Korea’s nuclear situation is distinct from Britain’s and France’s in that the Kim regime is confronting external pressures and incentives to denuclearize unlike any London or Paris ever faced.


Some North Korea experts suspect that the Kim regime ultimately intends to use its nuclear weapons to try to break the U.S.-ROK alliance and force South Korea to reunify on Pyongyang’s terms. If North Korea were to accomplish such an implausible feat, it would certainly bring the country unparalleled pride.

But even if the Kim regime’s aim is to cooperate with the South to build a confederal republic in which “the two sides are represented on equal footing” and exercise regional autonomy, as it claims is its goal, nuclear weapons still have great utility for Pyongyang. The destructive devices have acquired a totemic quality within North Korean society. They are both a symbol of the North’s independence and an enhancer of it. Nuclear weapons help Pyongyang compensate for its stark deficiencies. They give the North Korean leadership pride and confidence as it engages the richer, more respected Korean government in Seoul. In the same vein, North Korea believes — like Britain and France do — that nuclear power status is vital to ensuring that the world’s most powerful countries will take it seriously.

With nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un is a player in world affairs who hobnobs with Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Without nuclear weapons, Kim has good reason to fear that he would be reduced to what he really is: the leader of an extremely isolated, desperately poor country with a horrible human rights record, a relic of mid-20th century totalitarianism.

Assuming that Pyongyang is not firmly committed to one day dominating the entire Korean Peninsula, the key to tipping its scales in favor of denuclearization will be to address the Kim regime’s desire for dignity and prestige. This is easier said than done, since few things are more respected or give a country greater agency in the sphere of Machiavellian international politics than deliverable nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, if Washington and its partners can convince Kim Jong Un that his party won’t stop as soon as he gives up his last nuke, he might choose acceptance by the international community over being the leader of an isolated nuclear power. But Kim must be made to believe that by getting rid of his nukes he is permanently changing his relations with the United States and the international community at large. He must feel certain that he will be embraced as a reformer in the style of Deng Xiaoping rather than ignored, shunned, or made a perennial target for regime change.

Gaining the North Korean leader’s confidence will not be easy as his and his country’s sense of victimization and fear of powerlessness run deep. On the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth, Kim Jong Un delivered a speech in which he claimed that the “small and weak” nation that his grandfather was born into “which had been trampled upon at each festival scene of the powers” had transformed over the years into a “dignified military and political power.” The North Korean people, he asserted, had become independent and “can never be toyed with by anybody.” Kim attributed these changes to the military-first policies of his grandfather and father, “the pioneers and leaders of the military-first revolution.” Unilateral North Korean denuclearization would, therefore, require nothing less than a revolution in the Kim regime’s thinking on security and the bases of North Korea’s prestige.

In the midst of North Korea’s Arduous March, a famine in the 1990s that claimed hundreds of thousands if not millions of North Korean lives, Kim Jong Il voiced his country’s desperate wish to be taken seriously, stating that “There is no people who do not love and value their country and nation; there can be no people who like to see the dignity and soul of their nation trampled upon and ignored.” So long as North Korea believes that denuclearization might spell a diminishment of its status and influence in international affairs to a level commensurate with its GDP, it will cling to its hard-earned “treasured sword.” After all, it is quite reasonable that the North would prefer to be a despised nuclear power that has agency in international affairs rather than risk becoming a feckless beggar state put at the mercy of great powers.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. You can follow him on Twitter @KrisAMcGuire