Arming to Disarm: North Korea’s Nuclear Paradox

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Arming to Disarm: North Korea’s Nuclear Paradox

Even as its nuclear capacity continues to advance, Pyongyang will keep its anti-nuclear doctrine in place – despite the growing contradiction.

Arming to Disarm: North Korea’s Nuclear Paradox

In this photo distributed by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks around what it says a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the launcher, at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 24, 2022.

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

North Korea has conducted a number of long-range ballistic missile tests in 2022, breaking a self-imposed moratorium in place since 2018, amid a period of détente during the Moon Jae-in and Trump administrations. North Korea began a carefully choreographed stratagem in January 2022 with an announcement at the eighth Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee that it would resume “all temporarily-suspended activities.” Initially, Pyongyang test-fired medium-range and cruise missiles. After a pause in February, coinciding with the Beijing Winter Olympics, matters were escalated with a series of ICBM launches over the following months. The firing of upgraded missiles using diversified launching methods demonstrated significant technological and tactical advancement. Meanwhile, reports that the nuclear test site in Punggyeri has been restored have led to speculation that a next step may be a seventh nuclear test.

The obvious question is whether, in gearing up its deterrence capability, Pyongyang has now discarded its “Korean Peninsular denuclearization” doctrine, the so-called “denuclearization instruction” enshrined in the legacies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il? My response is that North Korea will maintain a tenacious commitment to denuclearization.

Since the early 1990s, Pyongyang’s position has remained consistent: It has unwaveringly stressed the inevitability of nuclear development in response to a hostile U.S., while continuing to pledge a commitment to denuclearization. This nuclear paradox – arming to disarm – is likely to persist, even as its nuclear capacity continues to advance and the gap between its anti-nuclear doctrine and nuclear-deterrence practice continues to widen.

Understanding North Korea’s ever-fluid nuclear rhetoric is more important than ever. This article looks at the deep roots of Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear practice to discuss how this served its geopolitical, domestic, and psychological interests during the Cold War.

Geopolitics of Anti-Nuclearism

Securing the commitment of its powerful allies to provide extended security underpinned Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear strategy in the 1950s and ‘60s. Fashioned in a Cold War antagonism, it adopted a form of realpolitik, externally associating with the USSR and China to counterbalance the U.S. extended deterrence provided to the South. Internally, North Korea focused on strengthening its conventional capability, as set out in the 1962 Byungjin policy. A security-inferior Pyongyang felt the necessity to engage in normative nuclear politics and embrace the international anti-nuclear movement as a means of condemning and seeking to deter nuclear-shield Cold War enemies.

Its anti-nuclear posture was, however, complicated by Sino-USSR rivalry and a fear of abandonment. Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated once Khrushchev took office, and regional geopolitics became even more intricate with the Chinese nuclear test in 1964. By the early 1970s, it was not evident to Kim Il Sung that Moscow and Beijing would necessarily stand firm in protecting Pyongyang. Indeed, Sino-U.S. détente heightened security uncertainty surrounding the peninsula and intensified both Koreas’ nuclear aspirations. Given the nature of the asymmetric alliances, it was inevitable that the two client states would question the depth of their patrons’ commitment. Nixon’s decision to pull the U.S. Seventh Division out of South Korea in 1971 was a watershed moment for Park Chung-hee, who resolved to develop his own nuclear capability, embarking on a clandestine nuclear program. Likewise, exploration of nuclear technology cooperation was top of Kim Il Sung’s agenda.

The difference was that while Washington’s maneuvers pulled Seoul back into the non-proliferation orbit, Moscow failed in its attempts to reassure Pyongyang. Under pressure from Washington, Seoul proceeded not only to complete its long-overdue ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in April 1975, but also cancelled a reprocessing deal with France in January 1976. Its reward was greater nuclear energy cooperation with Washington. In contrast, despite Moscow’s efforts, North Korea resisted signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It regarded the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the South as a constant provocation. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Pyongyang sought support from its allies to build nuclear reactors, to no avail. The result was to aggravate its fear of abandonment. At the same time, juche ideas fueled Kim’s fears that the regime’s survival was threatened, increasing the urgency to secure a self-reliant deterrent.

Given these concerns, Pyongyang’s balancing act – not fully embracing either patron, in order to extract strategic advantage from both – foreshadowed what would become an aspect of its apparently counter-intuitive “arm to disarm” doctrine.

Semantics of “Inevitability”

In the late 1940s, echoing the Kremlin’s strategy of delegitimizing U.S. nuclear weapons, the North had enthusiastically embraced global peace and anti-nuclear campaigns. In addition, its anti-nuclear discourse conveyed a strong message to a domestic audience: While affirming the universal values of the cause, the discourse was expanded to reflect local reality, i.e. the division of Korea. By the turn of the 1950s, therefore, the anti-nuclear agenda had become conflated with the national unification imperative, focusing on the “inevitability” of civil war.

For example, Han Sol Ya, chair of the Korean National Peace Committee, delivered a speech on his return from the 1949 Paris World Peace Congress, only a year before the outbreak of the Korean War, counter-intuitively justifying war as an option in achieving unification, “to complete peace in the world.” In similar vein, the 1950 Stockholm Peace Appeal was appropriated to include a national unity message calling for “peace and national reunification,” with the emphasis on the latter. Millions of signatures were arranged in a petition to support the appeal, even as war raged on the peninsula.

In due course, another “inevitability” was embraced, this time nuclear acquisition to counter the nuclear establishment (evidenced by China’s 1964 test). Meanwhile, a newly emergent non-proliferation regime, culminating in the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, was bound to trouble a juche-inspired Pyongyang. Juche demanded a “rightful” place for North Korea at the international table, from which it could contest a nuclear order dominated by the existing powers, especially the United States. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, therefore, was condemned as protecting the position of Washington through an “unfair” nuclear protocol. Pyongyang’s resistance was a rerun of the struggle for independence and a restatement of its anti-imperialist imperative during the Japanese colonial period. Thus the combination of an anti-U.S. imperialist narrative and juche-based sovereignty underpinned Pyongyang’s ambition to acquire “righteous” nuclear weapons. The pursuit of “justice” in the nuclear order led it to rationalize “inevitable” nuclear-arming as an interim response to “injustice.”

Psychology of Anti-Nuclearism

The dynamics of Cold War rivalries continued to evolve at international, regional, and subregional levels, leading the focus of Pyongyang’s anti-nuclearism to shift from, first, engagement in the world peace movement, to second, the creation of regional nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZs)/zones of peace (ZOPs), to third, advocacy of peninsular denuclearization.

Early Cold War geopolitical rivalry had seen Washington and Moscow reach out to their respective allies, leading to the strengthening of opposing blocs. The Kremlin agreed on joint nuclear research activity with Beijing in 1953, while Eisenhower launched an ambitious “Atoms for Peace” initiative that same year. In the later part of the decade the United States began to deploy nuclear weapons in Europe to counterbalance the Warsaw Pact’s superior conventional forces. In the Asia-Pacific, it extended its nuclear umbrella to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Moscow’s response, constrained by inferior nuclear capability, was to play the anti-nuclear card, condemning U.S. deployment in both the European and Asian theaters and proposing NWFZs in Central Europe and the Asia-Pacific in 1959. As Washington continued to increase its tactical weapons disposition in Asia throughout the 1960s, the focus of Pyongyang’s strategy shifted from the world peace movement toward the creation of an Asia-Pacific NWFZ and ZOP.

The early 1970s marked a strategic turning point in East Asia, with a series of security developments that included, notably, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s pragmatic engagement with Beijing. The effect was to increase Pyongyang’s uncertainty about its allies’ commitment, motivating it to look beyond its traditional “socialist” diplomacy to reach out to the Third World and embrace the anti-nuclear thrust of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

In the 1980s, the balance of power shifted toward the South, causing Pyongyang’s anti-nuclearism to focus more narrowly on the Korean Peninsula. Its advocacy of a peninsular NWFZ/ZOP demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea. Meanwhile, it was being further confronted by the U.S. threat through the enlarged Team Spirit military exercises. The urgency Pyongyang had come to attach to an anti-nuclear posture exposed its fears that survival of the regime was at risk. At the turn of the 1990s, responding to a new geopolitical reality at the end of the Cold War, it adopted a more tightly focused anti-nuclear project, moving beyond peninsular NWFZ demands to advocate peninsular denuclearization.

Given its inferior security capacity, Pyongyang anticipated two benefits from its anti-nuclear stance: The NWFZ was likely to deliver the same result as an extended deterrence, with Pyongyang obtaining negative security assurances from nuclear-armed enemies. At the same time, NAM-related postcolonial anti-nuclear solidarity would serve to challenge and undermine the legitimacy of Washington’s nuclear strategy, providing a psychological boost in the face of U.S. domination.


Pyongyang’s Cold War anti-nuclearism served important geopolitical, semantic, and psychological purposes. First, in reacting to a chronic existential threat, North Korea actively engaged in peace/anti-nuclear campaigning with the aim of delegitimizing and deterring the adversary. Second, its anti-nuclearism reflected a capacity to adapt to Cold War security challenges while promulgating its juche-inspired autonomy. Lastly, it provided both a psychological safeguard and psychological warfare tools against its nuclear-armed enemies.

Looking ahead, and contrary to critics who regard North Korea’s anti-nuclear posture since the early 1990s as camouflaged realist behavior, I argue that Pyongyang’s ostensible commitment to denuclearization will continue to be integral to its nuclear doctrine. This may appear puzzling, considering the proclaimed imperative of “inevitable” nuclear arming. But it is evident that the emergent Sino-U.S. rivalry of the early 21st century has revived some of the Cold War security dynamics in East Asia and exacerbated Pyongyang’s threat perception.

Growing strategic uncertainty, alongside the regime’s hereditary domestic politics and juche-inspired autonomy, suggests that even if the gap between its denuclearization principles and nuclear practice continues to widen, Pyongyang’s anti-nuclear advocacy will endure as the basis of its strategy. This means that if North Korea wishes to continue to assert denuclearization, it must retain its nuclear capacity as a way of hedging its security inferiority. This paradox continues to offer geopolitical, semantic, and psychological safeguards: Pyongyang seeks to delegitimize U.S. nuclear strategy in the region while seeking to restrain South Korean nuclear ambitions, and, of necessity, justifies its minimum nuclear capacity as an interim measure toward a phased nuclear disarmament – “arming to disarm.”

This article is based on the findings of a research paper published in The Pacific Review; an international relations journal covering the interactions of the countries of the Asia-Pacific.