By Lauren Cho*
Over the past decades, U.S. efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea have failed to yield lasting results. Looking forward, it is critical to put greater emphasis on the socio-economic connections that are intertwined with the state’s nuclear weapons program in our diplomatic efforts. By gaining insights into the social implications of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program through socio-cultural intelligence sources, we can leverage this knowledge effectively to explore ways of improving denuclearization negotiations with North Korea.
Understanding Militarism in North Korea
North Korea’s nuclear weapons proliferation should be framed as part of militarism — focusing the state on military preparation to be used against a potential aggressor. These weapons perpetuate the idea that the United States — and the outside world — is an imperialist aggressor with the aim of annihilating the country; nuclear weapons protect them from becoming victims. However, militarism is not solely achieved by war preparedness through the military, but also through non-military institutions and everyday life.
The establishment of North Korean nuclear weapons should be framed as the consequence of conflict and collaboration between social actors — including technologies, corporations, and political leaders — rather than the inevitable result of technological and political objectives. From this standpoint, one can examine how national interest in nuclear weapons is developed and how such interests interact with each other. The insights gained can encourage policymakers to move away from basing policy on the idea that nuclear weapons proliferate from political desires in favor of a more holistic approach.
Proliferation–related intelligence has often focused on whether a particular state has nuclear weapons and the specific technical capabilities acquired, rather than what this nuclear acquisition means culturally and politically. While North Korea’s nuclear threats may have an upfront political objective, these weapons are also a tool to minimize domestic retaliation against the Kim regime. By displaying its nuclear warheads, Kim is demonstrating his military’s capability to cause blowback to any regime-threatening situation, further solidifying the Kim regime’s authority and control over its populace.
The development of these weapons also reinforces the Kim regime’s narrative. North Korea uses security as a justification for militarism by exaggerating threat perceptions through manipulation of the political narrative. The allocation of significant resources to the nuclear weapons program are often tied to propaganda fostering the belief that only the Kim regime can safeguard the nation from “imperialists” — namely the United States and South Korea — thereby propagating a misleading notion that nuclear weapons are essential for protecting the North Korean populace.
This, in turn, enhances the Kim regime’s ideological influence over its population and can garner support for the continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Forcing a denuclearizing policy on its own, therefore, will likely be unsuccessful since these weapons have become perceived as necessary to the security — both militarily and socioeconomically — for North Korea. That means that North Korea would never bargain away their nuclear program without support for their regime.
Despite the Kim regime citing foreign adversaries as the main rationale for nuclear weapons, its greatest vulnerability is actually internal — through the North Korean people under totalitarian repression. The nuclear weapons program is a way to maintain this control and prevent internal rebellion, thereby securing the Kim regime’s rule internally in addition to its external deterrence. Because North Korean ideological control and nuclear proliferation are intertwined, policymakers should adopt a human rights-focused approach instead of relying solely on the ineffective strategy of prioritizing upfront denuclearization.
While there have been several efforts in the past to provide information and promote human rights awareness among the North Korean population, the regime’s efforts to suppress dissent and maintain ideological conformity have made it difficult for campaigns to reach a broad audience and create lasting impact. Promoting human rights and targeting denuclearization is a complex and long-term endeavor that requires sustained commitment to the campaign, as change may take time to materialize. Combining information campaigns with diplomatic efforts to engage with key regional stakeholders will prove integral to any dialogue or negotiation with North Korea.
A comprehensive information and influence campaign would not only help promote human rights in North Korea, but also guide North Koreans to realize the oppression perpetrated by the Kim regime. Tailoring messages to different categories of individuals within North Korea — including victims of human rights abuses, party members and military personnel who are denied basic rights — can highlight the benefits of denuclearization by illustrating the opportunity cost. For instance, North Korea has allocated approximately $1.6 billion toward the development of nuclear weapons since the 1970s. This amount of funding could have been used to purchase around 2.05 million tons of rice or 4.1 million tons of corn, which is equivalent to providing four years’ worth of food for the entire North Korean population. By showcasing how resources are being diverted toward nuclear weapons rather than addressing basic human needs, such information poses the regime’s skewed priorities and can raise awareness about the regime’s disregard for the well-being and rights of its own people. Information campaigns can introduce alternative narratives and challenge the regime’s propaganda, further weakening its control over its people and creating a space for dissent and demands for change, including the regime’s policies on their nuclear weapons program.
Going forward, policymakers should not be guided by the idea that denuclearization is a viable policy on its own. A new strategy should be based on addressing the underlying security concerns driving North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and a practical understanding of North Korea’s unwavering commitment to sustaining its nuclear weapons program, a commitment it deems critical for the survival of the Kim regime. This does not imply recognizing North Korea as a legitimate nuclear weapons state, but rather signifies the need to acknowledge that North Korea’s nuclear weapons have socio-economic associations that need to be prioritized. Through an information campaign complemented by diplomatic efforts and other tools of statecraft, these initiatives can play a critical role in creating a foundation for long-term change by influencing public opinion over time and gradually increasing receptiveness to denuclearization efforts.
*Editor’s note: Writing for the Center’s new Next Up in Arms Control series, Lauren Cho is currently a third-year student at Brown University studying International & Public Affairs with a focus in security. She is currently a visiting student at the University of Oxford studying History. She has previously conducted research for CTBTO and CENESS, as well as the British American Security Information Council on nuclear disarmament and diplomacy.