8-2: Why Now?

The readings this week focus mainly on the issue of when states have acquired nuclear force, and what forces go into causing them to do so (or decide not to do so). My main question for this week then, is why now? We have talked extensively about the budding nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, and although both of these states have obviously been working on nuclear technology for some time, it seems as though each one has recently made the decision to make a strong push towards nuclear status.

In his 1996 article, Sagan looks to challenge the notion that all states develop nuclear power to respond to a military threat. The idea behind this theory is that a country will only seek to go nuclear when faced with a military threat that cannot be addressed by conventional (non-nuclear) tactics alone. Sagan argues that this notion, while potentially true for some states, is too narrow a claim to hold true for all nuclear (and non-nuclear) decisions. He presents two alternative theories to describe why some states may develop nuclear weapons. The domestic politics model suggests that states go nuclear because individual actors within the state encourage or discourage the government from pursuing nuclear capabilities to serve their own political interests. The norms model focuses on the symbolic nature of the bomb, using global perceptions of legitimacy and appropriateness as either justification for or deterrence from going nuclear.

Given these three models for justification of nuclear development (security, domestic politics, and international norms), what is the most likely cause for nuclear development from North Korea now? How about from Iran? I imagine that it is certainly a combination of the three factors, and yet there must be one that pushes harder than the others.

In North Korea specifically, the idea of a second war with South Korea must be a constant tug on the minds of the government, so it is easy to guess that the security model would be a strong candidate for nuclear development. The question that arises again, however, is why now? The Korean War ended 60 years ago, and yet nuclear tests have really begun rigorously in the last few years. Perhaps this can be explained from a domestic politics perspective. Kim Jong-Un assumed office less than two years ago, and the 30-year old Supreme Leader may be seeking to rally support from his people (or his government) for a “war” that they have been engaged in for multiple generations. Alternatively, the young leader may be seeking respect on an international level. Give the awful living conditions within North Korea, going nuclear may be an attempt by the regime to be taken seriously by the world at large.

Which of these do you think are the most influential in light of North Korea’s recent tests and threats? Flipping to Iran, do you think all these theories still apply, and what reasoning do you have? I think that the situation in North Korea is mostly explained by the domestic politics model, but I look forward to disagreeing with me! — Patrick

9 thoughts on “8-2: Why Now?

  1. I think it’s certainly true that North Korea is motivated by internal politics in pursuing nuclear weapons, especially now that Kim Jong-Un has taken power and is seeking to reinforce his father’s militaristic tendencies, even if that’s only to assert his legitimacy as a leader. That said, North Korea faces tough sanctions and developing a nuclear weapon despite the sanctions could be seen as an overt attempt to demonstrate some dramatic military power and demonstrate their ability to act as ‘meaningful’ geopolitical power.

  2. While I agree that domestic and political issues have contributed to North Korea’s recent surge towards the development of nuclear weapons, I still feel that this trend can be attributed to a more military background. During the Korean war, North Korea relied heavily on its allies including China to provide them with the assistances and defenses they needed. They placed their faith in an outside ally and did not obtain a favorable outcome. Fast forward to the present and now we see a growing and recovering North Korea that is seeking to find its place in the world. However, after the end of the war, they have not really been left with any supporters to rely on for aid. What is left for them is to fend for themselves and the best way for them to protect themselves from a nuclear armed China and a globally supported South Korea is to develop nuclear capabilities.

  3. I am not sure whether I agree that there is one model which can be most significantly identified as the reason for North Korea’s nuclear program development. If anything, I think the comments below, as well as your own analysis Patrick, illustrate the ways that these causes are cumulative and kind of entangled with one another. For example, security against China and South Korea implicates an appeal to internationally-recognized “modernity” in a sense, in that a credible nuclear threat depends on that technical military and political capability — on the “modernity” of the state. In terms of domestic politics, becoming a serious player in the international arena seems to imply domestic authority and (more problematically) legitimacy as well, in terms of rallying support from the citizens. That is to say, becoming a serious geopolitical power probably has a large effect on domestic politics regardless of whether this is the main cause of developing nuclear capabilities or not. So to be honest, I think what Sagan’s models really offer is a set of lenses through which to read a particular state’s nuclearization. They each emphasize different components of the development of nuclear weapons capabilities, and in concert with one another, they offer a nice, comprehensive framework for teasing out the reasons for nuclearization.

  4. The security model is definitely not enough to explain the fluctuations in the DPRK leadership’s policy toward its nuclear program. I would agree that the domestic politics model and, to a certain extent, the norms model shed additional light on why Kim Jong Un and his regime have recently begun issuing new threats, conducting a test, and restarting their nuclear program. Kim Jong Un is still a fairly new leader who was rushed into his position much earlier than expected due to the death of his father; he did not have enough time to consolidate power, respect, or among the North Korean people, even much name/face recognition before taking over. According to the rationale behind both models, the new regime would be motivated to conduct highly visible nuclear tests and up their rhetoric.

    I would be interested to know if there are any other models that can help explain a country’s decision to pursue, give up, etc. its nuclear program. In the case of North Korea, I imagine that China’s influence also weighs heavily on its decision making, but this does not seem to fit neatly into any of the three models proffered by Sagan.

  5. I think you raise a very solid point Emma, about the overlapping use of these three lenses. Similarly to North Korea, Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons capabililites can be more or less described within these three categories. From a security point of view, Iran is bordering or nearby 5 out of the 9 nuclear powers. Furthermore, it’s program can interpreted as a outgrowth of the Iran-Iraq war, during which Iraq used chemical weapons and attempted to pursue a nuclear program of its own, forcing Iran to become more self-reliant in arms and technology. From a domestic politics perspective, however, the nuclear program is recently more complicated. Although it enjoyed widespread popular support, Iran’s nuclear program has been a divisie political topic since Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election, pitting the hardliners against the conservatives and the Green revolution. It is unclear whether this program will strengthen Ahmadinejad’s opposition, or rally support behind his efforts: much of this will be determined by how the conflict resolves in the next year or so. Lastly, in terms of norms and international recognition, it is very much in the interest of Iran to defy Western arrogance if possible, regain legitimacy and diplomatic leverage in the region.

  6. While the North Korean threat is sufficiently terrifying, I do think that internal-pressure is probably the biggest reason for their extensive testing and threats. Kim Jong Un is a new leader who has “big shoes” to fill. And in order for him to rally support from his citizens, it’s crucial that he heats up the rhetoric against the US and American allies. Yet, it is really important for him to prove that he can act on this rhetoric, hence the threats and tests. However, I do think the Iran story is slightly different–they don’t seem as radical, nor do they seem to pose as much of a short-term threat. However, their goals seem far more serious and in the long run, their actions may threaten global stability even more.

  7. I agree with the point that there are a variety of reasons for the recent push towards nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea, but I also think that Iran and North Korea have very different motivations. As Patrick and many others have stated, I think the recent nuclear threats by North Korea are just the new leader, Kim Jong-Un, trying to show that he is powerful and rally support. As a leader for only 2 years, he is trying to start his rule on a powerful foot. He wants North Korea to be a national player, and he wants the world to fear him. I believe Iran, on the other hand, is motivated by security. I say this because Iran is in a war zone. The surrounding countries and constantly at war, so they are surrounded by chaos. With Iraq on one side and Afghanistan on the other, they must be in constant turmoil with the Taliban moving in and out. While they may not use the nuclear weapons to fight, nuclear weapons do give a country power. It could give them stability through all the chaos.

  8. One thing that I feel still needs to be addressed here is
    the other part of Sagan’s analysis. He not only wants to look at States that
    have developed nuclear weapons, but States that have refrained from doing so.
    One country in the middle of this decision is South Korea, where we may discuss
    the application of Sagan’s models in a predictive manner. As mentioned in
    comments from previous weeks, polls indicate that 66% of South Koreans believe
    the country should develop a nuclear weapons program. Would President Park, who
    has taken a hard line on North Korea like her father, benefit domestically from
    the establishment of a nuclear program then? From the point of view of a
    military model, would nuclear armament do anything for the security of South
    Korea? Can US military force still be relied on as a deterrent? Yesterday,
    Secretary Kerry spoke with President Park about civilian nuclear program
    cooperation, hoping that the issue would be resolved before President Park’s
    visit to the US in May. It will be fascinating to watch how South Korea moves
    forward and how other countries in the region respond.

  9. The situation in North Korea does appeal to a combination of these theories. North Korea is in a uniquely isolated position especially since its ties with China are deteriorating. China no longer strongly protects the country and has signed sanctions against North Korea in order to promote stability on the peninsula. For this reason, North Korea’s situation fits the security scenario. It lacks clear powerful allies, and therefore, the state must take care of itself. North Korea could view the international scene as a zero-sum situation in which its only options are to gain power or lose power. In this case, its weapon policy stems from a desire to balance its power against its rivals. However, North Korea might be taking it too far. If they are bluffing, they could become embroiled very quickly in a taxing conflict with uncertain conflicts.

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