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