Pragmatic, Not Mad: The Rationality of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Mark Haichin


The reasoning behind North Korea’s continued efforts to develop a nuclear deterrent remains puzzling to many, with the heavy costs and behavior of the regime leading to the belief that it is irrational. This paper argues that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is instead a rational strategy for the regime. The perceived threat from South Korean and American military forces, as well as its own ineffective conventional forces, make a North Korean nuclear program a viable and relatively cheap deterrent. Its limited foreign relations and near-total dependence on China largely insulate it from economic punishment. Finally, the nature of the regime allows it to disregard popular opinion while forcing it to accommodate military demands for a nuclear deterrent. The necessity of nuclear weapons for defence and the few downsides of possessing them means that Pyongyang is unlikely to give them up, thus dooming denuclearization efforts to failure.

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JMSS is a publication of the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

JMSS gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council.