This article is adapted from a presentation delivered to Café Politique at Ustinov College, Durham University, on 21 February 2013.


This article addresses some fundamental questions about North Korea’s foreign policy decision-making, unpacking the current situation on the Korean Peninsula.  It explains how the state’s development of its nuclear weapons programme can actually be seen as a rational and understandable defensive move.


The origins of North Korea’s present situation lie in the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.  Tracing its existence back to 1945, North Korea was formally declared into being as the (ironically-named) Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948.  Following a rather cavalier decision by its first leader, Kim Il-sung, to invade his southern neighbour in 1950, negotiations began to take place.  These continued until 1953 when the Korean War ended with an armistice, but no peace treaty.  And yes, that is the armistice document that the DPRK no longer holds to be valid as of 11 March 2013.  Whether this represents anything more but brinkmanship is questionable.  Rest assured, North Korea still wants peace.  Looking at the DPRK’s foreign policy and negotiating patterns this paradox is less absurd than it seems.


Since its establishment, North Korea hasn’t exactly been sociable as far as Western conceptions of interstate relations go.  Consider the DPRK’s negotiation tactics.  In his book How Communists Negotiate, Charles Turner Joy (a US Navy admiral and the Senior Delegate for the UN Command during the Korean War of 1950-53) details his exhaustion with the DPRK’s tactics, which baffled and exhausted his contingent and deliberately hid the North’s true objectives, yet successfully achieved maximum concessions from the UNC.  Evident in Scott Snyder’s Negotiating on the Edge, NK was still playing the same game by 2002.   To understand why the US and other states are constantly aggravated by North Korea’s negotiating, bear this in mind: there isn’t one “set” style of negotiation.  This may sound bizarre, but think about what the US, South Korea and Japan expect to see when they negotiate with other states – a decidedly “American” form of negotiation.

An oversimplified American negotiation process is not dissimilar to that of selling a house (well, to a certain extent…):

  • Objectives in mind, the negotiator may ask for more than is reasonably possible in order to allow for compromise and still achieve the initial target – the pretty house with the hole in the floor under the sofa in one case, and the large sum of cash in the other.
  • Details are discussed between parties, concessions are made and gained until a conclusion is reached that is agreeable to all parties.
  • Each party, if they are negotiating intelligently, will have a “bottom-line”.  If the terms of the negotiation drop below this line, that party will walk away.
  • Each party, if they are negotiating really intelligently, will have a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) in mind.  Basically, the BATNA is the course of action that will be taken if negotiations fail.  If at any point, the terms of the negotiation are looking worse to a party than its BATNA, that party will exit negotiations.
  • Taking into account the above points, parties may choose not to go ahead with the deal (veto), some may be apathetic (abstain, okay the house-buying metaphor is starting to constrict me a bit), but the structure of the negotiation is always clear.
  • All parties use this framework and often have an unstated yet understood temporal deadline – for example, a housing chain.

NK prefers to give the illusion of chaos over such mundane ‘standard operating procedure’ methods.  The objective of this illusion is to obscure the DPRK’s “bottom line” and its BATNA, and also often its temporal deadline.  Its negotiators will wait until the last minute to state their objectives, if they do at all.  Crises are often thrown-in alongside delaying tactics and red herrings at inconvenient moments.  In fact, negotiating with North Korea is almost like one of those films that starts and finishes at unexpected points, such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento, only there’s no feeling of satisfaction at the end of it.  This is probably why NK has managed to achieve significant concessions over the years, starting with the agreement that they could retain sovereignty over their borders at the 38th Parallel North: accomplishment through exasperation of others.  Today, this legacy continues, keeping the DPRK alive in what appears to be an impossible situation.


There are six parties based in and around the Korean Peninsula: North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the US (the latter as an “external actor” with significant amounts of military assets based in and around the region).  Tensions are high between the DPRK and the other regional actors, more recently due to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and ballistic missile development.  However, North Korea has mastered the art of manipulation through hostility.  For example, the DPRK’s 2003 withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) led to the establishment of the Six-Party Talks between the aforementioned regional actors (read: diplomatic engagement and aid provision for North Korea).  These Talks continued despite the North’s 2006 nuclear test.  However, during the Sixth Round of Talks in 2009, the DPRK tested a ballistic missile, drawing UN Security Council criticism and commensurate sanctions.  North Korea’s response was unequivocal: it left the Talks in April 2009 and conducted a second nuclear test the following month.

But, why are North Korea’s ballistic missiles treated with similar levels of seriousness to the state’s nuclear capacity?  Quite simply, the DPRK sends a very strong message in developing both weaponry capabilities simultaneously and testing them in tandem. The nuclear weapon is the ultimate safeguard to their security (paradoxical, I know; I will come to this point later) and the ballistic missile is the vehicle that might be used to deliver such a payload.  We shouldn’t then be surprised when other regional actors react with great urgency to the North’s various tests.  There is also another point to the DPRK’s weapons development, though.

North Korea’s lifeline: The People’s Republic of China

The DPRK is truly isolated. While China might be considered North Korea’s only regional ally, one would be hard-pressed to call it an amicable accord, much less a “special relationship”. This alliance is continually strained by the DPRK’s abovementioned actions.  But China keeps the relationship going.  The reason for this is best explained by looking at the situation Beijing might have to deal with if North Korea collapsed.  Here are some potential scenarios:

  1. North Korea collapses peacefully and a refugee crisis occurs.  China would certainly see its fair share of North Korea’s 24.5million people – an inevitable blow to China’s economic growth plan.
  2. North Korea collapses, detonating one or more nuclear devices in the process.  The Korean Peninsula would become a quarantined zone and southern China would be likely to be included.
  3. North Korea collapses, without detonating any nuclear weapons and either engages in another form of war, or falls peacefully.  Under the former situation, defeat would be probable due to the impoverished state of North Korea’s military and population.  Either way, some form of military contingent, including US troops, would probably move in to secure the area – an outcome not acceptable to a strategist in Beijing, hoping for China to become the next superpower.

So, in developing weapons, the Kim regime not only warns hostile states off; but also draws China in.  It reminds Beijing of the inevitable catastrophe it would face if it were to cease sustaining the DPRK.  To North Korea, China is not only its sole ally; it is also a major source of aid, which is vital to the DPRK’s survival.  There is clearly method here below the showmanship.  The North’s actions are aimed at certain actors and through performances of aggression, it emits predefined signals to specific states.  If a particular nation-state cannot help (or hinder) North Korea, it won’t receive any attention.  Take a look at the case of the UK, for example.

London 2012: Really should’ve gone to Specsavers

During the much-celebrated London 2012 Olympics, the organisers made the spectacular error of confusing North Korea’s flag with that of South Korea, leading to the DPRK’s Olympic women’s football team being introduced alongside the South Korean flag – very embarrassing for the UK and deeply offensive to both North and South Korea.  Amongst others, Specsavers cashed-in with a master stroke of an advertising campaign and I sincerely hope that someone received a promotion for it.

North Korea is well known for its violent overreactions to near insignificant US actions that might be somehow construed as offensive (this is not to say that the US doesn’t occasionally wind North Korea up intentionally).  So why didn’t North Korea react to the UK’s blunder at all?  Sure, in the heat of the moment, the North Korean Olympians walked-off in protest, but that was it.  To put it bluntly, the DPRK doesn’t perceive the UK as particularly useful or dangerous, so why waste time and resources signalling to a state that has no bearing on its survival?

So, what does the DPRK want?

Time to nail my colours to the mast.  Here is my argument at its simplest level: North Korea wants to guarantee its own security (and, more fundamentally, its survival), through the development of weapons of mass destruction.  In 1950 John Herz published an article called ‘Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma’, laying out some basic theoretical assumptions about the structure and effects of International Relations.  Now, I am normally not an advocate of traditional International Relations theory, but it is worth employing in the case of North Korea.  There is simply no better framework for trying to explain state actions on the international stage when so little information is available about the inner workings of the state.  Herz assumes that international society is anarchic.  This doesn’t imply the chaos usually associated with anarchism, rather it is noting that there is no higher authority than the nation-state to mediate relations between states.  In other words, even with the UN in place, there is still no sovereign World Government.  Due to this anarchic nature of international society, states inherently feel cautious of how others might behave at any given time, prompting them to develop their defensive systems.  The problem is, these defensive systems look very much like offensive ones (large armies, air forces, naval vessels, missiles, nuclear weapons, etc.).

In International Relations, the school of Realism is in contention when deciding how states will respond to Herz’s ‘security dilemma’, especially when it comes to the development of nuclear weapons.  Defensive realists might argue that a state develops nuclear weapons with the hope of balancing the power of other states.  This is unlikely in North Korea’s case: it could never realistically contend with its main opponent, the US.  This also dismisses the argument of offensive realists who might say that a state develops nuclear weapons to maximise its power in the hope of becoming the world’s hegemon (granted, this argument is usually used to address the actions of Great Powers such as the US, Germany, China, France, and so on; a category to which North Korea most certainly does not belong).

So, why would North Korea bother developing nuclear weapons if it doesn’t stand a chance of exceeding or balancing the power of the US?  A credible possibility can be found in Power Preponderance theory á la Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth’s World Out of Balance.  This provides a much more accessible framework for understanding the behaviour of smaller and weaker states in the international arena.  Power Preponderance has been harnessed by Campbell Craig in an article entitled, ‘American power preponderance and the nuclear revolution’.  Craig argues that small states develop nuclear weapons not to gain a power advantage, nor even to attempt to balance a rival’s power, but simply to force the opposing state into a position where mounting an attack isn’t a viable option.


In developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (no one believes they’re satellite launch attempts any more), North Korea is making itself an unattractive target for the US and other regional actors, at the same time bringing in aid, particularly from China.  The US could almost certainly win a war with North Korea, but at what cost?  The detonation of a nuclear device on the Korean Peninsula?  Could the DPRK fire a nuclear weapon to a target beyond its own borders?  At this stage, it’s highly doubtful, but that conclusion cannot be 100% guaranteed.  Returning to Herz’s ‘security dilemma’, it’s this uncertainty that prevents the US or any other regional actor from even letting the DPRK collapse, never mind launching an attack on it.  The stakes are just too high.


Thank you to Vincent KeatingSimon Mabon, Danielle Kileff and Madeline Fairhurst for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this project.  Any errors are, of course, my own.


C. Turner Joy, How Communists Negotiate (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955).

Scott Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002).

John H. Herz, ‘Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma, World Politics (Vol.2, No.2, 1950): 157-180.

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, World  Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Campbell Craig, ‘American power preponderance and the nuclear revolution’, Review of International Studies (Vol.35, No.1, 2009): 27-44.

To cite this article

Gilberto J. Algar-Faria (2013), ‘Bargaining for Survival: The Rationale Behind North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Programme’,, 17 May, available from:

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