Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP11: Evolving DPRK Nuclear Doctrine

October 1, 2019

This paper investigates how an emerging nuclear weapon state—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—establishes and develops its nuclear doctrine upon completion of its nuclear arsenal. Since DPRK’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s and its first nuclear test in 2006, the nuclear nonproliferation community has focused on how to dismantle DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. Only recently have scholars focused on managing to live with a nuclear North Korea, shifting attention from nonproliferation to defense and deterrence. However, little scholarship has been produced vis-à-vis DPRK’s nuclear doctrine due to the lack of information and concern over recognizing DPRK as a nuclear weapon state. Understanding DPRK’s nuclear doctrine offers insights to developing an appropriate deterrence and defense strategy, as well as ways to revise strategies to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Discerning DPRK’s nuclear doctrine not only contributes to the understanding of current security challenges on the Korean Peninsula, but more importantly offers an opportunity to expand scholarship on nuclear strategy.

This paper attempts to systematically answer a question that has often been raised by the national security establishment: what is DPRK’s nuclear doctrine? The key findings offer both theoretical and policy implications. First, the findings suggest that DPRK’s nuclear posture has evolved over time towards a more aggressive posture, despite popular misperception that the role of nuclear weapons in DPRK is purely for deterrence. The evolution of its doctrine towards preemptive strike indicates that premature redeployment of US tactical nuclear weapons into the Korean theater, an increasingly popular argument in Seoul, would only exacerbate DPRK’s aggressive posture with marginal benefit on extended deterrence.

Second, DPRK has adopted a posture that is common among weaker nuclear weapon states, as France and Pakistan did to counter stronger adversaries. Existing theories on brinkmanship and resolve offer a logic as to why DPRK’s nuclear posture is similar to other weaker nuclear weapon states. Third, DPRK’s nuclear doctrine poses a fundamental question to existing theories of nuclear deterrence: how little is enough to credibly threaten nuclear retaliation in the absence of necessary capabilities? More work can be done to explain DPRK’s seemingly inflated behavior—to credibly threaten nuclear retaliation when such capabilities are incomplete.