Over the past two decades, North Korea’s nuclear program has grown from a proliferation problem to

North Korea’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy

North Korea’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy

a military threat to its neighbors and the United States. The country is now estimated to possess enough fissile material to build anywhere from six to about thirty nuclear weapons, depending largely on how much highly enriched uranium it has produced, and is poised to grow its stockpile, perhaps dramatically, over the coming years. North Korea has conducted three increasingly powerful nuclear tests since 2006 as well as a series of missile launches, suggesting to some that it could sooner or later target the US homeland. If that were not enough, the North has made excessively bold and even preemptive nuclear threats under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.

This paper offers an analytical framework for four alternative North Korean nuclear strategies: 1) a strategy aimed at extracting international political or diplomatic concessions; 2) a strategy aimed at internationalizing crises on the Korean peninsula in a way that triggers US and/or Chinese intermediation; 3) a retaliatory strategy to deter regime-threatening attacks; and 4) a nuclear war-fighting strategy to offset conventional weaknesses vis-à-vis South Korea and the United States. The paper then assesses the limited evidence about North Korea’s nuclear strategy—where it has been and where it is going.

Download the report “North Korea’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy,” by Shane Smith.

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The views expressed in this publication are of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the US-Korea Institute at SAIS.

This publication results from research supported by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) via Assistance Grant/Agreement No. N00244-14-1-0024 awarded by the NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center San Diego (NAVSUP FLC San Diego). The views expressed in written materials or publications, and/or made by speakers, moderators, and presenters, do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Naval Postgraduate School nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government.

This North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series was also made possible by support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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