What does IR theory say about nuclear proliferation policies regarding North Korea?

Image Source (Stephen)

Written by James Lo

This is the second part of a three part series on using nuclear proliferation theories to analyse current nuclear proliferation foreign policies. In part one, I provided a succinct summary of various theories. In this post, I will argue that Etel Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory, outlined in Nuclear Logics, applies best to North Korea and how a nuclear foreign policy may look if developed according to that theory. Ultimately, a country should look to shift North Korea’s stance to an “outward-looking framework” through engaging North Korea in dialogue to increase international engagement.

Which theories are the most applicable to North Korea?

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons in relation to North Korea. Hyman’s individual leadership theory may be problematic because it places too much emphasis on an individual and may find it difficult to explain the various deviances in North Korea’s nuclear programmes within a particular leader – for example, Kim’s announcement to join the NPT in 1985. Moreover, Solingen provides a great criticism of realism and the different trajectories that it provides. Realism is problematic as the logic of self-help leads to wide ranging options. For example, the nuclear trajectories of North Korea and Iran were vastly different despite both under external threats from US and Israel.

Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory is the best suited to explain North Korea nuclear proliferation. Under Kim Il-Sung, North Korea pursued a nuclear programme to increase the defence capabilities…and reliably safeguard its security on the bases of our own forces. Kim Jong-Il promoted the “songun” policy, which gave the military priority in societal affairs and increased military participation in difference spheres of economic activity. Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons as both countries’ inward-looking leaders decided to proliferate in order to secure political survival through the empowering of the military-industrial complex and the maintaining of a closed country.

Solingen’s theory also provides the most convincing explanation as to why states renounce nuclear weapons. There are significant problems when realism and international institution theories are applied to North Korea and Iran. North Korea opted to proliferate despite hegemonic protection from China and Soviet Union. International institutions also do not provide a strong explanation due to their obligation for membership and weak enforcement mechanisms. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and became free of its NPT obligations. North Korea broke the NPT guidelines and began to proliferate while they were members of the NPT. Moreover, the sanctioning mechanisms within international institutions are faulty. North Korea was able to absorb the sanctions through the development of black markets and loose monitoring of surrounding countries including China.

Solingen’s domestic theory provides a great framework that can potentially be applied to North Korea and Iran. The general trend in Middle East and East Asia is that inward-looking countries seek to proliferate while outward-looking countries seek to abstain from nuclear weapons. In East Asia, countries such as Japan and South Korea provide evidence that outward-looking countries seem to renounce nuclear weapons. This is mirrored by the cases of Libya and Egypt in the Middle East. North Korea and Iran fit the framework of inward-looking states – as such, Solingen’s outward looking model and the experiences of other countries in the regions can serve to signal a potential future path for North Korea.

Formulating policy recommendations

North Korea

Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea resembles a great example of an inward-looking state. Kim Jong-Un has continued with the “Juche” (self-reliance) policy adopted by his predecessors and announced in 2013 the new strategic “Byungjin” policy – the parallel development of the military and economy. Kim’s preference to maintain a closed North Korean system can be seen in his plenary speeches, where words like “self-reliance”, “self-supporting” and “self-sufficiency” are commonly used to describe the North Korea’s military and economy. Moreover, Kim Jong Un relies on the military-industrial complex to promote economic growth, with the munitions industry crucial in promoting economic, agricultural and infrastructure development. Therefore, the current North Korean regime is an inward-looking regime as it is closed off from the international community and relies on the military-industrial complex to boost economic growth.

Policy recommendations

Policies should therefore be developed with the underlying aim to transform North Korea from an inward-looking country to an outward-looking country. For a country like the UK, they should act to promote dialogue between different stakeholders in this issue, including South Korea, US and China. Dialogue with North Korea should seek to nudge Kim and North Korea into a more cooperative mood and be increasingly open and more favourable to international engagement. UK can play an integral role in this direction, as UK’s embassy in North Korea provides avenues for communication with North Korea and for gathering of information. With Kim recently viewing the US-North Korean relationship as a ‘clear stand-off between self-reliance and sanctions’, UK can use their various diplomatic channels reduce tensions in the region and act as a link between different stakeholders, using South Korean President Moon’s dialogues with Kim which led to groundbreaking talks with Trump in 2019 as reference. UK should also work to facilitate cooperation and encourage North Korea’s economic development and remodeling (which was suggested in Kim’s 2020 speech). Kim’s recent visit to Vietnam has sparked speculation that Kim is willing to change its economy according to the Vietnam model. North Korean senior economic officials visited UK in 2001 as they hoped to ‘learn more about European economies and how they have approached economic restructuring’. With Kim’s stated desire to adopt economic reforms, UK can use diplomatic channels to offer guidance and support.

The above policy recommendations differ from the US approach as the Trump administration favours the use of sanctions and military threats against Kim. The UK should act to persuade the UNSC and the US, in particular, to lift sanctions against North Korea. Sanctions are problematic as they reinforce the “Juche” mentality and serve as rhetoric which allows the military-industrial complex to maintain its significant influence. As there is no lack of interest to invest in North Korean companies from Western companies, the removal of sanctions could increase foreign cooperation with North Korea and shift North Korea closer to an outward-looking framework.


This essay argues that Solingen’s domestic theory as the best explanation as to why states develop and renounce nuclear weapons. Using this theoretical basis, UK should seek to shift North Korea from an inward-looking to an outward-looking framework. In terms of policy, countries should engage North Korea through various diplomatic and economic channels to shift North Korea to being more open to international cooperation.

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