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The Evolution of the North Korean Nuclear Program: from Survival Strategy to Ideological Legitimization
Author: Marco Milani
Region: Asia
Theme: Security
Location: Korea, North
Published June 7, 2018
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In recent years the North Korean nuclear program has increasingly become a major concern for East Asian security. Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its advancements in both missile and nuclear technology, with the final goal of acquiring a credible nuclear deterrent. To achieve this goal, the regime has committed a vast amount of state resources and has jeopardized relations with neighboring countries and major powers. This dangerous situation has created instability in the region and has hindered the possibilities of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

The traditional interpretation of the North Korean nuclear program focuses on the survival of the regime and emphasizes the military aspect of security. While these factors play a significant role, over the last twenty-five years new roles have emerged for the nuclear program. Survival remains the priority, but in addition to the military level of nuclear deterrence this paper introduces two different aspects directly connected to the security of the regime: economic security and domestic ideological legitimization. The development of nuclear weapons has been repeatedly used by Pyongyang as leverage in negotiations and to strengthen its political legitimacy. Understanding the complexity and the different factors behind this strategy is crucial to design and implement a viable and effective strategy aimed at limiting or eliminating the North Korean nuclear threat.

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