North Korea's desire to acquire nuclear weapons is entirely understandable from both a practical perspective (more power) and a moral perspective (a deterrence tool in order to defend its own population).

Therefore, it seems obvious that the best way to acquire them would be to simply go about it silently. By making threats and acting maniacal, the opposition against them would increase, and so would the probability of economical sanctions and militant reactions, and so would the support among the public masses of these sanctions and militant reactions, all of which hurts North Korea.

So why are they acting like that? Why not just build their weapons in a non-threatening manner? If they did that, any opposition against them would be minor, or at least much less than what we are seeing now.

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    @JonathanReez - No one thinks that's a fight worth having, for sure. What they would need to stay silent about is if they discovered, say, a large oil field. :D Aug 24, 2017 at 14:24
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    It is worth remembering that they first official confirmation by NK that they were building a nuclear weapon came after its first nuclear test. And while they tried to keep its development secret, there were some telling signs that were detected by the rest of the world (refusal of IAEA inspections being the main one); and they could not test the device they had built without the world noticing. NK did try to build their first nuclear weapons secretly, but that is not something easy to do.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 24, 2017 at 16:08
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    How do you propose secretly launching an ICBM?
    – jscs
    Aug 24, 2017 at 17:17
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    What good does a nuclear weapon (or any weapon, really) do if your potential opponents don't know you have it?
    – jamesqf
    Aug 24, 2017 at 18:08
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    Ever seen "Dr. Strangelove"? A doomsday weapon is no good if you don't tell anyone about it. Aug 24, 2017 at 18:53

5 Answers 5


There are a few reasons I can think of why the DPRK would not want to keep their nuclear ambitions secret:

  1. Military Dictatorships are inherently unstable. Kim Jong-Un has almost as much to fear from his own family and generals as he does from anyone outside of North Korea. If he appears to be strong locally, there is much less chance for a coup. This is one of the reasons why the fairy tales that are popular among North Korean people are encouraged, though I imagine the number of true believers in the country is probably much less than what his regime would like. Having an external threat to point to can have a stabilizing effect by keeping those who may wish to depose him isolated out of fear.

  2. In prior times, signs of belligerence from North Korea was sometimes met with some form of international aid. If you give a bully your lunch money once, they're likely to try to take it again.

  3. When it comes to nuclear weapons, if you build some and no one knows about it then the concept of mutually assured destruction does you no good. It's not enough to have them, people must know that you have them and that you are willing to use them.

  4. The current American administration has been particularly bellicose against North Korea with its rhetoric. The regime may wish to deter a potential first strike by appearing strong, and reminding people that they could start something akin to World War III if they wanted.

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    "The whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret. Why didn't you tell the world, eh?" Aug 24, 2017 at 17:19
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    Adding one more; you can't test a missile or nuclear explosive without other people knowing about it. The results of both are pretty clearly visible. And you'd be crazy to use either of the two untested.
    – Erik
    Aug 24, 2017 at 20:17
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    The third point begs the question: why isn't Israel as open?
    – user5904
    Aug 25, 2017 at 18:00
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    @MathematicsStudent1122: Because none of their potential enemies (bar maybe Pakistan, who's way more focused on India) have nuclear weapons. Hence, they don't need to worry about who does/does not know about the nuclear weapons they may/may not have. In fact, if they were more open, it would likely encourage other states in the area to develop such weapons.
    – tonysdg
    Aug 26, 2017 at 2:11
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    @MathematicsStudent1122 A better explanation about Israel is that they have the unconditional support of the USA and their armies. Nobody can threaten Israel, and them having nuclear weapons is just the icing on the cake and not a survival trait.
    – Shautieh
    Aug 26, 2017 at 2:57

Other answers have already covered the main point: nuclear weapons work best as a deterrent, which requires visibility. At the point where you're actually using them, everybody has lost.

I just wanted to add that there are solid game-theory reasons why belligerence and irrational-seeming behaviour can be a strong political tactic.

Imagine you're negotiating with somebody who is holding a hostage and has an explosive vest strapped to himself. If you know that he is a rational person who values his self-preservation highly, then blowing himself up is the worst possible outcome - even worse than being arrested and going to prison. That being the case, there is no scenario in which it makes sense for him to detonate the vest, so you can effectively ignore its existence. At which point you can just send in a few police to grab him.

However, if he is an irrational person, there is a risk that he might detonate the vest if provoked. Assuming you know this, then it gives you a good reason not to just try to grab him - which boosts the chances that he'll get some outcome better than going to prison.

Hence, even if he is in fact a rational person who wants to save his own skin, there can be an advantage in appearing irrational and volatile. KJU may well understand that nuclear war with the USA is a losing proposition, but it is in his interests to give the impression that he believes otherwise.

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    Yes, this game theory of irrationality was used many times by the USA against the Soviets and nowadays it seems it became their standard behaviour in their international affairs.
    – Shautieh
    Aug 26, 2017 at 1:26

Because there is no deterrence if no one knows about it.

So why not wait until you have it? A poor, poorly developed country isn't going to make rapid, steady progress. If you look at the history of NK nuclear and missile testing, it is littered with many examples of embarrassing, dismal failures. Not having a proven, established and impressive track record in developing a state of the art arsenal is not a deterrent, either.

So they bluster and behave is if they have made that progress, in order to put doubt into minds of others. That, and along with their oversized (for a country with their population and economy) conventional military forces so close to South Korea has to substitute for actual objectively dangerous deterrence until they can get the real thing in place.

What seems to be real is the paranoia they have that South Korea and the USA are just itching to invade and conquer. They also know that, even if they could inflict damage, they could not withstand a military fight with the USA. Though we can play "chicken and egg," being named as part of the "Axis of Evil" by the leader of the lone military super-power in the world, shortly before he invaded one of the other members of that club, probably only helped to confirm (along with the less dramatic but steady rhetoric from the US side of the back and forth), in their eyes, the threat from the USA. Hence the need for deterrence.

Think about the big, powerful dog and the tiny, fluffy dog when they meet in the street. Which one is making the most noise and usually acting aggressively? Usually the smaller one. It's a pretty normal behavioral reaction, when fearful, to try and bluff the larger opponent through exaggerated aggressiveness.

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    @dhein forgive my pedantry, but "anthropomorphizing" means something else. Aug 25, 2017 at 8:47
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    @dhein - beastialize is the term, apparently..... english.stackexchange.com/questions/115614/… Aug 25, 2017 at 14:02
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    @EmilioMBumachar - or zoomorphizing Aug 25, 2017 at 15:08
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    "What seems to be real is the paranoia": It is not paranoia when the threat coming from the USA is real. Also it is wrong to say they are afraid of SK invading: both SK and NK prefer the status quo, and NK always speaks about the American threat, not SK.
    – Shautieh
    Aug 26, 2017 at 1:24
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    @PoloHoleSet "that's both paranoia and hyperbole" please educate yourself before giving such judgements. In 1950, only 2 weeks after the start of the "war", the general MacArthur in charge of the operations asked for being able to use nuclear bombs as tactical weapons. He detailed his plans: he wanted to use 30 nuclear bombs to create a wasteland around the North of the peninsula, mainly near Manchuria, plus cobalt bombs in order to make it deadly for humans for a century to pass between China and Korea. The general Van Fleet suggested to do the same. The British prevented such insanity.
    – Shautieh
    Sep 1, 2017 at 3:26

You cannot develop nuclear weapons silently because you have to test them, both warheads and missiles, which is very visible from space and by radars.

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    This isn't strictly true; both Israel and South Africa managed to produce nuclear weapons with relatively low-profile programs. Some possible tests have been identified (see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vela_Incident ) but as far as I know, nothing that's been conclusively confirmed. A lot of the difficult parts of a nuclear warhead system can be tested without an actual nuclear explosion, or the technology can be transferred from another nation with a more public program. An ICBM program is hard to conceal, but that's not the only way to deliver a nuclear warhead.
    – G_B
    Aug 26, 2017 at 1:45

It is easy to see North Korea make statements aimed at the United States or another country (e.g. South Korea or Japan) and assume that the intended audience of the statement is the US (or whomever). But in many cases, the intention is to speak to a domestic listener.

Such a domestic listener might be the general public or a popular general. To that listener, Kim Jong-un has to make statements that are consistent with the domestic image that he is projecting. If internally he is claiming to have secured nuclear weapons that make North Korea the equivalent of China on the world stage, then he has to act like that. Sometimes that means that his bluster outruns his capabilities.

In order to justify the army, Kim needs an external foe. So he has to claim that the US (or whomever) is a danger to North Korea. Even if that's nonsense, that's what he needs to claim to perpetuate his military budget. But if his military budget is to do all these wonderful things to protect North Korea, then people expect protection. Otherwise, why would people labor to preserve his administration.

To that end, sanctions help him. They show that the international community is out to get North Korea. They separate North Korea from other countries. Yes, they make North Korea poorer, but they leave it more united in its poverty. However, if Kim left the people time to think, they'd notice that things weren't getting better. So he has to keep moving. Otherwise the people would want to see progress in their every day lives. And that's difficult to do without real internal changes that would loosen his hold on the government.

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