Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

North Korea Benefits from Nuclear Weapons. Get Used to It.

| Oct. 02, 2017

It is often said that nuclear weapons offer little beyond the ability to deter. But if nuclear weapons deter, they also necessarily offer benefits to states that go well beyond simply deterring attack. North Korea today is in the process of reaping those benefits, and this will constrain American foreign policy in the region. As much as American policymakers might want to wish this away, it is better to adjust the sails than to hope the wind disappears. War with North Korea should now be off the table and the denuclearization of North Korea is similarly unrealistic. If the United States wants to tamp down the current crisis, it needs to get used to North Korean nuclear weapons and the constraints they impose on U.S. foreign policy.

It is true that nuclear weapons deter. But because they deter attack, they also act as a shield that reduces the risks and costs of pursuing a host of other foreign policy behaviors. My research shows that nuclear weapons can facilitate a range of objectives that states of all stripes may find attractive. Possessing nuclear weapons can allow states to act more independently of allies, engage in aggression, expand their position and influence, reinforce and strengthen alliances, or stand more firmly in defense of the status quo. States with nuclear weapons are aware of these benefits, and use nuclear weapons to pursue them. This applies as much to democratic states committed to the status quo as it does to authoritarian or revisionist states.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bell, Mark S.“North Korea Benefits from Nuclear Weapons. Get Used to It..” War on the Rocks, October 2, 2017.

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