Things Nuclear II: Academic Sources

August 30, 2017 9:00 AM

As summer winds down, here are a few things nuclear that have popped up over the last few weeks. First up, I made mention recently of Sung Chull Kim’s analysis of North Korean nuclear doctrine in my own stab at some of the contradictions. The book edited by Kim and Michael Cohen, with a strong cast of characters, is a good place to go for an introduction to the issues. It captures what Tristan Volpe argues is the central departure: the declining belief that there is a negotiated settlement in which North Korea actually gives up its program. A table of contents is appended below.

But how have those who have written on nuclear issues in the academic community fared against North Korean reality. At Politico, Nicholas Miller (Dartmouth) and Viping Narang (at MIT, and with a great book of his own, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era) have run what statisticians call a horse race: comparing model predictions against outcomes. The main point: the regime was clearly underestimated. In particular, Miller and Narang note the presumptions that were clearly wrong: that North Korea’s low level of development, authoritarian structure, or overall weakness in geostrategic terms would have limited the likelihood of breakout. To signal some forthcoming research, TaiMing Cheung and I are detailing the incredible institutional investments the North Korean regime has made in the science, technology, and production infrastructure. We should have learned this lesson from the Soviets, a state that Steve Walt once characterized quite nicely as a “pygmy with a giant right arm.” The one thing state socialist systems can do is to direct money to favored projects if they choose to do so, even if the use of resources in this fashion is inefficient. Authoritarian regimes don’t really care.

What theories did work? The prize goes to Etel Solingen’s classic Nuclear Logics, which draws on earlier work on inward- and outward looking development strategies. Her theory is a political-economic one: that inward-looking and what she calls “confessional” coalitions are more closed, less vulnerable to international pressures, and thus more inclined to pursue nuclear weapons programs.  Moreover, such programs appeal to the base that undergirds such regimes, including but not limited to the military.

Marc Noland and I draw on Solingen in our own new book, Hard Target and also concur completely with the closing line from Miller and Narang: “To be successful against isolated countries like North Korea, nonproliferation policies must either address the proliferator’s underlying motives—in other words, their sense of insecurity—or they must enlist a strong multilateral coalition that enforces sanctions vigorously, with few exploitable cracks.” Yep.

Below are also links to past Academic Sources posts, a number of them on nuclear issues. If you have suggestions, please let us know; we will be diving into the fire hose of new, high-quality studies on nuclear weapons in coming months.


North Korea and Nuclear Weapons, eds. Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Cohen (Georgetown University Press, 2017).

Introduction: A New Challenge, a New Debate
Michael D. Cohen and Sung Chull Kim

1. North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Nonproliferation or Deterrence? Or Both?
Patrick Morgan

2. North Korea's Nuclear Doctrine and Revisionist Strategy
Sung Chull Kim

3. North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and No Good Options? A Controlled Path to Peace
Michael D. Cohen

4. The Unraveling of North Korea's Proliferation Blackmail Strategy
Tristan Volpe

5. Does Nuclearization Impact Threat Credibility? Insights from the Korean Peninsula
Van Jackson

6. The North Korean Nuclear Threat and South Korea's Deterrence Strategy
Chaesung Chun

7. Stability or Instability? The US Response to North Korean Nuclear Weapons
Terrence Roehrig

8. Between the Bomb and the United States: China Face the Nuclear North Korea
Fei-Ling Wang

9. Spear versus Shield? North Korea's Nuclear Path and Challenges to the NPT System
Yangmo Ku

Conclusion: Deterrence and Beyond
Sung Chull Kim and Michael D. Cohen


Other Academic Sources Posts

This series is designed to showcase academic social science work broadly relevant to the Korean peninsula even if not directly on it. Nominations are always welcome.

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