North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy Pre- and Post-2016 - Pyongyang’s Evolving Nuclear Posture and its Motivation for Strategy Transition

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis analyses North Korea’s nuclear strategy transition in 2016 and examines the causes behind that strategy change, ultimately answering the following two research questions: (1) What was the transition in North Korea’s nuclear strategic deterrence in 2016? and (2) Why did North Korea adopt a new nuclear strategy from 2016? The thesis argues that North Korea adopted an independent nuclear strategy by placing United States (US) civilians in the West Pacific territories under its nuclear radar in 2016,¹ driven by the urgent need for internal balancing as a result of the rapid changes in its external environment after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, during which Kim Jong Un struggled to establish his legitimacy in domestic politics.

The thesis argues that North Korea adopted an independent nuclear strategy in 2016, by acquiring a version of second-strike capability to target US civilians while keeping the option of a first strike open. It wished to develop an independent nuclear strategy as it had increasingly come to question China’s commitment to the 1961 China–North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the Kim Jong Un era and saw an immediate need to realise the Juche ideology to strengthen its leader’s weakened legitimacy amid poor economic performance.

1. North Korea’s nuclear strategy eventually involved targeting US civilians on the mainland as it continued to advance its nuclear warhead miniaturisation and delivery technologies after 2016. However, this thesis focuses on the change that took place in 2016, which gave Pyongyang what this thesis defines as minimal deterrence capability against Washington, by targeting US civilians in its West Pacific territories.
Date of Award1 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRamon Pacheco Pardo (Supervisor) & Nicola Leveringhaus (Supervisor)

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