North Korea Defied the Theoretical Odds: What Can We Learn from its Successful Nuclearization? (February 2018)
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According to most theories of nuclear proliferation, North Korea did not stand much of a chance of successfully acquiring nuclear weapons. As an economically backward, neopatrimonial regime subject to the threat of preventive strikes and war, North Korea should have failed. Few theories gave it a sporting chance of successfully nuclearizing. Yet here we are, staring down an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-sized barrel of the world’s 10th nuclear weapons power.1 2017 was a banner year for the North Korean nuclear weapons program, as Kim Jong Un sprinted to develop a range of missile capabilities — including a credible ICBM capability — and a thermonuclear weapon. A program that was once derided as a joke, especially after its first purported nuclear test in 2006, is now anything but that. Why did academic theories of nuclear proliferation so seriously underestimate North Korea, and how should we adjust our theories to better account for future nuclear proliferators, so that we do not repeat that mistake?