Analysis, Nuclear Weapons

The Devil’s Weapons: What Ordinary North Koreans Think about their Nuclear Program

A View Inside North Korea

As reported in The Wall Street Journal “China, Finally, Clamps Down on North Korea Trade—And the Impact Is Stinging” on March 2, 2018.
“Nuclear weapons are the devil’s weapons and will lead to our extinction.”

    – A North Korean mid-career soldier from a province bordering China.

Key Findings

  • 43 of the 50 North Koreans expressed ambivalent to highly negative attitudes toward their country’s nuclear weapons program.
  • 70% of North Korean respondents said the nuclear program is NOT the source of national pride.
  • 36 of 50 North Korean respondents (72%) did NOT think nuclear weapons made them a prosperous nation.
  • In addition to conventional survey techniques, a number of survey experiments were employed to elicit responses on particularly sensitive topics, such as the regime’s nuclear weapons policy. This will be featured in an upcoming report.

Despite efforts at high-level diplomacy during the XXIII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the United States and its allies emerge from these Games with the specter of more North Korea nuclear and intercontinental missile tests in the offing. Experts believe that Pyongyang maybe months away from demonstrating a credible threat to the U.S. homeland.

Indeed, only two months prior to the Winter Olympics following North Korea’s November 29 launch of a Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korean media started reporting that across North Korea, citizens were joining in national rallies celebrating the “completion” of their nation’s nuclear weapons forces. While outside experts have noted the limitations and complicated technical hurdles still facing the North’s current weapons systems in achieving a truly global reach, KCNA has reported official celebrations by people from all walks of life including working people, students, local Party officials, young people, and members of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

These reports of ubiquitous celebrations of nuclear weapons accomplishments stand in stark contrast with a new micro-survey commissioned by Beyond Parallel of North Korean citizens. Researchers interviewed 50 North Korean citizens in summer and fall 2017. The vast majority of North Korean respondents did not have a positive attitude toward their country’s nuclear weapons program. 43 of the 50 people we spoke to in North Korea expressed ambivalent to highly negative attitudes toward their country’s nuclear weapons program. Only 7 expressed a positive attitude toward the regime’s nuclear weapons program.


Beyond Parallel’s micro-survey talked with 50 North Koreans ranging from Party officials and security officers to farmers and homemakers to workers and merchants; 20 were women and 30 were men. Aged between 24 to 64, their educational background varied from middle school graduates to holders of university degrees. Their geographical location extended from Ryanggang Province in the north bordering China to the capital city of Pyongyang to Kangwon Province in the south along the DMZ with South Korea.

70% of North Korean respondents said the nuclear program is NOT the source of national pride when asked: “Do you think North Korea’s nuclear program is the source of national pride? 귀하는 북한의 핵무기가 국가적 자부심의 근원이라고 생각하십니까?” Just 30% said it was. About three quarters (77%) of male respondents felt the program was NOT a source of pride (23 of 30). 12 of 20 (60%) female respondents said the same.


36 of 50 North Korean respondents (72%) did NOT think nuclear weapons made them a prosperous nation. An overwhelming majority male respondents (83%) felt nuclear weapons did NOT make them a prosperous nation (25 of 30). 11 of 20 (55%) female respondents said the same.

A number of survey experiments were employed to elicit opinions on particularly sensitive topics, such as the public’s perception of the regime’s nuclear policy (more of which will be featured in an upcoming report).


In the qualitative response section of the micro-survey, many of the North Korean respondents spoke pointedly about taking a strongly negative position toward North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A number of those respondents who expanded on their attitudes, cited concerns about the program’s consequences for all of humanity. One third of the respondents cited economic concerns and the negative impact of the program on the lives of ordinary North Korean citizens.

“Nuclear weapons are the devil’s weapons and will lead to our extinction.”
핵개발은 민족을 멸족시키는 악마의 무기다.
– A mid-career soldier from a North Korean province bordering China.

“Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth, the power of killing us all, so they should not be developed.”
핵은 모두를 죽게 만드는 최강의 독약이기 때문에 개발을 하면 안된다.
– A woman serving as a money lender in one of North Korea’ s southern provinces bordering the DMZ with South Korea.

“I think nuclear weapons development is greatly impeding our economic development because all of the government’s money is being wasted on the weapons program.”
핵무기 개발은 경제발전에 막대한 방해가 된다고 생각합니다. 자금을 핵개발에 탕진하기 때문입니다.
– A miner from North Hamgyoung province.

“It’s crazy. The people are struggling, but Kim Jong Un only thinks about himself.”
미친 것. 사람들은 힘든데 윗 (김정은) 생각만 한다.
– A middle-aged woman heading an Inminban neighborhood association.

Some of the micro-survey respondents took a more nuanced stance. A 60-year-old railway worker tried to find a balance between the reality of food shortages he observed for the North Korean people and the regime’s focus on nuclear weapons development, stating, “The people are busy trying to secure food and yet the government only thinks of this nuclear development, spending millions in the process. But it’s done for national power. / 백성들은 먹을 것 때문에 바쁜데 핵만 생산한다. 들을라니까 핵개발이 수억이 든다고 한다. 그래도 국력이니까 하는거다. ” He did think that his country’s nuclear weapons program was a source of national pride and agreed with the assertion that weapons do make North Korea a prosperous nation.


While the majority of North Koreans in the Beyond Parallel micro-survey did not feel positively toward their country’s nuclear weapons program, a few did. A Party official said he had a neutral attitude toward the program but admitted he thought “[n]uclear weapons have prevented other powerful nations from daring to attack us despite our small size. / 핵이 있기 때문에 손바닥 만한 조선을 대국들이 감히 건드리지 못한다. ” A young teacher from one of the northern provinces felt positively toward the program and thought it was indeed a source of national pride. She explained “The reason why the big countries like America, Japan, and China have not been able to touch us is because of our nuclear weapons, so developing them is imperative. / 미국, 일본, 중국 같은 대국들이 우리 조선을 감히 건드리지 못하는 것은 핵이 있기 때문이다. 따라서 핵개발은 해야 된다.”

Such positive sentiment toward North Korea’s nukes was, however, by far in the minority.

Methodological Note

In 2017, CSIS partnered for a second time with an organization that has a successful track record of conducting discrete and careful surveys in North Korea. Beyond Parallel commissioned this organization to administer the questionnaire in eight provinces in North Korea. The questionnaire was carried out as natural in-person conversations between those conducting the interviews and the respondents. The individuals administering the questions are carefully trained to avoid asking leading questions or eliciting specific answers so as to protect both the integrity of the interview project and as well as safety of the people involved in the conversation.

The sampling method we used was non-probability, convenience sampling as accessibility was a prime consideration. An ideal public opinion survey would use a large, random sampling of respondents who do not have any prior relationship with interviewers. However, given the gravity of the consequences faced for expressing opinions in North Korea, the methodology of the interview project commissioned by Beyond Parallel had to be designed to account for the current conditions in the country and protect all involved. Read more about the limitations and merits of conducting surveys in North Korea at The Merits of Conducting Surveys Inside North Korea. To learn more about North Korean’s opinions of the regime, visit our analysis from our first micro-survey at No Laughing Matter: North Koreans’ Discontent and Daring Jokes.