Identity Maintenance & Foreign Policy Decision-Making: The Quest for Ontological Security in the DPRK

  • Derek Bolton

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis analyzes how the need for ontological security (OS), the ‘security of being’,impacts the foreign policy decision-making of states. Traditional security studies focus primarily on physical threats to the state. By contrast, an OS framework argues individuals feel secure when they are able to maintain communal narrative. This narrative in turn becomes the lens through which policymakers, and thus states, analyze events, while also becoming a potential source of conflict if challenged. Therefore, while physical security is still important, one is better positioned to account for perceptions of physical (and non physical) threats, and subsequent policies seemingly contradictory to traditional security studies, by employing an OS framework. While this will be explored within the context of the DPRK, the applicability of such a framework is far greater, holding key insights for International Relations and Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). DPRK narrative formed out of the postcolonial nationalism of Japanese occupation, culminating into the hyper-nationalist ideology of Juche. North Korea’s seemingly ‘abnormal’ behavior might in turn be indicative of its unique national narrative and history of colonization and humiliation, leading to a different set of behavioral expectations than states whose narratives do not encompass such stories or reference points. While not all states are expected to act in the same manner as North Korea, the framework would expect them to defend and promote their respective national narratives. Moreover, while narratives can double as sources of legitimacy, as seen increasingly in the DPRK, this in no way detracts from, and merely compounds, the emphasis on narrative maintenance. Examining the historical record, it is argued the OS framework is consistently better at accounting for DPRK policies than traditional security studies. Therefore, more broadly in FPA, by taking seriously group narrative as a key component of OS, one can better account for perceptions and foreign policy decision-making.
Date of Award1 Jun 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorScott Thomas (Supervisor)


  • Identity
  • security studies
  • ontological security
  • international relations theory
  • Foreign Policy Analysis
  • North Korea

Cite this