Under traditional understandings of North Korea, the country’s test launch of two medium-range ballistic missiles late last month should not have happened. Neither should its failed launch, on Saturday last week, of a submarine-based missile.
However, they did. That has brought new urgency to a growing conversation among many North Korea observers: Is our understanding of this country fundamentally wrong?
The country’s weapons programs have long been understood as meant not for immediate military purposes, but to rally North Koreans behind the leadership and extract concessions from foreign governments. North Korea’s bluster, in this view, is not sincere, but just another set piece in an elaborate, never-ending show.
However, this does not adequately explain North Korea’s recent flurry of weapons tests, often using unproven technology that tends to fail many times, bringing embarrassment to a government that prefers to project confidence, and that incurs heavy diplomatic and financial tolls the country cannot afford.
According to a growing chorus of experts such tests suggest that North Korea is now seeking, in a more focused and determined way, a real, functioning nuclear weapons program — and could be on the way to getting it.
“The conventional wisdom treats these tests and strategic programs as political tools,” International Institute for Strategic Studies academic Mark Fitzpatrick said. “They are more than that.”
This realization is forcing analysts to rethink not just nuclear issues, but also the underlying goals and motivations of the North Korean state itself, with sweeping implications for how one of the world’s most secretive nations is understood.
North Korea has had only three leaders, each of whom has faced the same problem: governing a small country with few resources, outnumbered by powerful enemies.
North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung used diplomacy. By allying with the Soviet Union and China — and playing the two off each other — he secured protection and support.
His son, Kim Jong-il, came to power in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed and China’s interest in backing a rogue nation waned. In response, he put the country on a permanent war footing. Kim Jong-il began developing missiles and nuclear weapons, periodically stirring up geopolitical crises that promoted nationalism at home and won international concessions abroad.
Foreign governments and analysts concluded that these programs, which North Korea tested erratically, but with great fanfare, were meant primarily for political rather than military ends. The country’s leadership was seen as reactive and focused on preserving the “status quo.” State propaganda, warning endlessly of war with South Korea and the US, was dismissed as merely a tool for internal control.
That view has held for 20 years, through Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 and the ascension of his son, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
However, three years into Kim Jong-un’s reign, as he carried out a series of high-level political purges, something seemed to shift.
“In 2014, they started testing things like crazy,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.
The country also built a new underground nuclear testing facility.
Because most of the tests failed — and because of popular depictions of the country as silly and backward — they were shrugged off as farce. It was “easy to kind of laugh at them,” Lewis said.
Now, in retrospect, it seems that the tests indicated a change whose ramifications are only beginning to become clear to analysts.
Andrea Berger, a proliferation expert at the Royal United Services Institute in, said that for years she and some of her colleagues believed “that one of the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear development was to eventually sell it for the right price,” either in part or in full. Others thought North Korea was simply engaging in a game of cat and mouse, agreeing to freeze parts of the program in exchange for cash or food, only to unfreeze them later in hopes of making another deal on the same goods in another round of negotiations.
In any case, Berger said the country’s activity since 2014 had led to “growing sentiment, and I would go so far as to say it is now the majority view, that North Korea might not be willing to give up its nuclear program or missile programs at all.”
The medium-range missile North Korea tested last month, known as a Musudan, had failed in all five of its prior launches. Last month’s launch, while not a categorical success, showed progress — one of many hard-won breakthroughs.
“We are coming to the realization that North Korea is filling some of the technological gaps we thought they had and erasing some of the question marks quicker than we are comfortable with,” Berger said.
North Korea appears focused on acquiring key nuclear capabilities, including, Berger said, “a demonstrated ability to strike the continental United States.”
John Schilling, who tracks North Korea’s weapons programs at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, has concluded that within the next decade, North Korea will probably produce a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach parts of the US west coast.
The country is also developing multiple ways to deliver these missiles, as indicated by the submarine test-launch.
“They’ve just solved one of the key technical challenges to making a mobile ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile],” Schilling said, referring to a kind of launcher that is harder for adversaries to find or target because it can be moved on large trucks.
Multiple launch systems are considered an expensive, but crucial, component of any serious, field-ready nuclear weapons program, underscoring the magnitude of Kim Jong-un’s ambitions.
As analysts adjust their view of North Korea’s intentions, they are grappling with a much bigger question: Why is North Korea so bent on a program that brings economic sanctions, the risk of conflict and isolation even from China, its sole remaining ally and benefactor?
Put another way: What does North Korea believe it will gain from nuclear weapons that is worth these costs?
Experts have not settled on a consensus answer, but offer a range of possible explanations. What these theories share is a sense that North Korea’s leadership believes it is facing a potentially existential crisis and is willing to take extreme steps to survive.
Some analysts say the North Korean warnings of a looming conflict with the US and South Korea might not just be for show, but rather indicate that the country’s leaders earnestly believe war could be coming.
In this view, the country would need more than just a single bomb to deter its enemies. It would require a nuclear program large enough to make such a war winnable.
Details about North Korea’s advances suggest the outlines of a war plan, Lewis said.
The country seems to be building the capability to launch rapid nuclear strikes against nearby military targets, such as US military bases on Guam and the Japanese island of Okinawa, as well as South Korean ports where any US invasion force would land, he said.
“I think their hope is that the shock of that will cause us to stop,” Lewis said. “Then the whole point of the ICBMs is that there is something in reserve” to threaten west coast US cities, in theory forcing the US to stand down.
Fitzpatrick said that even if North Korea does not intend to carry out such a plan, it hopes that raising concerns of a nuclear conflict will “drive a wedge between the United States and its allies,” particularly South Korea.
Should North Korea acquire a nuclear-capable missile that could hit Washington state, some Americans might well question the value of continuing to guarantee South Korea’s security.
“The North Koreans would like people to doubt that the United States would trade Seattle for Seoul,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to a Cold War adage that the US accepted risks to its own cities so as to defend those of its allies.
B.R. Myers, a North Korea expert at Dongseo University in South Korea, takes this theory one step further. The nuclear program, he believes, is meant not only to scare off the US, but to one day coerce the South into accepting the North’s long-stated demand: reunification on its own terms.
“It is the only goal big enough to make sense of a nuclear program that has made the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] DPRK less secure than it was 10 years ago,” Myers said.
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