Recent rhetoric emanating from the North Korean regime has been quite threatening — and may signal a real “cold spell” for any outreach the isolated regime will be willing to embrace. But even more troubling are the actions that have been taken since January 2016. A successful underground nuclear test in January and a successful launch of a three-stage ballistic missile with the range to hit the mainland United States (under the cover of a “satellite launch”) are only the beginning of the threatening behavior.
The North Koreans have now recently answered the pundits who have long claimed the DPRK could not get a long-range ballistic missile through all three of its stages (now accomplished), make a warhead small enough to fit on a missile (now apparently accomplished), build a mobile missile capable of evading U.S. early warning before launch (now also apparently accomplished) or build a re-entry vehicle for the missile that could successfully enter the earth’s atmosphere on the way to its target without burning up (now tested and pictures released to the public).
On March 9 the North Koreans revealed a nuclear warhead for their KN-08 — a road-mobile, long-range ballistic missile. In addition, they actually showed (in color pictures) where the warhead is mounted on the re-entry vehicle for the missile. Finally, on March 15, at a separate location, the North Koreans conducted an atmospheric re-entry test of the KN-08. Based on the pictures released, the test was both authentic and successful. Thus, as U.S. officials in both the Defense Department and the intelligence community have been assessing for almost two years now, North Korea appears to have a mobile, long-range, nuclear-equipped missile that can hit the United States. They have also shown (at least once publicly) that the missile has a re-entry vehicle that can probably withstand the heat of the earth’s atmosphere on the way to its target. While there is no information to confirm it, it is certainly possible that those with access to highly classified intelligence collection methods and sources already knew about these developments at least 18 months ago — and that this is the reason for the very compelling assessment (now at least partially proven) that North Korea had managed to build its most threatening weapons system ever.
If one is to assess North Korean motivations for building — and hyping — a nuclear weaponization program, and the platform to carry it (the KN-08 missile), it is probably important to first understand the set of institutions that wield power.
There are three sets of institutions that control the real power in the country — the party, the military and the security services. While Kim Jong-un appears to have not yet fully consolidated his power in any of them, he has purged the most officials in the military, and thus needs to conduct actions that will gain him support there. This is also a legacy issue for the credibility of what Georgetown University professor David Maxwell calls the Kim Family Regime (KFR). Kim Il-sung started the nuclear program, his son Kim Jong-il continued it, and now the third in line, Kim Jong-un, has brought it to its most threatening status ever. Thus, the nuclear program, and the platforms that carry it, are a source of power credibility for the KFR — and ultimately for the success of the power institutions that support and protect the regime.
But there is more behind North Korean motivations than simply internal power credibility, regime legacy or even deterring outside attacks on the DPRK. North Korea has had a very long, very profitable relationship with Iran. How close is that relationship? As noted scholar Tal Inbar of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Studies in Israel has stated, “If you see it in North Korea today, you will see it in Iran tomorrow.” This has held true for more than 30 years. Iran has every kind of liquid fuel missile that Pyongyang has built — a variety of Scuds, the No Dong, the Musudan and even Taepo Dong technology. In addition, there is now a long string of evidence since 2003 that North Korea has been assisting Iran with its nuclear program — including, at the very least, constructing underground facilities, providing raw materials and assisting with nuclear warhead technology. Thus, it is very likely that both the KN-08 and the nuclear warhead technology for the missile will go to Iran — for a very high price, of course (likely in the billions of dollars range). What does this mean for the United States? It means that if North Korea can target the west coast of the United States, Iran, once it gets the missile and the warhead, could target the east coast of the United States. Those who doubt that this is exactly what we should fear should keep in mind the complete lack of hesitation North Korea has shown in proliferating anything to anybody who will buy it — up to and including long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear technology.
North Korea’s motivations are not complicated. The regime has no intention of ever giving up its nuclear weapons or its long-range ballistic missiles. The reasons for this are clear: 1) Kim Jong-un needs these weapons in order maintain the credibility of his regime and to consolidate his power from a position of military strength; and 2) these weapons, once proliferated, serve to bring in billions of dollars in badly needed revenue for the DPRK. As we look to the future, renewed focus on the Proliferation Security Initiative (to prevent these weapons, if at all possible, from getting to the Middle East) and sanctions enforcement that goes after front companies and banks handling the dirty money and resources vital for North Korea’s proliferation operations will be vital for pressuring Kim Jong-un and his power elite. Given recent developments, this has become more compelling than ever.
• Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Angelo State University, and is the author or editor of six books on North Korea, most recently “North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era: A New International Security Dilemma.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.