Since the ascension of Kim Jong Un in 2011, North Korea has posed an ongoing diplomatic challenge for the United States. Pyongyang has ramped up work on its nuclear program and hopes to soon be in possession of a nuclear-armed missile able to reach U.S. shores.
The reclusive nation successfully conducted its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test on Monday. The launch, described by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world,” has triggered international alarm and condemnation.
Despite assurances from Trump that a nuclear North will “not happen,” experts say Kim may very well have such capability within a decade if current trends continue. Here are the components of the North’s developing nuclear program, and the West’s efforts to stop it.
North Korea has been working to acquire a functional, deliverable nuclear weapon for decades. Those aspirations began during the rule of former Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung at the close of World War II and began to take shape under the reign of his son, Kim Jong Il, who first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006.
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As New York Times reporter David Sanger explained in an interview with NPR’s Dave Davies in late March:
“Kim Il Sung remembers that General [Douglas] MacArthur, during the Korean War, wanted to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China. He was stopped from doing this. But it made a very big impression on Mr. Kim, and he knew that North Korea, to survive and deter attack, needed to have this capability itself. And he’s the one, the grandfather of the current North Korean leader, who started down this path.”
The North was able to purchase much of its initial nuclear technology from one of the founders of Pakistan’s nuclear program and bought centrifuges to enrich uranium from Libya.
North Korea has so far conducted five nuclear weapons tests, all at an underground test site in the country’s northeast called Punggye-ri. Those blasts, which began in 2006, have only gotten stronger over the past decade as the North hones its weapons program.
As The New York Times notes, the first such test, conducted by current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, had a yield of less than 1 kiloton, or the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT. The second, conducted three years later, clocked in at 2.35 kilotons. The North’s most recent test in September was the strongest ever, estimated by the South Korean Defense Ministry at 10 kilotons, although some speculate the bomb could have yielded between 20 kilotons and 30 kilotons.
Comparatively, “the Little Boy” bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, held 15 kilotons of energy. The College of Arts and Letters at the Stevens Institute of Technology released a series of maps in 2015 that show just how damaging such weapons would be over cities around the world.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said Wednesday that in light of the North’s recent ICBM launch, he believes there is “a high chance” Pyongyang will soon conduct a sixth nuclear test.
Alongside nuclear development, North Korea has undertaken an active and at times successful campaign to launch ballistic missiles, with an ultimate goal of crafting an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to U.S. soil. ICBMs have a minimum range of about 3,400 miles.
Shortly after this week’s ICBM launch, North Korean state TV claimed the long-range missile was capable of reaching “anywhere in the world” and could carry “a large, heavy nuclear warhead.” This has not been verified.
The North has displayed two types of ICBMs at military parades since 2012, the BBC points out, but both remain untested.
Last May, U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials announced the North has the ability to attach a small nuclear warhead on top of missiles capable of reaching much of South Korea and Japan. Experts have warned North Korea could have the ability to strike the U.S. by 2026.
Kim has personally overseen the test launches of several ballistic missiles as his country races to go nuclear. While the tests are meant to fine-tune the North Korean arsenal, they also serve a political purpose.
Several of the recent tests have been timed to coincide with important strategic moments for the region.
The one in February coincided with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Another one, in April, was timed ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. Yet another launch in March was conducted in retaliation for joint U.S.-South Korean military drills. This week’s missile test ― Pyongyang’s 11th this year ― was launched on the eve of U.S. Independence Day, and days before the G-20 summit in Europe. Kim dubbed it “a gift for the American bastards.”
Pyongyang is flexing muscles that experts say are getting bigger.
What North Korea Wants
North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, experts say, hinge on Kim’s desire to retain control of the isolated nation.
“Above all else, North Korea’s nuclear program is about security,” John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, told the BBC last September. “It is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country’s basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime’s control, and of the rule of Kim Jong-un.”
Sanger, the Times reporter, echoed that view on “Fresh Air”:
“If you consider your objectives to be to assure regime survival, to make sure that North Korea remains the Kim family’s personal fiefdom, then they’ve pursued a pretty rational strategy, one in which loyalty is above all, in which even members of the family who challenge the leadership end up getting executed. And under that structure, the North Koreans, for an unstable, irrational regime have played a pretty good game since 1953.”
Kim has continued weapons tests despite increasingly strict condemnations from the international community. In January, the United Nations imposed its “toughest ever” sanctions on the country in an attempt to stifle the program.
But such actions have failed in the past.
In September, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the North’s actions in recent years had led to an unprecedented state of turmoil in the region after condemning the recent nuclear test “in the strongest terms possible.”
“Never in the past have I ever seen such kind of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Ban said.
The United Nations Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday, in light of Monday’s ICBM test.
Under Obama, the United States tread carefully and refrained from any direct action against Kim’s regime. As a member of the UNSC, the U.S. helped increase sanctions against the country following September’s nuclear test.
“The United States is realistic about what this resolution will achieve. No resolution in New York will likely, tomorrow, persuade Pyongyang to cease its relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons,” former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said at the time, adding that such sanctions impose “unprecedented costs on the [North Korean] regime for defying this Council’s demands.”
The U.S. also reportedly was engaged in more covert operations. Sanger and his colleague William Broad reported in March that the Obama administration had been working to sabotage such tests for years with cyber operations. Such initiatives, the pair wrote, may have derailed components inside the missiles either before or shortly after they were launched.
While evidence is circumstantial, Sanger says in the course of his reporting the Times noticed some missiles, including the intermediate-range Musudan, had a failure rate of 88 percent.
“This for a country that hired a lot of former Soviet scientists after the Berlin Wall fell and after the Soviet Union dissolved, brought them to Pyongyang, bought a lot of their technology and in their early days had a very high success rates with the North Korean missile program because they were basing it on experiences that the Soviets and later Russia had had. And suddenly, their failure rate soared.”
Despite condemnation from the U.N. and the West, Kim has shown no willingness to halt weapons developments. Trump promised on the campaign trail to reign in the hermit nation, but faces few good options to do so.
Observers looked at the first meeting between Trump and Xi in early April for possible signs of the administration’s North Korea strategy.
China could play a significant role in motivating Pyongyang to reverse course. The country has continued to trade with North Korea, and Chinese companies provide up to 40 percent of the foreign currency the North uses to trade internationally.
The Trump administration had ramped up its rhetoric ahead of the meeting, with Trump even threatening direct intervention.
“If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times in April. “That is all that I am telling you.”
Tillerson said this week that Xi had agreed to increased cooperation to control the North, but did not provide any specifics on how either country aimed to do that.
In a series of tweets this week, the president expressed his frustration at China’s apparently insufficient efforts to exert its influence over the North.
“Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” he wrote Monday. On Wednesday, he added: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!”
In a statement on Tuesday, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White announced that the U.S. remains “prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea.”
“The United States seeks only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Our commitment to the defense of our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains ironclad,” she added.
Her statement marks a significant escalation of the U.S. response. Shortly after the North’s missile test in March, Tillerson had a simple reaction: “The policy of strategic patience is over.”
But direct action presents major difficulties as the South Korean capital, Seoul, lies just 35 miles from the North’s border and within easy striking distance of the country’s non-nuclear artillery. Were Trump to act, Kim could set his sights on a city of 12 million people that has long been a friend to the West.
It’s also unclear whether strikes could effectively target the North’s program, as infrastructure is spread across the country and in some cases even lies underground.
For now, only time will tell how the Trump administration will handle a country set on going nuclear at any cost.
This article was originally published in April 2017, and was updated in July with new information.