What does North Korea want?

With the new missile test and the assessment reported by WaPo that North Korea might have a reliable nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile as soon as the next year, it seems clear that the nuclear capabilities of NK are improving significantly. In your opinion, what is a primary goal of NK nuclear program, to keep the regime safe from any external attack, or to have a capability to strike first, or probably both? Read few comments.

Shea Cotton, Research Associate, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies

I would say there are a few goals of North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s main goal is deterring the US (or its allies) from attacking. As part of this North Korea does somewhat need to be able to strike first if it feels that it is under imminent threat of attack, but this only serves to further its primary goal of deterring the US from attacking in general.

In addition, North Korea’s nuclear program is a key pillar of Kim Jong Un’s personal legitimacy. He markets himself to his people as the leader who has mastered control of nuclear and missile technology.

These two things make it very unlikely that North Korea would ever negotiate to give up its nuclear or missile program. It’s tied up in the national security of their country and with the personal legitimacy of its leader.

North Korea is not going to give up these weapons and there are no military options for eliminating them that don’t involve nuclear war. De-escalating and trying to contain North Korea are pretty much the only options the US has in the short term. In the long term, the US can try to destabilize the regime by working to get information to the people living in North Korea. Most defectors report that they live in complete isolation from the outside world and do not know what things outside are like, or that there are other ways of living. Letting them know that there are other ways can be helpful and could start to put real, internal pressure on the North Korean regime. That’s a long-term strategy though and it’s not without its own risks and pitfalls and a whole lot of “what ifs”

Sharon Squassoni, Director and Senior Fellow, Proliferation Prevention Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  They have overstated their capabilities many times and indulged in flamboyant and aggressive rhetoric.  All of that speaks to insecurity and fear on their part.  So it’s probably not inaccurate to think that the primary goal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is to deter aggression from the United States.  This is backed up by the 2013 official law from the Supreme People’s Assembly, which declared that nuclear weapons served the purpose of deterring and repelling aggression, as well as dealing retaliatory blows.  This past week, the North Korean Defense Minister said that if the enemies of North Korea “stick to options of staging a preemptive nuclear attack against us, we will launch a nuclear attack on America’s heart as the most relentless punishment without warning or prior notice.”  In either case, it’s really not clear whether North Korea would hold its weapons for a second strike if it were attacked with nuclear weapons, or whether it would go ahead and preemptively use them, perhaps in response to a conventional strike.   What’s more, North Korea will likely seek to enhance the survivability of its forces, such as making nuclear weapons road-mobile and placing them in underground silos or underwater.  If North Korea moves in that direction, the United States (and Japan and South Korea) are likely to feel fairly threatened for the foreseeable future.  The only way to reduce risks is to sit down with the North Koreans and discuss not just nuclear weapons but the security environment in Northeast Asia.

Jon Wolfsthal, Non-Resident Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, Fmr. Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation

North Korea’s leader believes nuclear weapons on long range missiles will ensure his survival. but the real concern is that when he is armed with such systems he may become more willing to use military force below the strategic level and hide behind his new nuclear deterrent.

Andrew YeoAssociate Professor of Politics, Catholic University of America

My own opinion is that North Korea’s nuclear program is to safeguard the regime. The number one goal of the Kim family is to stay in power. It may also seek the capability to strike first, but I find it unlikely that they would actually launch a nuclear missile unprovoked. Such an action would be tantamount to regime suicide.

Ankit Panda, Senior Editor, The Diplomat

They will likely not use their ICBM to strike first because that would be effective suicide. They will use their ICBMs to deter a preemptive assault by the United States and South Korea aimed at killing Kim Jong-un and also use it to improve their negotiating position in any future diplomatic endeavors.

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