North Korea has developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that can potentially reach the U.S., but it is unlikely Kim Jong-un would use it on a whim.
With absolute authority and an arsenal of powerful missiles and nuclear weapons at his command, the chubby, cheese-filled North Korean dictator who is often the butt of countless jokes is unquestionably one of the most dangerous men in the world. For those who perceive the young Kim as a maniac, this is deeply disconcerting, but the good news is that the brutal North Korean leader appears to be quite rational, which is to say that he acts in his own interests, specifically self-preservation.
Kim, like his father and grandfather, typically combats pressure with pressure and bellicose rhetoric.
North Korea has tested new short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles, as well as an intercontinental ballistic missile, this year as the Trump administration attempts to rein in the North through a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” The approach involves economic sanctions, military deterrence, and diplomatic pressure to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
While testing nuclear bombs and missiles is undoubtedly provocative, it is a long way from actually firing one at another country, though.
North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM, tested successfully for the first time last week, is believed to have a maximum range that could put Alaska and possibly even parts of the West Coast in firing range. The new weapon is a significant tool which may, through further testing and improvements, aid the North Korean regime as it attempts to realize its strategic ambitions.
“The whole goal behind having an ICBM is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea,” Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Because once they feel that they can hold the U.S. mainland at risk, they feel the U.S. will be much less likely to come to South Korea’s aid.”
North Korea’s ICBM is likely a deterrent, nothing more, as actually firing one off would be suicidal.
Were North Korea to use a launch a nuclear strike, such a move would most likely be in the event of a conflict, if a conflict appeared imminent, or if some external factor posed an immediate threat to the country’s survival.
“The U.S. conventional and nuclear forces, as well as South Korea and Japan’s forces, greatly outstrip North Korea in terms of technology,” Hanham asserted. “I think they would only use this particular weapon in a Hail Mary— the state is collapsing, the regime is gone kind of situation.”
Former North Korean officials who have defected to other countries have painted a similar picture of North Korean leadership.
“Kim Jong-un will press the button if he thinks that his rule or his dynasty are threatened,” Thae Yong-ho told BBC in January, stressing that the young North Korea dictator would launch a nuclear attack on the mainland even if it meant his death and the destruction of his country.
Thae, a former North Korean diplomat, defected with his family last year and has been labeled “human scum” by the North Korean regime.
“I think Kim Jong-un could wage nuclear war if his power is threatened, and that is why he needs to be removed as soon as possible,” Song Byeok, a former propaganda official, told The Independent in May, confirming Thae’s assessment.
Song is a political refugee and activist who escaped North Korea over a decade ago.
As there is a possibility that Kim might decide to open fire on the U.S., the U.S. has been stepping up its missile defense capabilities. The U.S. military conducted a successful ICBM intercept test in late May, and an IRBM intercept test earlier this week.
There is no such thing as flawless missile defense system, however.
“People think missile defenses are a magic wand. They aren’t,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, previously explained to TheDCNF.
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