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Kimpossible: North Korea’s Delusions of Nuclear Grandeur

Since the debut of the atom bomb in 1945, nine nations have developed nuclear weapons. Access to such weapons puts these nations on a level playing field with each other—one that sits above the rest of the world. Possessing weapons of mass destruction allows these countries the capacity of total annihilation of another nation, a threat that can only be deterred by the possibility of counter strike.

A nation desperate for international power, North Korea has wanted nothing more than to join this powerful club. The Hermit Kingdom is already counted as one of the nine nuclear powers, though just making it onto the list isn’t enough to achieve the full benefits of deterrence. North Korea’s arsenal is only comprised of an estimated 6-8 warheads (Israel has the next fewest, at 80), and it lacks proper long-range ballistic missile technology, which is necessary if the regime hopes to pose a significant threat to the United States or other Western countries. But it is clear that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un will continue his efforts to develop a fully operational arsenal until the nation has earned a place as a true nuclear power.

Recently it seems that these efforts have yielded results. In 2015, North Korea state media reported that the military had successfully tested a ballistic missile launched from a submarine. Several months later, Pyongyang announced that it had successfully detonated a powerful hydrogen bomb, though it seems unlikely that these claims are true. Hydrogen bombs involve nuclear fusion, making them far more powerful than atomic bombs, which rely on fission. Both the technology and the fuel required for fusion devices are extremely difficult to attain, even relative to the difficulty of developing far simpler fission devices.

North Korea’s efforts didn’t stop there. Following widespread reports that North Korea had successfully launched a new satellite into orbit, this March North Korean authorities claimed to have successfully tested the engines required for intercontinental ballistic missiles. If true, this would mark the next step in the nation’s nuclear strike capabilities.

While it is likely that many of these reports have been exaggerated by the North Korean propaganda machine, the United States and its allies are growing increasingly concerned about the country’s nuclear developments. This concern has led to the planned development of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system in South Korea. Not surprisingly, North Korea has reacted negatively to this news. To express its disapproval and intimidate the South, Pyongyang test-fired three ballistic missiles just days after South Korea announced the planned locations of its new missile defense system.

Thus far North Korea’s threats have remained just that: threats. This is in part because the isolated country is, for the moment, too weak to act on them. But the progress that North Korea seems to be making sets it on a path towards becoming a real global nuclear power. It is unclear what Kim Jong-Un plans to do should he successfully develops the necessary technology for a fully functional nuclear arsenal, but his as-yet-empty threats give us an idea. His regime has threatened South Korea with a nuclear strike on numerous other occasions, including in May when it threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice” on both the South and the United States. But this rhetoric is unlikely to become reality so long as the country’s missiles can’t cross the Pacific.

For now, the looming presence of the United States has also prevented Kim’s regime from acting too brazenly. Right now the U.S.’s promises to defend Japan and South Korea have helped keep Kim from acting on his aggressive words. But if his military has the ability to strike back at the U.S., Kim may begin to act more aggressively towards America’s allies.

The developments have also created a difficult situation for China. A long-time ally of North Korea, China is now finding it difficult to continue to support Kim’s regime, whose threats against South Korea have now led to the American-led implementation of the THAAD missile system. If North Korea hadn’t pursued nuclear weapons so aggressively, the Chinese government would not have had to worry about an American missile defense system located only a few hundred miles east of Beijing. It is clear that the North Korean nuclear program isn’t helping anyone—not even North Korea.

The future remains uncertain as the regime pushes forward with its nuclear program, unwilling to negotiate any disarmament or halt to the program with the United States. Within the isolated nation, the leadership’s attitude towards the outside world remains deeply mistrustful to the point of paranoia. Whether or not Kim’s stubbornness and belligerence will be enough to incite a nuclear weapons exchange remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: as a global nuclear power, North Korea will add a new layer of complexity to America’s interactions with the volatile state. When backed by the sufficient technology, threats of nuclear attack will be tremendous bargaining chips, giving the regime extraordinary new power. Kim Jong-Un may yet receive an even grander title than Supreme Leader: one brash move and he becomes death, destroyer of worlds.