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The Forgotten Reasons Why North Korea’s Nuclear Program Is So Dangerous

Hwasong-12. Image: YouTube Screenshot.

The threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal is significant. Recent years have seen North Korea make major strides in its development of more capable ballistic missiles, and the DPRK is now estimated to have as many as eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States. In addition, North Korea has continued to unveil new variants of its Pukguksong-series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and reportedly has completed construction of a new ballistic missile submarine, and has also developed an arsenal of advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that appear to be capable of challenging ballistic missile defenses deployed in South Korea.

North Korea’s ability to make such substantial progress in its development of more capable ballistic missile systems is likely a combination of several factors. The DPRK has undoubtedly received outside assistance on more than one occasion during its decade’s long pursuit of a robust ballistic missile capability and has also benefited from its own clandestine efforts to acquire foreign ballistic missile technology. Also important, however, has been North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s personal attention and dedication to the DPRK’s ballistic missile program. Since coming to power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has presided over a large number of ballistic missile weapons tests and has also shown himself to be willing to learn from the country’s mistakes during its development of ballistic missiles.

Personnel and Failures

In the years following Kim Jong Un’s accession to power in 2011, the young North Korean leader proved himself to be both willing and able to exercise his authority through personnel changes and purges. During the Fourth Party Conference in April of 2012, Kim Jong Un oversaw a significant change in the make-up of the Korean Workers’ Party Politburo only a year and a half after his father had installed his own group. The military was also not spared from major personnel changes, with chiefs of the Korean People’s Army and ministers of the People’s Armed Forces replaced on a frequent basis as part of Kim’s efforts to reign in the power of the military.

Kim’s willingness to replace officials did not result in a trigger-happy leader quick to oust those responsible for failures, however. In fact, Kim Jong Un quickly demonstrated a high level of tolerance for failure in the country’s ballistic missile program. In 2012, a failed launching of the DPRK’s Unha-3 satellite launch vehicle resulted not in propaganda spins or purges but in a rare acknowledgement of the rocket’s failure, with the event serving as a learning opportunity for the country rocket and ballistic missile programs.

Kim has also sought to elevate and reward the country’s scientists and rocket engineers, including through the development of new dedicated housing districts for these groups in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un’s demonstrated tolerance for failure and his promotion of scientists and rocket engineers has allowed North Korea’s ballistic missile program to make steady progress over the years.

Repeated Testing

The other key element of Kim Jong Un’s efforts to advance North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities has been the rapid pace of testing during his reign. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the rate of ballistic missile testing has increased dramatically when compared to his father’s time in power. The rapid pace of testing under Kim Jong Un has led some observers to comment that a new sense of urgency had developed around the DPRK’s strategic weapons program.

This testing has borne fruit. North Korea has successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on three occasions, but the development of North Korea’s ICBM capability was largely the result of testing and development of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). The Hwasong-12 was in many ways a stepping stone to the development of a full ICBM, making use of an improved engine and better propellants along with a lighter airframe. Much like his willingness to learn from mistakes or failures, Kim Jong Un has demonstrated his willingness to use frequent weapons testing as a means to build on and accelerate new developments in North Korean ballistic missile capabilities.

Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15

DPRK Hwasong-14. Image Credit: KCNA.

One of the most important factors in North Korea’s continued development of its ballistic missile capabilities has been Kim Jong Un’s Through a willingness to learn from the country’s mistakes and a rapid pace of weapons testing, Kim has helped to usher in major improvements to the DPRK’s ballistic missile arsenal.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.