With the increasing tensions between the United States and the hermit kingdom of North Korea, many are focused on Pyongyang’s aggressive saber rattling. It is understandable, given the rogue state’s nuclear ambitions. It is clear that Dictator Kim Jong Un is committed to obtaining nuclear capabilities that could allow North Korea to strike the United States. However, it is also important to not only understand the what, but the why – as in, why is North Korea so intent on obtaining nuclear weapons?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is far more nuanced than it may appear – and there are several theories on North Korea’s ultimate objectives. As Kim Jong Un has repeatedly defied President Donald Trump and the rest of the western world, many experts have weighed in on the dictator’s motivations. Some believe North Korea wants a deterrent to those who might invade while others argue that the regime plans to use their nuclear program to facilitate the reunification of Korea under Kim’s rule.
Kim Jong-Un Wants North Korea To Be Accepted on The International Stage
One theory suggests that the country is attempting to coerce the international community into accepting the nation as a legitimate member on the world stage. The objective would be to grow its economy along with its nuclear program. On Radio 5 Live, BBC World Affairs commentator John Simpson said, “To do that he’s got to defeat the Americans in diplomatic terms, he can’t possibly beat them in military terms but he can make them go down on their knees and talk to him and accept him as one of the top powers.”
The Kim regime’s actions certainly lend credibility to this theory. Past presidents have been hesitant to take an aggressive stance towards Pyongyang because of the potential consequences. President Bill Clinton even used a policy of appeasement – provided the Kim regime with food and money in exchange for a cessation of North Korea’s nuclear program. Of course, Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang’s leader did not fulfill his end of the bargain. Chun Yung Woo, a former South Korean Nuclear negotiator with Pyongyang and former national security advisor, told The Washington Post, “The further they advance towards having an operational arsenal, the more they can get from outside powers just for a freeze when they return to the negotiating table.”
A North Korean Nuclear Deterrent
Another possible reason why North Korea is rushing to obtain nuclear capabilities is that they want a deterrent to potential aggression from Japan, South Korea, and the west. Put simply, Kim Jong Un does not want to share the fate of other dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. This is not surprising; both of those leaders were killed as a result of U.S. military action. It is likely that Kim believes his survival is dependent on possessing weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has not expressed a desire to invade North Korea – the rhetoric of President Trump as well as past presidents have made it clear that North Korea will not suffer a military attack unless they strike us first. However, BBC News indicates:
“Pyongyang maintains that the United States, as a conventionally superior and nuclear armed power, with 28,000 troops in South Korean, and a policy of maintaining a first-use nuclear option, represents a clear threat to the country.”
In the end, it may not matter that the United States does not wish to go to war. If Kim Jong Un believes we are a threat, he might think it wise to continue to develop his nuclear program. Of course, some believe that Pyongyang’s actions are not as defensive as the regime would have us believe.Pyongyang, North Korea
Nuclear Shield for An Attack on South Korea
It seems that the most common theory for Kim Jong Un’s fixation on nuclear weapons is the idea that he wants to deter aggressive action – however, his actual reasons may be more nefarious. According to The New York Times, Kim might be looking for a way to force the United States to pull its troops out of South Korea. If Kim could accomplish this objective, it would be easier for him to attack South Korea without the fear of American intervention. The Times writes,
The worry, say those who fear the North is considering that option, is that its ability to strike the United States with nuclear missiles could undermine Americans’ ability to guarantee that it would protect South Korea, as well as Japan, from attack.
Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told The New York Times, “If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco.” He asserts that Kim could incite hostilities with South Korea and threaten the United States with a nuclear strike if we get involved. This theory is the one with which the U.S. should be the most concerned. If true, failing to stop the rogue regime could result in the decimation of a key ally and a stronger North Korea.
Nobody Knows What Kim Jong-Un Wants
At the end of the day, we do not know what Kim Jong-Un is trying to accomplish. Few people have met the North Korean leader, which means we are aware very little about him. Perhaps one of these theories is correct – or maybe all or none of them adequately address the regime’s goals.
Jon Wolfsthal, a former official in the Obama administration, sums it up nicely: “We don’t know what Kim Jong Un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his real end game is? We just don’t have great intelligence into his personal thinking.” In the end, knowing Kim Jong Un’s objectives may not be as important as knowing whether the United States is willing to wait until he shows us.
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