Why North Korea Won’t Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons

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North Korea is steadily growing its weapon capabilities, and has shown no sign of stopping. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

How will Americans know when North Korea has developed nukes that could strike the United States? A missile defense expert was once asked. He shrugged and said, “Well, you’re going to see a bright light.”

The answer speaks to the uncertainty of whether Pyongyang can actually defeat US defense systems and drop a nuclear warhead on the country. But this catastrophic possibility alone is precisely why the small and isolated country is able to threaten the world’s dominant power from afar—and why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown little interest in giving up its arsenal of missiles and nuclear bombs despite United Nations sanctions that have hamstrung its economy.

On the contrary, North Korea has continued to test a range of missiles, including those capable of hitting continental US

Barely three months into 2022, Pyongyang has already conducted 10 missile tests—more than it did in all of 2021. The latest one took place on March 16, when it tested a ballistic missile, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command. The forces frequent weapon tests prompted US stationed in South Korea to ramp up readiness.

Recent satellite images have also shown signs of renewed activity at North Korea’s main nuclear-testing site, Punggye-ri, which Pyongyang blew up in 2018 ahead of disarmament talks with then-US President Donald Trump that eventually broke down.

Pyongyang has tested nukes six times, most recently in 2017. With Russia issuing veiled threats of nuclear war over the Western response to its invasion of Ukraine, a resumption of nuclear testing in North Korea could further complicate the global security environment.

Why Is North Korea Testing Missiles?

Pyongyang has put military capabilities at the center of its foreign policy and has developed a variety of weapons, from short-range missiles to thermonuclear bombs.

Boasting a large arsenal has become a source of national pride for North Korea, as it hopes to gain equal footing with its ultimate rival, the United States. It can also leverage its capabilities in international negotiations.

By developing weapons of mass destruction, North Korea hopes to prove to other nations that it is a legitimate power not to be taken lightly. Kim Jong Un frequently attends missile launches and takes pride in Pyongyang’s military breakthroughs, which all help maintain his image as an invincible ruler.

Pyongyang also thinks it can’t survive without nuclear weapons. As an isolated state with an unstable economy, North Korea is surrounded by far more powerful rivals, such as South Korea and Japan. Having nuclear capability could help North Korea deter attacks.

North Korea launched its most recent missile on March 16. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea launched its most recent missile on March 16. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

How Did North Korea Get Its Nukes?

North Korea first started getting its supplies in the 1960s from the Soviet Union. Afraid it could lag behind South Korea after the Korean War, Pyongyang agreed to peaceful development programs with the Soviet Union and, in return, received a nuclear research reactor, missile designs, and some nuclear fuel.

In the 1970s, North Korea began cooperating with China and Pakistan to develop ballistic missiles. Pyongyang would also acquire Pakistani centrifuge technology in the 1990s, necessary to develop nuclear bombs.

Now, the dictatorship may have up to 60 nukes in its arsenal, according to US intelligence officials.

Is North Korea Dangerous?

Pyongyang has regularly issued threats of force, often in response to sanctions, criticism of its human rights abuses, and joint military exercises conducted by the US and its ally South Korea.

It has never followed through on its threats of nuclear annihilation, in good part because that would invite an overwhelming counter strike. But North Korea has steadily grown its capabilities and weapon tests over the years.

The US State Department estimates that the country, one of the poorest in the world, spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military. North Korea now has the world’s fourth largest military in terms of active personnel, behind China, India, and the US

The country has conducted a total of 137 missile launches since 1984, 102 of them after Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, according to a database maintained by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Significantly, in 2017, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon 10 times more powerful than the ones that devastated the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The underground test, the detonation of a hydrogen bomb that could fit on the country’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, caused tremors detectable from as far as South Korea and China.

China is one of North Korea's key partners.  Photo: Ju Peng/Xinhua via Getty

China is one of North Korea’s key partners. Photo: Ju Peng/Xinhua via Getty

Who Are North Korea’s Allies?

China is one of North Korea’s key allies, although their partnership has been under strain over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The world’s most populous nation shares a long border with North Korea and has largely supported its neighbor since the Korean War broke out in 1950, lending political and economic backing to several generations of North Korean leaders.

But China has also backed tough UN sanctions against Pyongyang for building nukes, although it reportedly turned a blind eye to the smuggling of illicit oil into North Korea.

Russia is another North Korean ally. Moscow has backed UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang, but Russian companies have violated such sanctions and have re-exported North Korean coal and transferred oil to other countries.

In January 2022, China and Russia delayed a US effort to sanction five North Koreans linked to the country’s ballistic missile program.

North Korea also maintains friendly relations with Pakistan, which provided aid in developing nuclear weapons in the 1990s. Pyongyang has also set up weapons factories across certain African nations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Uganda. Egypt and Libya also have economic ties to North Korea.

Who Are North Korea’s Enemies?

Kim Jong Un himself has said North Korea’s biggest enemy is the United States.

Having skipped diplomatic talks for the past two years, Washington and Pyongyang have a poor relationship, marred with sanctions, name-calling, and boycotts.

Also on North Korea’s blacklist are South Korea, Japan, and other nations that have called for an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear testing.

Where Does North Korea Stand on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

Though Pyongyang stayed silent during the early days of the Ukrainian crisis, it later publicly blamed the West for its “abuse of power” and for the war.

“The root cause of the Ukraine crisis totally lies in the hegemonic policy of the US and the West, which enforce themselves in high-handedness and abuse of power against other countries,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said.

As much of the Western world slaps sanctions on Russia, North Korea has stood firmly with its economic partner. If prevented from exporting oil, Russia could start exporting fuel to Pyongyang, ignoring previously imposed sanctions.

North Korea has stood with Russia during the ongoing Ukraine conflict.  Photo: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

North Korea has stood with Russia during the ongoing Ukraine conflict. Photo: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Where Does North Korea Get Money?

Strapped for cash, North Korea has sought various ways to make money over the years.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, about 75 percent of North Korea’s trade is done with China.

Pyongyang exports coal and other minerals to its economic partner, sometimes illegally, and has also allegedly sold weapons to Syria and Myanmar.

It also makes its money through cybercrime, the proceeds making up 8 percent of its total GDP in 2020, according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul. In 2016, it nearly succeeded in stealing $1 billion from Bangladesh by hacking into the SWIFT network that manages payments between banks.

Forced labor is another source of profit for Kim. By sending North Koreans to work abroad, Pyongyang is able to get its hands on foreign currency, something it’s had little access to due to international sanctions.

Are North Korea and South Korea at War?

North and South Korea are still technically at war with each other.

Bloody fighting during the Korean War, which started when the communist North invaded the US-backed South, brought the two countries to a stalemate. More than 3 million people were killed in the span of three years. China and the Soviet Union fought on the side of North Korea.

An armistice was signed in 1953, but there’s never been a treaty that officially ended the conflict. As tensions heightened between the two countries in recent years, international powers are worried that fighting could resume along the 38th parallel—the boundary between North and South Korea.

Kim Jong Un has been in power since 2011, after his father Kim Jong Il passed away.  Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Kim Jong Un has been in power since 2011, after his father Kim Jong Il passed away. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

What Is Kim Jong Un Like?

With little political or military experience, Kim Jong Un was thrust into power at age 27, after the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

Since 2011, the Swiss-educated Kim has grown into his role as the supreme leader of 25 million people. He oversaw the rapid development of the North’s nuclear and missile programs, and is said to have purged high-ranking officials (including members of his own family) to keep his power. Two years after he assumed office, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle. In February 2017, he sent assassins to kill his half-brother, who reportedly worked with the CIA, in a Malaysian airport using a banned nerve agent.

Outside of his political life, the 38-year-old is a huge NBA fan. Kim hosted retired Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman at least five times, once accompanied by VICE.

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