Tensions arcing across the Pacific Ocean between North Korea and the United States have scaled fresh heights in recent days, with President Trump threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang responding by declaring its intent to prepare a missile assault on the waters around Guam.
Precipitating the verbal showdown was North Korea’s latest apparent breakthrough in its nuclear weapons program, which was just the most recent in a string of rapid advances that appear to have taken experts and analysts by surprise.
According to media reports Tuesday, the Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that Pyongyang is now capable of sufficiently miniaturizing nuclear warheads so they can be affixed to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Word of that alarming development came less than two weeks after North Korea tested an ICBM that appeared capable of reaching the contiguous United States.
How has it come to this? How has the most isolated nation on the planet – and one of the most heavily sanctioned – reached the point where it is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power and issuing threats to the world’s leading power that seemingly are no longer unbelievable?
The seeds of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were sown amid the chaos of the Korean War, as Pyongyang found itself at the receiving end of nuclear threats from the United States. Collaboration on nuclear technology with the Soviet Union followed soon after, and an influx of Russian scientists to North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union deepened the foundation for Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.
In more recent years, a mindset that embraces failure as an opportunity to learn, and a greater willingness to upset the West, have all contributed to a rapid acceleration in both the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program can be traced back to a reactor that the Soviet Union gave to North Korea,” says Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Piece of cold war puzzle
The Soviets’ IRT-2000 research reactor, procured by the Hermit Kingdom in 1962, was but a part of the nuclear cooperation between the two nations: North Korean nuclear specialists had already been spending time in the USSR, and in 1956 Pyongyang had become a member of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, based in Dubna, near Moscow.
From Moscow’s perspective, the motivation behind this collaboration was little more than a piece of the cold war puzzle.
Just as the United States “was spreading nuclear technology to client states, so the Soviet Union was doing the same,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Americas (IISS) in Washington. “The North Koreans then used it for their weapons program, but that was never the Soviets’ intention.”
The Soviet-North Korean cooperation took place in the wake of the Korean War, at a time when northeast Asia was awash with US nuclear weapons. At the peak, in 1967, 3,200 nuclear weapons were deployed in the Pacific theater by the United States, the bulk of them in South Korea.
The Soviets continued to provide nuclear assistance, but Pyongyang wanted more, and their quest took them to Beijing. But China declined to help, and requests “for atomic secrets were reportedly rebuffed in the 1960s and again in the 1970s,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.
In declining to assist the Hermit Kingdom in its endeavors, says Mr. Fitzpatrick of IISS, China was “being responsible,” refusing to be party to the spread of nuclear weapons. “Any nuclear weapons state has a rationale for not increasing the number of other nuclear weapons states,” Fitzpatrick adds. “It lowers the value of that currency.”
Soviet loss was Pyongyang's gain
It was then that the demise of the USSR in 1991, by all accounts, lent a fresh boost to North Korea’s efforts.
“There were a lot of Russian nuclear specialists kicking around after the collapse of European communism,” says John Merrill, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Many of them are believed to have made their way to North Korea.
During the 1990s, it is also thought that North Korean nuclear expertise benefited from the proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who allegedly exported such knowledge to Iran and Libya, as well.
The relationship between North Korea and Pakistan has been one of mutual benefit, with North Korea providing Islamabad some of its missile technology.
According to Ms. Hanham of the Middlebury Institute, Pyongyang’s missile program “also in a way originated from the Soviet Union,” their first foray into that field being the procurement of Soviet-made Scuds from Egypt. Thereafter, many of the North’s homegrown missiles were born through the reverse-engineering of Scuds; the medium-range No-Dong missile was essentially a stretched version of the same.
“Among so-called rogue states, North Korea is the most sophisticated,” says Bruce Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago whose work focuses, among other topics, on modern Korean history. “The Iranian missile tested a couple of weeks ago, for example, was basically a North Korean missile.”
Willing to take risks, and fail
Indeed, many analysts agree that whereas in the early days of both their nuclear program and their missile program the North Koreans were reliant on external sources, more recently their technology and expertise has become increasingly indigenous. And one reason for their rapid progress lately is their relative indifference to failure: they are far more likely to go ahead and test their weapons even when their confidence of success is low enough that most other nations would balk at the thought of testing.
“A little less than half of their tests have failed or exploded on launch,” says Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “And each time, whether it’s a success or a failure, they learn.”
There is another aspect to the speed of developments in recent years. With the resources of a state – even one weighed down by sanctions – at a weapons program’s disposal, the research is likely to be richly funded. And while there is no doubt that the ballistic missile program is a focus and a priority for North Korea’s leadership, says Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for missile defense at IISS, “the biggest change is that Kim Jong-un is willing to take greater risks to get to where he is.”
“Under Kim Jong-il [Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor],” adds Mr. Elleman, “North Korea was less keen to alienate the West.”
As for China’s current role, some analysts believe Chinese companies do help North Korea smuggle certain goods across the border. Occasionally, state media pictures from Pyongyang reveal items of Chinese origin. In one of the recent missile launches, for example, the launch vehicle was thought by experts to be of Chinese origin, according to Ms. Collins of CSIS.
Yet as quickly as events are moving with regard to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capabilities, and as inflammatory as the rhetoric may be on both sides of the Pacific, it may be worth remembering what drives North Korea’s determination to become a nuclear power.
Having felt under threat from US nuclear weapons for more than half a century, North Koreans have become convinced that the only way their regime will survive is if they, too, hold such a capability – to act as a deterrent.
“There’s no reason for all the hype,” says Dr. Cumings. “North Korea is achieving something they’ve long sought – to stabilize the situation.”