North Korea’s successful launch of four ballistic missiles into the waters off northwest Japan on Monday was just a dry run of a nuclear attack against US military bases in Japan, state media in Pyongyang said on Tuesday.
It's doubtful that North Korea could carry out that threat. But analysts say that if the country doesn't yet have a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile, it is well on its way to developing such a weapon as well as the means to reach the West Coast of the United States.
“They are going to get those capabilities eventually,” says Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. “It is just a question of when.”
But close observers also note it's important to understand what's motivating the hermit kingdom's quest for nuclear weapons. It is not necessarily to destroy its neighbor on the Korean peninsula, Japan, or even the US, they say. It's perceived as a path to safeguarding leader Kim Jong-un from suffering the same end as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
“Above all else, North Korea's nuclear program is about security,” John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told BBC in September, the day North Korea performed its fifth nuclear test. “It is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country's basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime's control, and of the rule of Kim Jong-un.”
“So, until we can help Pyongyang find a credible substitute to guarantee its security, and give Kim Jong-un the kind of prestige that comes with being a member of the nuclear club, then we can expect more tests, more progress and more 'provocations,’ ” he said.
In the test launch on Monday, three of the missiles, either Scuds or Nodongs, fell within the so-called exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from the shores of Japan, and where fishing and cargo ships are active. The fourth missile landed outside but close to the zone.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., says in a phone interview on Tuesday that the test launch was more of a military exercise, a bit of saber-rattling rather than a true weapons test.
"We think they know the missiles works," says Dr. Lewis. "Now, can the [military] unit go through the launch process?”
Experts have debated whether North Korea possesses a nuclear warhead it can mount to a short or medium-range missile. Pyongyang has shown it has a nuclear weapon, testing it five times: in 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016. But North Korea’s claims it has miniaturized a nuclear warhead – mounting it to a short, medium, or long-range missile – has never been independently verified, according to the BBC.
It’s less likely North Korea possesses an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle. But Mr. Kim said in his New Year’s address that the country had reached “the final stages” of that weapon’s development.
Conservative estimates place the timeline of the ICBM's development within three years. Others expect it to be tested and perfected much sooner. But they add its purpose is likely deterrence, not aggression.
“When you look at their actions and their words, the North Koreans’ goals for their nuclear program are first of all to deter America from invading them,” says Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review. “Their basic strategy is when massive American reinforcements show up in the region to launch the invasion, the North Koreans are going to bring out their big guns to stop that from happening.”
This attitude is the result of years of bad blood between it and the US. North Korea’s interest in a nuclear weapon started after World War II. Eight years later, the Korean War ended not with a peace agreement, but with an armistice, technically keeping the Korean Peninsula in a state of war until this day. During the cold war, North Korea aligned with the Soviet Union and communist China, putting it at odds with the US. And in his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush lumped North Korea into the “axis of evil,” countries he said were involved with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
At the start of the Iraq war a year later, then-leader Kim Jong-il disappeared from public view for 44 days, reportedly fearing a US assassination by Tomahawk missiles, according to BBC.
Today, North Korea’s goal in advancing their nuclear program and developing nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the US is about both ensuring it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Iraq as well as being ready if the US and South Korea turn a defensive military exercise into a surprise attack, explains Mr. Pollack.
In an editorial in North Korean media in January 2016, Pyongyang alluded to this approach.
"History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders' aggression," an editorial in KCNA reads. "The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord."
In some ways, the younger Kim has been more aggressive than his father. Kim has already overseen more ballistic missile tests, including from submarines, in his five years in power than his father did during his entire 18-year reign, the Monitor previously reported. But some North Korea watchers suggest that up until the regime's most recent missile tests on Monday and last month, it has tempered its provocations, an opportunity they said for the Trump administration to engage North Korea in negotiations.
But that window is closing, says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute, part of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Washington, D.C.
"I don’t want to say it’s closed. But it’s closing quickly," he says.