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Why North Korea Wants Nuclear Weapons: Korean Unification

North Korea ICBM
North Korea Hwasong-17 ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Why North Korea Wants Nuclear Weapons: South Korea is busy preparing for the May 10 inauguration of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. During the closely-contested election campaign, he advocated harder-line diplomacy for Seoul, rejecting outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s failed “sunshine policy.” Yoon said, for example, “[W]e shall stand on the right side of history with the U.S. by making sure that those who undermine the liberal international order pay the price accordingly.” He also pledged to improve long-strained relations with Japan, which worsened under his predecessor.  

All this suggests closer Indo-Pacific cooperation against the aspiring hegemon China, but the President-elect’s most urgent challenge is North Korea’s increasingly threatening military posture and its bellicose rhetoric. As he prepares for his swearing-in, Yoon must assess the increasing risks of Pyongyang’s provocations against Seoul and Washington, its principal ally. With limited intelligence about North Korea’s actual intentions, assessments of its leaders’ pronouncements, whether intended for foreign or domestic consumption, are often simply shoe-horned into pre-conceived notions. Nonetheless, despite years of theorizing that the North’s main purpose for seeking deliverable nuclear weapons was to defend the ruling regime, it is increasingly clear that the true central objective of those efforts is to reunify the Peninsula on the Kim dynasty’s terms.

This is a jarring, disconcerting conclusion for many, but concrete evidence from the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs is telling. Kim Jong Un has been no slacker in both advancing his menacing weapons programs and propaganda to conceal his actual intentions. For example, four of North Korea’s six nuclear tests occurred on his watch, including the last known shot in 2017 (all six at the Punggye-ri test site). As of 2020, former CIA analyst Jung H. Pak calculated that Kim had tested three times more missiles than his two predecessors combined.  In the past two years, the pace has increased, with 22 tests so far this year. As to disinformation, in 2017, Kim orchestrated a media spectacular, “closing” the Punggye-ri tunnel entrances, but allowing no prior international inspection of the tunnel system and no verification of what was actually closed. This reverse-Potemkin village fantasia closely resembled the 2008 destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor’s cooling tower, impressive for the credulous media but not affecting the aging reactor’s key operating systems.  

Why the renewed bellicosity now rather than during Donald Trump’s personal diplomacy, when Kim suspended nuclear and long-range missile testing? 

Trump’s answer, centering on himself, of course, is that he intimidated Kim, yet they also enjoyed a close personal relationship. The more compelling explanation is that North Korea had learned what it needed through its six nuclear tests to proceed to systematic warhead production for its stockpile. Moreover, while long-range missile testing was suspended, frequent launch-testing of shorter-range missiles continued, notwithstanding that these tests violated applicable Security Council resolutions. The lessons thereby learned could readily be scaled up for ICBMs, albeit likely subject to further testing at the appropriate time. Like now.

Moreover, Kim undoubtedly believed he could entice Trump into a deal highly favorable to Pyongyang, following the North’s usual (and usually successful) playbook: Kim would commit to ending the nuclear program and even destroy or shutter portions of it, in exchange for America (and Japan) terminating economic sanctions and providing material assistance. Kim’s visible disappointment at the 2019 Hanoi Summit, having failed to close the deal he wanted, and the lack of further progress, likely put Kim into a holding pattern until after the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.  

Joe Biden’s subsequent attempted resumption of lower-level negotiations efforts was lackluster, tracking Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” approach, thus affording North Korea free rein to proceed unhindered on both missile and nuclear weapons. Moreover, Biden’s first-year focus on domestic priorities placed Pyongyang well down on his priority list. When foreign affairs did come to the fore in America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the White House’s strategic incompetence could only have encouraged Kim to accelerate his programs. Today, the unfolding crisis following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine is consuming almost all of the Administration’s national-security bandwidth.

Notwithstanding America’s errors and inattentiveness, particularly failing to invest in a major expansion of its national missile-defense capabilities, Kim is undoubtedly worried by both the incoming Yoon administration and the Indo-Pacific’s growing focus on China. The chess pieces are moving, and Washington’s current distractions simply underline for Kim his need to traverse the limited remaining distance to achieve an undoubted ability to launch, target, and produce nuclear detonations at any site of his choosing worldwide. He has the nuclear warheads, he has intercontinental-range missiles, and the remaining issues are whether he can target those warheads accurately and whether they can survive atmospheric re-entry. These last two points are critical and remain unproven, but no one should doubt how close North Korea is to its long-standing objective of unequivocally threatening the continental U.S.

Kim is not wasting time. By reopening entrances to Punggye-ri’s tunnel network, he is either intending to resume nuclear testing (perhaps for more sophisticated weapons) or at least make testing possible on very short notice. New delivery-system technology, like maneuverable hypersonic missiles, increases Pyongyang’s options. Kim’s rhetoric is heating up in tune with changing physical and political realities; at a massive military parade last week, he said the North was able to “pre-emptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves … if necessary.”

North Korean Missile

North Korean Missile Launch. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

North Korea

Image of North Korean Road-Mobile ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The notion that Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program was purely defensive, to safeguard the Kim dynasty and fend off Washington’s “hostile policy,” has been extremely useful in lulling its targets into complacency. Now, however, the North’s increasingly evident capabilities show ever more clearly that Kim seeks reunification of the Peninsula on his terms.  Over time, his nuclear capability is the lever to drive U.S. forces from South Korea and possibly even Japan, or at least severely weaken their alliances. 

North Korea U.S. Army

Image: KCNA/North Korean State Media.

If the wrong kind of American President (Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, for example) received an ultimatum to withdraw U.S. forces or face a nuclear attack, what would happen?  

Think about it. Kim Jung Un certainly is.  So should Yoon Suk-yeol and Joe Biden.  

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.



  1. Commentar

    May 1, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    In 1955 US forces had to swallow their pride and withdraw from Austria thus paving the way for the rise of the peaceful alpine nation that we have today.

    Korea ? In korea, US led by douglas macarthur (the shady dude who personally ensured protection of several top high class-A war criminals) insisted on a piece of the pie of the peninsula.

    Few people today are aware that the americans actually wanted more than just a pie. The US initially wanted their piece to include parts of manchuria as well but the soviets put their foot down and US settled for 38th parallel.

    After US got into korea, it didn’t give them freedom. Instead macarthur and his sidekick john hodge appointed defeated jap officers to supervise and control koreans resulting in unrests and clashes and riots. Long story short, war broke out and then the armistice.

    Today, north korea know how US treat them differently from austria and nuclear weaponry is the only iron guarantee to keep off the amorous uncle sam. We can’t fault them for the situation.

    Uncle sam where he goes trouble follows.

    • Joe Comment

      May 1, 2022 at 8:29 pm

      Commentar: It sounds like you need a long vacation in the North Korean countryside to enjoy the freedom. (rolls eyes)

    • Doug Hasler

      May 2, 2022 at 2:03 pm

      The US does not have a “piece” of Korea. Without provocation, South Korea was attacked by North Korean forces under the rule of Great Leader Kim Il-sung backed up by promises of support from Joe Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1950. But for the efforts of US and allied military, all of Korea would be under the tyrannical rule of an unelected Kim Jong-un — grandson of the original “Great Leader”. The rule of North Korea is a family affair.

      North Korea is an impoverished nation which is propped up by the Communist Chinese Party. Night-time satellite images of North Korea show it to be black void, as the country is so poor it cannot afford to maintain outdoor lighting.

      By population, South Korea is the 28th largest country in the world. Its GDP ranks 10th in the world . . . ahead of such countries as Russia, Australia, Brazil, and Sweden. South Korea’s government is a liberal democracy, with peaceful transitions of power.

      The Soviet Union gained control of North Korea on the strength of its less than one month participation in the war on Japan.

      The US is not “amorous” for North Korea. The North Korean state is a virtual prison. Its citizens are not allowed to travel freely around their own country, nor to travel overseas. One can only hope that the citizens of North Korea will enjoy the fruits of freedom someday.

  2. Joe Comment

    May 1, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    The main thing missing from the article is any actual evidence that North Korea desires unification with the South.

  3. The Pentagon

    May 2, 2022 at 8:41 pm

    There are United States submarines loaded to the gills with atomic warheads lurking right off the Korean coast ready to turn the DPRK into glass at a moment’s notice. Any launch or nuclear aggression of any kind by any of these rogue criminals nations will be the very last thing that they do before their entire civilization disappears forever in a flash of light.

    F around and find out.

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