Seoul (CNN)Kim Jong Un has been intensifying his efforts to develop a long-range nuclear strike capability since the beginning of 2016. The more vulnerable he feels atop a weakening North Korea, the more he seeks a silver bullet to ensure the regime’s long-term survival.
This dynamic has been in play for decades, especially as North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to compensate for the loss of its powerful patrons in Moscow and Beijing and fell further behind a far more prosperous South Korea.
But Pyongyang’s insecurity has intensified even more under Kim, who, since coming to power in 2012, declared his father’s bequest of a nuclear program as a crowning achievement, changed the constitution
to declare North Korea a nuclear state, and declared nuclear and economic development as his twin priorities.
North’s nuclear sprint
But the next U.S. administration is likely to see the North Korean threat as a more urgent priority because the North may indeed develop a long-range nuclear strike capability within the next four years. Such a development will enhance North Korea’s leverage and demands for talks but will also generate greater pressure on the next U.S. President to consider decisive action, possibly including military options.
This prospect provides Kim with an incentive to pursue a nuclear sprint, both to lock in capabilities that will enhance North Korea’s deterrent against the United States and to seal North Korea’s status as a nuclear power in any future international negotiations, such as the North’s proposal for peace talks in exchange for cessation of military exercises — but not in exchange for denuclearization.
If North Korea conducts another nuclear test, there are few additional non-military measures the international community can pursue, and North Korea is counting on China’s desire for stability and for a strategic buffer to protect North Korea against externally-imposed measures for regime change.
On May 6, Kim may enjoy a Korean Worker’s Party conference that will celebrate his achievements and consolidate his rule. He may even think that his nuclear deterrent has bought time and saved money that can be used to improve North Korea’s economy. But the regime’s own systemic need to generate instability as a primary means of exerting domestic political control guarantees that the young leader will never have enough nuclear weapons to achieve absolute security.
Editor’s note: Scott Snyder
is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions here are his own.
Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/26/opinions/north-korea-nuclear-strike-race-snyder/index.html