Why North Korea's Kim Jong Un Is Obsessed With Missiles

A cruise rocket launch
The Korean People's Armed Forces test-fire a new cruise rocket in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on May 30, 2017. The state has increased its number of missile tests in recent weeks, troubling its neighbor, South Korea. KCNA/Reuters

On Thursday, North Korea conducted its 10th missile test of 2017. A day after South Korea announced it was suspending the deployment of a controversial U.S. missile defense system, its neighbor sent four rockets scudding into the Sea of Japan. Unpredictable as ever, the secretive state seemed unimpressed by the south’s conciliatory move.

The launch of the four surface-to-ship cruise missiles also marked an escalation in North Korea’s deployments. Since May 10, when South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, took office, the country has conducted four missile tests, moving it ever closer to its goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States.

This ambition is still a long way from being realized, but as North Korea continues to defy international sanctions and launch its missiles, the question remains: Why is Pyongyang so hell-bent on developing an ICBM and can anyone make it stop?

Missed Missiles: A Timeline

North Korea’s history with nuclear weapons began in 1985 when it signed the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, led by the United Nations. In 2003, a year after U.S. President George W. Bush named it as one of the “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq, it withdrew from the pact amid revelations it had been running a secret nuclear weapons program.

In 2005, it agreed to give up its nuclear program but abandoned this pledge in July 2006 when it test-fired some long-range missiles. In October that year, Pyongyang claimed to have tested its first nuclear weapon, resulting in the U.N. levying sanctions against it.

This pattern repeated in 2007 with the country agreeing to shut down its nuclear weapons plants in exchange for aid, but then failing to do so. In May 2009, it carried out a second nuclear test prompting, you guessed it, more U.N. sanctions.

Ready for more déjà vu? In February 2012 the U.S. State Department said North Korea had agreed to hit pause on its missile launches and nuclear activity in exchange for food aid. In January 2013, the deal was off and a month later, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test. Cue more U.N. sanctions.

Things escalated in January 2016 when the country said it had carried out its first hydrogen bomb test. (Hydrogen bombs are vastly more powerful than atomic ones). Though the U.S. said the North had not been successful, it announced in March that it had developed nuclear warheads small enough to fit onto missiles. In September, it claimed to have detonated a nuclear warhead.

By 2017, the country seemed ready to seriously worry the international community. On January 1, its leader, Kim Jong-un, announced his country could soon test its first ICBM. Though prone to making bombastic statements, U.S. news outlets subsequently reported that outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama had told Donald Trump that North Korea was the biggest threat to the U.S.

Show me the money

Attempting to become a nuclear power isn’t easy. In March, the U.N. reported that international sanctions were worsening the country’s problems by disrupting aid flows to the state. The organization found that more than 10 million North Koreans or 41 percent of the population are currently malnourished. Two years prior, Kim Jong-un had claimed that he could not sleep for worrying about his people’s poverty.

Despite his sleepless nights, Kim somehow finds a way to stump up the cash to pay for his nuclear ambitions.

“North Korea is extremely capable at evading sanctions and at any restrictions that are put on their processes,” says Cristina Varriale, a proliferation and nuclear policy research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

Though many countries refuse to do business with the state, it still manages to export commodities such as iron ore, nickel and rare earth minerals to its neighbor, China. It also exports forced labor, with the U.N. estimating that these human slaves—who have been found in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe—earn the country from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion a year.

Balance of powers

North Korea’s exports might not have made it rich but it does allow Kim to continue trying to develop his coveted ICBM. Besides a personal lust for power, Varriale suggests there are a few reasons why the dictator is so desperate to establish North Korea as a serious nuclear threat.

“Firstly, it’s a way to bolster their capability and achieve a strategic deterrent against America,” Varriale says. “Being able to achieve an ICBM, for example, will shift the strategic balance not just regionally but with the U.S. as well.”

As for the short-range missiles North Korea has been firing closer to home, Varriale says that this could be a way of Pyongyang preventing a possible engagement with Seoul—however unlikely this is. “If you’ve got short range missile capability you’re not at risk of having to send troops over the border,” she adds.

While South Korea has no interest in resuming hostilities, it has expressed concern at the danger its neighbor poses. The problem is, it seems unlikely that any one country can keep North Korea in check. Even China, its powerful ally, doesn’t have much sway over the state.

“China is not happy with the missile progress North Korea is making and its belligerent acts, since they pull the U.S. into the region," Varriale says. “Nevertheless it doesn’t have the power to wake up one morning and say to Pyongyang, ‘you’ve got to stop this now.’”

This is something that Trump has recently discovered. In April, following a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, he told the Wall Street Journal : “I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it's not what you would think.”

And with Iran, Pakistan and Russia—North Korea’s other allies—hardly ready to do the U.S.’ bidding, it seems likely that Pyongyang will continue to be a very real threat to the Trump administration.