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The Ultimate Guide to North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program

Even if miniaturization has eluded the DPRK, there remain other ways it could deliver a nuclear weapon. It could simply dig a tunnel and set off a weapon somewhere south of the demilitarized zone. Nor is Incheon or Seoul that far away from the border. Another option would be to load it onto a commercial ship and slip it into the port city of Busan.

 4. The North’s nuclear doctrine is unknown

Under what circumstances would North Korea use nuclear weapons? Does it have a “no first use” policy? Does it consider nukes offensive or defensive weapons? Maybe both? Are Pyongyang’s nukes strategic or tactical?

Outsiders — which is everyone outside of North Korea — have no firm answers, a disturbing notion since understanding under what circumstances North Korea would use a nuclear weapon is essential to avoiding a nuclear war.

Other countries are more explicit. China and India, for example, have both made a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Neither will use nuclear weapons unless they are nuked first. It’s an admirable policy of restraint and pre-tension signaling. North Korea, not surprisingly, has taken a different tack and nuclear ambiguity has become an essential part of the Kim’s nuclear strategy.

Not understanding the terms under which North Korea will use nukes has a chilling effect on any potential military action. Tit-for-tat artillery exchanges in retaliation for bombarding South Korean territory might potentially trigger a nuclear war. Rolling the combined might of the South Korean and U.S. armies up to the entrance of the Ryugyong Hotel might not trigger nuclear war. We really don’t know.

Which just might be the whole point.

5. Giving away nukes would probably end the Kim regime

Nuclear weapons have become the guarantor of the Kim dynasty. But by pushing so hard for nuclear weapons, the Kims may have fallen into a trap of their own making.

North Korea has long maintained that it preserves the “real” spirit of the Korean people. It safeguards this gem of Koreanness from the imperialist United States and the puppet government in Seoul. That’s the whole point of heavily arming itself and cutting itself off from the outside world.

The Kim dynasty has defined the United States as the antithesis of Koreanness. The Yankee imperialist enemy has helped legitimize multi-generational rule by the Kim family, as well as justify repressive security measures, harsh living conditions, lack of economic progress and the generally low level of prosperity.

If Kim Jong Un were to cut a deal with the United States and other powers to relinquish his nuclear weapons, he would be acknowledging that the existential threat no longer exists. And if there’s no longer a threat to North Korea, why should the people tolerate deprivation, sacrifice and the Kims?

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is not going away anytime soon. It will likely continue to grow. Getting to the bottom about the many uncertainties about Pyongyang’s nuclear program will help the rest of the world deal with as ever more dangerous and complex situation. Ambiguity may conceal weakness. It may also conceal strength.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter:@KyleMizokami.

This first appeared in 2015 and is being reprinted due to massive reader interest.