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Why Would North Korea Launch a Nuclear Missile?

The top members of North Korea’s command structure believe that nuclear bombs are the only things that can guarantee the country’s survival.

North Korea asserts that it fears nothing and will obliterate the U.S. and its allies with its “treasured nuclear sword,” yet the reality is that Pyongyang is deeply concerned that it may one day cease to exist, that it will be destroyed by the U.S. and its strategic partners. As its future is perpetually uncertain, the North believes that the only viable long-term security option is the development of nuclear weaponry.

(This first appeared on The Daily Caller News Foundation site here.)  

Kim Jong-un’s fears are major factors in whether or not North Korea decides to launch a nuclear strike against another country. “I think that Kim Jong-un will press the button if his rule and his dynasty are threatened,” Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean official who defected last year, explained. “He may do anything.”

“Putting this in a North Korean perspective, they see themselves as facing the world’s largest single military and nuclear power in a potential conflict. The pursuit of nuclear weapons, then, is intended as a deterrent, to counter their weaker military position,” Rodger Baker, Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform, explained.

North Korea’s primary aspiration is “to stop a buildup of U.S. forces around them and protect North Korea from the fate of Iraq,” Pollack told TheDCNF. The aim is primarily nuclear deterrence.

Were North Korea to use a nuclear weapon, it would most likely be in the event of a conflict, if a conflict appeared imminent, or if some external factor posed an immediate threat to the country’s survival. How each side perceives these conditions varies, making it difficult to determine which actions might push the Pyongyang over the edge.

“It is not clear, for example, if they consider a limited strike against their nuclear or missile facilities as an imminent threat, or if they would initially respond with conventional systems,” Baker commented, “Though given the military disparity, even a limited strike could be seen as the beginning of a more concerned military effort, leaving the North needing to use its WMDs quickly or risk having its capability knocked out.”

Despite North Korean threats, the probability that North Korea would choose to launch a nuclear strike is relatively low, but at the end of the day, Kim Jong-un, while not irrational or crazy as some suspect, is very much a two-dimensional thinker who might decide to do the unthinkable if push came to shove.

The North Korean nuclear threat is one that has puzzled world leaders for decades, and the North’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry is growing with each passing day. “There are, at the moment, no constraints that would prevent North Korea from expanding its arsenal,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, explained, “We might not like the North Koreans, but they’ve pretty much found a way to make sure we have to deal with them.”

This article is based on a larger analysis of the prospects of nuclear fallout with North Korea published April 14.

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