North Korea is well on its way to becoming a nuclear-armed state with the Kim Jong-un regime impervious to coercion, sanctions or incentives. Any attempt by the United States to conduct a disarming first strike against North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile forces would be extremely risky, possibly initiating a full-scale war with Pyongyang.
While it is militarily inferior, Pyongyang possesses the capability to inflict severe damage to in-theatre US units and regional allies — most importantly mass casualties in and around Seoul. Increased diplomatic isolation and tightening of the sanctioning regime has not deterred or crippled North Korea from progressing its nuclear program, which has been innovative in securing illicit streams of revenue to offset trade losses.
The core rationale behind Pyongyang’s determination to become a nuclear power is well-known. First and foremost, nuclear weapons are seen as the ultimate security guarantee against foreign military action against it, specifically by the United States. Tension with the United States supports Pyongyang’s narrative of a state under constant threat, which justifies its mobilisation for war and its massive investments with limited capital into the military.
Yet much remains unknown about the strategy Pyongyang has or will develop to govern the purpose, employment and force structure of its burgeoning nuclear arsenal.
A major evolution in Pyongyang’s motivations and behaviour has occurred over the past 20 years. It has been receptive towards international negotiations to limit certain aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions. This indicates that its nuclear strategy is moving beyond being employed primarily as a political tool. Instead three strategies — catalytic, assured retaliation and asymmetric escalation — have been proposed as North Korea’s current nuclear philosophy.