Despite repeated warnings by the United States, Japan, and the United Nations, North Korea inches closer and closer to launching nuclear missiles. While experts maintain it is impossible to know what North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un really has in mind, recent events do offer some insight. Let’s take a quick look at eight reasons why North Korea might actually end up launching a nuke (No. 7 is probably the scariest).
1. North Korea’s motives remain unpredictable
“Anybody who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the National Security Council.
According to The New York Times, Kim likely wants to demonstrate his ability to attack the U.S. with nuclear missiles as a form of self-defense. Some of Trump’s advisers believe he wants to force the U.S. to withdraw sanctions and pull troops from South Korea. Analysts diverge on what he would do if that did happen.
Dean of the graduate school of international studies at Yonsei University, Mo Jongryn, said it is important to take threats seriously. Recent actions suggest that’s wise.
Next: It’s already launched a new missile over this country.
2. New missiles have been launched over Japan
Even after the U.N. issued sanctions against North Korea, the nation launched a new ballistic missile over Japan. According to CNN, this marks the second time in under a month the country has done so, and the first since North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. A commentary published in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper recently said, “no matter how strong the pressure is, it doesn’t work on us.”
The missile flew about 2,300 miles before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Guam, a U.S. territory that North Korea has threatened, lies 2,100 miles from the launch site. This missile flew the farthest of any of its intermediate-range missiles, so far. North Korean state-run news agency KCNA said that the “four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche,” the ruling ideology of North Korea.
“North Korea’s firing of yet another ballistic missile is a clear violation of [U.N. Security Council] resolutions and a very serious and grave challenge to international peace and security,” the South Korean government said, in a statement. That country carried out a live drill, including its own missile launch, in response. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the launch was “another reckless breach of U.N. resolutions” and a “major threat” to international peace and security “which demands a global response.”
Part of that global response intends to cut off resources to the country.
Next: How desperate will North Korea get?
3. The UN has issued sanctions to staunch missile tests
On Sept. 11, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed the toughest sanctions on North Korea to date. These come on the heels of a forbidden Sept. 2 nuclear test. Sanctions “demand North Korea give up its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” according to the U.S. Mission to the U.N.
“We are done trying to prod the regime to do the right thing; we are now trying to stop it from having the ability to do the wrong thing,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, according to CNN. Among other things, the sanctions ban textile exports and cap shipments of crude oil into the country. These intend to cut off funds for the ballistics development program.
Trump’s statement on the sanctions indicates he wants a stronger response. “Those sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen,” he said. Bravado like that makes some experts very nervous.
Next: North Korea and Donald Trump have exchanged threats.
4. Both North Korea and Trump have made threats
A spokesperson for the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee recently said, “let’s reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness,” Vox reported. It also wants the U.S. “beaten to death as a stick is fit for a rabid dog.”
Prior to the U.N. sanctions, North Korea promised “powerful counter-measures,” The Washington Post reported. While North Korea’s threats come as news to no one, Trump’s response makes them sound less extreme than in the past. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said in August, the Times reports. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” More recently, he added, “Military action would certainly be an option. I would prefer not going the route of the military, but it’s something certainly that could happen.”
While both countries shoot words across the table, Trump has called on others to step up.
Next: Will China rein in North Korea?
5. Trump wants China to rein in North Korea
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said North Korea threatens the entire world in a Reuters report. “In East Asia, an increasingly aggressive and isolated regime in North Korea threatens democracies in South Korea, Japan, and more importantly (and more recently), has expanded those threats to the United States, endangering the entire world,” Tillerson said. He called on China, Pyongyang’s sole ally, and Russia, to “take direct actions of their own.”
Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reiterated China’s position that sanctions on North Korea must be paired with talks for efficacy. A White House spokesperson disagreed, saying “now is not the time to talk to North Korea.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has ordered preparations for new threats, including electromagnetic pulses and biochemical weapons. For the U.S. to take military action against North Korea would endanger that country, which Kim has threatened in the past. That doesn’t take it out of the equation.
Next: America keeps a military response an option.
6. Trump maintains military response an option
In a Sept. 15 press briefing, security advisor H.R. McMaster and Haley acknowledged military options, wrote CNN. That breaks with a statement made by Steve Bannon in August.
“Forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “There’s no military solution here, they got us.”
“We are prepared, we’re prepared militarily, we’re prepared with our allies to respond militarily,” Tillerson told reporters. The problem with that action remains the mass of conventional artillery Pyongyang can point at Seoul, where 25 million people live. Analysts say North Korea would not hesitate to kill tens of thousands of civilians in response to a U.S. strike. If Trump does take military action, retaliation remains possible.
Next: This is perhaps the scariest reason.
7. No one knows the country’s true capabilities
North Korea has exploded a nuclear weapon underground, as well as testing ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. While it has not demonstrated it can put two and two together, it has not demonstrated it can’t.
“If you attack them after they have the nuclear weapons, it’s not a preventive war. It’s just a plain old nuclear war,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. CNN reported that experts recommend caution where the Kim regime is concerned.
Just as its dictator’s motives remain cloudy, so does the country’s exact arsenal. One Trump official cautioned against understating the threat, noting that in 1950, the North’s strength was also underestimated.
Next: North Korea might become cocky, based on past experiences.
8. Recent cyberattacks have gone largely unpunished
As The New York Times pointed out, North Korea paid very little for the cyberattack that leveled Sony Pictures three years ago. Similarly lax responses came to its attacks on South Korean banks and media, its role in the British hospital ransomware, and theft from the Bangladesh central bank.
Some experts suspect North Korea sees foreshadowing in its ability to get away with those cyberattacks. Combined with its budding nuclear program, North Korea may hold significant blackmail. Overall, North Korea’s nuclear intentions remain as unpredictable as its leader is secretive. While tensions continue to escalate, the world holds its breath and stays watchful.
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