Since inheriting power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has dramatically increased the speed and scope of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile to carry them.
In 2016 his regime drew international condemnation by testing two nuclear devices and more than 20 ballistic missiles. The sabre-rattling has continued in 2017, with Pyongyang increasing the pace of ballistic missile tests and unveiling new, advanced weapons. On July 4 it reached a milestone by launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile.
For the international community, particularly the US, there is growing concern that Mr Kim will soon master the technology to equip an ICBM with a nuclear warhead - a development that could imperil large swaths of the US mainland.
For North Korea’s totalitarian regime, which is focused predominantly on its own survival, the tests represent a core part of its byungjin line, a policy with the twin aims of developing nuclear weapons and improving the nation's economy. Assembling a viable nuclear deterrent would protect Pyongyang from outside threats by raising the cost of conflict.
While many tests, particularly those of short-range missiles, can be viewed as military chest-thumping, the emergence of new, longer-range missiles and the increased frequency of launches show North Korea’s technical capabilities are rapidly improving.
In May North Korea tested the Hwasong-12 - a new weapon it claimed was capable of carrying a “large-size, heavy nuclear warhead” as far as the US. Analysts have declared the missile operational and although its range, estimated at 4,500km, would not threaten the US mainland, the weapon would reach US territories in the Pacific. In early August, Pyongyang said it was considering using the weapon to strike Guam after US president Donald Trump stepped up his rhetoric against the regime. Tensions with the US have increased dramatically since July, after two tests of North Korea's first ICBM, the Hwasong-14.
However, North Korea’s claims should be treated with caution, and the regime has itself created strategic ambiguity by launching both new long-range missiles at an almost vertical trajectory. In the second test, the Hwasong-14 hit an altitude of more than 3,700km and landed about 1,000km from where it was launched. On a normal trajectory, analysts believe it would have the range to reach much of the continental US.
Also in North Korea’s arsenal is the older Taepodong-2, a long-range rocket thought to have a similar range to the Hwasong-14. However, it has so far only been used to launch satellites into orbit and there is no consensus on whether it is capable of delivering a nuclear device or significant payload. The military is also believed to be developing another long-range missile, the KN-08, which has appeared only in parades.
Another significant development for the country’s missile programme is the medium-range KN-15, which was successfully tested for the first time early in 2017. Despite a limited range of about 2,000km, the missile employs a solid-fuel engine. Such missiles can be fired with little warning and require fewer support vehicles, according to Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
The launch of the Hwasong-14 suggests the country’s technologies are developing rapidly. However, many experts believe it will still take years before North Korea can successfully deploy an arsenal of conflict-ready long-range missiles.
The other side of the North Korean threat is its nuclear programme, which ultimately aims to produce a bomb that can be mounted on its missiles. In 2016 the regime detonated two nuclear devices - its fourth and fifth tests - leading to further international ostracism.
Experts have poured doubt on Pyongyang’s boast that the first of these utilised a hydrogen bomb (previous tests had been of less powerful atomic bombs). The device’s estimated yield was 7-10 kilotons of TNT. The second test was significantly more powerful, with an estimated yield of 10-30 kilotons. By comparison, the US nuclear attack on Hiroshima in 1945, which killed up to 150,000 people, exploded with an energy of 15 kilotons.
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But as important as the increasing yields is the regime’s ability to miniaturise the devices sufficiently for its missiles to carry them. Pyongyang has claimed it has already reached this milestone but there is no consensus among experts in the US and its allies. However, a report in the Washington Post in early August, cited US intelligence officials suggesting North Korea had cracked one of the final technological challenges in nuclear missile design and produced a scale-down warhead.