North Korea has nukes. They work. They can threaten American military bases and cities. Not only is the United States powerless to rid the Korean Peninsula of atomic warheads, thanks to Kim’s nukes it’s also powerless to force regime-change on Pyongyang.
In short, Kim Jong Un won.
That’s the chilling thesis of an eye-opening new book about North Korea’s decades-long effort to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. “There is good reason to believe that, for all intents and purposes, the Korean Peninsula will only be ‘denuclearized’ when nuclear weapons are abolished worldwide,” Ankit Panda writes in Kim Jong Un and the Bomb.
“The reason for this is simple,” continues Panda, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists and a contributor to The Daily Beast. “Kim faces a hostile superpower adversary—the United States—and his survival can only be guaranteed by these weapons, which must be credibly usable.”
Panda’s book challenges long-held misconceptions about Kim and his regime, underscores the enduring allure of nukes to rogue regimes. and puts in their place a succession of U.S. presidents—including Donald Trump, whose abortive charm offensive failed to dent Kim’s atomic rearmament.
The key to understanding North Korea’s nuclear strategy is that it’s rational, despite popular characterizations of the Kim regime as “befuddling, infantile or silly,” according to Panda.
North Korea is the world’s sole example of a communist monarchy, Panda explains. The regime rules with one goal in mind: protecting itself. “Kim Jong Un’s overarching goal, and the regime’s core objective, is survival,” Panda writes. “Part of this objective will be for Kim Jong Un to successfully raise his suspected three children, bequeathing the North Korean throne to one of them as his father did to him.”
Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather had the same goal. Grandfather Kim Il Sung toyed with the idea of an atomic arsenal as the ultimate means to regime-survival. But it was his son Kim Jong Il, Jong Un’s father, who got serious about nukes. His determination to make North Korea the world’s ninth nuclear power deepened in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq.
That’s when Jong Il decided that nukes represented “the sole means of averting the fate that would eventually befall Saddam Hussein.”
He abandoned a 1994 agreement with the United States that traded economic and diplomatic benefits for a winding-down of North Korea’s nuclear efforts. The Kim regime under Jong Il doubled down on the development of regional-range rockets and the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea tested its first atomic warhead in 2006. Soon the regime possessed nuclear-capable rockets that could strike U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam.
The regime’s strategy, it seems, is to nuke American facilities the moment it detects the United States building up forces for an attack on North Korea—and then deter a retaliatory U.S. atomic attack by threatening to launch additional nukes at Seoul or Tokyo. The Kim regime “knows that to have a chance at survival, North Korea would need to go first and go big,” Panda writes.
President Barack Obama approached the North Korea problem cautiously. When Jong Il died in 2011 and Jong Un took his place as the head of the Kim regime, the Obama administration bet that sanctions would pressure North Korea’s new leader, then just 27 years old, to negotiate in good faith.
“That was a bad bet,” Panda writes. As was Obama’s bet that his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, would win the 2016 presidential election and continue his administration’s policy toward North Korea.
When Trump won, it ushered in a chaotic new era in U.S.-North Korean relations. “Obama implored his successor to treat Pyongyang as the priority it should be,” Panda writes. Instead, Trump spent 2017 taunting and threatening Kim on Twitter while assuring the world that North Korea would never develop a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile that could allow the regime to lob an atomic warhead around the world and strike American cities.
Trump was wrong. North Korea tested ICBMs three times in 2017. This new long-range rocket capability only bolstered Kim’s “go first and go big” strategy.
After three more major rocket tests in 2017, Kim claimed his scientists had enough data to build and deploy an effective atomic arsenal for the foreseeable future. In April 2018, Kim announced he would suspend testing of his “treasured sword,” his nickname for his nukes.
“Kim had declared his deterrent complete and was turning toward diplomacy,” Panda writes. Trump, wager for a diplomatic win, was happy to oblige. In the course of three summits in 2018 and 2019, Kim and Trump smiled, posed for the cameras, and made vaguely positive statements about peace.
Kim offered to blow up one of his nuclear test sites—a site that he no longer needed and which he could easily rebuild anyway. All he wanted in exchange was an end to all sanctions.
Trump balked. In December, Kim announced a resumption of nuclear testing. His apparent goal now is to develop smaller nukes that can fit on smaller rockets. Realistically, nothing can stop him.
“Kim Jong Un now presides over a nuclear state,” Panda writes. “North Korea’s success with its own nuclearization has forced the world into an unsavory—if gradual—process of recognizing that coexistence will in all likelihood be the only plausible path going forward.”
“Coexistence is not automatic or easy,” Panda warns. “It requires coming to terms with the basic fact that, just as the United States and its allies deterred North Korea for decades before it had nuclear weapons, so too does North Korea deter its adversaries today from pursuing a forcible change to its leadership.
“Kim’s ‘treasured sword’ is here to stay.”